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Restaurant Review: Madison

Madison is a stunning place to hit and miss in University Heights



4622 Park Boulevard,
University Heights

Tuna tartare
Steak salad
Pork chop

The baby blue alone will pull you in from the street. It’s as if someone made a restaurant facade out of Frank Sinatra’s eyes. And if the eyes are the windows to the soul, the outside of Madison in University Heights is also a window to the interior’s striking sense of soul.

What owner Jeffrey Fink and design firm Archisects have done with the once-beloved patio of the Lei Lounge (who exited the spot last year) is nothing less than an architectural feat. The bar itself is very nice, with a white bar top and white subway tile beneath that. Mocha-hued booths on the side allow for some very comfortable bar-side dining. Thin white ropes extend in parallel fashion from each booth, looking like one of those 1960s oil lamps your grandmother loved, or an M. C. Escher painting. The white-and-wood walls have a similar intoxicating geometric effect on the eye.

But it’s the main dining room in the rear—once an exposed patio with resort-style linens—where the architecture nicely clobbers you. They’ve built a massive wooden arch over the patio like an inverted Noah’s Ark, or a cathedral. It feels like being in the belly of a giant wooden whale. Either way, your prayers wouldn’t be unexpected.

The effect is spellbinding; it’s something you would expect downtown, or at some urban art gallery. Very few neighborhoods that aren’t named the Gaslamp have statement pieces like this. The sound in here is phenomenal. Not surprising, since Fink is also co-owner of Mission Hills record store M-Theory and Fluxx, one of the most successful downtown nightclubs.

As such, Madison’s stereo system is worth more than my car. Money isn’t everything, but it can buy a hell of an ambient experience. Since the music can’t find a hard angle in the place, it’s diffuse, soft, almost peaceful no matter the volume. It reminds me of the first time I visited San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Music Center, the final project of famous acoustician Cyril M. Harris. The room seems to take any harsh noise and airbrush it for maximum aural pleasure.

So all that’s left to be desired is good food, in which case the restaurant would be an absolute winner. The Mediterranean/Northern Italian menu was designed by one of San Diego’s better Italian chefs, Mario Cassineri of Bice Ristorante. To execute it, he sent his longtime right-hand man from Bice, Tony “G” Gutierrez. Over three visits, we discover excellence, acceptability, and mediocrity.

MEAT MARKET: Sliced skirt steak with quinoa, citrus yogurt sauce, and guacamole

Quality control for a restaurant kitchen is the holy grail, and just about as tough to find. This is why, over the years, I’ve heard the most independent and creative chefs and restaurateurs express admiration for The Cheesecake Factory, of all places. Say what you will about Cheesecake, but to feed that many millions of people a year, with that large a menu, and not have wild gaps in quality is something to be admired. Their quality control is elaborately codified science. Every single kitchen employee knows exactly what they are supposed to do with food, down to the minute, degree, portion, and ounce.

Raw deal: Tuna tartare with shrimp tempura, cucumber, and crème fraîche

Both times we try the skirt steak, it is excellent, perfectly cooked and tender, sliced on the bias against the grain (a detail many chefs seem to overlook, and one that is important for the chewability and tenderness factor). It’s finished with butter, to be sure, but as every steak champion will tell you, that’s all you need with good meat: salt, pepper, sear, and butter. There are three dipping sauces to create diversity in your eating experience: chopped quinoa, guacamole, and citrus yogurt, the latter of which, when mixed with a fork, is perfect, with the right acid to offset the steak fat.

Their baby beet salad, as well, is an entirely different preparation, using the beet greens and not just the famous bulb, along with spinach, asparagus, lentils, burrata, and balsamic drizzle. The beet greens could be cut (they’re left almost whole, which makes for a very leafy, brontosaurus-like bite), but the flavors are pure harmony. The tomato salad doesn’t fare so well, mostly since two of the main ingredients—heirloom toms and watermelon—aren’t in season yet. It’s like asking a runway model to take the stage when she’s half dressed.

The fact that Madison is serving the Nordic specialty gravlax (cured salmon) is encouraging, showing that they’re not simply sticking to comfy favorites.

The fact that Madison is serving the Nordic specialty gravlax (cured salmon) is encouraging, showing that they’re not simply sticking to comfy favorites of San Diego neighborhoods. One night it’s a revelation—cured in citrus and beet juice, it’s like salmon pastrami, dried to an awesome state that looks damn near  like jerky. Another night, the curing was obviously interrupted far too early, and it’s like a piece of sashimi with juice. The tuna tartare, though a boring standard of SD dining, is well executed, a tempura-fried shrimp over fresh tuna, sesame seeds, and crème fraîche, wrapped in a thinly sliced cucumber for brightness and bite.

Chop Chop! Sesame-crusted pork chop with broccoli rabe and asparagus

For the entrées, my companion—a very devout salmoner—loves the salmon skewers served in a white wine sauce with quinoa, romaine, carrot, and crab. For me, however, the sauce has the thickness of a country gravy, which is too burly for the protein, and without the acidity that salmon craves. But the pork chop—oh, lord. What a dish. Pork chops are among my least favorite restaurant orders, since they so often come out dry to the bone. But the sesame crust on Madison’s chop, along with the balsamic drizzle, gives it that nuttiness (which pork loves, nuts being the animal’s meal of choice) and sweet, dark, balsamic acid. Also excellent is the carnitas pappardelle, a sort of border-town take on the Italian classic with perfectly seasoned and tender carnitas beef in marinara and Grana Padano cheese.

GIN WIN: The East Barnet with Beefeater 24 gin, Yellow Chartreuse, basil, lemon, and black pepper

Our entrées during another visit, however, just fall flat. The half chicken is said to be the true test of a chef. What someone can do with chicken—itself nowhere near duck or steak or lamb in terms of having natural carnivorous wow-factor—proves their mettle. And sadly, Madison’s is bland. It’s made with mezcal and lime, which seems to have turned the skin into a wet blanket instead of that awe-inspiring thin sheet of crispy fat-glass that every chicken yearns for. The gnocchi with jumbo shrimp in corn, endive, and a truffle cream sauce also leaves much to be desired, mostly because the gnocchi are far too dense. Gnocchi, done right, are soft little magical clouds. They should evaporate in your mouth.

At the bar, we find nothing but success. Any restaurant without a craft cocktail program, at this point, is simply not trying. And each we sample of theirs is excellent, from the Umbrella (St. George Green Chile vodka, cucumber, lemon, and club soda) to the Topolino (Old Forester bourbon, Carpano Bianco vermouth, Gran Classico Bitter, and orange peel).

I wish my own neighborhood had a bistro as stunning as Madison. I also wish Madison’s excellent hits weren’t marred by its misses. Luckily, the ambience, drinks, and standouts make it a good place to spend a bit of your life. 

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