Mark’s Off Madison, also known as MOM, is exactly what New York’s tiny North of Madison Square Park (NOMAD) neighborhood needed: An upscale diner that isn’t a diner. The food that comes out of Mark Off Madison’s kitchen has all the warmth and love of home, but with a refined palate of a world-class chef.
The restaurant and bakery, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in November 2021, is the rendering of Chef Mark Strausman’s long career refining his craft behind the stove.
The celebrated chef at Fred’s at the top of the now-bankrupt Barney’s of New York, fortunately, already had his foot out the door when the hedge fund executives of the high-end department store unceremoniously fired him. He was simply standing up for his rosy sautéed chicken livers over sourdough toast. They didn’t appreciate his or others’ taste after nearly a quarter-century of celebrities, high-powered business people, locals, tourists, and everyone in between clamoring to get reservations to dine at Fred’s at the top of the posh department store. The store ceased to exist, for the second time in its history, at the end of 2019.
Fred’s disappearance appeared to be a loss to New York, a chip off the Old New York that was rapidly vanishing during the global pandemic. However, Strausman was a step ahead of his hedge fund critics and the timing was right for him to re-envision the new restaurant to accommodate the pandemic. At the time of his firing, he already signed the lease for the former A Voce space at Madison Square Park, The New York Times reported.
At the corner of Madison Square Park and East 26th Street, Strausman launched Mark’s Off Madison in November 2020, allowing the devoted fans he has collected since 1988 — when he was a chef at Sapore di Mare in East Hampton, New York — to find him again. His fandom grew as he became part of the Tuscan wave that hit New York during the early 1990s, cooking in the kitchens at Coco Pazzo and Campagna and finally to the top of Barney’s New York in 1996, where he reigned for 24 years. The store brought him to fans from Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (the last Fred’s he opened at the top of Barney’s, he told my dinner guest and me as he floated from table-to-table engaging with and thanking diners) as the high-end store fanned out from New York to the west.
The slice of Old New York is renewed for fans who instantly flocked to Mark’s Off Madison in search of his famous Estelle’s chicken soup, lasagna della nonna, sautéed chicken livers, pizzas, and his beloved Belgian fries, to new classics being prepared in the kitchen and bakery seasonally.
Everything is on the table at Mark’s Off Madison. The cuisine highlights Strausman’s fine European dining training, especially Italian cuisine, to the Flushing kitchen in his childhood Jewish home in Queens, New York. It is there where he started his storied career cooking up Jewish favorites like his down-home, hand-rolled bagels and bialys that fly off the shelf (for those who do not get up early enough).
Mark’s Off Madison is decidedly Jewish and European with all the love and warmth of the two communities melded into one space, which is quintessential New York. Because of that, the restaurant emanates a homey feeling that makes you feel like family, a family with a refined palate for elevated comfort foods from bagels to lasagna. After all, the restaurant’s tagline is “where uptown meets downtown.”
Diners can get a window view into Strausman’s kitchen to see the sous chefs working their magic to deliver his fusion of American farm-to-table Italian classics and breakfast creations in Mark’s Off Madison’s main dining room.
The restaurant’s interior is also an American-Italian fusion, a diner inside a home, with its chestnut frame and furniture accented by cream ceilings and walls brightening the room, which is lighted by retro 1960s sphere lights reflected in the arched mirror and window inside the 100-seat indoor dining room on one side. At the restaurant’s entrance is the breakfast and takeout side, brightly lit with marble tabletops supported by the same Italian-style furnishings as in the dining room. Outside is an 85-seat outdoor dining area along 26th Street. A garden provides privacy from the street and heat lamps and tents warm diners during chillier months.
Born during the pandemic, the restaurant was created for the global health crisis and beyond inviting everyone to dine while offering others the comfort to pick up their meals to bring home.
While he was limited at Fred’s, Strausman feels free at Mark’s Off Madison. Reaching into his early days in the kitchen at a farm-to-table restaurant, he is creating fresh dishes that he longed to make, but could not, such as the local suckling pig with Hudson Valley potatoes, for his seasonal menus.
Nearly a year after the Mark’s Off Madison’s November 16 opening, I found Strausman. I was searching for what happened to Fred’s chef ahead of my first trip to New York from San Francisco in nearly three years. I was relieved he was easily findable. My memories of his food were satiated.
I was served two perfect filets of sole encrusted with Latke lightly bathed in a savory lemon herb sauce. I swapped out the fall vegetables of the day (the vegetables change daily according to availability) for sauteed spinach. It was enough for a meal and leftovers that I dreamed of heating up to savor again before my flight back to the Pacific Coast.
The glass of Altesino’s 2019 Toscana Rosso that I sipped was a fruit-forward estate red that was light enough that it didn’t overpower the fish.
The table also entertained a bitter greens salad with artichokes tossed with hot and sweet sausage, olive oil, garlic, and Parmesan cheese that my dinner guest raved about. I’m not a fan of bitter, spicy things, so it wasn’t my garden of delight. The lamb shank dipped in a brown gravy while resting on a bed of mashed potatoes accompanied by the evening’s selection of fall vegetables — Brussels sprouts and pumpkin squash — was perfect for warming up on a cold rainy New York night.
The meal was topped off with traditional black and white cookies.
Mark’s Off Madison hit the mark. It strikes the perfect balance between a warm and inviting atmosphere and good taste. It is a must-dine spot for New Yorkers and visitors alike.