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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Benjamin's Restaurant
101 East Commerce Street
Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey
(856) 451-6449

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
January 22, 2001

If you happen to find yourself temporarily marooned on the streets of Bridgeton, Benjamin's is worth a visit for one very, very good reason -- it is pretty much the only game in town. On the other hand, should you be passing through on the way from here to there, I'd advise you to keep right on truckin' in search of greener and infinitely more appetizing pastures. This Victorian eatery does exude its own peculiar brand of old-fashioned charm, and the portions are, indeed, plenteous. But quality... Well, that's another story... So don't say I didn't warn you.

The food at Benjamin's is what American cuisine used to be -- and should never be again -- a significantly less than elegant conglomeration of nondescript, innocuous fodder that is a veritable feast for the pocketbook... and utter famine for the palate. Perhaps you think I'm being a wee bit too harsh. Well, let me put it to you this way... When was the last time a restaurant treated you to the dubious delights of instant mashed potatoes? That's right, instant.

So... Need I say more? You have entered a mysterious parallel culinary universe, The Twilight Zone of cookery, a gastronomic galaxy far, far away, a time-warped wilderness oblivious to the good news that James Beard, Julia Child, et al., have, once and for all, freed us from the ignominious bondage of broiled chopped sirloin steak, foil-wrapped baked potatoes and soggy, overcooked veggies. Mr. Beard must be turning over in his grave, Ms. Child shrieking in unmitigated horror. This is "comfort food" that will leave you comfortless.

And yet... the question still remains... Why does chef/proprietor Benjamin Eubanks, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of New Haven, Connecticut, insist upon dishing out an array of victuals that could make generic hospital fare appear as if it had been created in the kitchen of Alain Ducasse? Your guess is as good as mine. Although, I strongly suspect that, since Benjamin's is still alive and well and packing them in after sixteen years, Mr. Eubanks has absolutely no intention of changing recipes in midstream. Indeed, he continues to woo members of the "Clean Plate Club" with his own tried-and-true method of success: mountains of French fries, abundant allocations of beef and fowl, copious helpings of down-home desserts, and tariffs that would a bring a smile to the likes of Ebenezer Scrooge. Be that as it may, if you consider yourself at all sophisticated of palate, a change of venue is most assuredly in order.

Indeed, the first inkling that all is not as it should be blows in with the soup of the day ($1.95 cup/$2.50 bowl) -- in one instance, a creamy potato with cheddar cheese and bacon. Chunks of potato and bits of bacon swim in a vapid and inordinately viscous sea in which even the faintest glimmer of flavor is totally coincidental.

Others starters fair somewhat better -- but not a great deal. The mushroom caps stuffed with spinach, feta and herbs ($3.95) are quite good, but the accompanying cheese sauce quickly cools down into an unappealing gelatinous mass. The fried sweet potato sticks ($3.95) aren't bad either, although they have a decidedly commercial look and taste about them, and they are in desperate need of a charismatic accoutrement to awaken the slumbering taste buds.

Entrées, sad to say, are several steps below their less than illustrious predecessors. The sautéed calf's liver ($8.95) arrives with improperly trimmed membranes and is submerged beneath a flood of insipid brown gravy. It is escorted by mushy green beans and the aforementioned instant mashed potatoes. The broiled filet of salmon with lemon butter ($13.95) is a step up... barely. It is properly grilled but entirely too "salmony" for my taste. Once again, quality -- or the lack thereof -- seems to come into play. Other seafood items, basically permutations of flounder and shrimp are, in my opinion, best avoided.

Through the painful process of elimination, you inevitably reach the conclusion that, should you desire your stomach to escape relatively unscathed, your most propitious course of action is to opt for one of the various and sundry chicken dishes -- and the simpler the better. Far from subtle, they are, however, the pick of a most meager litter. The chicken (or vegetable) stir-fry ($8.95) over seasoned brown rice is quite acceptable, as is the chicken Widmere ($7.95) -- sautéed morsels of white meat chicken with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, herbs and white wine -- and the chicken Parmigiana ($8.95). The chicken breast stuffed with Swiss cheese and herbs ($9.75) is also most enjoyable, plump and moist... Just be aware that the yummy-looking sautéed fruit topping consists of frozen blueberries and canned peaches.

Now for the good news... Choose with a wee bit of circumspection, and desserts could well be the highlight of your evening at table -- though still no great shakes. Once again, however, the chef needs to learn that discretion is the better part of valor. The hot fudge peanut butter brownie ($3.50) is marvelously rich and chewy... but it is buried beneath a mountain of canned whipped cream. And the equally tasty hot apple dumpling ($3.50) suffers the same ignoble fate. The chocolate mousse malt ball pie ($3.25), designed to be a chocoholic's dream-come-true, is simply too much of a good thing.

But, surprise, surprise... Your best bet dessert-wise -- as it requires the least amount of creative hocus-pocus on the part of the kitchen -- is the fresh fruit plate ($3.50). Slices of apple and cataloupe are combined with seedless red grapes and luscious chunks of Gouda cheese. Add an excellent poppy seed dressing, and you have a most civilized conclusion to your meal.

Judging by the crowds, Benjamin and Bernadine Eubanks' old-time country eatery quite obviously fills a need in the Bridgeton area. It offers up a bevy of bountiful vittles at paltry prices in a warm and homey environment. Sounds like the perfect recipe for success... If only the food had more to offer. Inexpensive tariffs and mediocre cuisine need not go hand-in-hand. But, sad to say, that appears to be the case here. Those accustomed to setting out on gastronomic pilgrimages in search of worthy establishments to assuage their ever-restless palates should feel free to spare themselves a journey. Without question, Benjamin's is not a suitable target for "destination dining." Alas, even under the best of circumstances, it is little more than the culinary court of last resort.

Cuisine: American
Hours: Mon, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Tues - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sun, 12:00 noon - 7:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Onsite and street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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