When co-owner Michael Martensen and the rest of his crew at the restaurant group Misery Loves Co. announced they would be opening Madrina, a new high-end restaurant in Highland Park, they were at the top of their game. Their previous effort Proof + Pantry enjoyed a packed dining room, invigorated by a highly publicized argument between the owners and Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner. (They didn’t want her to review the place, so they wouldn’t let her pay for her meal.) Besides the extra media attention, excellent food was also a draw, with chef Kyle McClelland turning out expensive but passionately prepared cuisine and Martensen’s carefully designed cocktails fueling a lively bar.
Madrina promised a fine dining experience with a menu that fused Mexican and French cooking, but it would do so without McClelland, who quietly slipped out the door in July. Martensen hired former Komali chef Julio Peraza to take on both restaurants, and when Madrina opened in September, a well-dressed crowd flooded the dining room, eager to sip Martensen’s latest cocktail menu paired with an interesting new food menu.
Martensen took over the old Nosh space in the same strip on Oak Lawn Avenue as TJ’s Seafood and Carbone’s. Stained wood backs the bar, with the occasional unfinished cedar board popping out from the gray. The colors are echoed throughout the dining room in muted beige, creams and linens. Smoky mirrors hang on the walls, and tiles buzz on the floors in geometric patterns that lend motion to the space. The crowd seems fluid, too — a mix of couples out on dates and large groups circling tables and ordering rounds of drinks from the bar.
But the plates shuttled out to that dining room point to a chef who’s in over his head, as his kitchen is turning out a procession of dishes with serious flaws. Octopus a la plancha was dry and tough, wafting the odor of seafood past its prime. It’s hard to imagine a chef tasting a rubbery morsel from the plate and confidently sending it out to the dining room.
Peraza could have caught the problem with a lobster en croûte just by looking at the plate. The puffed pastry had failed to puff in any way, instead receding into a dense, tough cracker. The chef inverts the classic dish, layering lobster bisque over the pastry instead of hiding it beneath, but the move doesn’t hide the flaw when it takes considerable knife work to get through the disk. Mushy carrots are the worst, but the chubby Thumbelinas that also swam in the soup were practically raw, further confusing the texture of the dish.
A thick, bone-in pork loin left the kitchen with an attractive sear, but it also retained the butcher’s twine used to shape the cut. The meat was hastily prepared, with a thick exterior layer of meat cooked until it was dry and a pronounced center that approached medium rare. The meat was so tough a knife sawing through it with enough force to make any progress caused the plate to slide around. Perhaps some place mats would help at the bar?
The bravado exhibited by the staff only shows how far off the mark Madrina can be. When a snow crab salad was presented to my table, the server boasted about its garnish of a house-made baguette. Sliced thin along its length, the toast provided looked like a full-loaf MRI scan, and the prognosis was not good. The bread had the consistency of Melba toast — no network of holes or structure to speak of — and lacked any of the flavor or character of a well-made baguette.
When the kitchen does nail it, it’s almost more aggravating, because some plates reveal Peraza’s potential. Don’t miss the deep-fried mushrooms listed as wild setas on the menu. The mushrooms are fried and plated in a shallow pool of thick poblano cream sauce that screams with lime juice, and make for a very compelling taco when spooned into a warm, recently pressed tortilla. The same goes for the roast goat served in a cast iron skillet. Thin slices of avocado and baby greens cooled a plate filled with fall-apart-tender, fatty goat meat. Still, it was missing something, so I asked my bartender for a wedge of lime, which helped, but the dish still needed salt.
The tacos were so good I have a secret fantasy for Madrina 2.0 — a small and tidy restaurant with a short menu of hearty stews served in shallow bowls with baskets of tortillas on the side. A lengthy tequila menu and excellent drinks persuade customers to stay far longer than they should, sharing morsels of roast goat, stewed chicken and hearty mushrooms with anyone within reach. It’s just a dream, but it seems like a good one.
I was unable to persuade myself to order the $155 salt-crusted tomahawk steak, considering the kitchen proved unable to handle a massive pork chop, or even such kitchen basics as the use of salt and acid. I only bring it up to highlight the biggest rub at Madrina, which is pricing that is completely out of line with the level of execution. There are deals to be had, in a generous happy hour that slices food and drink prices in half if you’re dining between 4 and 6:30 p.m., and the appetizers are generally affordable and sometimes delicious.
The duck confit enfrijolada might be called a bargain at $18, for instance, and the mushrooms served in all of their poblano glory are an all-out steal at $14. But much of the menu wanders away from the promise of French-inspired Mexican food to deliver uninspired French food, and a few gems aren’t enough to make up for some questionable kitchen work. For now, Madrina is in need of some serious improvement, and hungry diners are better off spending their hundreds elsewhere.