Of course, the restaurant is still quite young, and it's not as though Feuerborn has run out of ammo. In fact, many of his creations, such as a fat crab-and-langostino cake, crammed with seafood and humming with flavor, hit the mark dead-on. But some items -- and here a bland Peking Duck Spring Roll comes to mind, sided with a meaningless pouf of undressed greens and steamrollered by an in-your-face orange-infused hoisin sauce -- seemed either poorly thought out or halfheartedly executed.
We know Feuerborn's kitchen is capable of better. As executive chef at the now-defunct Sapphire Grille in Solon, the Giovanni's alumnus wowed us with his sensitively composed and beautifully unified dishes, piqued with light but intensely flavored broths, vinaigrettes, and infused oils. In fact, the memories of several delicious Sapphire Grille goodies still rattle around in our head (a rich, coarsely textured pâté, say, served over fresh lettuce with strawberries, sweet onion confit, and herb vinaigrette; or the perfect diver's scallops, in a surprisingly delicate cognac-and-red-pepper cream sauce, with a tower of mushroom risotto) and provide solace on days when the food we face seems plodding and pedestrian. But in contrast, the food at this new spot too often seemed hit-or-miss, as if no one were paying attention.
Like the former Sapphire Grille, Mad 4 You is the project of businesswoman Mary Ann Davis (M.A.D. -- get it?). Of course, trying to create an upscale dining experience inside a shopping mall -- even if it is a tony shopping mall -- presents its own unique challenges. For one, while a pleasant sit-down restaurant certainly makes a welcome alternative to the food court for lunchtime shoppers, it may be much harder to draw couples and groups back to the mall when they crave an exciting, upscale dinner. Just ask the folks at Napa Valley Grille, the former occupants of Mad 4 You's second-floor space, who abruptly shuttered their operation one year ago. Between the high rent, a cooling economy, and the hard-to-find location, the restaurant never achieved the level of success it had anticipated.
Fortunately, Davis has taken steps to raise the new restaurant's visibility and make it a welcoming spot. Chief among them has been a thorough remodeling and redecorating, which has imbued the restaurant with the sense of a rustic outdoor piazza, complete with rough natural surfaces, sunny colors, and whimsical patches of faux-painted sky. Despite its significant square footage, the rambling space, with direct access to both the mall and the parking lot, is surprisingly cozy, thanks to its artful division into three intimate dining areas, as well as a small carryout "market" and a sleek lounge with a handsome granite-topped bar. Throughout, the flattering lighting is almost theatrical, with double rows of recessed fixtures spotlighting the tabletops and washing the walls, and halogen pendant lamps, in colorful shades, sparkling like bright glass beads. Vivid hues -- cobalt blue, sunflower gold, and spicy crimson -- enliven sections of wall, as well as the upholstery, slipcovers, and table settings, where white cloth-and-paper toppers form a snowy backdrop for red and blue napkins, gem-toned salt shakers and pepper mills, hefty amber water goblets, and streamlined flatware. Even the background music, ranging from spirited Spanish guitar to French bistro-style accordion and cool, contemporary jazz, adds to the feel of an elegant, cheerful picnic.
At midday, when the salads, sandwiches, and modestly sized entrées are priced at around $6 to $16, we found the restaurant bustling with the notoriously well-coifed "ladies who lunch," happily munching on items as diverse as smoked lox salad and penne carbonara. French onion soup, a daily offering, was the real deal, with a dark, slightly sweet broth, plenty of translucent onion, and a cap of melted Gruyère (although, given the decor's modern sensibilities, we were surprised to find it served in an old-fashioned brown crock). A petite filet mignon, ringed with a rich port demi-glace, was lush and tender, even if the five baby carrots that accompanied it were nearly raw. But while a fragrant grilled-chicken pizza -- surprisingly small for its $8 price tag -- had a lovely golden crust, the kitchen had been stingy with the toppings (goat cheese, grilled onion, Asiago, and, of course, grilled chicken), and the final product was dull and unremarkable.
At dinner, the crowd was somewhat smaller, and prices rose substantially, with our $4 soup doubling to $8, the little pizza going for $16, and entrées now priced at $14 to $25. Dinner salads (a toned-down Caesar, bereft of the happy zest of lemon or anchovy; and a miserable Mad 4 You salad, with limp greens, a few slices of nearly tasteless apple -- or was it pear? -- and a tart, lugubrious dressing) were an additional $5 and, at that rate, hardly seemed worth the money.
On the other hand, that aforementioned variation on the perennial crab cake -- here composed of generous chunks of sweet crab and langostino, and deftly seasoned with hints of basil, curry, and paprika -- was worth every penny: Crisp on the outside, buttery within, it hit all the right flavor notes, with gusto and verve to spare.
Similarly, an entrée of veal scaloppini, redolent of woodsy mushrooms and a savory-sweet Marsala sauce, was deep, dark, and embracing -- and, with a dainty potato-and-chive cake that slowly melted into the sauce, resulted in a meal as comforting and homey as it was sophisticated. Coming from a completely different direction, but every bit as successful, was a glistening filet of pan-seared halibut, served with soba noodles on a platter tiled with tender-crisp snow peas. Beautifully spare, but with a haunting earthiness, the dish was delicious; we just wish the alleged ponzu vinaigrette that was drizzled on top had tasted more like lemon and less like bottled mayonnaise.
The restaurant has a small, reasonably priced wine list, with several interesting international selections as well as an emphasis on West Coast boutique wineries. Watch out for the coffee, though: During the course of three visits, one cup was too cold, one cup was too old, and only one cup was just right.
For now, the bistro is sans pastry chef, and the predictable dessert list includes a homemade cappuccino crème brûlée as well as commercially purchased cheesecake and tiramisu; fanciful drizzles of fruit coulis and plump berries decorated the dessert plates, and added some visual pizzazz to the otherwise average offerings. There is also a selection of so-so ice creams, with coarse textures and understated flavors. (Two out of our three servers, incidentally, vowed the ice cream was made in-house, while one confided it came from a restaurant supplier. Chef Feuerborn confirms the latter.)
Lunchtime service was rocky, with a 40-minute lapse between our order and the arrival of our entrées, and a young server who hadn't yet mastered the niceties of her job. However, the evening staff proved gracious, welcoming, and detail-oriented, even on the night when we dropped in just before closing time. That's an excellent sign and, taken with the more memorable dishes and the striking decor, fuels our optimism. No, the place is not yet perfect. But given Davis's devotion and Feuerborn's talent, we're willing to bet that, with just a bit more time and effort, Mad 4 You will develop into one tasty number.