By Cody Kendall/For The Star-Ledger
There is no question that Restaurant Lorena's chef/owner, Humberto Campos Jr., is a master in the kitchen.
His food, "deeply rooted in the French technique," takes off from there in varying nontraditional directions, emphasizing color as well as taste with "beautiful American ingredients."
Look at your plate for a few moments to enjoy the visual appeal before directing flatware into the likes of roasted organic tri-color beets ($15), a carnival of bright hues with imported buffalo mozzarella and tingly horseradish creme, or the purée of spring pea soup ($11), accented with orange purée and lump crab. Lorena's is a haven for those who appreciate the artistic value of a meal, as well as its flavor.
Every item has flair, highlighting the chef's originality. A surf-and-turf metaphor, for instance, is stretched by pan-seared wild Columbia River sturgeon ($38) juxtaposed with braised short ribs and smoked bacon, as a saffron emulsion offers a lighter note.
Roasted garlic and herb brioche crusting gives distinction to rack of lamb ($48), while ratatouille and a goat cheese polenta cake add strong character to the composition.
The warm crepe appetizer ($21) — teeming with butter-poached lobster and oyster mushrooms, topped by a garden of herbs — was a beautiful concept that lost luster from a bit too much salt in the sauce for my taste. Generally, though, the dishes are well-balanced, without discordant notes or combinations that try too hard to be different.
"We don't want to scare our customers," chuckled the chef, while noting the food is constantly evolving.
Desserts ($12) can be clever as well as beautiful. Generally, I'm not a fan of carrot cake, but Lorena's version is gussied up to good effect, with cream cheese ice cream that mimics the traditional frosting, adding appeal in a non-traditional way. Chantilly cream spring berry trifle is a light, bright orchestration topped by strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries clambering atop one another next to a tall sprig of mint.
But it takes more than food to make a top establishment.
Campos sees "every day as a new day to improve ourselves," a philosophy he has followed since he and his wife, Lorena, took over the former Jocelyne's in 2005.
Toward that end, the place was refurbished several years ago, replacing a nostalgic look with an updated Parisian style in chocolate, white and light tan under soft lighting.
The cadence of the meal is just right, as courses march out with perfect timing, long enough for patrons to relax a bit between without suffering from time lag. The attentive, low-key staff is unobtrusive but present when needed, with the wine that is brought in by customers handled expertly and poured at appropriate moments.
Lorena's is a small storefront space that has only nine tables, so if you plan to go, reserve early. In keeping with the atmosphere of the restaurant, sport coats are suggested, though not required. The dress code does prohibit shorts and sandals for men. It's just not the kind of place where such attire is appropriate.
This restaurant has a style that is hard to find these days. It isn't ultra-fashionable, like the over-the-top spots that show off the latest in glitzy high-end furnishings. White tablecloth simplicity and low-key but lovely decor have a different sensibility, the product of people who take pride in their mission and never stop trying to please their patrons.
Cody Kendall: moc.mia@eniDydoC
IF YOU GO
168 Maplewood Ave., Maplewood. (973) 763-4460, restaurantlorena.com.
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Sundays.