Madera, Menlo Park, CA

One of my foodie pet peeves is a Michelin-star restaurant that doesn’t deliver its Michelin-star promise: exceptional food and an exceptional experience.

Madera in Menlo Park is one of those.

Allow me to explain.

Diners shell out $250 for a Michelin-star meal and expect a Michelin-star experience. You’ve got to have some nerve to provide anything less when your diners have entrusted you and your establishment with a special, $250-a-person occasion.

And when $300-a-person restaurants like Atelier Crenn and The French Laundry pull out all the stops—Crenn’s over-the-top presentations and French Laundry’s customizable seven-course menus plus generous amuse-bouches and palate cleansers—you’ve got to have some nerve to leave your diners with a $500 bill (for two, before wine) for an underwhelming two hours.

And these are just the SF Bay Area restaurants off the top of my head! I can wax lyrical about the incredible experiences I’ve had on this and other continents. (Except that hotel restaurant in Berlin. That doesn’t deserve its Michelin stars, either.)

So I beg forgiveness for my being unforgiving in this review of Madera. I am because this restaurant boasting the Michelin star fails to live up to the reputation.

*exhales*

Anyway.

On to the restaurant review.

It’s not Madera’s first appearance in the Michelin Guide. They’d won a star, lost it in 2015 and won it back in 2016.* If I had my way, they should lose the star again in 2018.

The signs appeared the moment I sat down. From beginning to end, the main server was flippant. I wanted to choose one wine from two suggested wine pairings on the menu in my hand, and the server proceeded to read the pairings to me. I’m not illiterate—I wanted help choosing a wine! He twice said he’d get the sommelier, but the sommelier did not come.

And the food? Cue the trombone: Whomp whomp. Of the five dishes on the $238 fixed menu, only one was excellent. And it was not a $238 dish.

The scallop chip amuse-bouche was good, but I missed the grapefruit that was promised.

The fois gras mousse with walnut crumbles was clever and delightful! However, the dish was thrown off-kilter by the sickeningly sweet hibiscus syrup. And how the Oro Blanco fit into it is beyond me—much too sweet and a very different kind of sweet from the hibiscus.

Pro tip: Ask for and pocket the buttermilk rolls! They were much better than Oro Blanco as a vehicle for fois gras.

The Maine lobster was overcooked and, by a poorly made decision, served with Safeway smoked ham and a bland, decidedly un-dashi-like dashi.

The poached sablefish was underseasoned while its accompaniments were overseasoned. And why deliver a silky piece of fish with rubbery razor clam? Why? I did, however, enjoy the hint of roasty-ness of the roasted potato consommé. While this wasn’t the worst prepared dish (this distinction goes to the lobster), it was the meal’s biggest disappointment.

The lychee-rose cheesecake has the distinction of being the worst conceived dish. It tasted neither of lychee or rose—think plain white cheesecake with a swirl of white chocolate on top and a tough brown wafer-like cookie on the bottom in lieu of a crust. The bland marshmallow knots were out of place. The chef went overboard with the texture contrasts. WHY? However, I enjoyed the “rose” ice cream (it was more like raspberry) and raspberry confit (very much raspberry).

But the beaming star of the night, the American Wagyu striploin, was divine—Divine! I sat through one unremarkable amuse-bouche and three sad courses to get to this—a reward, perhaps? The hunk of “fermented” maitake mushroom thankfully didn’t taste fermented, but was simply cooked, its mushroom-ness allowed to shine. The smoked mushroom purée, so rich and earthy, has inspired me to smoke my own. Though the “kale chip” looked more like a fried bay leaf and tasted like nothing, its crunch was welcome atop a piece of sous-vide beef—complete with a perfectly uniform millimeter-thick sear (what sorcery is this?)—smeared with mushroomy goodness. This was the perfect bite.

The verdict: If you’re thinking of dining at Madera, head further south to Manresa in Los Gatos instead. In San Francisco, Lord Stanley and Michael Mina offer similarly European-American cuisine at the same price point or less.

*I could be wrong. I neither looked deeply into the issue nor care about the details.

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