"DISAPPOINTED!!!" is a comedic line delivered
with great verve by Kevin Kline in the hilarious and often outrageous film A
Fish Called Wanda. Unfortunately, it also sums up my feelings with regard
to several recent sojourns to Madeleine's Petit Paris is Northvale. And
this is most regrettable, as I have fond memories of the restaurant's former
home in Bergenfield -- it was known as Chez Madeleine back then -- a
cracker box affair replete with a claustrophobic assortment of tightly packed
rickety tables and chairs, a blackboard menu that made the rounds from corner
to corner, and a tiny kitchen where Madeleine's husband, chef/owner Gaspard
Caloz, turned out some top-notch classic French cookery.
But more has changed than just the name... The eatery's current domicile is
infinitely more capacious, accommodating approximately 75 diners at large,
well-spaced tables in two dining areas adorned with tasteful blue and white
patterned walls. It also boasts a cozy fireplace and diminutive bar (the former
location was BYOB).
And yet, even before contemplating the cuisine, there are a number of
misgivings. The exterior of the building, for example -- a once stately Dutch
Colonial mansion -- appears to be going to seed. Affixed to the front, a
lighted sign, sans face, stares out at passers-by with its starkly bare
florescent tubes. And since the restaurant is joined at the hip to a frumpy
banquet hall, should an affair be in progress, as it was during one of my
visits, you have the dubious pleasure of listening to the band rev up just on
the other side of the dining room wall. Hardly conducive to good digestion.
And speaking of entertainment... There is a keyboardist here, Fred by name,
who attempts to tickle patrons' fancies by tickling the ivories. But instead of
favoring diners with Gallic melodies, which would be most appropriate -- and
which are piped in over the stereo system in Fred's absence -- he opts instead
for innocuous elevator music. With all due respect, you could hear infinitely
better tunes at a cheap wedding. And even though Madeleine remains the gracious
hostess, ever attentive to her customers' needs, there is a slightly tacky feel
that seems to permeate the festivities.
The real tip-off, however, is the clientele. While no one would accuse Mr.
Caloz's culinary offerings of being on the cutting edge, impeccably prepared
classic French cuisine will always find a willing audience among knowledgeable
foodies. But the hordes that pile in to throw on the feedbag would hardly be
numbered among the gastronomic intelligentsia. No, the majority of invaders
appear to be bargain hunters on the prowl for the $25.50 per person
three-course prix fixe, which is decidedly UN-FRENCH...
And this brings us to the food...
I have always been of the opinion that a good, honest, straightforward soup
can tell you infinitely more about a chef's capabilities than all the
fancy-schmancy appetizers put together. And that certainly proves to be the
The soup du jour ($5.00), we were informed by our server, was a purée
of broccoli and asparagus. Envisioned, of course, was an elegant, emerald-tinged
elixir alive with a coalescence of fresh flavors and seasonings. What
materialized, however, was brownish in color with a few miniscule morsels of
anemic vegetables floating in a potato-thickened stock. Anything approximating
flavor was conspicuous by its absence.
But feelings of disappointment paled in comparison to the unmitigated horror
that was the chocolate soufflé for two ($12.00; Grand Marnier is also
available). It began to deflate the moment it hit the table; and even before
the first bite was ingested, it had fallen flat as the proverbial pancake. The
texture was positively reptilian... the taste, nonexistent.
And betwixt this alpha and omega of adversity lie a host of peaks and
valleys. The pan-seared foie gras de carnard ($18.50) is the absolute
standout among the starters. Deglazed with sherry vinegar and garnished with
apple slices, caramelized onions, and cranberries, the organ meat is rich and
silky, firm but not overdone, appropriately moist but not runny. A superlative
effort. The steamed mussels ($8.50) are also quite nice. Pristinely plump, they
bathe in a garlicky white wine broth imbued with a touch of cream.
The complimentary house salad -- mixed greens and frisée tossed with a
balsamic vinaigrette and adorned with grape tomato halves -- is just the proper
portion to cleanse the palate and stimulate the appetite. I also like the
arugula salad with blue cheese, a first-rate option with the prix fixe
menu... although the dressing could use a touch more pizzazz.
But if appetizers contain some palpable hits, entrées appear to be
characterized by near misses. The veal medallions sautéed with wild mushrooms
($30.50) are quite tender but also on the fatty side; the rack of lamb
encrusted with mustard, herbs, and garlic ($34.95) is good but not exceptional;
the wheat pasta with chicken and broccoli (from the prix fixe menu)
contains strips of slightly overdone fowl, broccoli rabe rather than broccoli,
and is generic at best.
Even the filet of sole amandine ($27.50), a relatively simple presentation,
falls prey to unnecessary complications. The fish is beautifully sautéed in
herb butter; and then, for some inexplicable reason, sent forth swimming in a
broth that promptly proceeds to waterlog its heretofore crispy countenance. And
the broth is also tinged with Worcestershire sauce, which successfully obviates
rather than enhances the sole's subtle natural flavor.
Desserts, apart from the ill-fated soufflé, are not likely to generate any
undue excitement. The opera cake ($6.50), sporting layers of mocha chocolate
mousse, is off-puttingly gelid and obviously suffering the deleterious effects
of an extended exile in the nether regions of the fridge; a special crepe
($6.00) filled with apples, raisins, and walnuts is decidedly rubbery.
The wine list is yet another disappointment. You expect a bevy of French
beauties to complement your meal, but the choices are pedestrian at best; and
many of the selections -- J. Lohr "Riverstone" Chardonnay 2002
($26.00), Meredian Pinot Noir 2003 ($26.00), Estancia Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
($28.00), Franciscan "Oakville Estate" Merlot 2001 ($33.00) -- hail
from the good old US of A. Among the limited Gallic options, the 2002 Alsatian
Dopff & Irion Riesling ($20.00) is an absolute steal; and 2001 Grevey
Chambertain ($40.00), produced by Laboroi Roi in Burgundy, also has a great
deal going for it.
In my opinion, the most edifying aspect of dining at Madeleine's Petit
Paris is the accompaniment of vegetables. Arriving on a separate plate are
delightfully crunchy haricots verts tinctured with garlic, a rich and
creamy square of scalloped potatoes, and a pungently seasoned butternut squash
purée. If only other aspects of the meal reached these same high standards.
Given my own recent experiences, the fact that restaurant reviewers have
fairly gushed over this eatery is something of a mystery. In point of fact, a
scant two years ago, David Corcoran, writing in the New Jersey section of the New
York Times, bestowed an "Excellent" (based upon the following
scale: Poor, Fair, Satisfactory, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Extraordinary).
And since Mr. Corcoran and fellow reviewer Karla Cook aren't particularly known
for their largesse, this was something of an event. If I were obliged to
provide a taxonomical pigeonhole -- which, fortunately, I am not -- the
restaurant would receive, at the outside, a "Good."
And please bear in mind that this is the very same reviewer who also
bestowed an "Excellent" on restaurant Nicolas, arguably the finest
dining establishment in the Garden State. Not only are these two establishments
not in the same ballpark, they are not even in the same galaxy. With regard to
cuisine... and wine... and service, Nicolas is simply incomparable. To confer
upon these two restaurants the very same rating is surely an exercise in
analytical and gastronomic absurdity.
However, since Mr. Corcoran and I obviously fail to see eye to eye, and
since I began this review with a film quote, allow me to conclude with one as
well... James Bond (George Lazenby) to Marc Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) in On
Her Majesty's Secret Service. A line delivered with just the appropriate
touch of incredulity: "You must give me the name of your oculist."
Cuisine: Classic French
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat,
5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Smoking: Smoking is permitted at the bar only.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.madeleinespetitparis.com
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
Want to receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted? E-mail Artful Diner!