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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Cafe Gallery
219 High Street
Burlington, Burlington County, New Jersey
(609) 386-6150

By The Artful Diner
4/6/98

Situated at the foot of High Street in the historical section of Burlington, Cafe Gallery's location alone is enough to make most restaurateurs positively green with envy. As is the building itself. The original structure, which dates from the Federalist period, has seen numerous renovations, a modern addition, and is far from spatially impoverished. A more than ample bar area and dining room comprise the first floor, and two large dining rooms occupy the second. The entirety of the interior is tastefully appointed with a variety of paintings, most of which are for sale. If art isn't your thing, just take a gander out the window; there's a picture perfect view of the Delaware River. And, in case you were entertaining any doubts... there really is a gallery at Cafe Gallery. A photographic exhibition is currently on view.

When my wife and I resided in the South Jersey area, we would pay an occasional call here. The "If today's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" fare was never in serious contention for nomination to the Foodie Hall of Fame; but there were, from time to time, if not flashes of brilliance, at least subtle hints of promise from the nether regions of the kitchen. Returning after nearly a ten-year absence, we were anticipating that the establishment had, in the interim, received a rather large gastronomic kick in the rear.

Right from the outset, however, a less than auspicious evening appeared to be in the offing. The bartender seemed infinitely more interested in shooting the breeze with her cronies than she did in waiting on customers. Not a good sign. Ditto the state of the restrooms. Even though the night was young, conditions were several notches below sparkling.

Yet, despite these initial disappointments, the pleasant surroundings would inspire optimism in even the most jaded of restaurant cynics. Whether seated upstairs or down, the tables are well spaced, the chairs comfortable, the service willing and friendly... And the wine list presents a number of points of interest. True, it is limited to selections from California and France, and also lacks vintage designations, but there are some definite bargains to be had. A lovely 1996 Lakespring Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is an excellent value at $20.00. Among the reds, the real stunner is Ridge Vineyard's "Lytton Springs." This Zinfandel blend continues to dazzle wine lovers year after year, and its full-bodied spicy fruit is positively decadent upon the palate. Since this beauty retails in the mid-twenties, its $36.00 price tag is an absolute steal. Maybe things weren't as bad as we'd initially imagined. Hope springs eternal.

But Cafe Gallery's menu jolted us back to reality. In the ten intervening years, it has changed hardly at all. It is a fossilized record that covers every conceivable port-of-call... and a multitude of potential unsavory booby-traps. There are items etched in stone, semi-permanent entries (that have been known to change upon occasion), and a few daily specials recited with unbridled enthusiasm by your server. Appetizers include shrimp cocktail, snails in garlic butter, lobster ravioli with basil cream, duck pate with port wine sauce, and smoked salmon with whole-wheat soda bread. Soups: baked onion, gazpacho and of the day. Salads run the gamut: from spinach to Caesar, from orange and watercress with raspberry vinaigrette to romaine and egg. Entrees? About what you'd expect: veal chop and medallions thereof, sirloin steaks and a filet mignon, lamb chops with sauce Robert, duck a l'orange, pork loin with baked apples and pineapple, finny fare in a host of dubious guises.

True, we kept telling ourselves, we had enjoyed several decent meals here over the years... but we had also been treated to a number of nearly inedible "clunkers" at the hands of the chef and his minions. Those who do not learn from history, so it has been said, are doomed to repeat it... and, after our bit of menu-grazing, deja vu appeared to be hovering all too close for comfort.

My wife's special appetizer of pan-fried oysters on a bed of shredded sweet potatoes sounded simply wonderful, too good to be true--and indeed it was. The oysters were just fine, but the breading had been laid on with unconscionable relish and was extremely salty. A glob of sour cream and a less than attractive plating did little to help matters along. Had the dish arrived encased in Saran Wrap, the analogy to airline cuisine would have been complete.

As I've mentioned in previous writings, I have a predilection for potages. But neither the baked onion nor the gazpacho from the printed menu appealed. And since chilled strawberry soup proffered on an equally chilly day in early spring struck me as an oxymoron if ever there was one, I decided to gamble on the split pea. Without belaboring the point, let me simply say that this particular representative of the genre exhibited all the flavor and consistency of an inmate recently sprung from the confines of a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch. I cannot say with absolute certainty that this was the case. If it was, however, the chef (and owners) should be summarily shot for resorting to such shenanigans. On the other hand, if this concoction was made from scratch, and is actually indicative of the chef's limited capacity, he should likewise be put out of his misery. A culinary Catch-22.

Entrees, sad to say, were hardly an improvement. The medallions of veal Francaise, like the aforementioned oysters, were once again sabotaged by OVERbreading; they were also horrendously soggy, the result of a prolonged swim in a viscously lethal white wine sauce. One of the daily specials, shark imprisoned in Parmesan, was equally unappetizing. In point of fact, thalassic entries are not a good bet here. Finny creatures fair best with a delicate touch and minimum amount of embellishment; unfortunately, the chef appears to be both ham-fisted and addicted to crusting things up as much as humanly possible. If you insist upon tempting fate, your safest course of action is the salmon Swedish style; the filet is simply broiled and the sour cream sauce is served on the side.

Difficulties do not end there, however; the accoutrements suffer from the same malady as do a preponderance of the entrees. Seasonal vegetables (generally carrots and string beans) are fresh but undistinguished. They are strategically placed to add color alone--any gustatory pleasure derived therefrom is purely coincidental. Rice pilaf, which accompanies many of the main courses, tastes suspiciously like it required nothing more than water and a couple of stirs to bring it to its present overseasoned state.

Cafe Gallery appears to save the best for last. Without doubt, Michele Wenzle's desserts are the highlight of a meal here. But, as if determined to obviate her good work, many offerings suffer the debilitating effects of preplating and excessive refrigeration.

But wait a moment, you inquire... If the food here is so downright terrible, how has the place managed to remain alive and well (and pack them in) for the past eighteen years? With considerable ease, I might add. Cafe Gallery's remarkably strong appeal is directed to those gastronomically less sophisticated individuals who would doubtless be intimidated were they to be confronted by more creative fare. The food really isn't TERRIBLE... at least not in the sense that you'll be wishing your waiter/waitress had minored in gastroenterology. It simply lacks subtlety and is excruciatingly dull. Therefore, it gives those who continue to flock here precisely what they want--a completely innocuous, nonthreatening experience at table.

The folks at this eatery have spent the better part of two decades carefully cultivating their clientele (in other words, they know exactly what works), and they are not about to bite the hand that's been feeding their coffers. So if you consider yourself somewhat sophisticated of palate, and value a touch of innovation and a bit of finesse in both the preparation and the presentation of your vittles now and again, you would do well to dine elsewhere.

Lest you be tempted to write me off as an uncompromising snob (which may very well be true <BG>), who doesn't appreciate "real food" and isn't happy unless he's nibbling on miniscule portions of gourmet delicacies, let me add just one explanatory note. Food doesn't have to be "gourmet" to be "good." It need only be lovingly and carefully prepared and attractively presented. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Cafe Gallery's offerings are none of the above.

True, their menu prices are extremely reasonable... But a couple could still end up dropping a $100 bill before the evening's smoke has cleared... And that, in my humble opinion, is far too high a price to pay for strictly mediocre fare.

Hours:
Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Dinner: Sun - Thurs, 5:00 - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 - 11:00 p.m.
Sunday Brunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.

Credit Cards: All Major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Permitted in bar area only
Reservations: Recommended

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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