French connection: A bistro for the purist

by Brian Clarey

I’ve decided that the most overused word in the Triad culinary scene is “bistro.” Oh sure, there are plenty of joints around here calling themselves bistros, but it’s important to remember what, exactly, a bistro is: a small, inexpensive but tasteful eatery, often with caf’tyle outdoor seating and a rustic sort of charm — think boutique, but without the price tag. But that traditional definition honed over generations in Parisian neighborhoods and exported to the world at large has not stopped many Triad eateries from describing themselves as bistros, even ones with large dining rooms, high-priced menu items and terrible coffee. But last week I ventured into the Madison Park Caf’ Marketplace and my faith in the Triad bistro scene has been restored. “We are essentially in France,” our server told us upon entering, “in a sidewalk caf’rdquo; He wasn’t kidding.Madison Park had been using Julia Child’s recipes all week in honor of the film Julie & Julia, and the air was redolent of lobster stock, which he said had been simmered down that day to make a tomato-based chowder with whole clams and diced vegetables. I immediately ordered some while my date chose the French onion soup to begin her repast. There are plenty of great things on Madison Park’s menu to recommend, but let’s talk about these soups first, shall we? First the chowder, which tasted exactly as described by our server — honestly, how often does that happen? — a savory tomato broth infused with the richness of my favorite crustacean, brimming with whole clams. But I feel I should expound on the French onion soup as well. All too often this dish suffers from overly salted broth and way, way too much cheese melted atop (though, to be fair, that is exactly how many people like it). But this is Julia Child’s onion soup with a broth so delicious it doesn’t even need crouton and cheese… and yet there it is, soaking up that delectable broth with a perfectly reasonable amount of emmenthaler on top. And these are just the soups, people! As for the menu itself, it presents problems on several fronts, most of them dealing with the fact that I wanted to order most of the items on it while I was there. Escargot, sweetbreads and foie gras are always available at Madison Park, a triumvirate of favorites that generally would stop me in my tracks during a routine menu perusal. But there is also fresh quiche made in-house every day, a bevy of fine salads including a traditional nicoise and a slate of hot items even during lunch that makes choosing difficult. And don’t get me started on the sandwiches, though I will say I shall return for the French dip. On this day, my date opted for the flounder stuffed with crabmeat — jumbo lump, natch — and topped with a cream sauce that bears the flavors of lobster consomm’nd… is that dry white wine in there? Yes, it is. After much deliberation I went for the stuffed cabbage on recommendation from our server. He hadn’t steered me wrong yet, plus the French understand cabbage better than anyone else, except maybe the Chinese. This cabbage comes wrapped around a hunk of seasoned ground beef laced with brown rice and with a hearty tomato stock thickened like gravy. Both were fabulous. It is worth mentioning, as well, that the day’s side dish, a ragout of zucchini, red peppers and eggplant cooked to within inches of their lives, was the best hot side I’ve tasted in a year. And I’ve always held that side dishes are a good way to gauge a restaurant’s commitment to good food — if they care enough to make great quality sides, then the rest of it is probably fabulous too. In keeping with true bistro style, the dishes were not so heavy as to preclude dessert, all of which are homemade. We simply asked for something awesome and were rewarded with a chocolate-raspberry gateau with layers of raspberry coulis and ganache. We weren’t sure if this was a Julia Child creation, but after a few bites we did not care — we were too busy planning our next meal here.

The Madison Park Caf’ Marketplace; 1310 Westover Terrace, Greensboro; 336.275.3755;

The stuffed cabbageat Madison Park Caf’ Marketplace — the French understand cabbagebetter than anybody. (photo by Brian Clarey)

by Brian Clarey/