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Madeleine's Petit Paris
416 Tappan Road
Northvale, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 767-0063

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
December 27, 2004

"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 case here.

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
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted at the bar only.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.madeleinespetitparis.com

The Artful 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.

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