Birmingham’s posh Madam restaurant makes the Daxton a destination hotel

Madam, pronounced Ma-DAHM, is proudly pricey

Tagliolini with Calabrian sausage, rapini, pecorino, Fisheye Farms spinach, and pickled pepper.
Tagliolini with Calabrian sausage, rapini, pecorino, Fisheye Farms spinach, and pickled pepper. Tom Perkins


298 S. Old Woodward, Birmingham
Entrées $30-$85
Handicap accessible

Hotel restaurants used to have a bad rep — diners were a captive audience, so management didn't feel a need to make the food shine. Madam, on a busy downtown corner in the Daxton Hotel, appears to be reversing that disrepute. On my two visits I saw scads of Birminghamites sitting on their coats — not hotel guests but people who'd come from outside to drink and eat, even to see and be seen through the big sidewalk windows.

Madam, pronounced Ma-DAHM, is proudly pricey, with entrées $30-$85, pasta $28-$29, vegetable sides $9-$11, desserts $12-$25 and appetizers $16-$22. Even bread is $10. (Remember when it came with your meal, before the carb scares?) I could have used some to mop up Madam's excellent sauces. Bottles of wine run $38-$5,045.

Dishes are uniformly pleasing, from good to fantastic. Service is more than attentive, with tables wiped between courses (thus calling attention to the diner's sloppiness). A server refolds a napkin left on the banquette while its owner is in the restroom. Giant pillows boost you up to the table. The silverware is gold in color. Mild techno plays.

Chef Rece Hogerheide, formerly at Gather in Eastern Market, excels at contrasting textures and at combining a wealth of flavors in a way that delights rather than confuses.

Let's start with appetizers, the term Madam's menu uses rather than something cuter. I couldn't have been happier with either of the two I tried, both a shareable size. Tuna tartare is silky and matched with crunchy, spaghetti-like strands of papaya, dressed with a sweet-tart passion fruit vinaigrette. Then dots of avocado are added for more smooth richness. You might argue that that final touch was not needed — raw tuna is already smooth and rich — but Hogerheide knew just when more was more.

Mushroom dumplings, one of the most-ordered items, have a Chinese feel, served with pea leaves and dressed with chili oil, not overwhelmingly. Again, a bit of crunch, a bit of vegetable snap, a bit of heat, and tenderness and umami from the mushrooms — it all works together as it's supposed to.

Hogerheide manages to pull off the rare feat of serving non-rubbery octopus, by cooking it sous vide first. A long tender tentacle snakes around the plate; the dish is padded with lots of crisp potatoes and a lemony crème fraîche.

And I repeat myself: you'll find more good texture contrasts in a salty plate of housemade tagliolini with sausage, crisp rapini, and spinach. I love the mouth-feel of a good pasta, and it's enhanced when there's a little bite as well.

Braised scallops are cooked just right — they can lose their singular sea allure when breaded and fried. Mine were served with slightly sweet celery root and parsnip, equal stars of the dish, and a smear of sweet potato. Hanger steak was less successful to our taste, the flavor off. It's served with a confit of piquillo, a sweet pepper. Hogerheide says both "vegetable-forward" dishes and red meat are trending, at Madam and industry-wide.

Other protein entrées are beef, chicken, trout, and lamb saddle, the latter being the $85 outlier. The three pastas are meal-size, too, and there are four pizzas for those on a budget. (Though if that's the case, then why are you at Madam?) Other budget options are the very large vegetable sides, fine for a vegetarian's entrée: cucumber, kale, broccolini, cauliflower, carrots. We scarfed our carrots, served with pepitas and a kicky harissa, and learned they are equally popular with regular diners.

All these came from a winter menu that was new in early February — lots of root vegetables. Menus change seasonally.

A chocolate sundae is appropriate any time of year, especially this sundae. Chocolate-plus-orange is a time-tested combo, but this one was even better with tangerines, a little more tart. It included some house-made gummies with a pleasing texture, not chewy. How do you make a gummy? At Madam, with French fruit purées set with pectin. Almost the entire menu is made in-house, and Hogerheide likes to make his workers' jobs stimulating: "We try to find absorbing food items to showcase the talents of our team," he says. Cheesecake is made with Manchego, and comes with a lemon ice cream; the rye crust is another good contrast.

Opened April 1 of last year, Madam has quickly become a local favorite, with 85% of its clients not staying in the hotel; some have standing reservations two or three times a week. Wines north of $250, even $1,000, are routinely ordered. Hogerheide likens his diners to those at the nearby Townsend, and says Madam is "fortunate to have the luxury of having a well-to-do clientele where we can serve ... the best possible product and treat it with the utmost care." That care includes sourcing from 28 local farmers and joining the Make Food Not Waste program, where every scrap is composted and sent back to a local farm.

So order a $25 slice of chocolate cake.

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