Published February 02. 2012 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:59AM
If dinner out in a chic beach-house environment sounds appealing, wait until you try the food at Elizabeth's Café in Madison.
For years, Perfect Parties catering company occupied a portion of Elizabeth's current space on Boston Post Road in Madison. After the successful addition of a gourmet-to-go operation, business continued to boom - enough to warrant additional space and staff to man a full-on restaurant serving Italian-inspired (and beyond) cuisine.
Whether it's the food or friendly service that keeps people coming back is too much of a chicken-and-egg conundrum for this space, so we'll stick to the food.
It's tough to know where to start once you get to Elizabeth's. If you go for lunch, you're confronted with tempting classics like the BLT (served with peppered bacon, vine-ripened tomatoes, and lemon aioli) or the soppressata, fresh mozzarella, basil pesto sandwich. If it's dinner time, good luck deciding between crowd-pleasers like Beef Bourguignonne, osso bucco or the beet and crispy goat cheese salad. But no worries; as you mull the menus (there's an extensive wine and cocktail list), you'll be treated to excellent (and never intrusive) service while relaxing in comfy wicker chairs, in a cozy café setting with linens on the tables.
We opted for a dinnertime visit and started off the evening with cocktails and appetizers. While the martini list's pomegranate martini and basil gimlet were very tempting indeed, I opted for the St. Germain Cocktail, a mix of St. Germain Elderflower Liquer, Prosecco, club soda and a twist of lemon. This is a lovely, refreshing concoction that tastes like summer; I hadn't been a fan of things elderberry-flavored, but the recipe was so intriguing and I'm such a fan of Prosecco that I had to give this a shot. The dry bite of Prosecco counters the heady elderberry nicely in a perfect payoff.
As for apps, we selected one of the specials, Baked Ricotta Gnocchi ($12), with gnocchi served in a bubbling dish of sweet Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Ample sausage and the gnocchi make this a filling starter that's too enjoyable to abandon for later after a polite sample. Gnocchi is one of life's great comfort foods, and while this dish is satisfying enough, it might've benefitted from tangier cheese, spicier sausage, or maybe more garlic. (Caveat: my palate wants spicier fare usually; if yours errs on the side of mild, you'll love this dish.)
In any case, our second app, Elizabeth's crispy won-ton appetizer ($2.50 for a small), won us over in a big way. Fresh fried won ton noodles arrive with a roasted red pepper dip - a mix of red pepper, sundried tomato, walnut, honey, parmesan cheese and more - and the pairing is a genius match made in culinary heaven. The wontons' flavor holds up against the tangy, delightful dip and makes for a complex but still light (tasting) bite. (The dip is available for sale, and it remains a popular seller, according to our waitress.)
My Chicken Saltimbocca ($24) and my husband's Beef Bourginnone arrived at the perfect time - we'd had time to savor and digest the apps and finish our cocktails without interruption. It's odd, but well-timed presentation adds a nice touch to an evening out. A meal becomes a low-key but elegant event.
The chicken, served with house-made Pappardelle, fresh peas, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto and Madeira sauce, is a winner. The pasta is fresh and flavorful; the veggies' flavors are allowed to shine through; and the savory-buttery Madiera sauce ties it all together into a delicious, soul-satisfying dish. The prosciutto was pretty much outshined by all the other ingredients - no easy feat for this yummy, salty meat.
The true Best in Show of the evening, though, was the Beef Bourginnone ($24), one of the evening's specials. Our waitress recommended it, and she was right about how well it's done at Elizabeth's. Tender beef tips meet with carrots, onions and mushrooms, served with Garlic Yukon Gold Mashed potatoes. The beef is beautifully flavored and super tender, the veggies were the perfect consistency and nicely infused with the beef's flavors, and it all went beautifully with the glass of Rioja (Cataregia, Rioja Gran Reserva) my husband picked to drink with it. It was truly excellent; here's hoping it remains a special for some time!
Come dessert time (again, we had ample time to finish eating and settle in), we opted for the house-made butterscotch flan, which arrived with a crisp sweet wafer and plenty of drizzled dipping sauce. The modestly sweet flan was fine and a wise choice after our rich meals, but it wasn't quite enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. Next time, I intend on sampling the warm chocolate cake with dulce de leche filling.
We left Elizabeth's Café dazzled by what a relaxing, enjoyable evening we'd shared. Great service, delicious food and lovely surroundings add up to a great option for a romantic date night or intimate party. Even better, they cater, so you can take a little bit of Elizabeth's home, and try and recreate the magic there.