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Luke's Kitchen
Restaurant Now Closed - The Laurel has opened in its place
175 Maplewood Avenue
Maplewood, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 763-4006

By The Artful Diner
August 18, 2008

This narrow, attractive storefront has been home to two exceedingly interesting restaurants: American Fare and Terra. Both highly regarded by reviewers... and both rather short-lived. Now comes Luke's Kitchen (named after the proprietor's son), which opened in the fall of 2007. And I couldn't help wondering, as I surveyed the rather sparse crowd on a recent Friday evening, if the location wasn't jinxed.

There are, of course, culinary venues that just seem to have the kiss of death. No matter what type of restaurant settles in -- no matter how excellent the cuisine or how well run the establishment as a whole -- nothing seems to last... And I'm certainly hoping that this is not the case here.

After all, Luke's Kitchen couldn't be more ideally situated: Firmly ensconced on Maplewood Village's main drag, just a few doors away from Lorena's and St. James' Gate Publick House, two exceedingly popular eateries, it is only logical to assume that a good deal of business would drift its way.

Even more than this, however, the food is absolutely top drawer. And, given chef/owner Rod Hernandez's rather hefty credentials, that would come as no surprise. Not only is he a graduate of the culinary school at the Culinary Arts Institute in Jersey City, he is also an alumnus of some legendary Manhattan kitchens, including Lutèce, Le Cirque 2000, and Alain Ducasse.

Mr. Hernandez's technique is foundationally French, but his approach is contemporary and his globally-inspired cuisine is completely unfettered by the usual culinary boundary restrictions. His presentations are stylish but subtle, assaulting neither the eye nor the palate. His choice and combination of ingredients are impeccable; and everything -- including the ice creams and sorbets -- are made in house.

The bill of fare is no longer à la carte; it now boasts a $35.00 prix fixe, which encompasses a choice of 4 appetizers, 3 entrées, and 2 desserts. The left side of the menu lists the various options in each category, while the right side notes main courses and desserts that include a supplemental charge. Topping the subsidiaries are the 16-ounce dry-aged rib eye ($10.00 additional) and the soft shell crab cioppino with mussels, cockles, and shrimp (also $10.00).

I'm not sure whether this particular prix fixe owed its genesis to the "necessity is the mother of invention" rubric -- namely to drum up more business -- or whether it came into being ex nihilo. In any event, I do like the idea. I also like the fact that the menu is compact and straightforward; it doesn't boggle the mind with too many options.

As you would expect in such a fine establishment, you begin with an amuse bouche. Recently sampled, for instance, was a diminutive wedge of onion tart -- a holdover from the previous menu -- teamed with julienned Granny Smith apples and a decidedly spirited citrus vinaigrette. The perfect jump-start for a healthy appetite.

Among the appetizers, the chilled cucumber soup is a superb effort and the perfect prelude on a sultry summer's evening. Spruced up with just a hint of dill, dash of smoked paprika, and single poached shrimp, it succeeds in soothing the soul as well as the palate. Shrimp also plays an important role in another starter: The crustaceans are skewered, then they are roasted and served up with an incredibly addictive basil mousse imbued with julienned roasted pepper and fennel.

I freely confess that I have never been a fan of watermelon, as I find the mushy flesh entirely too sweet for my taste. But the watermelon salad presented here is enough to make a believer out of even the most ardent of skeptics... Morsels of diced fruit are topped with crumbled goat cheese, splashes of olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. The tartness of the cheese and acidic notes of the vinegar prove to be perfect foils for the watermelon's cloying sweetness. A strange combo, admittedly, but it works beautifully.

When it comes to entrées, suzuki, Japanese sea bass, is a menu staple. It is roasted and presented on a seabed of Yukon gold potatoes, asparagus spears, and grape tomatoes. The flesh is moist and succulent, its flavor greatly enhanced via a judiciously applied balsamic glaze. The only minor faux pas is that the fish comes swimming in a sea of oil, which tends to run roughshod over the dish's other captivating qualities.

The wild Alaskan King salmon ($9.00 supplement), however, suffered from no such malady. I like my salmon cooked through, not translucent at the center -- and that is precisely how Mr. Hernandez delivered it. Cooked through, yes... but still moist and at the peak of good health; and it arrived on a pillow of French lentils imbued with chorizo sausage and mushrooms. An inspired marriage of tastes and textures, with a pool of green pea purée providing a dazzling dash of color.

The roasted half chicken may strike some as a strictly mundane offering; on the other hand, it is also an excellent indicator of the kitchen's prowess. A simple dish, yes, but one that is easily mucked up -- a smidgen too long in the oven, for instance, and it may well put in a guest appearance as dry as dust. Here, however, it is done to perfection. The flesh is moist and juicy and simply adorned with pinches of salt, oregano, thyme, and a consummating garlic jus. Creamy mashed potatoes make a supremely comforting companion.

Desserts, like all that has preceded them, are lovingly prepared and attractively presented. House-made ice creams, for example, include such luscious flavors as Tahitian vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon white pepper, and coffee. Also included in the $35.00 prix fixe is a sumptuously textured mango-pear panna cotta garnished with fresh berries and whipped cream.

On the supplemental side ($3.00 additional), the bananas and white chocolate embraced by layers of flaky phyllo and companioned by lavender ice cream is irresistible... ditto the tender diced apples wrapped in crepes with Tahitian vanilla ice cream.

Luke's Kitchen doesn't get the publicity accorded many other establishments, but its excellent cuisine and reasonable prices surely mark it as a restaurant that should be high on everyone's dining agenda... It is on mine.

Cuisine: Globally inspired
Hours: Tues - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY AND MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major (but appreciates if customers would choose not to use AX)
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking; metered parking lots
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.lukeskitchen.com

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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