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The Chef's Table
754 Franklin Avenue
Franklin Lakes, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 891-6644

By The Artful Diner

July 11, 2005

Website: www.tctnj.com

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 such.

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 curios.

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.

Cuisine: French
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
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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