Facing railroad tracks, tucked amongst Café Madison warehouses a few blocks from a mostly abandoned downtown, the determinedly upscale in Riverside serves $39 lobster tails and porterhouse steaks in a sleek setting with a piano bar.
Café Madison, primarily a steak house, opened in 2007, hoping to ride the coattails of a large condo project that was supposed to revitalize the Burlington County town. Then the recession hit, and the condos were never built—but Café Madison’s owner, Bob Halgas, has managed to thrive.
His Towne Tavern and the Madison Room (a banquet hall/nightclub added in 2011) share the big building with Café Madison. According to general manager Bill Holden, Halgas, a cable executive from nearby Moorestown, “didn’t want to have to go to Philadelphia every time he and his neighbors wanted a fine-dining or nightclub experience.”
Halgas hired casino veteran Jack Connor as executive chef of Café Madison. The 145-seat restaurant’s elaborate décor includes an open kitchen and a dining room with mirrored panels and waterfalls. Add a piano player, a full band on Fridays and a pricey à la carte menu, and the place cries out “special occasion!” To counter that impression, Halgas in February introduced a nightly $35 prix-fixe menu. Connor said about 60 percent of customers choose it.
We tried à la carte as well as prix-fixe dishes and found about the same number of hits and misses on each. Winning prix-fixe appetizers included plump mussels in Thai red curry sauce and cornmeal-dusted fried calamari in a sweet-and-sour ponzu sauce.
On the à la carte side, we liked the house-cured Scottish-salmon appetizer topped with crème fraîche, pickled onion and caviar. A shrimp-and-crabmeat cocktail was fresh and plentiful. Tableside preparation of an à la carte Caesar salad was fun, but the dressing lacked the defining flavors of garlic and anchovies.
Prix-fixe appetizers had problems, too. A shrimp-and-sausage risotto with roasted peppers was watery and bland. Lobster bisque was floury and bland and contained no bits or bites of lobster meat.
The best prix-fixe entrées were the simplest: pork tenderloin with smoked mac and cheese and braised swiss chard; buttery French chicken breast with rosemary, cipollini onions and fennel; seared branzino fillet on a tomato and cannellini bean ragout smoky with bits of cooked prosciutto.
On the à la carte side, grilled swordfish came with scarcely any puttanesca sauce, not that any amount could conceal that the fish was terminally overcooked. Lobster tail was leathery, an insult at $39.
If you want steak, go à la carte. My 18-ounce porterhouse was juicy and flavorful, with a perfect char. The prix-fixe steak we tried, a 6-ounce filet mignon, was properly cooked but lacked even filet mignon’s demure flavor.
For dessert, the chocolate-peanut butter bombe proved a worthy indulgence. Flourless chocolate cake with raspberry drizzle had the wet, smudgy consistency of fudge—fine, if that’s your fancy. Serviceable chocolate layer cake turned silly when it appeared with two shot glasses of cold milk to “wash the cake off the roof of your mouth,” said Connor. Greek-yogurt cheesecake was light and pleasingly tart, while textbook Madagascar vanilla crème brûlée was satiny under its crackly caramel cap.Click here to leave a comment