By Frank Sabatini Jr.
We hit a trifecta at Madison, where the food and service didn’t take a lazy back seat to the restaurant’s stunning interior. With the exception of Trust a half-mile down the road, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a newcomer impress in these three essential categories before getting through the first several months of dress rehearsal.
This used to be Lei Lounge, which was known for its fantastical overhead lightshows and Asian-inspired fare that I found overly ambitious at times. Madison, which opened New Year’s Eve, presents a completely different experience. It’s visually calmer and more streamlined in its culinary approach.
The owners are industry veterans Jeffery Fink of Fluxx nightclub and M-Theory Music, and Matthew Sieve, who managed Isabel’s Cantina and Barrio Star for several years.
They recruited Archisects design firm in Mission Hills to give the space a dramatic makeover, which lures you in with a sophisticated bar lounge that flows into a dining room clad in intricate wood joinery. The cedar work rises gracefully to form an arched ceiling that is both majestic and homey while mid-century-style chandeliers return us to gentler lighting (no ubiquitous Edison bulbs here). As with Lei Lounge, both ends of the room are roofless, resulting in an airy atmosphere that is embracing and warmed by patio heaters on cool evenings.
Mario Cassineri of Bice Ristorante authored the menu, which features contemporary West Coast dishes beckoning to the Mediterranean. We’ve seen them before, but these are charmingly focused and often substantial. They’re executed by Chef Tony “G” Gutierrez, who trained under Cassineri at Bice and worked also at La Strada and Opera Café.
A generous puck of tuna tartare sheathed in cucumber and adorned with skewers of shrimp tempura kicked off our first course. Much like newfangled poke, the presentation was encircled with dots of cream fraiche, exactly how we preferred opposed to seeing it mixed into the glistening-fresh tuna.
In another appetizer, deeply marinated skirt steak was served with a trio of embellishments: guacamole, quinoa salad, and citrus-yogurt that wasn’t so citrusy. But the velvety, grilled meat really needed none of them. As my companion pointed out, the marinade seemingly disintegrated the tendons and rough spots, resulting in a buttery texture similar to filet.
A starter of creamy mac and cheese using shell pasta was strewn with blue crab, which we faintly tasted and couldn’t see. It’s a fine construct accented with Sriracha on top, but I’d vote to either add more crab or eliminate it completely.
Skipping over four different salads – baby beet, heirloom tomato, Belgian with ahi and endive, and chopped baby kale with truffle cheese and a poached egg — we made easy decisions from the concise entrée list with the guidance of our knowledgeable and highly organized waitress.
My companion chose the double-cut pork chop encased in sesame breading and served alongside perfectly cooked asparagus and broccoli rabe. We both agreed, without insult, that the breading offered the nostalgic goodness of Shake ‘N Bake, but sans the high fructose corn syrup and other additives you find in it. Drizzles of balsamic vinegar did the trick for adding a tinge of sweetness. And with only a wisp of pink in the middle of the chop, even the crispy edges were juicy and tender.
Wide, delicate ribbons of pappardelle pasta dressed lightly in house-made marinara sauce comprised my dish — one of two Italian choices on the menu, although not entirely classic.
Topped with shavings of Grana Padano cheese, the chef gives it a Mexican twist by tossing in carnitas. Despite being a stickler for beefy Bolognese when twirling through this cut of pasta, the shredded pork worked well and didn’t taste confusing, as I initially expected.
Other entrées include gnocchi with jumbo shrimp in truffle cream sauce; salmon skewers; and a buffalo burger with smoked mozzarella and yogurt-chive sauce. There’s also a free-range half chicken accented with mezcal, lime and basil dressing, although we’re told the flavor specs may change as minor menu adjustments are made.
The wine list is intelligent and varied, with glasses ranging between $8 and $13, and bottles starting at $26 for white Albarino from Spain. From the cocktail list, I tried the “sparrow,” a lovely grown-up fruit punch blending rum, raspberry, pink peppercorn, honey and lime, and served in a dainty chalice glass.
For dessert, it was a battle of two cakes — red berry mascarpone and flourless chocolate marquise. The latter was the clear winner with its obscenely dense mousse filling mingling lovingly with bright-red raspberry sauce on the plate.
Madison is open Tuesday through Sunday. The bar opens at 4 p.m., and dinner starts at 5:30. Brunch will be introduced in early May, running from 8:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.