Saturday, January 23, 2010

Madonia Restaurant & Bar

There's something to be said for having high hopes: Get your head out of the clouds and stop reaching for the moon!

Okay, so this does not necessarily bode well for the everyday, average person who dreams of being the next American Idol, or whose lifelong goal is to be the first person from their neighborhood to step foot on Mars. To those individuals I say “Continue to aim high.”

If, however, you have any intentions on visiting a certain restaurant in Stamford because, somehow or another, you feel strongly in your heart that your experience will be so astounding, so stupendous, so outrageously fabulous . . . then I’d say it’s time to rethink your thinking.

My husband had just returned from one of his many business trips to points far and wide. I was looking for any excuse in the northern hemisphere not to cook, so when he called from Chicago with the “I’m at the airport ready to board the plane; what do you want to do for dinner?” line, my mind was already focused on eating out. By the time Maarten arrived home, I had even gone so far as to select the restaurant.

“What made you pick this place?” he asked innocently enough as we were in the car on our way to Madonia, to which I replied, “It just looks like someplace nice. The menu looked delicious online, so I figured we’d give it a shot.”

In actuality, about a month earlier we had received one of those oversized postcard advertisements addressed to “RESIDENT” that was touting Madonia as the place for authentic Italian cuisine. Having spent a lovely two-week vacation in Italy during the fall of 2007 (Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Campestri, Vicchio, Scarperia and Firenzoula, and many other villages) and was on a mission to eat my way across Italy (although we didn’t spent time in the Calabria region of Italy {located at the infamous “toe” of the famed Italian peninsula}, the inspiration for much of Madonia’s cuisine) I’ve sampled some good and bad (mostly good) of what the beautiful country had to offer.

Needless to say, my hopes were high.

When we first entered Madonia, the luscious aromas wafting about caused my nostrils to flare wildly in anticipation. It smelled of moist, delicious chicken, slow cooked all day and basting in its own succulent juices. If the food tasted half as good as it smelled, this would be a glorious evening, indeed.

The maitre d’ took our coats—don’t worry; they were gracious enough to give them back before we left—while an extremely pleasant woman showed us to the dining room. Although I failed to inquire, my best guess is that she had either some form of ownership in the restaurant, she was the relative of an owner, or she was just damned happy and proud to have a job.

The dining room was far from full, and there were at least fifteen tables that were unoccupied, yet she had one helluva time deciding where to seat us. Maarten came to the rescue. “How about that table right there,” he said while pointing at a small table for two next to a window which overlooked the patio.

Our waiter was quite cordial—and aptly so—when he approached the table and introduced himself as if he were talking to what would soon be friends for life. I immediately ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio and began to peruse the menu. While I scrutinized the succinct menu, a basket of bread was placed on the table, along with a small bowl of a rather pasty looking substance. Maarten did the honors in sampling the mystery dish.

"Wow, this is good!” he exclaimed. It was a white bean fusion with hummus, leeks and various spices and herbs that possessed a very delicate, tiny aftershock that caused a ripple in my mouth. It would turn out to be the best part of the entire meal.

To start the meal, notwithstanding the white bean hummus concoction, I ordered the Calamari Fritti while Maarten ordered the Italian Antipasto (with Prosciutto di Parma, spicy sopressata, marinated winter vegetables and imported cheeses).

When it finally reached our table, the look of the calamari was profoundly disappointing, so much so that I didn’t even bother to photograph it. What a wise decision, considering the taste was even more mundane and run-of-the-mill. The rings were chewy and devoid of much flavor. At the very least, the breading was decent, lacking that gritty cornmeal texture that can sometimes overpower calamari. I toyed with the calamari, shoved a few pieces around the plate for a few minutes, then I finally gave up on the entire dish.

Maarten’s antipasto plate turned out to be far better than my starter. I nibbled on a bit of spicy cheese that provided a little kick to my tonsils, but soon abandoned his plate as well. This was not a good sign.

Again, those high hopes surfaced, and I silently prayed that the Chicken Milanese that I selected would work wonders at redeeming Madonia. It was a toss-up between that dish and the Roasted Free Range Chicken Breast, but I reasoned I could get a seasoned chicken breast practically anywhere. Perhaps I should have just gone somewhere else from the beginning.

The Chicken Milanese, which lay listlessly next to baby arugula with chunks of crumbled gorgonzola cheese, roasted tomatoes and oregano vinaigrette, was, in a word, blah. I don’t exaggerate when I say I’ve had Chicken McNuggets from McDonald’s that had more taste. Traditionally, Chicken Milanese was supposed to be, quite literally, chicken prepared in the style of Milan, but, honestly, somewhere in there shouldn’t flavor play a key part in the dish? I’m sure this isn’t what the great people of Milan thought when they pounded out a couple of chicken breasts and called it a meal. Someone in the kitchen should be chastised.

Once again, Maarten had the better of the two meals with his Zucchini Wrapped Chicken Breast, stuffed with spinach, Portobello mushroom and goat cheese, nestled in a thyme-infused jus. While this did have a bit more flavor—it could arguably be described in favorable culinary terms by stating that the flavors were more subtle and tantalizing thus rendering the dish more savory—it still did little to put much more than a passing smirk on my face.

Taken as a whole, this was a very disappointing meal to me. At the start of the night, my intentions were to share a romantic dinner with my husband in a cordial setting and make it a memorable evening. It’s unfortunate that the reality was far from the fairy tale that I envisioned.

In all fairness, I really don’t want to give the impression that Madonia was all bad. In fact, Madonia had nearly all of the elements of a successful restaurant: an attentive staff, a good location, a hospitable host, a comfortable atmosphere and a variety of dishes from a menu that changes seasonally. However, one of the main reasons many choose to dine at a restaurant is because they are looking for an enjoyable meal—one which tastes good, not a mediocre experience that leaves their taste buds puzzled and unfulfilled.

Perhaps, in a bid to play devil’s advocate, I could note that this was a new menu—one which was just changed from the previous evening and perhaps the chef had not quite mastered the preparation of every dish. To Madonia’s credit, the couple at the table next to ours devoured the Fish Lobster Paella (For Two) that they ordered, so it stands to reason that not every selection on the menu was as dismal as ours. Sadly, I don’t believe it is encouragement enough, however, to induce me to return to Madonia.

Would I recommend Madonia? Based on my meal, I would not recommend Madonia. While I am not a world-class chef schooled in the art of culinary preparations, I have, on occasion, produced far better food from my own kitchen and, dare I say, straight out of my microwave oven. This, however, is just one person’s opinion.

Is Madonia a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? In consideration of value, one must take into account whether the meal was good, regardless of what it cost. Based on this, I don’t believe the cost justified the meal.

What about atmosphere and ambience? The atmosphere was one of the more pleasant things about Madonia. It was nicely appointed, not too dark and had a very comfortable feel. The acoustics in the dining room, however, could potentially pose a problem if the room were filled to capacity due to the low ceilings and hardwood flooring. We noticed a touch of this when the room was barely one-quarter full.


1 comment:

  1. You should try it again. The food has improved a great deal!