Note: December 2007 - Restaurant now Bank 34 - same owners and same chef.
34 Division Street
Somerville, Somerset County, New Jersey
By The Artful Diner
October 22, 2007
In light of the fact that Madame S is presided over by
chef/proprietor Manop Sutipayakul -- also the owner of Origin Thai, just across
the street, and Origin Thai II in Morristown -- you expect a great deal from
this establishment. Well, sometimes it delivers... and sometimes it doesn't.
The setting, of course, is completely conducive to casual fine dining. This
is especially true in the evening when the lights are low, the tables
candlelit, and the mood decidedly romantic. Ensconced in a former bank, the
restaurant's interior boasts rich hardwood floors, majestically high ceilings,
two walls of large plate glass windows, and a sparkling tropical fish tank.
Yes, there's even a burnished vault, which now serves as a repository for coats
rather than cash.
The cuisine, however -- globally-infused fare with a strong emphasis on
seafood -- can be inexplicably inconsistent. An appetizer of deep-fried soft
shell crab topped with a salad of red onion, tomato, and cashews immersed in an
ingratiatingly addictive coconut-pineapple dressing ($14.00), for example, was
an absolute revelation to the palate. The rings of fried calamari ($11.00), on
the other hand, were as chewy as old rubber bands... and just about as tasty.
The pristinely plump steamed mussels ($12.00) came swimming in an
incomparable tomato-infused sea awash with chunks of fennel, herbs, and
crumbles of feta cheese. Undoubtedly the most outrageously delicious shellfish
broth it has ever been my pleasure to ingest. Conversely, the salade
lyonnaise ($10.00) -- frisée combined with potato, bacon, and tiara of
poached egg -- was as dry as dust, lacking the traditional punch of a pungent
Among the other starters, the lobster salad ($15.00) -- beautifully textured
lobster meat served on a bed of frisée anointed with a first-rate sesame
vinaigrette -- was excellent; the Peking duck spring roll ($9.00) served with a
sweet and sour dipping sauce was good but not exceptional; and the steamed
lobster ravioli bathed in a mushroom broth ($13.00) prompted a certain degree
of ambivalence. The broth was a real winner... but the ravioli was inordinately
If appetizers are marked by a certain degree of incongruity, main courses
are positively fickle. In several visits, in which I sampled eight entrées, the
absolute standout was the Australian rack of lamb kalamata ($28.00). All well
and good. But for an establishment that touts itself as primarily a seafood
restaurant, this is oxymoronic, indeed... especially when the treasures of the
sea suffer by comparison.
The one exception is lobster, which Madame S does exceedingly well.
Like the salad noted above, the broiled lobster with fine herbs set on a seabed
of fettuccine pesto ($34.00) is obviously the kitchen's culinary magnum opus.
Fish dishes, however, are problematic. Quality is not lacking, but there are
glitches a plenty in preparation. The Dover sole à la meuniere ($33.00),
for example, is beautifully pan fried, but it suffers from a surfeit of herbs
and seasonings that completely obviate the fish's delicate natural attributes.
The roasted troncons (literally translated "chunks" in French) of
turbot ($22.00) are nicely paired with a sauce vierge and tiny clusters
of honshimeiji mushrooms, but the fish is dry and overcooked.
Then, of course, there are several instances in which the members of the
supporting cast embarrassingly outclass the supposed star of the show. In other
words, you find yourself eating around the center of attraction in order to
savor the bit players. This is surely the case with the broiled organic cod
($20.00). The pillow of spinach is nicely sautéed and perfectly seasoned, and
the accompanying red wine sauce with lentils is nothing short of superlative.
But the cod itself is the bland leading the bland, completely under seasoned
and slightly undercooked. The king salmon ($19.00) is yet another case in
point. Despite an apparently significant splash of teriyaki, the salmon is
surprisingly bereft of pizzazz... but the soba noodles and bean sprouts are
But it is the steamed Chilean sea bass ($27.00) and the grilled bronzini
($24.00) that somehow epitomize my feelings of disappointment. The former is
paired with ginger, chives, and finished in a seasame broth; the latter
companioned by pumpkin and pan-fried new potatoes. Taste-wise, you're waiting
for the wow factor to kick in... but, somehow, the combos just don't quite
And, in microcosm, this is typical of the piscatorial presentations here.
They are good, yes... though hardly what I would call exceptional. And, given
Mr. Sutipayakul credentials, and the quality of the ingredients, a little
exceptional wowing is precisely what you have every right to expect.
Desserts, on the other hand, are right on target and demonstrate a touch of
class. Be sure to try the pear frangipane tart accompanied by a dollop of
delicious pear gelato ($8.00), the apple financier ($7.00), or the Madame S
spring roll wrapped around ripe banana and mango ($7.00). Espressos
($2.50/$4.00), cappuccinos ($3.50), and lattes ($3.50) are also excellent.
Service is both friendly and accommodating... but it can be a bit on the
disorganized side. Even relatively early on several quiet-as-death Friday
evenings, servers bearing gastronomic gifts still arrived at table with that
"Who gets what?" look in their eyes.
A foolish consistency may very well be the hobgoblin of little minds, as
Emerson so adroitly put it. For a restaurant, however, consistency is an
absolute sine qua non. And this elusive quality appears to be,
unfortunately, Madame S's Achilles' heel.
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Sat, 12:00 noon - 3:00
p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 4:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.;
Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Brunch: Sat,
12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 4:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Accepted; recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking; municipal lots
Handicapped Accessible: Yes