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Coral Reef Bistro
Coral Reef Bistro closed. Now Medford's Panda Garden Thai and Chinese
560 Stokes Road
Ironstone Village Plaza
Medford, Burlington County, New Jersey
(609) 953-2655

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
October 24, 2005

Ensconced in the diminutive, cozy space that was home to the Red Hen Café, an extremely popular enclave of Central and Eastern European cookery, the Coral Reef Bistro, as the restaurant's appellation clearly implies, majors in seafood. And Chef Jeffrey DeLawder, an alumnus of the CIA, artfully bestows a number of arresting eclectic accents -- namely Asian, French, and Cajun -- upon his piscatorial presentations.

Just one minor hitch in the gastronomic game plan: When the Weisse family -- wife Kathy, husband Dana, and daughter Nicole, a Philadelphia Restaurant School graduate who also runs the front of the house -- purchased the restaurant from Tracey and Bill Slack a little over six months ago, they had planned to immediately eliminate all the Eastern European items and jump right into the new seafood menu... But there was such a hue and cry from the Hen's loyal clientele that the new owners decided to keep several of the old favorites, including sauerbraten, stuffed cabbage, beef stroganoff, and Weiner schnitzel. In point of fact, the former chef/proprietor, Tracey Slack, stayed on an extra two weeks just to make certain these popular recipes were properly prepared.

The establishment's décor has changed dramatically: Gone are the dark red walls lined with quaint Russian dolls, the bright red napkins, and the gentle strains of Borodin, Liszt, and Mozart. The interior design is now, as you might well surmise, overwhelmingly nautical in nature, replete with a striking wall-mounted stone fountain. I also learned that a limited expansion is in the works, which will add an additional 25-30 more seats to the restaurant's original 42.

How all of these changes will eventually work out is, of course, problematic. However, judging by the quality of the cuisine sampled during several recent visits, the Coral Reef Bistro appears to be off to a flying start.

Your meal begins with squares of fresh bread and mini pitas accompanied by herbed olive oil for dipping and an excellent homemade hummus imbued with the kitchen's secret but unlikely ingredient: a hint of peanut butter! Very, very tasty.

Appetizer-wise, my advice is to stick with what the chef does best: namely, his own creations. In other words, you should probably forget about the potato pancakes ($7.50), a holdover from the previous proprietorship. Tracey Slack's renditions were marvelously crispy of countenance, yielding to a luxuriously velvet interior... The current representations, however, are somewhat soggy.

The crab and shrimp dumplings ($8.00) -- served up steamed or fried -- are a far better choice. The steamed versions sport just the right texture (not at all doughy) and are presented with an excellent soy dipping sauce and morsels of blanched green beans. The duck spring roll ($8.50) is another winner. Four crispy segments are arranged vertically and joined together with a delicate thread of scallion green. Sweet hoisin and spicy mustard sauces provide the punch, while a garnish of fresh sprouts adds a touch of earthiness.

The cornmeal-crusted calamari ($7.50) is also quite good. Squid often manifests the consistency of rubber bands, but the rings proffered here are exceedingly tender and the pimento/soy and remoulade dipping sauces are a welcome relief from the usual marinara. The soup of the day ($7.50) is yet another option. Recently sampled was an attractively divided bowl featuring tomato and potato, with the delicious spiciness of the former beautifully counterbalancing the creaminess of the latter.

Among the entrées -- given the restaurant's moniker and the chef's penchant for treasures of the sea -- piscatorial possibilities are to be preferred. The cedar-plank salmon ($22.00), for example, is absolutely first-rate. It is anointed with vanilla vinaigrette, which, at first glance, appears a rather odd combo; but the subtle sweetness of the vinaigrette plays nicely against the distinctive flavor of the salmon. And, although the couscous is on the dry side, the delicately battered tempura vegetables add a nice touch.

The moist and meaty red snapper ($22.00), on the other hand, takes the south-of-the-border route, incorporating lusty refried black beans, tomatillo relish, and a spicy ancho chile tomato ragoût; and the Asian-accented tilapia ($22.00) is coated with racy 9-spice seasoning, pillowed on an island of soba noodles, and surrounded by a sensuous sea of lemongrass broth.

For those in search of meatier pursuits, the Coral Reef also features venison ($25.00), rack of lamb ($26.00), and "Wine Merchant's Steak" ($25.00), an 8-ounce filet mignon embellished with mushroom wine sauce and companioned by crispy potato. The only semi-disappointment was the sauerbraten ($20.00), a holdover from the Red Hen's bill of fare. It was, as the menu promised, fork-tender; unfortunately, it also suffered from a nearly lethal overdose of vinegar.

Side dishes -- both the luscious garlic & savory wasabi mashed potatoes ($2.50), tangy red cabbage ($2.50), excellent spaetzle ($2.50), and summer squash ragoût ($3.00) -- have a great deal to recommend them...

As does the scrumptious array of homemade desserts ($7.00). Choose from such decadent delights as hot pecan pie bread pudding (with vanilla ice cream and caramel drizzle), warm apple strudel, ginger upside-down cake (with fresh berries, berry sauce, whipped cream, and vanilla ice cream), rich marzipan pound cake, and Godiva euphoria (with chocolate peanut butter crust and Godiva white chocolate sauce). All are irresistible. If you can't make up your mind, have a go at the "Dessert Sampler" ($14.00) and enjoy a little of everything.

Judging by the quality of the cuisine, sincerity of the service, and the fact that there are no seafood restaurants of this caliber in the immediate vicinity, the Coral Reef Bistro should enjoy an excellent run. Just one important question remains: Did the Weisse family make a prudent decision to retain the Red Hen's favorite Eastern European dishes? It did help the new restaurant play to a ready-made audience... But, in the long run, might not the continued presence of these popular presentations impede the acceptance of Mr. DeLawder's innovative seafood-fusion cuisine? Only time will tell.

Cuisine: Seafood-Fusion
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Daily, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch, 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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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