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Lorena's
168 Maplewood Avenue
Maplewood
, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 763-4460

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
November 27, 2006

They say that good things come in small packages. And that is certainly true of the enchanting jewel-box located in the very heart of Maplewood Village. This diminutive space has been home to a number of intriguing eateries over the course of the years, most notably and recently Jocelyne's, which, much to the dismay of the GardenState's culinary cognoscenti, closed abruptly last year. But take heart, Lorena's, which celebrated its first anniversary on October 1st, has New Jersey's dedicated foodies buzzing once again.

Like his predecessor, Mitchell Altholz, chef/proprietor Humberto Campos, Jr., offers up an enticing array of upscale French fare with international flair. Mr. Campos, a graduate of the CIA and alumnus of such illustrious kitchens as Nicholas and the Ryland Inn, utilizes only the freshest possible, seasonally-inspired ingredients and weaves them together with verve and imagination. His presentations are artistic without being anachronistic, innovative but not ingenuous. In short, there is substance here as well as style. Mr. Campos succeeds admirably where many other chefs fail: He engages the eye without short-changing the palate.

Interestingly enough, you begin with the one item not made in-house: slices of rustic bread sided with a wedge of sweet butter crowned with a few crystals of sea salt. Imported from off campus the bread may be, but it delightfully textured, nearly a meal in itself, and it sets the stage admirably for the gastronomic delights to follow.

Appetizers are as beautifully presented as they are delicious. The Maine lump crabmeat salad ($13.00) is comprised of a disc of sweet, pristinely fresh crab surrounded by a stream of tomato emulsion and crowning of baby lettuces. A splash of preserved lemon and smattering of sensuously salty sea beans add wonderful consummatory touches.

The yellowfin tuna tartar ($13.00) is another eye-catching seafood starter. The incredibly meaty, superbly spiced tartar arrives on a rectangular plate juxtaposed with a salad of cucumber, edamame, and baby radishes. In this instance, the culinary catalysts are a sprinkling of fresh herbs and subtly assertive ginger essence.

The presentation of marinated artichoke hearts ($13.00) clearly demonstrates Mr. Campos's complete mastery of complementary and contrasting tastes and textures. Three fresh hearts luxuriate on a creamy pillow of eggplant purée. But the richness is wonderfully counterpoised by an earthy tiara of micro greens and the saltiness of a smattering of black olive tapenade and shavings of ricotta salatta (a Parmesan-like cheese hailing from the Sicilian city of Catania).

And a prelude of roasted baby beets ($13.00) exhibits equal flair and finesse. Wedges of red and golden baby beets and chèvre fondant surround an epicenter of Graiff Farms frisée and mâche. The crowning touch, however, is an outer ribbon of enticing Valencia orange emulsion. Once again, the chef delivers just the right combination of ingredients with just the proper proportional panache.

Entrées continue with a definitive sense of style... The Atlantic halibut ($28.00), for example, is pan seared to a beautiful golden brown, set on a pillow of roasted parsnip, apple, and sage, and surrounded by a scintillating sea of brown butter shellfish broth. Pure delight... But even better, in my opinion, are the superlative Maine scallops ($28.00). Like the aforementioned halibut, the bivalves are pan seared to perfection, the golden brown crust yielding to a sensuously meaty interior. The scallops luxuriate on a bed of melted Napa cabbage -- an inspired touch -- with firm yet tender potato gnocchi, smattering of pancetta, and beguiling beurre blanc in strong supporting roles.

The lamb sirloin ($32.00) is another superlative effort. Thick, marvelously tender slices recline on a bed of caponata salad; and the lamb manages to retain its own distinctive flavor rather than the "mystery meat" character often discernable in lesser establishments. Chunks of merguez, a spicy Moroccan sausage flavored with harissa, a hot chili paste, add a good deal of zip to the presentation, while a sumptuous white bean purée and exceptional rosemary lamb jus provide equally satisfying stimulation for the palate.

Meat lovers also can't go wrong with the extraordinary Cervena venison ($32.00). Presented au poivre, it is companioned by braised red cabbage, potato gratin, and is finished with a zesty spiced red wine reduction. An interesting aside... conspicuous by its absence from the menu during my two visits was any mention of the ubiquitous filet mignon. Refreshing, indeed.

And speaking of ubiquity, nothing appears to be more omnipresent than various and sundry incarnations of the much maligned common domestic fowl. Be that as it may, Mr. Campos's version of the Giannone free-range chicken breast ($26.00) is anything but commonplace. Set on a bed of spaetzle, field mushrooms, and young broccoli, the moist skin-on slices melt in the mouth and reach new heights on the wings of an incredible black truffle chicken jus.

Desserts ($8.00), particularly the homemade ice creams, are excellent across the board. But should you be in the market for more decadent denouements, Michel Cluizel's "Hacienda," warm soft chocolate cake sided with Sicilian pistachio ice cream, is not to be missed. The lemon tart and individual toffee & praline cheesecake -- the former juxtaposed with blueberry compote, the latter with banana compote -- are also worthy of serious consideration.

In my opinion, however, the only civilized way to conclude your evening at Lorena's is with the artisan cheese plate accompanied by slices of walnut raisin bread and dried fruits and nuts ($15.00). The offerings, of course, change according to availability and the whim of the chef; but, when it is offered, don't pass up the opportunity to enjoy Époisses, an aged French cheese produced from unpasturized cow's milk and characterized by a pungent, spicy aroma and strong, meaty taste.

If certain financial restrictions prohibit you from jetting off to Paris in search of a suitable scratch for your Gallic gastronomic itch, you will find Lorena's a most enjoyable -- and certainly less expensive -- sojourn. Just be advised... given the spatial limitations and the immense popularity of this charming establishment, reservations should be made well in advance.

Cuisine: French
Hours: Dinner: Weds - Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY & TUESDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart Casual
Reservations: Necessary
Parking: Street and nearby municipal parking areas
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Difficult
Website: www.restaurantlorena.com

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