Restaurant Review: Madalin's Table
With their sophisticated specialities, Madalin’s Table adds inventive flavor to the Tivoli dining scene.
Historic Hot Spot
Madalin’s Table in Tivoli serves up the perfect mix of Old World charm
and New World cooking
By Bryan J. Miller
In the mid-19th century, a hostelry known as Madalin House, squatting atop a long grassy slope rising from the banks of the Hudson River, dominated the Village of Tivoli. The name referred to a hamlet to the north that was annexed by Tivoli at that time. The hotel and restaurant most likely catered to travelers in the wool-spinning trade (a major local industry) and sundry small-scale manufacturers in the area. At the turn of the century the rambling old structure went up in flames (back then you could smoke in bed). Before long, in 1909, it rose from the ashes and was baptized the New Madalin Hotel. By all accounts it enjoyed a good run until the late mid-century, when the owners, running low on customers or patience, decided to phase out lodging and concentrate on the tavern. The ensuing years were not kind to the town’s most famous landmark, as it slowly became Tivoli’s white elephant.
Then in 2004, there arrived three investors with dreams of resuscitating the long-cold corpse. Joseph Cicileo, a lawyer and area resident, along with his brother, Anthony, and business partner Domenic Scarpulla, spent two years — and an undisclosed amount of money — bringing it back. On Memorial Day weekend 2006, the thrice-named Madalin Hotel opened for business. Almost from the start it was a success with weekenders, vacationers, and the greater Bard College community, says Cicileo — and, if it is any measure of status, Mikhail Baryshnikov once snoozed there.
Shortly thereafter came the restaurant, named Madalin’s Table, and the historic old bar. It’s not as if Tivoli was starved for eateries. Santa Fe, the perpetually packed Mexican outpost, is just a dinner roll’s toss to the east; and there is Luna 61, a vegetarian hangout, and Osaka, a well-regarded sushi joint. But the hotel’s new owners wanted to create a friendly and relaxed spot where locals would feel at home, and at the same time a refined destination restaurant that would titillate the spoiled palates of city folk. Based on two recent visits, they have succeeded.
On a quiet Thursday evening my wife, Amy, and I passed through a pair of stout columns that flank the wide wooden wraparound porch. The building is an architectural mutt, in what co-owner Cicileo describes as the Eastlake style (a hybrid of Late Victorian and Early Craftsman). We first dropped into the tavern, a splendid, wood-lined room rich with the smoky aroma of history. A great old oak bar, which was salvaged from the previous establishment, measures 19 feet long and is wide enough from end to end that, apparently, it really rocks when the restaurant is full on weekends. But on the night we visited, soft peach walls, tavern tables draped with white tablecloths, and votive candles set a soothing mood. Sitting a few stools away was a preppy looking chap in his 40s, perhaps a professor of humanities at Bard (maybe a refugee from the school’s dining hall). On the other side were two young women availing themselves of the $5 martini happy hour. Following is a snippet of their conversation.
“This may sound crazy,” one of the tipplers remarked to her friend, “but when I have olives in a martini I don’t get a hangover.” Perhaps she also should have availed herself of the bar menu: burgers, fish and chips, grilled chicken sandwiches, and the like.
The main dining room is a time capsule, circa the McKinley administration. It is swathed in red damask wallpaper atop gray wainscot (the perfect backdrop for the striking 19th-century Hudson River School painting that hangs on one wall), and set with well-spaced tables.
Tapped as the opening chef was Brian Kaywork, a relative novice who possesses the admirable skills required to produce fancy food that does not taste like fancy food (that is, sharply focused, cleanly executed, and without a lot of gratuitous interlopers on the plate). No sooner had Kaywork popped out of the privileged womb of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park then he landed a job as sous-chef at the now-defunct Mina in Red Hook. His menu at Madalin’s Table is well-balanced, inventive, and reads as good as it tastes. “Basically, I want to stick to Northeast cooking, with my own interpretations, using local and seasonal ingredients,” says Kaywork.
I was surprised and delighted to discover sweetbreads as an appetizer this far up the Taconic Parkway. I couldn’t resist (though Amy wouldn’t taste them at gunpoint), in part because they are a good test of the chef’s abilities. They came out appropriately firm (from proper pressing to remove moisture) and perfectly cooked, golden and crispy, and arranged over a skein of al dente spaghetti squash cooked in a vermouth sauce. Amy, a vacillating vegetarian, zeroed in on a special called asparagus panna cotta. An Italian specialty, panna cotta is basically gelatin-bound, eggless custard that can be served as a savory or a dessert. It was flavored with a purée of asparagus and paired with a sprightly pea sprout salad in a lemony vinaigrette, garnished with little Parmesan chips. To my taste, the panna cotta, while flavorsome, was too loosely bound, something like a squashy mousse.
It is rare today to find egg preparations on upscale menus. Prior to the late 1960s, even the most sumptuous French restaurants in America carried assorted omelettes at lunchtime, and they were objects of great pride — perfectly smooth, canoe-shaped, barely golden, and ennobled by truffles, morels, caviar, and more. Bravo to chef Kaywork — and the guy’s never been to
Among main courses, the hands-down winner was grilled lamb chops — petite ones that can be picked up and gnawed upon until they present a hazard to one’s dentition. The lamb was succulent, almost buttery, in partnership with a fantastic, garlicky potato gratin. A close runner-up was perfectly cooked halibut on a puddle of subtle orange-saffron butter, with baby bok choy and local wild mushrooms. There are very few victuals that give me pause, but one of them is cauliflower. Mark Twain famously described it as “broccoli with a college education.” I don’t detest it; however, it strikes me as an impoverished cousin of broccoli. The pasta of the evening, teamed up with cauliflower, sweet homemade sausage, spring onions, and crunchy little fiddlehead ferns, was pleasing enough, although, not surprisingly, I felt that the cauliflower bullied everybody on the playground.
The restaurant’s wine list features nice selections of both red and white, all available by the glass. We enjoyed a light and delicate white Bordeaux, from Château Haut Rian, 2007 ($7 by the glass, $24 by the bottle); and among reds I can vouch for the always superior Côtes-du-Rhône “Belleruche” ($8/$24) from the prestigious house of M. Chapoutier.
Among desserts there is a first-rate strawberry shortcake; a dark chocolate tartlet with ginger ice cream; and firm English pudding cake seasoned with ginger and cardamom.
So the historic Madalin Hotel reigns again, featuring a lovingly restored dining room that, no doubt, will attract foodies and ballet stars for years to come.
Captions: The ornately carved 19-foot bar is a popular rest stop for the Bard community, locals, and tourists