By Don Douloff, August 7, 2008
In late May, Toronto foodies plunged into mourning when superstar chef Susur Lee closed his temple to modern Chinese cuisine, Susur, to focus on a new venture: launching a restaurant in the brand-new Thompson LES hotel, in New York, in autumn.
Wasting no time, Lee converted the Susur space to Madeline’s, specializing in pan-European shared plates with a Mediterranean bent. Opened quietly in mid-July, Madeline’s features a decor, designed by Lee’s wife, Brenda, that is night-and-day from Susur. Where its predecessor was minimalist, airy and understated, Madeline’s is claustrophobic, dark and gloomy. Garish, velvet-flocked wallpaper of fire-engine-red and sky-blue conspire with dark wood, red-velvet upholstery and filigreed wood partitions to replicate a steakhouse circa 1964. An upholstered booth for four was ridiculously cramped.
Heading up the kitchen is Dominic Amaral, longtime sous-chef at Susur, whose launch menu, on paper, promises straightforward, robust flavours. In practice, though, the misses outnumber the hits. On the plus side, there’s moist, crisp-skinned Cornish hen with rich gorgonzola sauce; eight-ball squash gratin filled with cumin-braised minced lamb; lettuce wraps cradling huge chunks of lobster scented with lemon balm and sharpened with a last-minute drizzle of lime juice; and a first-rate dessert selection also hewing to the tapas format (the chocolate-hazelnut tart, mango-chile-lime sorbet and cinnamon buns were superlative).
Much else, though, was ordinary: bland fusilli with artichoke hearts and peas in tomato sauce; chewy roasted duck breast with honey-chile-orange glaze; Dungeness crab cakes that were mostly filler; ho-hum pan-fried Portuguese white snapper in tomato citrus stew. Nothing was terrible, but a Susur restaurant raises sky-high expectations. Dishes should sing with flavour and display careful technique.
Service is knowledgeable, gregarious and efficient, as staff clear plates and silverware with admirable speed. But forced sharing feels like a Small-Plate Police-State. Are diners not entitled to their own, personalized eating experience? Moreover, portions are small, so tabs can soar.
It’s early days, and Madeline’s – named after Lee’s mother – could, in time, hit its stride. Note: The adjoining, Asian shared-plate restaurant, Lee, continues to operate.