Northern Exposure

When I heard chef Brian Ford was opening his own place, I got excited. The last place on his resumé was Quiessence, the wonderful fine dining spot at the Farm at South Mountain, so I expected something good from Madelyn's Restaurant & Wine Bar.

But when I heard the new eatery would be in Anthem, of all places, I thought, "Why?" I got the same response when friends asked me where I was heading for dinner recently.

Have you been to Anthem lately? It's no wonder Ford picked the burgeoning area, where the hills are alive with mile after mile of new homes — but not much else. I used to think Anthem was impossibly far away, but after multiple visits, I realized that from central Phoenix, it's no more a drive than North Scottsdale or Chandler. The only difference is, Anthem doesn't amount to much on anybody's foodie radar.

Jackie Mercandetti
So Gourmet: Madelynís pan-seared scallops and halibut.

Not yet, anyway.

There's clearly a need for more restaurants to keep up with the growing population there. One of my dining companions, a former club kid who's now a married mother of two — and who lives blocks away from Madelyn's — said there aren't many places to choose from.

"Well, there's a Subway, and an NYPD Pizza . . . and there's a decent sushi place not too far away," she said. Needless to say, she doesn't go out to eat very often.

Madelyn's is reason enough to dine out more. Located on a corner adjacent to a huge Fry's — where there's music piped into the parking lot, a sure sign of brand-spanking-new development — Madelyn's occupies a freestanding building with a small side patio. There's a handsome bar just inside the front door, and the dining room, painted in cozy shades of wheat and chocolate, is filled with tables draped in fresh white tablecloths.

The vibe is upscale but attitude-free. And from the looks of all the young families eating there on my visits, it's also managed a rare feat: a comfortable, kid-friendly bistro. Madelyn's is more neighborhood gem than Valley-wide dining destination, but I'd happily go back.

Dinner started off with fresh bread and soft chive butter, which we inhaled as we looked over the wine list. You can definitely drop some coin on a bottle here, but overall, the selection of boutique and organic wines was reasonably priced, with several offered by the glass. Why go with a glass, though, when you can share a bottle for twenty bucks? There were four bottles each of red and white at that price, which left a good impression. Nothing says "welcome" like affordable drinks.

Fresh, locally grown mixed greens made for delicious salads. One was tossed with hazelnut vinaigrette and Chioggia beets, topped with a hunk of baked Black Mesa Ranch goat cheese, while the other was studded with walnuts, crumbles of creamy Point Reyes blue cheese, and pieces of crisp green apple in a tart sherry vinaigrette. Another appetizer, crisp fried squash blossoms with goat cheese and beets, had the appeal of a salad, thanks to a heap of microarugula in a light vinaigrette.

Other starters are sharable and could easily add up to a nice tapas-style dinner if you order several. Delicate, thinly sliced lavender and maple-cured salmon was served as bruschetta, draped over three large toasts and topped with microgreens. The Cajun fondue — chunks of shrimp, andouille sausage, and crabmeat in a thick, cheddary sauce — came with a stack of thick flatbread slices for dunking. And the potent, garlicky shrimp scampi was full of tender, perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp and sweet roasted cherry tomatoes, with some chewy grilled focaccia to soak up the melted herb butter.

Somehow, though, the shrimp in the cioppino were a little overcooked, and the dish contained only one lonely sea scallop in the tomato-fennel broth. But plenty of just-right halibut helped make up for it. I also noted that the Jamison Farm lamb "sirloin steak" definitely wasn't medium rare, as I'd ordered it. Still, it was nicely seasoned, served with ratatouille and tangy mint-lemon basil pesto.

The pan-roasted free-range chicken arrived at the table looking like something you'd see on the cover of Gourmet, with gorgeous golden brown skin and a flawless baby carrot nestled on top. Underneath, there were thick garlic mashed potatoes dotted with tiny bacon cubes, sweet English peas, and a few more carrots. The meat was infused with a rich, roasted flavor and full of juices — good thing the portion was big enough for everyone at the table to try it.

Another outstanding dish that everyone wanted to taste was pillowy potato gnocchi in beef shortrib ragout, topped with parmesan-reggiano. Grilled Cedar River hanger steak, slathered in an unusually thick, creamy chimichurri sauce, came with a bowl of decent pommes frites, while the peppered beef tenderloin was served with smooth blue cheese polenta.

Desserts were sophisticated takes on American classics, doled out in servings big enough for two. Strawberry shortcake, with mounds of fresh whipped cream and berries, was adorned with the tiniest squiggle of emerald green basil purée, an unexpected touch that subtly enhanced the bright fruit flavor. A fat piece of blueberry bread pudding, topped with warm caramel sauce and soft curls of white chocolate, was also decent, until we hit the chilled middle a few bites into it.

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