We found the food at La Madeleine extraordinarily ordinary. On a 1-10 scale we didn't have to suffer through any 1s or 2s, but we also found no 9s or 10s. But that's really not surprising at a chain restaurant. Most Americans settle for mediocre food daily, and few are willing to take culinary risks. Thus the dominance of mediocre chains atop local restaurant revenue rankings.
But compromises in quality and creativity are usually offset by reasonable prices. We loaded up our tray at La Madeleine and spent $48 (the lack of alcoholic beverages kept the tab down; more on that in the Quick Bite section). There was no tip option on our credit card receipt.
La Madeleine tries hard to look French with atmosphere and decor that evokes a French country kitchen with bread boards and rolling pins on display. And painful phrases like "Le Children's Menu." Photos of French scenes hang on the walls. The south-facing patio is covered with adjustable screens and shades to accommodate changing weather. But achieving a French countryside feel is damn near impossible with cars whizzing along Markham a couple dozen yards away.
This is a "fast casual" restaurant, with orders taken and paid for at the counter. Drinks, silverware, napkins and complimentary bread are available at a central kiosk. Guests then seat themselves, taking a GPS-enabled numbered disc to the table. Servers fairly promptly deliver the order.
The free bread won't wow you. We found it much like regular sandwich bread and nothing you'd confuse with a Boulevard Bread creation. But, hey, it's free. We did enjoy the three items we chose as starters: The mushroom soup was rich but not over the top and was chock-full of diced 'shrooms. The "country potato" soup is more what we'd call "baked potato soup" as it includes bacon and cheddar. It was thick but pretty unexceptional overall. On the 1-10 scale we'd give the mushroom soup a 7 and the potato a 5. (All soups are $4.29 a cup, $5.29 a bowl and $6.29 for "large.")
The potato galette is a large hash brown potato cake studded with green onions and a little Parmesan. It's crisped up nicely and is a bargain at $2.99. Score: 7.
Another bargain and our favorite dish of the meal was the Quiche Lorraine (a huge slab for $5.99). The custard/egg combination makes it light and creamy – but still substantial. There's just enough ham, bacon and cheese to flavor it but still allow the base ingredients to shine through. The crust is buttery and light. Score: 8.
There is no sandwich more quintessentially French than the Croque Monsieur ($8.59), a grilled ham and cheese gooed up with a bit of cream sauce. This sandwich suffered in three ways: 1) in the home state of Petit Jean ham, likely the best generally available ham in the world, it's a shame an inferior "deli ham" product is used; 2) the sandwich didn't hold together; the top bread piece was just perched on top; 3) the choice of thick, dense Wheatberry bread deviates from the French original and is too substantial for this application. Score: 4
Beef Bourguignon ($12.99) is also classic French. But not exactly like this. The biggest drawback here is that the beef is bland. The menu touts a red wine demi-glace, but it shone through more in the tender mushrooms and didn't penetrate the hunks of none-too-tender beef. Carrots, peas and pearl onions are included, and the whole mess sits on a thick bed of mashed potatoes, also not consistent with how the dish is served in its mother country: Score: 4.
We don't know the connection between France and coconut cake, but La Madeleine serves up a very creamy, decadent version that we scarfed. The sacher chocolate torte includes a hint of raspberry; it's moist and good. Both are $4.29.
La Madeleine is open 108.5 hours a week and therefore has a large menu that we only barely dented despite our best efforts. We've heard good things about breakfast, which is served all day, particularly the crepes and omelets, and one friend goes there just to buy baked goods to take home.
We don't doubt La Madeleine will be popular and profitable — like many well-known chain restaurants with Little Rock outlets.
La Madeleine Country French Café
12210 W. Markham St.
Restaurants open all the time with their liquor license already procured. A month after its opening, La Madeleine didn't have its, which certainly makes no sense considering it's a national chain and is locally owned by the Chi family, who know a thing or two about how to open a restaurant.
6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
Credit cards accepted, no alcohol for now.