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Elements Café
513 Station Avenue
Haddon Heights, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 546-8840

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Over the course of time, this cozy 45-seat storefront eatery has enjoyed a number of intriguing incarnations. It was, for many years, home to the ever-popular Loose Ends. Its successors, however -- Pepperozzo and Blue Moon -- had exceedingly short engagements. But judging by several recent visits, I predict that its current incumbent, Elements Café, will enjoy a long run, indeed.

While each establishment tended to dabble in its own unique decorative arrangements -- Loose Ends in eclecticism, Pepperozzo in peppers, and Blue Moon in heavenly bodies -- all shared one thing in common: an exposed brick wall that added a decidedly rustic note to the ambiance. By removing this formidable fortification, however, Elements has brightened things up considerably. Neutral-toned walls now provide a warm, contemporary look, while rotating paintings by local artists (which are also for sale) contribute lively splashes of color.

But whatever the name above the door, the atmosphere has always been homey and comfortable... The food, on the other hand, has tended to be problematic. During its Loose Ends days, for example, the chef attempted to serve my wife up a plate of scallops so utterly putrescent that the offending bivalves succeeded in fouling the entire dining room with their odoriferous, unholy stench before they had even escaped the confines of the kitchen. When it came to Pepperozzo and Blue Moon, you certainly could have done a lot worse than throwing on the feedbag at either... unfortunately, you also could have done a great deal better.

Currently, apart from an occasional minor miscue, chef/proprietor Fred Kellerman, formerly of Krazy Kats in Delaware and the White Dog Café in the City of Brotherly Love, has taken the cuisine several giant steps beyond those of his predecessors. He travels the New American bistro route, but also diverts to a number of exciting French, Latin, and Asian ports-of-call along the way.

There is a great deal of gastronomic flexibility here, as Chef Kellerman urges his patrons to construct their own unique tasting menu from an array of "small plates." Depending upon your capacity and the state of your peristalsis on a given evening, this may translate into a delightful sampling of from three to five diminutive courses. Should you prefer a more traditional approach, feel free to choose an entrée from the "Large Plates" carte du jour, which is accompanied by a complimentary house salad or cup of one of the restaurant's savory soups. If you are particularly hearty of appetite, this may be further enhanced with a starter from the "Small Plates" selection.

From the petite portions side of the menu, be advised that Mr. Kellerman has restored the tarnished image of the so-called "house salad" with a return to the classic iceberg lettuce wedge ($2.99). A crisp, freshly cut cusp is surrounded by diced cucumbers and delicate slices of tomato and red onion. A completely ingratiating balsamic vinaigrette or slightly watery blue cheese dressing provides the finishing touch. And the finely chopped epicenter of baby spinach salad ($3.99) surrounded by spiced walnuts and crumbled blue cheese is yet another winner.

Continuing in this lighter culinary vein, soups should surely not be neglected. In addition to the ginger carrot soup with a zippy black pepper cream ($2.50), a permanent menu resident, daily specials are also quite recommendable. A brawny white bean with ham ($2.99) and robust chicken & roasted corn chowder ($2.99) are the perfect companions on a chilly evening; the lemongrass infused free-range chicken consommé ($2.99), more suitable for milder temperatures; and the she-crab soup, a delightful seasonal delicacy. You might also consider the restaurant's soup sampler; three pottages priced at a paltry $4.99.

If you've decided to remain on the "Small Plates" side of the menu but are searching for slightly more substantial items, you might opt for the utterly irresistible caramelized onion, fresh thyme, and smoked mozzarella tart ($5.99), curry-dusted shrimp paired with Indian-spiced red bliss potato salad ($8.99), panko-crusted jumbo lump crab cake accompanied by a drizzle of Old Bay spiced aïoli ($9.99), or a succulently grilled salmon filet ($8.99) circumscribed by a three bean and farfalle pasta salad invigorated with a lively red wine vinaigrette.

Moving on to meatier matters, your preferences might include sensuous medium-rare slices of soy-grilled California sirloin on a bed of kim chee-infused purple cabbage consummated with a tangy orange juice reduction ($9.99), fresh herb-sautéed petit filet partnered with a roasted garlic galette ($9.99), and/or pulled pork pot stickers with a racy barbecue dipping sauce ($6.99). The only faux pas here was that the sirloin -- and the salmon noted immediately above -- while perfectly cooked, were so overwhelmed by the taste of the grill as to render the other flavors null and void.

The regular size entrées also have a great deal to recommend them: A perfectly pan-seared crispy red snapper filet ($22.99) is consummated with a subtle herb-infused seafood broth; ordered well done, the grilled filet of beef ($24.99) set on a pillow of sautéed French green beans and mashed potatoes still manages to maintain its velvety, succulent demeanor; and the herb-grilled French breast of chicken ($18.99) is wonderfully tender, aided and abetted by zippy horseradish smashed potatoes, broccoli rabe, and a sweet whole grain mustard jus.

Of the various offerings ingested, only the grilled tuna filet ($22.99), which was ordered on our second visit, received a unanimous "thumbs down." The fish itself, prepared medium-rare and cut into two thick, meaty slices, was of excellent quality... but its natural flavor was completely sabotaged by a rather bizarre calvados sauce that was inordinately viscous and so utterly acrid that it left an unpleasant coating and taste in the mouth for several hours into the evening. Fortunately, on the very next visit, while the tuna remained on the menu, the offending accompaniment had been pulled from the starting lineup.

The homemade desserts ($5.50) remain completely on target. The New York-style cheesecake is appropriately dense but quite smooth on the palate and is drizzled with a very nice milk chocolate sauce. The individual apple torte, delicate slices of fruit embraced by a flaky crust, is surrounded by a sumptuous pool of cinnamon crème anglaise. A special wedge of bread pudding and a dense and decadent chocolate brownie may be mixed and matched with an assortment of exceptional homemade ice creams.

Service, which appeared to be the only significant ghost in the machine, has steadily improved. And Mr. Kellerman's wife -- who acts as server/hostess/jill-of-all-trades -- and twelve-year-old son -- who dispenses water, rolls, and butter -- add a nice personal touch in this regard.

Elements Café provides its patrons with a most exhilarating and satisfying evening at table. You would do well to consider it a definite must on your dining agenda.

Cuisine: New American with French, Latin, and Asian influences
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Fri, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Metered street parking; nearby municipal lots
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.elementscafe.com

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