By By Cindy Loh for MaplewoodPatch, August 10, 2009

Dining at Restaurant Lorena's in downtown Maplewood is a bit like taking a drive in a high performance sports car. The experience is an exhilarating adrenaline rush with breathtaking views, confidence around every curve, and a sigh of satisfaction when the awesome ride finally slows to a stop. In other words, Lorena's is a well-oiled machine - and Chef Humberto Campos Jr. is definitely cooking with gas.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Campos has worked in several esteemed kitchens, including Daniel and March. He and his wife Lorena, who the restaurant is named after, opened the French-based eatery in 2005, and it's been full-speed ahead for Lorena's ever since.

Patrons are greeted by none other than Lorena herself, and are doted on from that moment forward. Lorena's charming maitre d'(who has an incredible restaurant roster of his own) whisks you away into the small sliver of a dining room. As you settle into your seat amid the soft lighting and freshly pressed linens, it seems as if you've got the place to yourself, with no less than three highly experienced servers plus the maitre d' at your beck and call. And that's before the food service has even begun.

Lorena's does not have a liquor license, however management is more than outfitted and prepared to uncork, serve, decant or chill a bottle you've brought from home. If you didn't know the restaurant was BYO, you'd never be able to guess it by the look of things - or by the way Lorena's knowledgeable staff easily discusses and appreciates a fine vintage.

With the beverage service behind you, Campos sends out the first of many treats: an offering of warm brioche, raisin walnut, and sourdough rolls, accompanied by softened butter topped with a spray of sea salt. One tug of the decadent bread, and I'm already hooked.

Next comes the most difficult part of the evening: deciding which of Lorena's gastronomical masterpieces to order. My meal kicked off with a bowl piled high with P.E.I. Mussels in a white wine, herb, and shallot broth. The mussels were absolute perfection, and the broth was so delicately balanced, I wondered how Campos managed to repeat the dish night after night.

I also selected the appetizer special, Duck Confit sauced with a light broth and served atop homemade cavatelli with sweet peas, parmesan shavings, and pea tendrils. The silky pasta melts in your mouth, and each component of the dish comes together in a single taste explosion.

To complete my culinary sojourn, I thought long and hard about ordering the dessert special, a gelato trio (fennel, peanut butter, and vanilla) but ultimately opted for the Chef's selection of three artisan cheeses: Mahon, a soft, tangy Spanish cows milk cheese; Pyramid, a creamy, subtle French goat cheese with an ash rind and a slight bite at the finish; and a butterscotch-colored, aged Gouda that was riddled with crunchy, tyrosine flavor crystals. It just doesn't get much better than that.

Lorena's offers a three-course prix fixe menu four nights a week. At $39, it's a steal based on the quality and ingenuity of Campos' product alone - and especially, considering its a la carte appetizers range from $11 to $16, its entrees from $30-$36, and desserts from $8 to $15.

But beyond the amazingly low prix fixe price, one finds truly phenomenal, inspired food and a remarkable dining experience at Campos' lovely restaurant. Lorena's has taken great care to ensure that every single moment of a meal will be relished, and then delivers a masterful menu that takes you from zero to one-hundred-and-sixty without missing a beat. Enjoy the ride.