The Wharf, Madison
★★ [Very Good]
The new Madison Beach Resort Hotel opened this summer.
Do not stop reading. This is not another false alarm. After a year of Grand Openings that didn’t happen, famous chefs that didn’t materialize and a glossy but maddeningly unreliable website, you have every right to your doubts. I had mine. Now, however, I’ve seen it, touched it and dined in the main dining room, which is called The Wharf. There’s no wharf in sight but huge windows facing east, south and west frame the raison d’être for the whole shebang: an absolutely spectacular view of Long Island Sound. A balcony outside gives every table a glimpse.
As my friends and I settled into our seats, I wasn’t too sure who was in the kitchen. Frederic Kieffer was supposed to be opening chef—but he went to Artisan in Southport. François Kwaku-Dongo was reportedly next in line. He’s at eleven14 Kitchen in Greenwich. But whether the chef’s a celebrity or not, I am here to taste and tell. Anonymity was easy because the staff was mostly young, inexperienced and working hard at being friendly. “Hi, how’s it going tonight?” our waiter asked, then glided away without giving us a menu.
The clientele was fairly young, too: girls in heels and short dresses, guys in neatly pressed shirts, families in respectable shorts and colorful tees, sailors in chinos and navy blue jackets. The Wharf is what my English friends would call “smart casual.”
The menu looked interesting but a few of the entrées delivered a hefty blow to my comfort zone—$52 for a veal chop, $32 for a pork chop, $42 for cioppino? This I had to see, and I promptly ordered all three, plus grilled monchong, a Hawaiian fish I wanted to try.
First, of course, we turned our attention to appetizers and salads. Appropriately priced, every one we tried was outstanding. Whoever was cooking was doing so competently and with enthusiasm. Even grilled Caesar salad (a dish I’ve been known to called “silly” in the past) won my approval, the romaine gently warmed, cuddled in a rich eggless dressing, topped with brioche croutons and decorated with lacy Parmesan crisps and two silvery slivers of white anchovy alongside to add or not add. (We added.) Delicious.
Beet “salad” was the essence of simplicity: nuggets of red and yellow beets, perfectly cooked and lined up on a narrow rectangle of white china, with a ball of goat cheese mousse leading the parade. Simplicity was definitely the way to go, because the beets were as sweet, crisp and non-woody as any I’ve pulled from a kitchen garden.
Equally appealing was a salad of ripe Black Mission figs with thin slices of serrano ham and a tangle of microgreens, dashed with aged Balsamic vinegar. A heftier appetizer of slow-roasted pork belly with apricot-soy glaze melted in the mouth.
Steak tartare, however, fell short. The beef was excellent but underdressed. The allure of steak tartare is what the chef puts into it. Emeril Lagasse incorporates chopped shallots, hard-boiled egg, red onion, parsley, Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard. The Wharf’s tartare settled for coarsely diced red onion mixed with the meat and a pool of garlic aioli alongside.
Now, about that veal chop. Yes, it weighed 14 ounces and was served on the long bone. Perfectly grilled, the meat was tender and juicy—but whoa, what’s this? A mouthful of crushed black peppercorns. The chop was crusted with them, not to mention an overabundance of salt. A rough way to treat an expensive cut of delicately flavored veal—and did I mention it cost $52?
On the other hand, the chef’s penchant for pepper worked wonderfully with a grilled 16-ounce Berkshire pork chop, spiciness cutting the richness of the meat. Served with roasted fennel, tomato and shallot compote, along with crispy leeks and grilled asparagus, this dish was a robust treat.
Cioppino, traditionally a fisherman’s potluck, was a curated selection of fresh seafood—sea scallops, wild-caught shrimp, littleneck clams, Prince Edward Island mussels and, almost justifying the $42 price, a fair amount of tender sweet Maine lobster meat, all in a saffron-tomato broth, shy on saffron and again a tad overpeppered. Fine for the shellfish; for the lobster . . . . not so fine.
The most interesting entrée was the monchong, a white-fleshed fish with a flaky-tender texture and mild flavor well known in Hawaii. The Wharf provided the perfect accoutrement—an Asiany vegetable stir-fry in lemongrass-ginger broth. A fish and a dish to remember.
Desserts were same-old with a twist. Strawberry shortcake turned out to be four diminutive biscuit and berry “sliders.” Chocolate profiteroles arrived stacked like a mini Tower of Pisa. A shorter tower was created with rounds of house-made carrot cake, and the banana split was deconstructed. All were good, but with a universe of possibilities the dessert list hews too religiously to tried-and-true. A restaurant on a seacoast should make voyages of exploration even at risk of falling off the edge of the world.
Madison Beach Hotel
94 West Wharf Rd., Madison, 203/350-0014, madisonbeachhotel.com
Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner 5 to 10 daily. Sunday brunch 10 to 2:30. Price range: appetizers $6 to $18, entrées $18 to $52, desserts $9 to $12.