Steaking a Claim in Long Beach

I've been to the Madison Restaurant & Bar, a posh new steakhouse, three times, and each time I've walked through the door, I've had to catch my breath because the size and grandeur of the room are overwhelming. Built in the days before ATMs, when banks functioned as secular cathedrals and women donned hat and gloves to do their banking, the former Security Bank is one of Long Beach's stateliest historic buildings.

The Madison happens to be the latest project of Dell' Opera Restaurant Group founders Terry Antonelli and Enzo DeMuro, the restaurateurs who took a chance on downtown Long Beach back in 1990 when they opened L'Opera Ristorante on then-shabby Pine Avenue. The success of that upscale Italian restaurant, along with the partners' Latin-inflected Alegria down the street, inspired other businesses to follow. Now lined with lively bars and cafes, shops and galleries, Pine Avenue has blossomed into the city's restaurant row. The openings of the Convention and Entertainment Center and the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific have only confirmed the renaissance.

It's easy to see why Antonelli and DeMuro had their eye on the building across from L'Opera for nearly a decade. They've done a meticulous job restoring its wealth of architectural detail. The Madison is meant to evoke a supper club of the 1920s, and with a soaring ceiling, intricately painted massive beams and dazzling crystal chandeliers, it has supper club ambience in spades. Elegant floor-to-ceiling drapes, opulent upholstered booths, a huge mahogany bar and orchid- and palm-filled urns help tame the cavernous space. In the middle of the room, a pianist plays standards on a grand piano, and on weekend nights, there's a small combo if diners want to kick up their heels. (I can't help but wish, however, that the music were more in keeping with the '20s.)

The menu by L'Opera's longtime chef, Stefano Colaiacomo, is mostly familiar chophouse fare. Who wouldn't enjoy a classic shrimp cocktail and a juicy steak in a setting like this? Or some scallops casino and a slab of prime rib? If the kitchen could execute these dishes consistently and excellently, the Madison would be a smash hit. But that's not happening now. As it is, the restaurant is getting by on its good looks and not delivering what it could with the food. Not everyone will notice--or care--but if you're the type who does, here's what to order for the best meal.

Start with the salad of beefsteak tomatoes and sweet onions, thick slices of each drenched in balsamic vinaigrette. Or the big bowl of clams steamed in white wine with plenty of juice to sop up with bread. Seared ahi tuna coated in Cajun spices makes another nice appetizer, as does the Caesar salad with hearts of romaine and a spunky dressing. If the squid were less rubbery, "fire hot" calamari would be another good choice.

As for main courses, steak or prime rib is definitely the way to go. Steaks are mostly prime and juicy, some more flavorful than others. The Delmonico (like a bone-in New York steak) comes with bearnaise sauce. The Porterhouse for two, carved at the table, is too mushy for my taste (and unless you're quick, the waiter will disappear with the bone). The pan-fried rib eye has the most beef flavor of any of the cuts I've tried. The prime rib is excellent.

But the cooking is not as precise as it is at other high-end steakhouses. Here, it's best to order your meat rarer than you really want because the kitchen tends to err in the other direction. The same goes for seafood. A salmon filet one night is woefully overcooked to the point of being dry.

Two entrees to avoid are the roast duck served in a cloying raspberry-orange sauce and garnished with soft raspberries, and the 3-pound pork shank with an impenetrable layer of skin and fat and a bourbon sauce. As for appetizers, order something other than the overly rich smoked corn chowder garnished with (ugh) smoked cheddar cheese, the greasy shrimp popcorn and the deconstructed shrimp cocktail made with insipid shrimp. Desserts are merely adequate.

In the new American steakhouse tradition, the Madison features an extensive but not particularly thrilling wine list--more than 200 selections--that is heavy on Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Despite having to wear silly short shorts with bustiers and tuxedo jackets, the waitresses are all endearingly enthusiastic about working at the restaurant. It is, after all, the most glamorous venue Long Beach has seen in a long while. And if the kitchen could set its ambitions to match the level of the decor, the Madison could take its place as the city's most elegant and exciting dining establishment. As it is now, the room far outshines the food.


The Madison Restaurant & Bar

CUISINE: American steakhouse. AMBIENCE: Elegant retro supper club in former bank with massive mahogany bar, opulent booths and pianist most nights. BEST DISHES: Steamed clams, ahi tuna, beefsteak tomato salad, prime rib, Delmonico steak, pan-fried rib eye, Porterhouse for two. WINE PICKS: 1997 Cline Cellars Zinfandel, California; 1996 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon "Calistoga Cuvee," Napa Valley. FACTS: 102 Pine Ave., Long Beach; (562) 628-8866. Lunch weekdays; dinner daily. Dinner appetizers, $10 to $16; main courses, $18 to $31. Corkage $12. Valet parking and parking in adjoining lot.

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