Every once in a while, I feel the need to commune with girlfriends at lunch for a gossip and a gorge. These all too infrequent meetings require a restaurant serving food that will pass muster with dieters and chowhounds alike. There must be a wine list that offers a red silky enough to render the occasion memorable, and the room must be comfortable and welcoming. Finally, the place must be fancy enough to show we’ve made it in the big city. The choice is not as simple as it seems. Del Frisco’s masters-of-the-universe decor exudes too much testosterone, and the tinkle of champagne flutes and the hum of mondaine conversation in the floral bower of La Grenouille is a little too chichi for even my friends. Thank goodness I’ve recently discovered the theater-district standby Le Madeline. It is the perfect venue.
Entered through the attractive dining room, the garden is a haven of dappled light spruced up with just enough greenery and trellis work. Feminine without frills, it provides a relaxed atmosphere where tables are close enough for eavesdropping, yet not so crowded that a good secret can’t be shared sotto voce. A glance around indicated that I was not the only one who felt this way. Daughters carefully escorted fragile mothers to seats in one corner, while in another refugees from the Condé Nast dining room plotted office coups. On Wednesdays, the matinee set convenes pretheater, with the spot opening at 11:30 to accommodate them.
Like my friends and I, all are lured by a menu that soars with dishes like the sublime canelloni appetizer that I tried on one occasion ($9.50). Stuffed with darkly flavored shards of slow-cooked beef, the plump roulade filled its puddle of rich jus. Washed down with a lingering sip of the Gigondas we’d splurged on ($46), it was so good I almost canceled my main and ordered a second. I was glad I hadn’t when I faced a portion of well-crisped duck confit ($16); satisfyingly toothsome and falling-off-the-bone mellow, it went perfectly with the mound of mashed and tender verdant spinach and the piquancy of the lentils vinaigrette.
My media-star mentor was well-served by the conceit of a smoked-salmon sandwich that layered Scotland’s finest atop slices of sweetish brioche served with a spicy pickled cucumber and more than a drizzle of pungent horseradish aioli ($11), and found appetizer bliss in the peekytoe crab salad: a hillock of delicate crustacean and cukes bound with a citrusy yogurt dressing ($11). Another time, I rejoiced in the hanger steak cooked to pink perfection with enough matchstick-crisp potatoes for sharing and a small salad for roughage ($16), while my equally carnivorous colleague fell into the mad burger ($10): a heap of seared beef topped with a pile of red-onion confit and a slather of béarnaise that was so good we almost stopped talking.
We didn’t, though, and had just about put the world to right as we swirled the last sips of our moscato d’asti and reluctantly left this haven for female bonding, ready to face a world where neither chefs nor men always cut the mustard.