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Restaurant Lorena rated a 4-Star Fine Dining Restaurant

Restaurant Lorena rated a 4-Star Fine Dining Restaurant  Restaurant Lorena's

By Cody Kendall for The Star-Ledger, October 30, 2005

How do you replace a beloved 4-star restaurant that has been sold? Here's the best answer: With another 4-star restaurant that doesn't miss a beat in terms of food, service and atmosphere.

That's exactly the happy way it has gone in Maplewood, where Jocelyne's French restaurant was bought last spring from chef Mitchell Altholz by chef Humberto Campos Jr. and his fiancee, Lorena Perez. This little gem, recently renamed Lorena's, retains all the qualities that endeared Jocelyne's to its regulars.Edith Piaf still warbles over the sound system. The understated decor of mirrors and collectors' plates has changed little, except for a fresh coat of paint to brighten things up. Lorena Perez has taken over Jocelyne Altholz's duties by cordially greeting the clientele at the door, setting the stage for a delightful evening. The service remains smooth and even the restaurants' business cards look the same.

So the differences probably won't be discernible to the average patron, though Campos certainly has put his stamp on the food. While both he and his predecessor graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, their careers diverged after that.

Jocelyne's memorable shrimp ravioli with caviar sauce has been supplanted by heavenly fava bean ravioli, enlivened with chervil and luxuriating in a Parmigiano-truffle cream ($9). The pureed white sweet corn soup with smoked bacon that we had on our last visit to Jocelyne's found a worthy successor in the refined baby artichoke soup ($9), rich with black trumpet mushrooms and lobster.

But why bother to compare? Lorena's is as wonderful in its own way as Jocelyne's was, so there's no need to hark back to past delights as you enjoy the new restaurant's cuisine. Just be grateful that the cozy space on Maplewood Avenue is as well-endowed now as it was previously.

Campos is clever, but never tries to justify innovative combinations simply for the sake of being different. Green apple, celery root and radish sprouts, bundled into a colorful roulade of fruit wood smoked salmon ($13) sparkling with American sturgeon caviar, is a deft kaleidoscope that hits exciting notes all across the palate.

Chef Humberto Campos Jr. dresses up an entree before presentation.Warm duck confit, black Mission figs and Roquefort blend as if they all came into this world together, expressly for the purpose of enlivening a watercress salad ($10), dressed with roasted shallot vinaigrette and a Port wine reduction.

On the more exotic side, seared Hudson Valley duck foie gras ($18) is prepared with a vanilla-scented dried fruit relish and a Banyuls wine reduction. Lemon-crusted veal sweetbreads ($11), served with asparagus, get a piquant touch from pickled red onion and a touch of zest from oregano.

If you crave something simpler for a starter, don't fear. There's always the shaved white and green asparagus ($9) with fennel, orange vinaigrette and white truffle oil, or the chilled Maine crabmeat ($13), decked out in zucchini ribbons, with tomato concasse.

Entrees start at $24 for medallions of pork confit ($24), an autumn-appropriate dish mellowed with caramelized apples, chestnuts and baby carrots. There are also several choices for $25, including the seven-spiced roasted Long Island duck breast over sauteed greens with a striking Zante currant sauce. So it's possible to have a reasonable bill for the quality of the food here if you don't go overboard. On the other hand, it's worth spending a little extra to try the Colorado venison loin ($32), as satisfying as steak, in a fall spice/ red wine reduction with whole grain mustard spaetzle. Equally appealing is the slow-braised Colorado lamb shank ($32) with saffron risotto and baby vegetables. It's high-style comfort food.

At the top end of the price scale is the Nova Scotia lobster ($36), appropriately styled with a truffle butter emulsion, neatly blending with maitake mushrooms and celeraic puree. But if seafood is what you crave, there are plenty of lower-cost options, including the mellow, flaky South Pacific Suzuki ($25) roasted with braised fennel that really makes the dish. Preserved lemon and kalamata olives add zing to the fish and its delicate parsley sauce. Campos under - stands balance perfectly. A more assertive roasted Scottish salmon ($25) in chive sauce is the type of fish that can't be overwhelmed by the formidable accompanying lineup of garlic confit, applewood bacon, melted leeks and potato puree.

Desserts ($8) are categorized as ''traditional,'' limited to creme brulee infused with fresh lavender; ''fruit'' and ''chocolate,'' which tempted me to say, ''I'll have one of each.''

The Napoleon of fresh berries, layered with delicate almond hazelnut tuile and kissed by luscious clouds of Chantilly cream, is both light and lovely. For a more seasonal sweet, try the warm pear tarte tatin, given an extra burst of flavor with a warm quince sauce that contrasts beautifully with vanilla bean ice cream.

The flourless chocolate cake with creme Anglaise seemed rather plain, especially when contrasted with one of its chocolate brethren, Cluizel's Vintage ''Hacienda Conception.'' This little warm cakelet really takes off with the addition of orange zest.

For alternate ways to end your meal, there is also made-on-thepremises ice cream and sorbet ($6), as well as an artisanal cheese plate with rosehip jam ($12), and a variety of interesting teas ($3.50), such as a green tea with lemon grass, coconut and ginger.

Having enjoyed Campos' food previously, I had no doubt that he would continue to excel at his new venture. But it was reassuring to actually experience the continuity between Jocelyne's and Lorena's, knowing that the thread of fine dining at one of Maplewood's best known locations will remain unbroken. And one other thing hasn't changed -- be sure to reserve well ahead for weekends, because this place usually is booked solid on Friday and Saturday nights.

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