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Monday, April 18, 2016

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner - C'est Bon a La Madeleine in Little Rock.

Take a gander at many of the grand options available at the new La Madeleine French Country Cafe, which opens Thursday on West Markham in Little Rock.

I have to disclose something first.  I love the French. Okay, maybe not some of the crazy politics or avant garde films, but French cooking, absolutement! I took three years of French in high school and a couple of semesters more in college, hoping I'd one day be able to explore the south of France with native ease.

While my French has served me well talking to Canadian friends and and transcribing and translating video coming across live feeds for television coverage, it hasn't done me much for actually boarding a flight and making it there.  But that hasn't diminished my desire to enjoy French cooking. I've researched
provincial cooking, actually cooked a 14th century French feast and explored American variants.

But it was in a restaurant in The Woodlands, Texas, while writing my stories for Savvy Kids in August 2011, that I came across a great French place... well, American French... that I
just fell in love with.  That place was La Madeleine, and from the moment I took in the heady scent of baking bread, I wished loudly and longingly for an outlet of this bakery and cafe to make its way to Arkansas.

Now, a little history.  The gentleman who came up with La Madeleine was from France's own Loire Valley.  Patrick Esquerré founded the first restaurant in 1983 in Dallas.  His staff took to calling him Papi (Spanish for father, which is a little strange, since he's French) and he did well. After 15 years, though, he resigned and four investment companies bought the place.   The company was sold again in 2001 to Groupe Le Duff, a French restaurant chain company.  Later, Esquerré rejoined the company as its ambassador.

There are 70 locations today across several states, and this week La Madeleine will open its first Arkansas location in Little Rock.  We were invited to an early training session before the grand opening, and finally got to sample some breakfast.

The limited service offered on Monday and Tuesday covered select items available on the menu.  Each of us was given a different abridged menu from which to select.  We ordered at the counter and were given a device that allowed the kitchen to track our location so all our items could be delivered at once.

After we chose a place to sit, I fetched beverages.  The regular sodas are available (Coke products) as well as fresh tea and three coffees - an American blend, a French decaf and a rich, robust and full French blend I found very agreeable.

A photo posted by Grav Weldon (@lordgrav) on

We also took advantage of the bread bar.  This selection of fresh baked bread slices is offered for all diners, and there are several different breads available.  There's also butter and jam and tiny plates to gather these small samplings, a perfect way to whet your appetite.

This may sound crazy, but my daughter went for the muesli.  Hunter is an oatmeal-in-the-morning sort of gal and she almost chose the oatmeal but decided instead to break up her streak and dine on the fresh strawberries and milk that came with this dish.  Simple, but very much loved.

Grav's selection was the Crepes Romanoff, cinnamon-filled delicate crepes with the flavor of French toast, with fresh strawberries and cream on the side. Delicate.

Me? There's nothing delicate about me or my choices, and on this particular morning I went after the custom omelet filled with chicken, cheddar and red bell peppers.  I chose VERY wisely.  I was so incredibly impressed with the chicken within - full of peppery flavor, tasty and decadent.  Too many restaurants make the mistake of not seasoning their chicken when it goes into a breakfast operation like this, but La Madeleine did a grand job of giving the meat the appropriate seasonings.  Paired with nicely sauteed red bell peppers and that cheddar, and I was happy.  Grav voiced some food jealousy.

The omelet came with a lovely and light house croissant, which was huge and buttery and just as delightful as you can imagine.

We also sampled three of the pastries offered at the bakery counter.  Hunter's apple turnover was the largest, and it was both crisp and pliant and she could barely talk around the mouthfuls she could not resist to take.

A photo posted by Grav Weldon (@lordgrav) on

Grav's almond croissant was perfect, marzipan-laden and rich but not overwhelming.  He said it was really all he needed of a morning.

I can understand that, because on any given day, this cuppa and chocolate croissant would do me well.

Except, when I find myself confronted by jam and butter, the thought of pairing them with a dark chocolate pastry is just too much for me to handle.  This, my friends... this is decadence.

I promised I'd go back and share lunch with you. And here I am... sharing my lunch with you, probably not in the way you hoped, but what the heck.

The limited menu included a selection of salads, a selection of pastas and a selection of sandwiches.  Our friends Leif and Merit were already on-site when we arrived and they'd indulged in a couple of sandwiches.  Leif chose a Turkey Bistro sandwich, with turkey, bacon and
provolone, that looked pretty decent.  He paired it with a cup of tomato basil soup.

Merit had gone for the French dip, which was a bit lighter than she expected.  The combination of caramelized onions, provolone, horseradish sauce and thin sliced beef  paired with a French jus.  She chose the popular tomato basil pesto pasta as her side.

Me?  I wanted to try a little bit of everything, so I ordered a Duet Magnifique - a trio including a half sandwich and two sides.  For the sandwich, I chose the roasted vegetable.  Red bell peppers, roasted zucchini and sauteed mushrooms are a fine combination, and here
they're paired with both Swiss and goat cheese for a very satisfying sandwich.  My sides were a lightly tangy Caesar salad and a magnificent mushroom soup.

And I do mean magnificent.  Rather than being a smooth, silky puree, the soups at La Madeleine tend to have a texture to them, which holds onto the flavor of each item.  The mushroom soup in particular has bits of mushroom and herbs in it, and there's the tiniest bit of fresh crunch from those bits.  Okay, that's not the most scientific of observations.  Let's just say it's marvelous.

Hunter looked over the kids menu and ordered the same thing she ordered when we were in The Woodlands.  She asked for a cheese pizza.  But the cheese pizza at La Madeleine isn't just some throw-it-in-the-microwave flat round.  That bakery dough renders a lightly puffy pie, which she consumed with vigor.  Side items are also offered in the form of carrots, fruit salad or strawberries.

We all agreed, though, that the best thing on the table was the Chicken Cordon Bleu Pasta which Grav brought to the table.  This light yet substantial dish included bow-tie pasta in a cream sauce with ham, chicken, peas and tiny bits of red bell pepper.  The Gruyere flavor pairs nicely with the meats in this dish, and the large serving comes along with a salty small baguette.

And then there was dessert, and even though I was clamoring for a slice of Sacher Torte, I changed my mind when I saw the coconut cream cake.  Yes, my friends, I turned down chocolate for coconut, and I don't regret it in the slightest.
The coconut cream cake was ridiculous. That's not to say that the cheesecake Hunter and Grav both selected wasn't delicious - Hunter even let me try a bite of hers, and the smooth and slightly lemony substance was delightful.  But yes, I have no regrets about my decision.

Usually, two meals at a restaurant neatly cover what can be found there.  But I love this restaurant, and I had an invite to the sneak peek grand opening party Wednesday night, so of course I went.  While Hunter was off doing other things, Grav and I joined dozens of others in a night of sampling and indulgence.

That's where we got to hear more from Jacob Chi.  A member of Little Rock's well-known Chi restaurant family, he's been working nearly three years to bring La Madeleine to town.  He related the story of his brother calling him in the wee hours of the morning to let him know the Dallas-based chain was finally offering a franchise opportunity.  "I told him I'm going back to bed now," Chi joked. He also shared his experiences with his family over the decades, trips made to Dallas in the wee hours of the morning so they could visit the original La Madeleine location before conducting business while in town.  Others have related their own La Madeleine stories to him, and he confirmed that this location is just the first... barring anything strange happening, there will be more La Madeleines in central Arkansas.  Fantastic.

The night's activities, fueled by red and white wines and the enthusiasm of a staff that seems delighted to be working together, included two hours of tastings from the menu.  Of course, the trip of fresh bread slices were out alongside small
containers of housemade strawberry and blackberry jams, butter, honey and the like, and even before I started into the soups I got into this simple offering. French bread? Sourdough? Seven-grain? Yes please, quickly and often.

The sampling began with soups, puddles of house favorite tomato basil and also potato. Grav wished for a bit more cream in his tomato basil, but I found
it delightful, with the still soft bits of fruit within the creamy base.  We both agreed heartily on the creamy potato soup, served just this once without its usual cheese or bacon.  I may have to order this here and ask for the substitution of chicken instead of bacon.  Maybe that will happen.

Next up, the tangy Caesar salad paired with Quiche Lorraine.  This bacon-and-ham dotted custard in a flour shell is one of two quiches on the menu (there's also a Quiche Florentine full of spinach and Swiss) and it's a right on delicious hand-held meal any time of the day.

And then, finally, I had my Chicken Friand.  It's like Chicken Wellington, but with more puff to the pastry and covered with a mushroom cream sauce.  And it's still my favorite thing at the whole restaurant.  I suspect I'll
be eating this a LOT in the coming months.  After all, mushrooms.

It was paired with the light tomato basil pesto pasta salad, with its bowties and delicate red sauce.  I'm betting this salad's going to be great take-out picnic fare.

The next set for the tasting was the Chicken La Madeleine paired with Rice Provencal.  Strangely, Grav didn't care for the rice, but I dug it.  The thin slices of balsamic and black pepper marinated chicken with the mushroom sauce goes well for a meal, though I find myself wanting to hollow out a baguette and
pack it with said chicken along with brie and some of those roasted vegetables for a new variety of po'boy.  But that's my New Orleans time talking, and it's no on the menu, so forget I said that and ignore me when I ask the counter folks to combine these items.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.

Then came a dizzying array of desserts, starting with Strawberries Romanoff.  Or, in this case, a single strawberry Romanoff.  And I did something I don't normally do.  I replated a dish.  Yes, seriously.  But that's because the humble strawberry deserved better than to be hidden away in a cup.  I picked up the berry and carefully spooned the brandy-and-cinnamon laced cream onto a small plate before resting the berry on the surface of that sweet, decadent pool.  So what once looked somewhat pedestrian turned into this.

But there was more.  A lemon tart followed, and it was every bit as magificent as you might imagine, a tiny wedge including several lemon druplets atop a miniscule pile of whipped cream all over a lovely yet firm lemon curd belly.  I tend to go for citrus flavors and this rang every bell for me.

I even liked it better than the fruit tart to follow - which, while gorgeous, didn't pack the flavor impact of the tiny lemon tart.  I would have been delighted with a pitcher of that lemon cream but I was satisfied with what I got, and besides, I still needed to try the more buttery, thicker custard of the fruit tart.  This will likely be the dessert Hunter chooses again and again.

We were also blessed with a chance to try the almond mini-tarts,which are like the highest-end gourmet splash of Almond Joy candy bar you could get, a slightly hardened layer of darkish chocolate over a coconut cream base with a half-crown of sliced almonds.  So nice.

Ah.  Too much food.  Such is the travails of one who writes about food and such events as these.  And yet, I kept returning to the pedestrian sort of activity of pouring a little honey on the bread and devouring it.

Fortunately for me and for all the rest of you, La Madeleine makes and sells loaves of those breads, the French and the sourdough and the multi-grain, at its bakery counter.  There's also a pastry case full of everything from fat muffins to twisted dough to slices of cakes and gorgeous little parfaits
and Napoleons - oh, thank heavens there's another place to get Napoleons - and everything that's going to ruin my diet for the next six months.

So, now you're hungry. Sorry about that. Fortunately, as the headline here indicates, you can get breakfast and lunch and dinner at La Madeleine. And I suspect you will after reading this. Mention I sent you. They
may look at you odd or share how this be-hatted woman and her photographer fell upon the place over the course of a few days and ravaged the holdings, but everyone needs to hear a good story now and then, and hearing that sort of thing over a fresh baked anything with a cup of aromatic French coffee is just a beautiful way to spend a few minutes of your time.  See you there.

You'll find Little Rock's first La Madeleine at 12210 West Markham.  It's open 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.  For more information, call (501) 221-7777 or visit the website.  Bon appetit.


  1. Thank you for a nicer review than the Demo-zette's on Thursday. We had lunch here last Sat. and will be going back soon!! Next time: croissants and coffee :-)


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