A New Year’s Eve toast at Madeleine Bistro23
Sometimes you just want to eat good food in a relaxing atmosphere. Sometimes you want that food to be extraordinary, hand-crafted and completely original menu items you won’t get anywhere else. Always, you want that food to be vegan. Am I striking a chord here? Good, then I’ll continue. What if that food comes to your table as a seven-course tasting menu prepared by one of America’s top vegan chefs? Oh, and finally, it happens to be some of the best food you’ve ever eaten?
Well that experience, we learned a few days ago, is very common for vegans “in the know” who book early and are lucky enough to get a table at Executive Chef Dave Anderson’s Madeleine Bistro for one of his special occasion tasting menu treats. We showed up for the New Year’s Eve event not really knowing quite what to expect and left blown away by his creativity and skills in the kitchen.
To be honest, I’m rarely a fan of tasting menus. It’s like being in a car at the top of a hill with no brakes, careering to the bottom and trusting the chef to take care of you through multiple courses, delivering you safe and satisfied to the bottom. Only the finest chefs can deliver a consistently strong tasting menu, especially when they set themselves ridiculous targets like seven courses. SEVEN COURSES? It’s about all most restaurants can do to prepare ONE half-decent course, with a limp salad appetizer let alone serving after serving of excellence.
For a tasting menu to be successful, each course has to have broad enough appeal that pretty much anybody will like it, yet be outstanding in taste, texture and (on occasion) sheer novelty and construction value that one will occasionally wonder “how did they do THAT?”. Only the best chefs can really pull this off, and they inevitably take a huge personal risk that a high stakes game will play out in such a way that everybody is happy. I’m pleased to report that chef Dave not only filled my belly with incredible food, but peaked my interest with every course due to its presentation and even, on occasion, whimsical novelty.
Let’s take the first course, dim sum, as an example. The description of this dish included “tempeh lollipop” as one of the items. I mean C’MON? a TEMPEH LOLLIPOP? Yeah, that’s just what it was. A ball of tempeh seasoned and lightly fried so that it is crispy yet breaks apart with ease in one’s mouth. I guess chef Dave’s challenge was how to make such a creation easily edible – I mean, you will want to dip it in the dim sum sauce, but poking it with a fork would break it up, and chopsticks wouldn’t really work with the other menu items, so he stuck a stiff leaf stem into the ball in order that you could pick it up, dip it in, and eat it right up. See what I mean about interesting presentation and construction? Genius.
Accompanying the lollipops was a crispy wonton that defies explanation (so I won’t bother) and a sticky, seitan-filled bun that just begged to be cut up, dipped in sauce and eaten straight down.
The three items resonated perfectly together and provided an intersection of taste and texture I’d never experienced before.
One down, six to go. Next up was simply “Clam chowder in a bread bowl”.
I have no idea what “real” clam chowder tastes like, but this thing was fucking amazing. So much so that I not only ate ALL the chowder, but the bread bowl as well. Only after I did was I told that usually one leaves some of the bread. I was brought up poor and forced to eat everything on the table, so I guess old habits die hard. The server told me that the bread was baked from scratch in-house, and the chowder was a special creation of chef Dave. No shit, “special” is an understatement. This stuff should be in a can and sold everywhere, it was SO AMAZING.
Next up was some respite in the form of a delicate salad of chestnuts and apples with a mulled cider vinaigrette and fennel puree.
It was, again, simply amazing. The fennel puree looked a little like guacamole, yet had that smooth, almost aniseed taste that bumped perfectly up against the salad dressing. What another amazing combination of tastes and flavors!
Course four was both simple and unique. On one side of the court was a tangine of artichokes and chickpeas (who would ever have thought they would go so well together?) and the other was a crusty slice of seitan on a bed of greens divided by something called a “harissa emulsion”.
I ate the dish like a game of tennis – grab some from one side, drag through the emulsion, grab some from the other side, back again then put it in my face. Rinse, and repeat. Again, another dish that’s really hard to describe, but there was a full and complete flavor, almost moorish yet not overpowering.
Coming right out of left field was the next dish: Arugula tagliatelle, portabella mushroom and a mushroom ragout.
Thankfully the portion was compact as I ate the entire thing and would have been way to full for the subsequent servings! I’m half Italian, and grew up eating my mother’s Italian cooking (she’s not the Italian half, but that’s a long story) so I’m a genetic expert in Italian cuisine and I can honestly say that this dish, served as a main entree, would be within the top two or three pasta dishes I’ve ever eaten. It was simply that good. Yes, and they even MADE the pasta itself from scratch!
Into the home stretch came “popcorn and cheese”, a strange sounding combination of a herb-crusted cashew cheese and biscuits…
with a plate of popcorn ice cream surrounded with (you guessed it) freshly popped warm popcorn.
I was skeptical when the plates arrived – I mean, give me one or the other, but BOTH? How can popcorn ice cream possibly go with cheese and biscuits which are anyway usually reserved for the post-drink cognac or port phase of a meal? Well, I was wrong. Everything was amazing and all created from scratch in chef Dave’s kitchen. The cheese was smoother and creamier than any premium vegan cheese I’d ever eaten before, and it slipped so well onto the warm biscuits and down my throat. The popcorn ice cream was a party in my mouth of cold ice cream and warm popped corns.
Finally, as I was begging for mercy, our cheerful server brought out two large plates of something called “3X3”, chocolate, peanut butter and caramel.
This was actually three separate deserts, all cleverly uniting three scrumptious desert flavors. Dish one was a cheesecake sort of contraption with a layered approach to the three ingredients. Dish two was three individual chocolates in little paper cups, like something you’d get out of a very expensive box from Switzerland, and the third dish splayed out the ingredients in an almost mathematical shape so you could pick at them and mix to your heart’s content. The desert was actually shocking: that sweets of this quality could be made at all either vegan or not is astounding.
So to sum up, the journey down the hill with no brakes felt as if chef Dave and his team were actually carrying the vehicle. No bumps, smooth sailing and a safe return to the end, weighing a few ounces more than I did at the beginning but expanding my horizons of taste and appreciation for food and the fine art of fine cuisine. Indeed, my experience with the New Year’s eve tasting menu has set the standard by which all other food will be judged for 2010. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending how you look at it!
For sure I’ll be back to Madeline for the amazing brunch, or dinner before the next tasting menu extravaganza for Valentine’s day, 2010. Although the dishes we ate might not be available again on a predictable basis, you can count on a great dining experience you’ll never forget.
This menu was prix fix at $100 per person, which is unquestionably a lot of money for food, yet really good value when you think less about what you pay and more about what you get. It is, frankly, a privilege to eat food like this at any price especially bearing in mind the hours of design, testing preparation and final cooking that shine through in every bite.
Madeleine BistroTags: holiday, tasting menu, the valley
18621 Ventura Blvd.
You sure give this place a lot of ink.
Wow, that’s crazy! My mind is blown just reading about the combinations and creativity that goes into such a feast. This is food as art.
I’m so glad to see you finally blogged about one of tasting menus. Those are what Madeleines is best at, way better than XIV which I’ve seen on here twice.
I didn’t make it to this one sadly, but it looks like a good one.
*sigh* everything looks/sounds fuckingamazing!!!! awesome post!!!! 🙂
holy crap. my mouth wants to marry that place.
I’ve eaten there a billion times, but never for one of these special menus. Looks AMAZING! Chef Dave RULES!!!
I only wish they’d bring back the omlette torta for brunch…that was my favorite thing there, and I haven’t gone as much since they took it off the menu.
OMG. I would sell my first born for that.
i’m a big fan of Madeline’s and i think this post does a great job of capturing what is so great about this restaurant. i look forward to trying one of their special menus one day. i would definitely agree, those portions look huge.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! On New Year’s Eve, we were served the chowder topped with biscuits instead of in a bread bowl, but I think the bread bowl might have been too much at that point. Can’t wait to see what they concoct for Valentine’s Day. I was there a couple years ago for that tasting menu and it was lovely!
Seriously considering going there for Valentine’s Day… have to see if the boyfriend will cooperate. 🙂
I’ve been reading a lot about this place recently and i can’t wait to go there on day!
Dave Anderson is a god…’nuff said…
I’ve only been there once, and not for a tasting menu. Which is odd because I love tasting menus.
I’m so jealous! My husband had to work that night. Should have gone alone :p lol
Holy shit, that looks spectacular.
All I can say is I’m looking at how much flights are right now..
Oh man, that sounds awesome! I would have eaten the whole bread bowl!
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