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Lorena's in Maplewood serves superb French food

By Esther Davidowitz, NorthJersey.com
Photos By Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com - USA Today Network
Nov. 14, 2019

When was the last time you dined in a restaurant with bread service?

Don't even know what bread service is because it's offered so rarely nowadays?

Go to Lorena's, chef Humberto Campos' quietly elegant French restaurant in Maplewood, and enjoy not only bread service — a server offering a variety of bread options tableside — but superb classic French food.

Don't worry: Classic here doesn't mean food drenched in thick cream sauces. Classic here means seasonal cuisine created with classic techniques using top-notch American ingredients.

It also means that every aspect of the dining experience is sweated over — from the crisp white linen on every table and the lush butter made in Vermont and flecked with fresh black pepper and gray salt in-house to the sophisticated stemware and wine decanters — even though Lorena's is a BYOB.

Is it any wonder that in its 14-year history, Lorena's — named after the chef's wife — has received myriad accolades, including from Opentable.com, which named it among the country’s 100 best restaurants several times.

My dining companion and I were smitten from the get-go. The intimate, candle-lit dining room adorned with abstract art had a lovely zen-like quality, even though every seat was occupied (reservations are highly recommended). We were dazzled with the amuse bouche, an intense earthy mushroom bisque served in a shot glass that had our palates do a little dance. How can so much flavor be packed into such a small amount of liquid?

Delicious, too, was a beautifully plated salmon tartare ($21), a light and refreshing appetizer accompanied by fried yet grease-free wontons. The uber-fresh chopped raw salmon was topped with a thick disc of creme fraiche heavily sprinkled with wasabi fish roe and dressed with thin slices of crunchy radish. You can use the wontons to smear some of the tartare, or do as my companion and I did: Take huge forkfuls straight into your mouth. We ate every last bit on our plate.

We did likewise with another winning appetizer: a crêpe filled with bits of lovely crabmeat and thick slices of locally harvested wild mushrooms bathed in that classic butter-based wine and cream sauce, beurre blanc, here gilded with a dash of truffle oil ($21). Butter + cream = heavy, right? Yes, usually. Somehow, Campos' beurre blanc tasted rich, but not anywhere near treacly. The dish was so light it could have passed as low-cal.

Campos told me a few days after I visited Lorena's that both appetizers have been on the menu since day one; they are his signature dishes, he says. Some summers ago, he made the mistake of taking them off the menu. "I had a near riot," he says. "People were cancelling reservations. My wife asked me if I was crazy."

He won't make that mistake again, he promises.

I hope he never removes the venison sirloin ($38) from the menu, a meat you hardly ever see on menus, either. This hefty, just gamey enough protein sits on a bed of creamed spaetzle topped by stunning magenta-colored cabbage that Campos had cured overnight and braised slowly for hours in the morning. The meat is splashed with a bit of cherry sauce.

Campos put it on the menu precisely because "you don't see it in a lot of restaurants," he says. "It's a fun dish." Fun — and sublime.

The sautéed Maine Diver scallops ($36) were wonderfully sweet and tender, swathed in a relish of briny capers and bits of salty pancetta. They were served with a lovely butternut purée and long thick strands of zucchini "pasta."

Desserts, too, were terrific, especially the molten chocolate cake served with homemade Tahitian vanilla ice cream and a delightful raspberry sauce ($12).

As for the bread? I got both options offered: a slice of intense sourdough and a slice of crunchy cranberry and pecan. You can bet I slathered the seasoned butter on both and, yes, ate every crumb. I left sated, happy and imploring my friends to "go."


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