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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@worldnet.att.net.

27 East Railroad Avenue
Jamesburg, Middlesex County, New Jersey
(732) 521-0878

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com

Note: 01/2006 - New Chef - Daniel Kaufman.

I've always liked Fiddleheads, Larrie and Linda Collura's unpretentious storefront eatery that began life as a lowly luncheonette. And now that the new proprietors, Brian Blatz and Dan Davis, have spruced things up a bit -- slapping on a fresh coat of paint and adorning the walls with the colorful works of local artists -- I like it even more. The place has a nice feel about it, simple yet stylish; the gallery/bistro atmosphere provides just the proper milieu for a casually upbeat dining experience.

Mr. Blatz presides over the front of the house with an easy-going ebullience, while Mr. Davis, the executive chef, sends forth an appetizing array of eclectic offerings from the kitchen. In point of fact, Fiddleheads constitutes something of a creative oasis in an otherwise bland-leading-the-bland culinary wasteland. And yet... the food still exhibits a homey, comforting edge, is more than reasonably priced, and is doled out in ample proportions.

The menu is a comprehensive document and also sports a few leftovers from the former owners' bill of fare... The Brie baked in pastry embellished with apples, almonds, and a generous dose of cream ($6.95) remains an extravagantly rich starter. The French onion soup with three cheeses ($4.95) is another repeat performer, as is the smoked tomato bisque ($3.25 cup; $4.25 bowl), which continues its long run as the house specialty. Its flavor is concentrated and intensely smoky, and it also sports a more coagulated constitution than did the representative of the previous administration.

Entrée holdovers from Mr. Collura's tenure include a good but not exceptional veal Marsala smothered with sautéed mushrooms ($17.95), grilled pork chops presented on a bed of pickled red cabbage ($16.95), and duck confit sauced with apples, raspberries, molasses, and cream ($19.95).

But so much for not-so-ancient history. Newcomers continue the international intrigue and offer up a number of palpable hits and a few near misses. So let's begin at the top... Among the starters, the warm goat cheese tart embraced by a marvelous pastry crust ($6.95) has a great deal to recommend it. And a topping of walnut pesto and thin slices of roasted tomato are perfect counterpoints to the creamy richness of the cheese.

I also very much enjoyed the grilled shrimp ($8.95), a nightly special. The crustaceans were perfectly cooked and seasoned, set around a luscious epicenter of guacamole sprinkled with alfalfa sprouts, and surrounded by a light Cajun cream sauce. The special chicken saté ($6.95) was another winner. The gently grilled skewered morsels were extremely moist and tender and accompanied by a subtle creamy peanut sauce. The only problem was that the skewers were awkwardly plated in a shallow oblong serving dish, which made extraction and ingestion a somewhat iffy proposition.

An appetizer of mushroom caps stuffed with crumbled andouille sausage and diced bell peppers ($6.95) is one of those items that sounded like a winner but lost something in translation. The sausage itself was surprisingly bland; and a thin coating of browned Swiss cheese ameliorated this situation only minimally. The biggest surprise, however, was that the mushrooms -- I assume by accident -- were raw rather than baked/broiled/sautéed, which contributed yet another uninspiring note to the proceedings.

Among the main courses, the "Steak Diane" ($23.95) -- filet mignon with horseradish, onions, and bordelaise -- is a hearty presentation that is sure to more than satisfy the confirmed carnivores in your party. The "Chicken Ensemble" ($17.95) -- filled with Romano, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses, wrapped in bacon, and served up with a light tomato sauce on a bed of angel hair pasta -- also pushes all the right buttons... ditto the perfectly sautéed wheat- and walnut-encrusted catfish with zesty lemon mayonnaise ($16.95) and the special tilapia basted with citrus butter sauce and served en casserole with thin slices of orange and tomato ($17.95).

The shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage jambalaya ($18.95), boasting fresh and crunchy crustaceans, moist morsels of fowl, and perfectly cooked sausage is yet another excellent choice. My only gripe here is that the dish -- courtesy of chili powder and cayenne -- could use a bit more punch.

A complimentary salad included with the main course bears all the marks of having sprung from a premixed cellophane pouch; the homemade dressings, however -- specifically the blue cheese and creamy roasted shallot -- are quite good. One may also upgrade to a Caesar salad ($2.95 extra); although I found the dressing, sampled on two separate occasions, to be inordinately pasty.

Desserts ($5.00) are all homemade, several fresh from Mr. Blatz's mother's oven. These include a very good apple walnut cinnamon cake drizzled with icing, a slightly dry carrot cake, and an absolutely fantastic cranberry bread pudding. Mr. Davis's chocolate peanut butter caramel tart is outstanding, as is a nightly special, a delightfully decadent cappuccino mousse served up in a clear glass coffee mug.

When it comes to entrée accompaniments, I am in complete agreement with the sentiments of David Shannon -- executive chef/co-owner of Dogwood Grille & Spirits in Richmond, Virginia, and alumnus of the New England Culinary Institute and Inn at Little Washington -- recently quoted in Richmond magazine: "I try to make the plates look like one complete thought, not just your basic meat, veg and starch." This is surely not Fiddleheads strong suit, however, as each entrée sent forth is embellished with either mashed potatoes or clumpy jasmine rice and a vegetable of the chef's choosing. Sometimes these pairings are appropriate... sometimes they strike one as oxymoronic (overly buttery green beans with jambalaya, for example).

This situation is , of course, exacerbated by the presence of so many retirement communities in the immediate area, the inhabitants of which may be a bit on the conservative side when it comes to matters of ingestion. One can certainly understand that Messrs. Blatz and Davis would be somewhat averse to risk the alienation of such a significant client base with an overtly avant-garde approach to cuisine. Be that as it may... a somewhat less rigid vegetable-starch by-the-numbers approach to the establishment's otherwise innovative presentations would be most welcome.

Cuisine: Eclectic
Hours: Lunch: Weds - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Weds & Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Sunday brunch: 10:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Ample street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes Website: jamesburg.net/fiddleheads/

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