The Chef's Table
754 Franklin Avenue
Franklin Lakes, Bergen County, New Jersey
The Artful Diner
July 11, 2005
What was once a closely guarded secret among the Garden State's
cognoscenti and hired-belly brigade has now become something of a culinary cause
célèbre. If there are cult films and cult television programs and cult
novels, then surely there must be cult eateries as well. And, in its own
humble, unpretentious way, the Chef's Table may very well qualify as
By now, of course, most New Jersey foodies have heard the story: Claude
Baills cooking his way to the United States on the ocean liner France in
1964; honing his considerable skills at Lutèce, the Four Seasons, the Plaza,
and the Palace; and, subsequently, settling in as chef/proprietor of his
eponymous restaurant in New York City and Claude's at the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn before
opening the Chef's Table in 1999.
And the location alone -- a diminutive BYOB eatery tucked away in the easily
missed, equally diminutive Franklin Square Shopping Center, sharing space with
a Dunkin' Donuts and rubbing elbows with a Chinese takeout -- only adds to the
mystique (the more difficult to find, the more sought after)... as does the
cozy, intimate interior replete with etched glass panels, a variety of oil
paintings, plethora of copper pots and pans, and delightful collection of
But the hearty French bistro fare remains the drawing card. The printed bill
of fare is a succinct and simple affair augmented by a select number of daily
specials. In true bistro fashion, the left side of the menu is given over to
the plats du jour, which are available only on specific days of the week
-- Tuesday, beef bourguignon ($27.50); Wednesday, braised lamb shank ($27.50);
Thursday, sautéed calf's liver ($27.50); Friday, bouillabaisse ($28.50); Saturday,
cassoulet ($28.50); Sunday, sautéed Dover sole ($32.00) -- while the right side
lists appetizers and entrées that are available on a daily basis.
And the cuisine is as stylish as it is substantive. Mr. Baills has an
artistic bent, and this is clearly evidenced in his many eye-catching
symmetrical presentations. Even an offering as humble as shepherd's salad
($8.50) -- an epicenter of walnut-encrusted creamy goat cheese reclining on a
velvety pillow of fresh mesclun greens -- is imbued with a touch of the
dramatic. A supporting cast of tomatoes, paper-thin apple slices, and leaves of
endive are beautifully arranged in a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and
textures, all crowned with an invigorating drizzle of sherry vinaigrette.
Other starters, while not as whimsically picturesque, are no less pleasing
to the palate. Tender spears of steamed asparagus are sprinkled with sautéed
mushrooms and surrounded by a pool of beurre blanc ($8.50). A relatively
simple offering, but a supremely flavorful gestalt... as is the superlative
onion and leek tart embraced by an exquisitely flaky crust ($8.00).
As first rate as the appetizers may be, however, even before they hit the
table, it is quite likely that you will seriously consider making a meal of the
complimentary piping hot rolls fresh from the oven, especially when they are
accompanied by butter served up in a glass-domed ramekin at just the proper
spreading temperature and also by a supernally silky and utterly addictive
chicken liver mousse.
But do save a little room, as entrées offer their own unique rewards... The
monkfish ($26.50), for example, is absolutely superb. Three pristine
pan-seared, tempura-wrapped filets adorned with lemon/caper sauce are
interspersed with fanned zucchini, baby carrot, and sugar snap peas. At the
center, a delicate dollop of whipped potatoes crowned with a tiara of sweet
potato and a single pea.
The veal Cordon Bleu ($28.00) and sautéed calf's liver ($27.50), the
Thursday evening plat du jour, are also scintillatingly symmetrical. The
former is comprised of two mouthwatering panko-encrusted medallions wrapped
around ham and Swiss cheese and consummated with a heady Madeira sauce; the
latter features three well-trimmed segments garnished with two dunes of
delicious caramelized onions. Both these presentations include a velvety
vegetable terrine rife with carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash.
Another highly recommended dish is the entrecôte Bordelaise ($28.50).
This is one instance in which Mr. Baills sets aside his usual presentational
symmetry in favor of culinary contradistinction. Beautifully grilled slices of
medium rare rib-eye steak are fanned attractively across the plate and decked
out in a heady cabernet sauvignon sauce. An equally artistic stacking of thick
French fries, which bears uncanny resemblance to a convention of Lincoln Logs,
offers a striking contrast to the initial visual effect.
Among the desserts ($8.50), the warm thin French apple tart with green apple
sorbet (or vanilla ice cream when apples are out of season), the tart Tatin
made with apples and pears, and the crème brûlée are all benchmark. And
the special poached whole peach (stone in) surrounded by a light and creamy
strawberry sauce is also quite a show stopper.
One critic described Mr. Baills' cooking as "flawless." While I
wouldn't go quite that far, there is no question that the great majority of his
creations are truly profound in their simplicity, which makes his apparently
careless faux pas all the more oxymoronic...
Zucchini blossoms in tempura batter are over battered, over fried, overly
heavy, rubbery of countenance, and teamed with an uninspiring tomato sauce
($8.50) -- and they bear uncanny resemblance to mini-versions of those
terrifying pods in the film The Body Snatchers... Bouillabaisse, the
Friday plat du jour, is good but not exceptional and suffers from an
overdose of saffron... A special dessert tart is the bearer of significantly
less than ripe, tasteless strawberries... and the chocolate mousse, a menu
mainstay, is strictly pro forma. With all due respect to the chef, these
items should never have been allowed to escape the confines of the kitchen.
The service can also be something of a stumbling block. On busy Friday and
Saturday evenings, there appears to be sufficient help to handle the onslaught.
During the week, though, Mr. Baills' wife, Dolores, with the aid of only one
bus person, flies solo at the front of the house. During these times, she
answers the phone, acts as hostess, and takes orders for the entire dining
room. Granted, there are only approximately ten tables to contend with; but
should there be a sudden influx of patrons, things can get a bit dicey. On one
such occasion, after our party had finished coffee and dessert, we waited a full
thirty minutes before Ms. Baills got around to dropping off the check.
This service snafu is particularly troublesome. If a restaurant botches
things up at the outset, the chef, wait staff, etc., have the entire meal in
which to make amends. Obversely, should the incident occur at the conclusion of
one's stay, the otherwise exceptional quality of the meal notwithstanding, it
is this unfortunate blooper that is likely to stick in the diner's craw long
after the gastronomic rewards have faded from memory.
The Chef's Table is a wonderful restaurant to which I would gladly
return. In a sense, however, it is a victim of its own notable accomplishments,
as its reputation for excellence only succeeds in making even minor miscues
that much more difficult to bear.
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 12:00 noon - 1:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs,
5:00 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. -
8:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: Diner's Club, MC, V
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes