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La Campagne
Note: Restaurant Now Closed - 2012
312 Kresson Road
Cherry Hill, Camden, New Jersey
(856) 429-7647

By The Artful Diner
February 26, 2007

I have always been a devoted fan of La Campagne, from the very moment it made its illustrious debut, prior to John Byrne's proprietorship, even before Chef Eric Hall -- who recently departed for the Westmont Country Club -- appeared on the scene. But two recent visits have, unfortunately, saddled me with a truckload of mixed emotions. I freely confess that I really do want to continue to endorse this establishment; however, in all candor, things just... well, things just ain't what they used to be.

The rustic décor, of course, remains as cozy and inviting as ever. Hardwood floors, fireplaces, crisp white napery, and the shimmering glow of candlelight all conspire to provide diners with an irresistibly romantic evening at table. But in other areas, the restaurant has clearly lost a step or two.

Service, for example... During my two visits, Mr. Byrne was absent from the premises, while his manager, conspicuously overdressed in a tuxedo, held court. On my first sojourn, Mr. Tuxedo escorted our party to table while balancing an armful of dirty dishes -- hardly an auspicious beginning. And our waiter of the evening was an irritatingly obsessive graduate of the "You Guys" University of Illustrious Restaurant Service. Little things, perhaps; but in these precincts -- and at these prices -- they grate on the gastronomic psyche like fingernails on a blackboard.

The food, however, is the real issue. As noted above, Eric Hall has departed; Richard Benussi, former chef/proprietor of his own restaurant in the British West Indies, is now the power behind the stove. And with all due respect to Mr. Benussi, his cuisine, in my opinion, often fails to hit the mark. And as is unfortunately the case in many establishments, entrées rather than appetizers, are most clearly indicative of the kitchen's shortcomings.

So savor the starters while ye may... The roasted beet salad ($10.00) yields a tender bed of red and golden diced beets crowned with a diminutive portion of warm orange bread pudding. This, in turn, is topped with a sprinkling of toasted pistachios and crumbles of chèvre cheese. The culinary catalyst is a first-rate citrus vinaigrette.

The pear and Roquefort salad ($9.50) is another splendid opening move. Mixed greens are tossed with just the proper amount of a delicious shallot vinaigrette, adorned with toasted pine nuts and morsels of Maytag blue cheese, and topped with slices of rosemary roasted pear. A winning combo in every respect.

The crab cake ($12.00) is also highly recommended. It is lightly pan fried, completely devoid of filler, and set on a sumptuous seabed of wilted Swiss chard. A tiara of smoked tomato compote and artistic squiggles of a zesty mustard aïoli add marvelous consummatory touches. And an onion-apple tart ($9.00) charms the palate with crumbles of goat cheese, smattering of mixed greens, and delightful rosemary vinaigrette.

Other possibilities include seared fois gras on a duck confit and fig marmalade timbale with apple cider reduction ($22.00); Brie en croute ($9.50); charcuterie plate ($16.00); and house-cured salmon with lemon scented crème fraîche, American rainbow trout caviar, and arugula salad ($11.00).

With such an impressive array of appetizers, one wonders how the kitchen can possibly stumble so badly when it comes to the entrées. Beats me... but somehow it finds a way.

At the top of the heap is the hand-cut fettuccine tossed with a wild mushroom ragoût sporting porcini, shiitake, and crimini mushrooms and Pecorino Romano cheese ($24.00). A good, solid, safe bet, though hardly exceptional. The pan-seared red snapper with lump crabmeat ($29.00), also has a good deal to recommend it. The fish and crab are obviously of the highest quality, but pairing them with jasmine rice and a fermented black bean-fennel sauce struck me as somewhat anachronistic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Cassoulet de Toulouse ($28.00) was very nearly beneath contempt. The fact that this particular cassoulet contained duck rather than the traditional mutton is a minor point. The duck sausage was very good, as were the tender morsels of pork. The duck drumstick, on the other hand, contained not a shred... not a speck... not a stitch... not a crumb... fragment... scintilla... sliver... not a trace of meat. The broth, however, was the real culprit. Cassoulet is, by its very nature, a rich, slow-cooked bean stew. But the rendition proffered here was thin and watery, lacking both body and depth of flavor.

On the other hand, the Dover sole amandine (Market Price) WAS beneath contempt. It was presented whole and filleted tableside... but one look at the plate on which the sections of sole would ultimately come to rest immediately indicated that something was strangely amiss. The entire center of the plate, stretching from edge to edge, was inhabited by an oblong glacier, an enormous mountain of whipped potatoes. On one side of this gigantic mound were slivers of sautéed vegetables, which left a minimal amount of space on the other side for this highly-touted -- and extremely expensive -- treasure of the sea.

Whenever a restaurant majors in minors, that is, loads up on accompaniments, I always harbor the suspicion that they are attempting, for whatever reason, to draw the diner's attention away from what should be the center of attraction. Was that the case here? I don't know... I only know that the sole was terrible. Dover sole should be firm of texture, yet delicate of flavor and countenance. The specimen encountered here, however, was decidedly rubbery and tasteless. And when one is shelling out $45.00, the tariff exacted on this particular evening, one expects a great deal more.

Desserts ($8.95) are good, though not outstanding, and seem to lack that old flair. The tart Tatin, in my opinion, remains the pick of the litter. The crust is appropriately flaky and the caramel sauce and ice cream credible traveling companions. The chocolate mousse torte, at least the version I sampled, had obviously spent too much time languishing in the fridge. Other options include an acceptable chestnut-mocha cheesecake and bread pudding de jour (banana-pecan).

La Campagne has been a mecca for fine dining in the South Jersey area -- as well as a personal favorite -- for many years. Several recent visits, however, have been exceedingly disappointing. Does Mr. Benussi need more time to settle comfortably into his new position? Perhaps. But whatever the reasons for the restaurant's shortcomings, it appears obvious that a bit of rethinking and restructuring are definitely called for.

Cuisine: Provençal/Eclectic
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 11:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.lacampagne.com

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