Ah, Madeline Bistro - how I've missed you so. My history with this restaurant dates back to the year of 2005 when I attended PETA's 25th Anniversary Gala in Los Angeles. This swanky gala featured vegan cuisine from the top vegan restaurants in the country. This is where I first discovered Madeline Bistro. At the gala, Madeline Bistro served this amazing cheese plate that consisted of their nut-based cheeses -- this was before nut cheese was commercially available. It blew me away and I dined at their bistro that same week.
Fast forward to 2012 and Madeline Bistro isn't doing that well. At the time that I wrote this, they were only open on the weekends and had even come close to closing at one point. How could this be? From what I could remember Madeline Bistro's cuisine was on par with Millennium and Candle 79. But, then again, I didn't eat upscale very often back in 2005 so I thought it would be interesting to see what I thought of their cuisine now.
First of all, Madeline Bistro is north of Los Angeles and I hear that their location is one of the reasons that they aren't doing so well. I'm not familiar enough with LA to describe it, but the city in which they are located is actually called "Tarzana" and it feels way out of the way. It took me 2 hours to get there from Anaheim because of the traffic and once I arrived, I drove past it a couple times as I don't think there is a visible sign from the street. I'm glad I had reservations because it was pretty busy when I finally arrived. I was seated towards the windows in their small dining room.
I ordered the 4-course tasting menu for $40. $40?? The price made me worry that this was not the Madeline I remember. It seemed way too low for a 4-course meal at a fine restaurant. Well, I guess the truth is that it really isn't a fine restaurant any more. The feel in there was totally different than the first time I went. In 2005, the restaurant was dark and romantic and the service was superb. Now, the lighting is uncomfortably bright and the patrons wear shorts and jeans. That's not to mention that there was only one server for all 10 tables. Hmmm...what happened here? And they don't even have a liquor license. I had to bring my own bottle of wine. The good thing is that there is no corkage fee, but the bad thing is that my server didn't even pour my wine for me. She opened the bottle and placed it on the table. Very disappointing.
Anyway, let's get to the meal -- I started with a red beet tartare. The freshly grated cold beets were molded atop a warm breaded tofu cheese crouton making for a superb combination and a beautiful presentation. The tartare was paired with raw cucumber slices and served with a balsamic glace. I ate this up as if it were my last meal.
The next course was a hearty savory French onion soup with housemade cashew cheese shreds and croutons. This is about as close to a real French onion soup as it gets. The cheese was as amazing as I'd remembered.
The wait for my entree was very long, but, in the end, it was worth the wait. The freshly made gnocchi was served in a rich shallot cream sauce with sauteed black kale, sundried tomatoes, and kalamata olives. The sauce was delightfully rich and creamy which paired well with the soft, fresh gnocchi while the vegetables and olives brought great flavor to the dish. This chef has mastered the art of making substitutions as good as, if not better, than the real thing.
Then, finally, I experienced chocolate ecstasy. For dessert, I was served a chocolate souffle that was perfectly baked on the outside with a warm, liquid chocolate center. It was served with an almond-based ice cream. It was absolutely perfect.
When I left, I felt confused -- elated about the cuisine yet disappointed about the service. It was the same cuisine that I remembered without the ambiance and service that make a fine restaurant. If this cuisine was served in a fine restaurant in DC or SF, I would have paid $80 for the meal. But, given that the service wasn't great, they don't serve alcohol, and the ambiance left much to be desired, I can see why the price is pretty cheap. It is really a shame because I could rate this cuisine as some of the best vegan cuisine in the country, but when it comes to overall restaurant ratings, it probably wouldn't make my top 10. Oh, Madeline, I only hope you survive and improve on these dimensions. I really hope to visit you again soon.
18621 Ventura Boulevard
Tarzana, CA 91356