By Teresa Politano/For The Star-Ledger Teresa Politano/For The Star-Ledger , October 16, 2008
"Let me explain about the bread," says Adrian, our server. Nothing spectacularly unusual was hiding in the basket -- a sourdough roll, a small olive loaf -- but Adrian described them carefully, noting as well that the pat of butter came sprinkled with hand-harvested sea salt from the Brittany Coast of France. Yet the exchange seemed to illustrate for us the tier of service at Lorena's.
Oh, to live a life where people explained the bread.
Lorena's is tucked into a small storefront in Maplewood, a township that bills itself as a village, which seems quite pretentious until you actually walk around. This does seem like a village, in a quaint, retro, resort sort of way, with an art gallery that offers drawing lessons, tiny boutiques and an antiques store that's actually named Bee & Thistle. It's not exactly Jersey as you know it.
Nor is Lorena's a typical restaurant. This is a little French restaurant. And we mean little -- the restaurant seats just 30 or so. If you want to mark a special occasion on a Saturday night, be sure to book your spot well in advance. It's a fine-dining spot, but has no liquor license. Yet somehow it all works, and works well. The restaurant seems intimate, subdued, hushed. Decor here is simple -- white tablecloths, a few European paintings, a decorative fireplace. Tony Bennett crooning softly in the background is a perfect fit.
Lorena's, too, is a timeless classic -- but not an American classic. This is luxury in the European sense. Lorena's is all about understated elegance: refined, authentic dishes with smooth and subtle layers of taste and texture. The sum of the solicitous service, the tiny dining room and the romance on the plate is a feeling of exclusive luxury.
The restaurant itself is the story of romance. Chef Humberto Campos Jr., who had worked at many of New Jersey's finest restaurants, opened the doors in 2005. The restaurant was named for the love of his life. "She's my best friend; she's my partner," Campos says. "It's a nice homage to someone special." But the business forced the couple to put their romance on the back burner. They were too busy for a wedding until this summer, when they shut down the restaurant and were wed July 4 in the Cayman Islands. (And returned with Cayman Island sea salt, now featured on the menu.)
With Lorena's, the couple hoped to create the feeling of dining at a quaint chateau in Provence. The ambiance is just what you'd expect, but perhaps not the cuisine. When people think of French food, they think of heavy creams and butter, Campos says, but French cuisine is really all about clean, pure foods, about using the best ingredients. The kitchen philosophy is to be simple and unfussy; Campos often limits ingredients in a dish to just three or four.
The seasonal heirloom tomato salad ($13) is the kind of salad you dream about in February, with green, red and yellow tomatoes that are ripe and full of flavor, rich and meaty, yet somehow also light and delicate. This came with fresh herbs (dill and tarragon), balsamic vinaigrette and a ricotta salata, small dried squares of ricotta cheese. Plus the Cayman Island sea salt. The crabmeat appetizer ($16) also was delightful -- warmed crabmeat served in a white truffle oil sauce. This is just luscious, and should not be missed.
Sea scallops ($32) were perfectly seared and served with seasonal sweet corn in saffron (tender and intriguing) and sunchokes with haricot vert (slightly overdone). The filet mignon ($36) dinner was like eating silk, with perfectly done meat and oh-so-smooth complements of braised onions and fingerling potatoes. Even the Roquefort cheese, which often startles, here seemed muted.
We were delighted to see seasonal crepes on the dessert menu, but our peach crepe ($8) was not as light and crisp as it should have been. Better was the warm molten chocolate cake ($8), a favorite of many restaurants, but which is done to perfection here.
Lorena's is likely a place you deem perfect to celebrate a special occasion, but it really ought not be relegated to that. Lorena's is like a Hermes scarf, perfect and timeless for anyone, on any occasion, at any time.
168 Maplewood Ave., Maplewood