April 7, 2008 | Insatiable Critic

   California Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Shrimp on the New York Post gives the tabloid new cachet. Photo: Steven Richter
Shrimp on the New York Post gives the tabloid new cachet. Photo: Steven Richter

         Notoriously fussy Upper West Siders did not hesitate to chew out star chef Jonathan Waxman’s uneven Southern Creole efforts early on at Madeleine Mae. “People in the Village never complain,” muses Jonathan of his Barbuto fans. “But up here, they are very vocal.”   Now on this, our second visit, the impressively juicy roast chicken and splendid Arctic char meunière with roasted hazelnuts and dirty rice suggest that Waxman and his Texas-born chef Andrew Curren are definitely “working on it.” 

        I’ve had lighter biscuits but I love these chewy heavyweights, especially under gravy that smothers shaved smoked ham. Everyone’s hitting on my mac’n’cheese side (jealous of my brilliance in choosing it as a starter). It’s a lot like my mom’s, not too cheesy, not too rich, really crusty on top.

        Big boiled Carolina shrimp in the shell with sauces for dunking, ideal for sharing, actually suggest a practical way to extend the useful life of the New York Post they’re served on. And the cheeseburger on its idiosyncratic square roll with first rate fries is more carefully cooked tonight than on our earlier visit – plump and rare, a triumph. Our fussy meat-eaters, me among them, have raves for garlicky hanger steak with creamed spinach. And that juicy hen is no little runt like the baby birds you get around town – it’s a grownup.  Our friend is taking half of it home, for the dog, she says.

        Houston-born Curren, fresh from several years as Waxman’s right hand at Barbuto has been fussing with the maligned jambalaya. Grilled Berkshire pork loin with parsnip purée is his latest gesture to pork chop critics. The scorned red beans and rice and slaw that did not speak to coleslaw fans are gone from the menu. That crunchy red cabbage was more California healthy than Southern indulgent.  “It took a while to see what was working, we were so busy,” says Jonathan. “We didn’t get a chance to start slow.  Did you ever try to say ‘no’ to an Upper West Sider? The first couple of weeks, it was all trial and error.”

        There are new desserts to replace those everyone hated, that swampy apple pie, the oomphless red velvet cupcakes.  Curren’s pastry cook-fiancée, Catherine James (he proposed a few weeks ago at Le Bernardin), left Cookshop to join him here. They’re both from Texas and met at the CIA.  

        Big portions and lowish prices – entrees $16 to $25.95 -- seem crucial to me in judging this see-saw affair, plus we can use another all-day spot for breakfast up here. It starts at 8 a.m., slides at noon into lunchtime salads and sandwiches available till 5 p.m.

        “We want to be neighborhood and user friendly,” is Waxman’s mantra. He’ll keep coming around to taste what Curren is up to, but his mind, he admits, is already distracted by the next venture. What it might be, he refuses to reveal.

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