La Madeleine chain has the flavor of France


Edith Piaf was singing in the background, the fire was crackling, and through the open hearth, I spied a little girl with a long braid down her back.

She looked as if she had stepped out of the pages of the children's classic "Madeline." But she was an American schoolgirl dining with her family at La Madeleine.

Even though we were in the heart of mega-mall Columbia, it felt like the French countryside, with the exposed wooden beams, French crockery and throw pillows done up in Provencal fabrics.

This French bakery and cafe, which opened in October, is the newest in the region for the Dallas-based chain. Crusty breads, buttery pastries, grilled sandwiches, salads and French specialties are on the menu. Prices are low, and the atmosphere is inviting, especially near the central fireplace, which is open to both sides of the dining room.

Here's the catch. You have to pick up a plastic tray and walk yourself through a cafeteria line to order here.

As we made our way past the bakery, toward the savory puff pastries on display, we stopped at the salad section to order a sampler of three different salads. We got a cup of highly seasoned paella rice salad, with capers, roasted peppers, peas and a few small shrimp; a cup of strawberries Romanoff, with whole ripe berries topped with a sweetened sour cream sauce; and a small portion of a lemony Caesar that was tossed in a stainless steel bowl in front of us.

We carried the salads back to our table, along with tomato basil soup, the house specialty. It was creamy without being too rich, with bits of tomato and minced basil. The soup and salads kept us happily occupied as we waited for our entrees. And we did have to wait.

Finally, a few servers dressed in chef whites marched out with our dinners, each in a brown crockery dish. The lamb Navarin was wonderful. It's an upscale lamb stew with chunks of tender meat, roasted new potatoes, carrots and sprigs of thyme and rosemary, cooked long enough for the vegetables to get a dark, caramelized edge.

The salmon beurre blanc was covered in a lovely sauce, creamy smooth with shallots and minced cilantro. But the nice-sized fillet was just slightly overcooked and had somewhat of a fishy taste. For spring, La Madeleine is changing this entree, wrapping it in a fish-shaped pastry and baking it en croute.

Dinners come with two side dishes, and we tried the crispy potato galette and haricots vert, two decidedly French choices. Both were delicious. The tiny string beans were sauteed with butter, chopped tomato and lots of garlic and black pepper. The fried potato cake, made with tiny julienne strips, was irresistible with its golden brown crust. Simple saffron rice with peas and roasted peppers seemed understated by comparison.

The same could not be said about the Florentine shells. They were almost too rich, stuffed with a spinach-cheese filling with roasted garlic and topped with a thick mushroom Riesling sauce. The sauce gave them more of a French flavor, with a pronounced flavor of wine and a note of sweetness.

For dessert, it's best to walk back over to the pastry cases to pick out something that appeals. The moist chocolate rum cake was a good choice, and so was the flan Normand, with apples and delicate custard baked in a tart shell. Creme brulee was served in a tart shell, too. Devotees may prefer it the traditional way, where the only crust is the brittle one on top made of burnt sugar.

The one sweet we didn't spot in the display case was the famous shell-shaped sponge cake, la Madeleine.

La Madeleine

6211 Columbia Crossing, Columbia


Hours: Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $2.69-$5.99; entrees, $4.59-$10.49

Food: **1/2

Service: (counter service) **1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

Pub Date: 04/01/99

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