Madame opened in Jersey City back on November 22, and just a few months following its debut, the restaurant has surpassed even some of the best in New Jersey. This intoxicating new concept is the fourth by Garden State culinary royalty Chef Jamie Knott—of Cellar 335, Saddle River Inn and Saddle River Cafe—which melds new American and classic French with a cocktail parlor vibe that will get its hooks in you and never let go.
If you know anything about Knott, you know that the chef makes no apologies—and neither does Madame. For years, Knott has consistently curated some of the State’s edgiest dining experiences, and Madame is the latest—and sexiest—evolution yet.
The first time I walked into the dim-lit, 54-seat cellar tucked away on 4th Street, the bustle of Jersey City faded behind me. Sultry French music usurped the sounds of traffic outside. Alluring plates and stunning cocktails zipped by through the tight space. And soon, I’d stepped into another world—one lined with sultry purple velvet booth backs and a moody bar fitted with chic, neon signage.
How it Started
When the owners of the previously named Madame Claude Bis—a longtime neighborhood staple—decided to close shop last year, Knott knew he had to have it. It was the perfect space for Knott being that it shared a building with his already well-established Cellar 335.
“To be honest, I’ve wanted it ever since I opened Cellar…it just seemed so perfect,” Knott told me. So, when the opportunity arose, he jumped on it with a defined concept already in mind—one that was over 20 years in the making.
“I stumbled into this amazing Manhattan brasserie called Blue Ribbon for the first time at 2:30 a.m. when I was studying at the New York Restaurant School in 2000,” he explained. “The second I walked through those doors, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to own something like this one day.’” And two decades later, he got his wish.
A Culinary Dream Team
To achieve these heights, Knott needed to curate the best kitchen and bar talent he could find. Executive Chef Chris Abbamondi, and Beverage Director, Gabriel Rieben answered the call—with a combined 30-plus years of hospitality experience. That’s the inherent beauty in Madame’s concept—it is built around the minds of not just one chef, but a culmination of experts.
Knott and Executive Chef Abbamondi sat down to develop a menu. They sought to create a list of items that seamlessly blended French classics with new American techniques and styles.
Like Knott, Abbamondi is no stranger to culinary success. His resume boasts a long list of praiseworthy restaurants over the last 20 years, including a three-year stint as Sous Chef at Maze by Gordon Ramsay in New York City. He has developed a resume that is so well-rounded, I’m convinced he could go and work anywhere in the world. Back in 2020, looking for something fresh, Abbamondi met with Knott and took on the role of Executive Chef at Cellar 335—one of New Jersey’s best restaurants. Surely, Madame was not going to be any different.
“Most of my background is in French cooking, so developing the menu at Madame was sort of like second nature to me,” Abbamondi said. “We wanted to follow a French theme but prioritize using seasonal produce and locally-sourced ingredients.”
With Rieben helming the drink program, Madame was bound to be successful. Rieben, who is from Lyon, France, emphasizes the use of French spirits and wine. In fact, the wine list at Madame only contains options from within France. That means no Spain, no Italy—and definitely no Napa Valley. In fact, Rieben tasted 300 bottles before developing the list—which contains the likes of traditional wine and natural options. What’s more, not a single bottle on the list can be found at any other restaurant in Jersey City—Madame’s wine list is truly unique.
Cocktails are equally as stunning. Beyond wine, the drink list boasts a smoked old fashioned infused with truffle, lavender-spiked gin fizzes and spicy tiki-inspired cocktails—a nod to Cellar 335. What was so alluring to me was the line of products displayed in each drink. Brandies and cognacs are abundant at Madame, as well as French-made rums, gins and more. I tasted spirits I had never heard of before and Rieben’s menu not only introduced them to me, but it taught me how to enjoy them through thoughtful pairings and flavor combinations. When drinking at Madame, I implore you to try something you’ve never tried before—whether it be an orange wine from Alsace or an apple brandy from the Southwest of the country.
The drink program was the first step to establishing Madame. Still, Knott knew he needed to add more to the team. They needed a chef that they could trust for the day-to-day. One trained in French cooking and familiar with working in a fast-moving environment. That’s where Chef de Cuisine Cedric Gayon came in.
Gayon is new to the East Coast, but his respectable career involves extensive time in Las Vegas—including stints at B&B Ristorante and Lupo by Wolfgang Puck—before moving to the opposite end of the country to work at the former best restaurant in the world, Eleven Madison Park. After a few months in the EMP kitchen, Gayon was hungry to get back to the type of cooking he originally fell in love with.
“I was grateful for the experience…I’ve wanted to go there [EMP] forever,” Gayon said, “but I think the glossy prettiness I thought it was going to be, wasn’t there. I felt I was taking a step backward.”
At restaurants like EMP, standard is everything. Gayon was starting below his skill level because that is how the kitchen is structured. There is a strict chain of command.No matter his talent, he had to work his way up it. “I think if it were earlier on in my career, it would have been easier [for me] to be in that environment,” Gayon told me. “My pay was shitty. My hours were shitty—it just wasn’t what I was looking for.”
Gayon transitioned back to a la carte dining, piloting the kitchen at Jersey City’s Lokal briefly before connecting with Knott. “I met with Jamie and Chris, and I knew then that [Madame] is where I was meant to land.”
I remember the first bite of food at Madame as though it were just minutes ago: A simple oyster. East coast oysters, to be exact, dressed with an apple and cucumber mignonette and fennel. The natural salinity of a freshly-shucked oyster combined with the tartness of a mignonette is classic for a reason. At Madame, that familiar flavor combination is obvious, but it is different enough to stand out from the rest. The apple, for example, provides a sweetness that is lacking in a more straightforward mignonette. It was after I slurped down that first oyster that I knew I was somewhere special.
I have a confession: I rarely ever order beef tartare. I often fear a multitude of things: oxidized beef or poor quality for starters— but the thing I fear the most in tartare is that it will be ground instead of cut by hand. Sure, ground tartare is often thought of as the classic preparation, but guess what? Classic doesn’t always mean good. So, I was elated to see in large print on the menu the four most beautiful words in the English language: “Hand cut beef tartare.”
“Fuck,” I thought. “Now I have to order it.”
Beef tenderloin is diced ever-so-small before being dressed with a bold remoulade and molded into a circle—studded with cornichons, capers, egg yolk and bread on the side. I am of the opinion that a tartare must be able to stand on its own without the aid of bread. At Madame, I could eat spoonfuls of the stuff—no bread needed. Now, that’s the sign of an exceptional tartare.
Next was the Lyonnaise potato. Coins of potato are roasted alongside bacon lardons and caramelized onion. As the potato cooks, the starches break down, rendering the inside a creamy texture. Juxtaposed with crisp bacon and sweet, almost coying, onions—magic is born. Fresh scallions finish off what was an unpretentious yet masterful dish.
Then came something that I haven’t stopped dreaming about since taking my first bite: The “French Onion” focaccia. Fresh focaccia is topped with caramelized onions and baked in a pan with a shallow pool of rich onion soup at the bottom, finished with finely grated gruyere. A textual phenomenon, hot broth soaks through the bottom, disrupting the crispness of the focaccia. This creates a layer of the dish that is soggy—a necessary component of a classic onion soup. However, the top of the bread remains intact and crisp. Soup as a composed dish is something I have only seen met with failure, but at Madame, “failure” isn’t in the vocabulary.
Before entrees could arrive, I opted to add on a middle course of sorts. I kept telling myself leading up to my Madame experience that I was above ordering the burger. Who was I kidding?
As I sat gazing at a mirror adorned with a portrait of Marie Antoinette brandishing the words, “Let them eat cake,” Gayon slid me a burger to end all burgers. No, I’m not exaggerating when I say that Madame’s burger is among the best that I have ever had in my life. Madame opts for two thin patties rather than a thick, steakhouse-style burger. Unlike a thick burger, temperature doesn’t matter. The beef remains juicy and well-seasoned throughout. Petit Basque cheese—a sheep’s milk cheese—is melted atop the patties. The mildly flavored cheese is ideal for that of a hamburger. Toasted brioche is then smeared with an onion and truffle aioli on one side and a red wine bordelaise on the other, rounding out what is genuinely an otherworldly version of the American classic.
“We had the Petit Basque cheese for something else and one day, I just thought to myself: ‘How would this be on a burger?’ It was flavorful and melted with similar qualities to American cheese, which is objectively the best burger cheese,” Gayon said. And I, for one, couldn’t agree more.
After my burger detour, I opted for the black sea bass—one of my favorite fish to eat. The bass is seared skin-side down, flipped and basted with butter. The skin renders out into a crisp, chip-like texture but also serves to protect the meat of the fish from overcooking and drying out. When cooking this way, all of the attention is focused on achieving crackling skin. By the time the fish is ready to be basted, the flesh side only needs a kiss of heat to finish cooking through. Two filets of bass are laid atop a bed of crushed fingerling potatoes and a vadouvan curry is poured tableside.
Vadouvan is a spice blend that is derived from both Indian and French spices. When France colonized parts of the south of India in the late 17th Century, they brought back several culinary innovations. Many of these spices—such as fenugreek, coriander and cardamom—had never been seen in France before. Thus, the curry blend was born. Madame utilizes it in a remarkable way. Like the vibe at Madame, the spice blend is intoxicating but not enough to overtake the delicate flavors of the fish. In fact, it accentuates it. As you flake off pieces of the white-hued fish and its crisp skin, the curry blend adds body. Without it, you would just be eating an extraordinary piece of fish, but with it, you enjoy a dish that approaches perfection.
There is an unwritten rule of dining: When at a French brasserie, you order the steak au poivre. You just do. I don’t make the rules, but I do follow them.
Let me preface this by saying that the meal leading up to now was already incredible; however, if the steak didn’t live up to my expectations, it could have ruined the entire experience. This is a brasserie, and as such, the steak au poivre has to be astounding. Madame’s take on the brasserie classic flaunts skirt steak, blistered shishitos and, of course, a pan sauce made from veal glace, cognac, cream and peppercorns.
Knowing there was a lot on the line, I dug my fork into the steak and took a bite—and time stopped.
The sauce, in its lusciousness, coated each morsel of beef as the shishito peppers offered contrast. If I were served this exact dish every day for the rest of my life, I’d have no complaints. It was so simple in preparation yet so sophisticated in the result. It is almost stupid how good something with such straightforward makeup can be. But, that’s what the food is at Madame: Simple and sexy.
Onto dessert, I started with scoops of pistachio gelato sandwiched between profiteroles and doused in a hazelnut ganache. The use of two kinds of nuts was interesting to me and better yet, it worked wonderfully. Beyond that, it’s an ice cream sandwich covered in warm chocolate sauce—sign me up.
Lavender crème brulée and a deconstructed apple “cobbler” followed. In the former, lavender-scented custard fills a bowl alongside berries and a crispy honey tuille. It’s floral and sweet with differing textures.
The cobbler was a similar story, albeit with completely different flavors. Cooked honey crisp apples are combined with cinnamon gelato, cubes of brioche and a sauce made from port wine.
Finally, my last bite of food hit the table. The Crêpes Suzzette cake. Crêpes Suzzette is a dish consisting of crepes with an orange and Grand Marnier-infused butter sauce. At Madame, that concept is taken and turned into a layer cake. Crepes are layered with mascarpone and supremes of blood orange. An orange-laced caramel containing rum is lit on fire and poured over the dish. Smells of burning sugar, caramelized citrus and cream permeate the air. The taste lives up to the act—it is dessert and a literal fire show wrapped into one.
My Final Thoughts on Madame
Jamie Knott’s Madame is conceptually perfect. It rides the line of innovation while making blatant nods to the classics. It is unapologetic in the sense that it is not trying to be anything other than what it is: A place for tantalizing drinks and unbelievable food.
Madame’s beauty lies in the details. Sure, the steak will send you into a state of euphoria and the lavender gin fizz will blow your mind, but it is the details of the “M” branded plates, paintings of French monarchs with slashes over their eyes, etc. that make Madame something truly special. The second you walk through the doors, New Jersey dissipates behind you. You’ve entered a dream state where everything you know becomes a distant memory—a wonderland filled with French liqueurs, sleek neon signage and plenty of classic bites of food.
As I walked out the doors and back into the cold Jersey air, I experienced a micro culture shock. Oh yeah… Back to reality. I wasn’t sad, though—quite the opposite, in fact. I just experienced one of the more marvelous dining experiences I have had in quite some time. Sure, it’s upsetting that I can’t have that burger every day, and my liquor cabinet at home is truly lacking dozens of bottles of biodynamic French wine, but that’s what makes restaurants special. They are a place to escape and experience something outside of your daily life. And that’s what Madame is about.
I was satisfied and already thinking about my next visit. But, what’s more, is that I was now certain of a thought I had the second I took my first bite of food: Jamie Knott’s Madame lands as one of New Jersey’s best restaurants in just a few short months following its opening.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.