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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@verizon.net.

MO Café & Grill
(Formerly at the Ritz Center in Voorhees)
373 Egg Harbor Road
Washington Township, New Jersey
(856) 566-4225

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
2/13/2006

Ensconced in the heart of yet another strip-mall/mega-movie complex, this stylish, bustling BYOB occupies the space formerly inhabited by the Bluegill Café. And MO's interior design -- a curvaceous California chic combo of colors, shapes, and textures -- screams "Wolfgang Puck Slept Here" from every corner and banquette. The restaurant also serves up its offerings on snow white plates whose curvy countenances prove the perfect match for the dapper décor.

The decorative scheme has changed very little from its original incarnation... but there the similarity ends. Whereas the Bluegill majored in a series of hit or miss gastronomic gimmicks (appetizers and entrées named after movie stars, for instance), chef/proprietor Michael O'Mara -- formerly of Philadelphia's La Truffe and Café Society and the 841 Wood Fired Grill in Marlton -- serves up some absolutely first-rate culinary offerings from his energetic open kitchen. These encompass an eclectic array of small plates, scintillating salads, au courant brick oven pizzas, and globally-inspired main courses. The brick oven also turns out scrumptious piping hot rolls that prove to be exceedingly homey harbingers of the delectably diverse palatable pleasantries yet to come.

The engaging selection of small plates allows diners the option of doing a bit of gastronomic grazing in lieu of a regular size entrée or choosing one as an appetizer before moving on to the restaurant's "Main Plates." If you happen to be in the mood for seafood, for example, you might elect to start things off with the lobster and crab nachos in the company of avocado salsa and smoked Gouda ($11.00) followed by either the pan-fried calamari ($9.00) or prosciutto-wrapped scallops with micro green salad ($11.00). Should you be feeling more culinarily carefree, there's always the homemade kettle chips bathed in melted Gorgonzola ($8.00).

My own favorites include the tempura-battered string beans ($7.00) and cheese steak spring rolls ($10.00). The green beans are cooked just right -- marvelously crunchy to the bite -- and are given over to the loving embrace of an absolutely ethereal tempura batter. And the sweet/sour mustard dipping sauce offers just enough punch to maintain the palate's undivided attention. The cheese steak rolls are absolutely scrumptious and thoroughly addictive. The crisp golden brown exterior yields to a moist, creamy core rife with tender beef, melted cheese, and savory seasonings. A ramekin of spicy ketchup and smattering of fried Vidalia onions are perfectly complementary finishing touches.

Either salad or soup also makes a splendid opening move. Among the former, I would highly recommend the tri-color wedge ($10.00) -- iceberg, red leaf, and Boston lettuces -- sprinkled with crisp bacon, surrounded by quarters of hard-cooked egg and crowned with one grilled shrimp. A judiciously applied zesty homemade Thousand Island dressing strikes just the proper consummating chord. When it comes to the latter, two freshly made soups are available each day ($6.00). Recently sampled was an exceptionally seasoned hearty potato pottage imbued with bacon, cheddar cheese, and scallions.

Even before arriving at the so-called "Main Plates," there are still a number of interesting dining options. One may, for example, decide to zero in on the first-rate individual brick oven pizzas ($11.00). The "Margherita" -- fresh buffalo mozzarella, plum tomatoes, and Thai basil -- is very, very good and certainly the most straightforward of the lot. Then, of course, there's always the "Smoked Salmon" route, comprised of goat cheese, caramelized red onion, and crispy capers; "Barbeque Chicken" with smoked Gouda, scallions, and Alfredo dipping sauce; or the "Chorizo Sausage," also featuring grilled chicken, shrimp, bacon, chopped tomatoes, and saffron infused oil.

But even these don't exhaust your casual choices. If you happen to be overwhelmed with a craving for a great burger, this is the perfect spot to assuage that hunger. MO's version ($15.00) is prepared with Kobe beef, topped with Gruyere cheese, and garnished with smoked bacon, a juicy slice of Jersey tomato, and companioned by crisp, battered pommes frites. Needless to say, the entire package is completely irresistible. Burger fans take note.

Among the regular entrées, the cedar plank salmon ($19.00) is particularly noteworthy. It is at the very peak of good health, nicely grilled, and presented with tender baby bok choy and pan-seared butter gnocchi that is pleasantly firm to the bite rather than feathery. Also highly recommended is the crisp cranberry/pistachio-encrusted tilapia paired with Israeli couscous ($20.00).

The moist chicken Milanese ($19.00) is caressed by Asiago cheese and served with an excellent cauliflower gratin that is also available as a side ($5.00); bucatini ($19.00) -- thin, hollow pasta -- is served Bolognese-style imbued with pancetta and sautéed onions; and the wasabi-crusted filet mignon ($29.00) is partnered with luscious roasted shallot mashed potatoes and finished with a zippy ponzu sauce.

The "Veal Trio" ($27.00) -- saltimbocca, francaise, Oscar -- accompanied by a savory roasted garlic orzo and beautifully grilled asparagus spears is also quite good. My only qualm here is that the uniform sizes and texture of the medallions seem to suggest processed veal rather than fresh cutlets. If this suspicion is in error, apologies are duly offered.

Desserts ($7.00) are the weakest aspect of MO's culinary repertoire. Apart from the banana chocolate peanut butter spring rolls, which are made in-house and are quite excellent, other offerings are imported from off campus and generic at best, including a strictly rank-and-file Oreo torte that tasted like it had spent entirely too much time languishing in the nether regions of the fridge.

The only other problem here is a logistical one. In the bleak midwinter, the tables situation along the wall of windows are decidedly drafty... and even more so when the front door swings open, permitting the mistral to blow down this icy corridor and chill diners to the bone. If you wish to stay warm, prevail upon the powers-that-be to seat you in one of the cozy booths along the interior wall.

MO Café & Grill is the perfect spot for a casual chow-down before or after checking out the latest flick (there is even a temperature-controlled wine cabinet where diners may leave their vintages before a movie at the Ritz and return later for dinner). If your dining experiences have become somewhat humdrum affairs of late, this energetic eatery is guaranteed to add a little pizzazz to your gastronomic pursuits.

Cuisine: Northern Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat & Sun Brunch: 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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