(This review was published in South Bay Accent Magazine in October 2011.)
Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road is ground zero for venture capitalists so certain standards apply if you move into the neighborhood. When the super-posh Rosewood Hotel chain built a luxurious resort and spa a few years ago on what used to be open grassland just over the crest of this famous road, the resort’s restaurant needed to levitate into the heady territory inhabited by those whose second car is a Lamborghini.
Therefore, Madera restaurant is about understated elegance — no gaudy Trump-style decor here — and unlimited wallets. Mere hotel food won’t do for those who have probably dined at the most ritzy establishments in the world, or can afford to. Madera’s executive chef Peter Rudolph has devised a menu that celebrates local ingredients, gorgeously displayed on the plate and notched up by intricate, unexpected preparations — at least, as described on the menu.
As you’d expect for such a restaurant and its gasp-inducing final tab, dinners include several chef’s gifts — my recent amuse bouche was a small coin of salmon sausage accented by black olives — and a lavish bread tray featuring house-made, oily foccacia and addictive little bacon-topped rolls.
The starters are like what follows in terms of artistry; lovely arrangements of colorful ingredients compete with the spectacular sunsets over the Santa Cruz Mountains viewed out the wide windows in an otherwise neutral room. After all, the food is supposed to be the show here. Topping a surprisingly lengthy starter list was the standout: ceviche-style steelhead trout tartare that played up the subtle fish with zingy marinated rhubarb and sweet beets. Bravo, chef!
A close second place was mostly boneless quail smoky from the wood-burning oven whose rich flavors were heightened by stone fruits, endive and a sweetish hazelnut vinaigrette. Also in the running: Hamachi crudo in which the umami richness of the fish did a duet with slightly sweet green and red strawberries, but the advertised fennel purée was indiscernible. Chilled cucumber-yogurt soup was lovely to look at, poured at table with a flourish but too bland. However, the plate of gorgeous summer vegetables — roasted beets, grilled corn and more — presented as a “salad” was as tasty as it was comely. There was no flavor of curry from the advertised vadouvan vinaigrette, but the dish still worked.
Entrees followed the starter theme of layered, complex constructions and politically correct ingredients — in this case, wild seafood and grass-fed meats. The succulence of pan-roasted halibut was enhanced by sweet cherry tomatoes and peppers while crab-stuffed Idaho trout presented a heady mouthful of goodness with the accompanying chard, mushrooms and butter beans. A “blackened” guinea hen breast appeared to be roasted instead, but the tasty flesh was nicely paired with spicy sausage, rice, corn and significantly undercooked padrón peppers that I pushed to the side.
Rack of lamb was identified by our server as one of the better choices and while it was nice, it was a bit monochromatic, without enough taste contrast against the advertised green olive gremolata. The most delicious entree, oddly enough, was absolutely superb agnolotti — one of two vegetarian choices — whose cheesy goodness was enhanced by corn, beans and wild mushrooms. But the summer black truffles were invisible, flavor wise. Portions were adequate, preventing us from sampling several interesting side dishes like polenta and roasted squash with corn and pistou.
The trophy-heavy wine list is fit for investment bankers. A glass of a lesser French Rhone costs a few dollars less than a bottle costs at retail. Ignoring the prices, however, the list is good, with lots of by-the-glass choices, half bottles and endless offering from all over the world. But you’ll pay; the 2009 Rochioli chardonnay that cost me $38 from the winery is on Madera’s list for $120. And discouraging guests from bringing special bottles from home is a highway-robbery corkage fee that escalates like the stock market did in the late ’90s.
Desserts reflected the fruit-rich summer season, highlighted by lovely crème fraîche panna cotta in an oversized martini glass with stewed strawberries and strawberry sorbet. Addressing a sweet fix without the calories was tasty rosé and nectarine soup with peaches, berries and sherbet. In the other direction were warm, gooey chocolate chip malted cookies served with a little pot of milk for dipping. Reportedly, the beignets with fruit, preserves and blackberry honey are the most popular item and it’s likely that guests make a frequent beeline for chocolate mousse — made with bittersweet Valrhona, of course — accented with toffee, banana and coconut ice cream.
Service was friendly and adequate except for the impenetrable Hispanic accent of the waiter’s helper who announced each dish, with the best of intentions, but left us asking for several repeats until we just gave up. Perhaps the Rosewood chain can invest in elocution lessons. Another needed tune up is to the reservation policy. The reservations girl made us move forward our desired arrival time but the restaurant was half empty when we arrived at 7:30. We wondered if they might be saving tables in case local billionaires needed to be fed on short notice.
Overall, Madera is handsome and the food is quite good, but it seems like most dishes have a few advertised ingredients that are invisible in the final preparation, particularly at such stratospheric prices. The chef’s style is subtle — perhaps too much so for a neighborhood where cars, houses and incomes are over the top.
Still, the gorgeous views and lah-di-dah environment — and, indeed, the cuisine if you’re not looking for value — make Madera an interesting dining spot. The real buzz is about the bar, though, which has developed a thriving scene in which rich guys unwind as throngs of cougars and young secretaries seeking a better life mingle in what has to be one of the best live sitcoms in the region.
Madera, 2825 Sand Hill Rd., Menlo Park, (650) 561-1540, http://www.maderasandhill.com
HOURS: Lunch, 11:30-2:30 daily. Dinner, 5:30-10 daily. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Starters, $14-30; entrees, $30-38; sides, $7; desserts, $10-15.