I spent the month of August on my favorite island off Cape Cod dodging places where the diners were too loud, the bar was too crowded, or where the hostess boasted a visible navel piercing. I’ve suffered through the din of table talk, cell-phone conversations and hip-hop reverberating off tin ceilings, mediocre $44 entrées, and CD compilations sold from the bottom of the menu by chefs doubling as DJs. I’m ready to act my age. I long for a quiet place with simple tasty food where I can indulge in a bottle and a bird without cashing in my few remaining blue chips, where being thin and under 30 is not a prerequisite for a window table. While I’m griping, I’d also like service where attentive and fawning are not synonyms. My summer refuge offers many delights, but for my kind of restaurant, the islands of Long, Staten, and Manhattan are where to head.
Le Madri, a venerable Chelsea eatery that has survived Barneys’ relocation without missing a beat, is a place of casual formality that harks back to the days when eating out called for more than an Amex platinum card in your shredded jeans. The antechamber that serves as the waiting area and bar sets the tone. Inviting, with a few small bistro tables and chairs for those who arrive early, it’s not a scene, just a few folks enjoying an aperitif before the main event. Exiting the low lighting of the bar for the warm glow of the dining room begins the evening with a palpably theatrical flourish, and the business of seating, menus, drink orders, and specials unfurls as seamlessly as a bolt of moiré.
Le Madri and other restaurants of its ilk are the perfect places for long-standing friends to commune, so I took an out-of-towner I’d known since my brief tenure in the Girl Scouts. As we caught up and marveled at the civility of the place, her bresaola arrived, thin slices of air-cured beef filet atop tiny leaves of arugula topped with shards of parmesan and drizzled with a lemony oil ($14). My fritto misto was a mound of perfectly fried bits that included everything from thin crispy rounds of calamari to a few small, sweet, whitebait-like fish I wish there had been more of ($10.50). On another evening, more members of my old buzzard’s network enjoyed other reminders of how dexterously the kitchen balances innovation and classicism: pan-seared diver scallops served in a warm puddle of pureed sweet corn flavored with the smokiness of bacon and snippets of chive ($15) and a definitive caprese salad of summer-luscious tomatoes topped with moist mozzarella and a julienne of roasted red and yellow bell peppers and scented with a basil-and garlic-infused olive oil.
Mains fulfilled the promise of the appetizers. One group was excited by the tasty perfection of fettucine alla vongole, garlic-perfumed Manila clams (plumper and sweeter than summer quahogs) in a light lemon-parsley sauce spiked with pieces of pancetta ($18), and the deceptive simplicity of oven-roasted sea bass seasoned with the citrus wallop of a stuffing featuring more lemons and garlic ($32). The other was seduced by a bowl of plump ravioli filled with lump crab meat belly-up in a light seafood broth ($17), and a classic spaghetti carbonara that mixed the rich tastes of smoked swine and heavy cream ($14). The second time, the three of us managed to share a yummy peach crostata, caramelized fruit on a crisscross of pastry and a ball of nutmeg ice cream. On each occasion, we’d agreed that it was good fun to act your age long before the postprandial sips of chilled limoncello arrived ($9).