April 13th, 2012 by Brian Schwartz – Comments (12)
Back in the 1960s a lot of top New York chefs became enamoured with the idea of using scientific technology to mass-produce gourmet meals for restaurant chains, thus offering the possibility of fine dining to the masses. Pierre Franey, according to Tracie McMillan in her new book “The American Way of Eating”, would sometimes thaw out his frozen factory-made concoctions and offer them to unsuspecting dinner guests to see if they’d realize what they were eating. I doubt that anyone was fooled. Nor will diners at La Madeleine be fooled into thinking they are dining at a world-class restaurant. Still, this Texas chain comes closer than any other to fulfilling Franey’s dream of providing haute cuisine quickly and cheaply.
La Madeleine was founded about 30 years ago in Dallas and now has 60 branches in Texas, Louisiana and other points south. Trying to research its history, I found this gem in Wikipedia. Wikipedia allows unlimited use of its material, and this, which reads as if written by the chain’s head of publicity, is too good not to. “La Madeleine Country French Café was created by French native Patrick Esquerré in the early 1980s to provide his guests the ability to ‘step into the French countryside – where the love of fresh food is celebrated, and everyday eating remains one of the simple pleasures of life.’ Patrick Leon Esquerré brought the tastes of the French countryside with him when he came to America. He grew up in the Loire Valley region of post-World War II France, where meal times revolved around homegrown, hand-prepared food, friends, family and heartfelt conversation. Patrick missed the joys of his hometown. He yearned for the aroma of fresh-baked baguettes and lingering over an espresso at the corner café. So, he decided to create his own. With little else besides his boundless enthusiasm and charming broken English, the self-described ‘French country boy’ began to bring his vision to life. Patrick found inspiration from his mother, Monique, who not only gave la Madeleine the secrets of her French cooking, but also the special atmosphere of French country living that she taught her son.”
That’s the dream, or at any rate the promo. When you’re here, you’re family. Let’s see how the real thing measures up.
The dining room’s not bad at all, and yes, there’s a French Provencal feel to it, though it will take a few decades of wear to mellow that brash, new fireplace and oak trim into authenticity. To order, you move to a counter just beyond this room. Bright and sleek, the ordering station follows the new design La Madeleine introduced in Northpark, Texas last year. You order from a long menu — almost nothing is over ten dollars — pay the cashier, and return to the dining room to await your food. It’s not cafeteria-style anymore. So that’s what we did. And then along came this.
Shrimp & Tilapia Provencal ($9). Shrimp, fish, onions, garlic and olives braised in white wine mixed with reduced fat tomato-basil soup, according to the menu. The sauce had a rich, olivey flavor and I rather liked it. Was it prepared from scratch in the kitchen? Or do big pouches of frozen sauce, or frozen entrees, arrive secretly and by night to the back door? I just don’t know. One Dallas magazine (“D”) says that in the new design locations, all items are made fresh, on-site. They use fast-cooking TurboChef ovens. But at any rate it was a great deal for nine dollars!
Cathe ordered a crepe and I got to have half of it.
Shrimp crepe florentine ($11). This is one of the very few things over $10 (another is the $11 whole roast chicken, a good deal too) and it’s worth the price. Lots of flavorful shrimp in a lovely pesto cream sauce. I’d bet this great sauce WAS prepared in-house. Next was Chicken La Madeleine ($9), with a mushroom sauce.
Betty ate this but she wasn’t thrilled by it. We also got a spinach salad with chicken ($8) which we didn’t order but did have to pay for. It was quite a good salad, with a sprightly vinaigrette dressing and good chunks of chicken. And then came dessert.
Dessert is served cafeteria-style. You walk back to the cashier and then select from this.
They keep the case locked because the food looks so good that they’re scared their own staff will grab one and start eating. And they do taste that good. We got the round tart at the far right of the middle, brightly lit row ($4.30). It was vaguely creme bruleeish but the creamy interior under the burnt-sugar top was studded with yummy fruit. It was so good we forgot to take a photo.
1523 E 15 St.
Open from 6:30 AM to 10 PM every day
Excerpt about Franey from McMillan book (worth reading!)
Brian Schwartz: Author
Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com
I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.
“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.