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[Radar]: Madison

Madison is a contemporary American restaurant, by young chef-owner Austin Hu. Hu cut his teeth at NYC's Gramercy Tavern, and has brought his locavore mindset, and classical training to bear, with this casual fine dining restaurant in the one-time Vargas Grill and Bam-Bou space.
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Area: Madison is in the same building as Azul, on the third floor. Going two-back, it's been Vargas Grill and Bam-Bou. Now it's owned by Austin Hu, a young chef from New York City, and has nothing to do with Eduardo Vargas. Not Me, an allyoucaneat Japanese, and the ever-classy Tequila Sunrise are directly across the street. All manner of things are in the neighborhood: Sasha's, the original Simply Thai, the Taojiang Lu stretch of restaurants, the US Embassy, some very friendly ladies on the corner... Heart of the French Concession, etc., etc.

What it is: A casual fine-dining American restaurant, with a locavore bent. Hu's background includes Gramercy Tavern (the launching pad for Tom Colicchio, whom you might know from Top Chef), and his time there straddles both Colicchio tenure, and Mike Anthony's, the subsequent, product-reverent chef. That's inspired Hu to look outside the usual playbook of ingredients for Western restaurants in Shanghai (cod, sea bass, salmon; wash, rinse, repeat) and he's come up with a menu that sticks a few select Chinese (or locally made) ingredients into a contemporary American menu. So, his pesto rice balls come with mozzarella from the Korean Mozza lady, his radishes are glazed with a black vinegar gastrique, and he's got sturgeon with ginger and dragon beans, tilefish with Chinese celery and bamboo shoots, and sea-bream, a Japanese favorite, on the menu. His short beer list has an Anhui lager, he serves Laoshan water from Shandong, and his beef is Snow Dragon, from Dalian, "the Chinese wagyu." Last night, he gave me a scoop of ice cream flavored with yangmei, the nubbly berry-like fruit that's coming into season.

It's not necessary to know all of this, of course, to like his gnochhi with asiago, pancetta, sweet peas, and mint, or pan-roasted chicken with asparagus, brown butter, and gremolata.

But, together with the chefs of newcomer Avalon and the pending Fulton Place, Hu and Madison represent a younger influx of NYC-trained chefs trying to import their locavore mentalities to Shanghai. They're not the only ones, and they arrived to this conclusion from disparate Shanghai backgrounds, and their restaurants all have distinct characters, but, I'll lump them all together to make my point. There's new blood in Shanghai's kitchens, and it's pushing things forward.

What else is on the menu?

Snacky starters -- cod cakes with saffron aioli, crispy oysters with chili remoulade, chicken liver and foie gras mousse -- and more substantial starters: seared kanpachi with creme fraiche and caviar; a green salad with radish, citrus, and pine nut brittle; ginger-carrot soup with shrimp and coconut cream. And then three meats -- aforementioned chicken and Wagyu dishes, and a lamb loin with fava beans and pearl onions -- and the sturgeon, tilefish, and sea-bream. Two pastas and three vegetable dishes round it out.

Atmosphere: It's classy, sophisticated, midtown. Madison is a palette of wood, white, black, and mirrors. The lounging beds of Bam-bou and Vargas Grill have been turned into white upholstered horseshoe banquettes, the long communal table has been ripped out (an inverted runway mirror on the ceiling carries its echoes), and the glass divider between kitchen and dining room has been restored to its see-through, open-kitchen state. The high dining room chairs are panda-colored. Soundtrack is jazz standards.

Damage: Three hundred per person, no wine. Four hundred and more, per person, with wine. The list is short but sweet, though it really only starts after the four hundred mark. Cocktails are premium and hover around 80rmb.

Who's going: An older crowd, curious foodies, and the occasional couple venturing blindly up to see what's become of the old space. The downstairs entrance to the lobby is unfinished and there's no signage save a pink piece of paper in the window. They've been quietly gearing up these past couple of weeks.

TELL EVERYONE