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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.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Robin's Nest
2 Washington Street
Mount Holly, Burlington County, New Jersey
(609) 261-6149

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
9/8/98

Despite the wheeling and dealing going on down at the Burlington County Courthouse, Mount Holly strikes one as just another sleepy little South Jersey hamlet... There are, however, still several points of historical interest. Chief among them is "The Village at Mill Race," a cluster of recently restored buildings that are home to a number of antique and specialty shops. And the "point guard" for this gentrification project is Robin's Nest, a popular bakery/restaurant that has graced the corner of White and Washington Streets for the past eleven years.

You enter through the bakery proper, where shoppers may select goodies to travel or linger over coffee, cappuccino and espresso. There are several dining areas here, of both the smoking and nonsmoking persuasion, plus a diminutive, old-fashioned bar that is the perfect spot for some preprandial quaffing. The decor is courtesy of owner JoAnn Winzinger and the "anything goes" school of interior design. You find items from the old Fox Theater in Philadelphia, chairs rescued from the late Madison Hotel in Atlantic City, a veritable hodge-podge of artifacts, utensils and crockery, and a tacky array of multicolored vinyl tablecloths. And the piped-in music is as eclectic as the ornamentation; it wafts from opera to "Old Blue Eyes" to New Wave and back again...

But so much for ambiance... Your first real stirrings of doubt with regard to this establishment's kitchen capabilities are coincidental with the arrival of the wine list, a woefully inadequate selection of California white zinfandels (never a good sign), cabs, merlots, and overoaked chardonnays. Even the few foreign entries represent marginal quality from dubious sources. A 1996 Berringer Chardonnay ($22.00) is undoubtedly your most expeditious course of action. If that doesn't appeal, there are also several nondescript vintages available by the glass. And the wine service is strictly amateur night. Had I not called a halt to the proceedings, our overeager waitress would gleefully have filled us to the brim.

With wines in such a dismal state... can the food be far behind? Not necessarily. But Robin's Nest is, sad to say, yet another striking example of the all too common "good news/bad news" culinary scenario. When it comes to appetizers, for instance, Chef Kathy Thorp acquits herself with suitable aplomb. On one occasion, a special of smoked salmon with horseradish-cucumber salad proved the perfect prelude. Ditto the spicy chicken quesadillas. On another visit, my wife simply raved about the shrimp casino. The medium-size crustaceans are sautéed with bacon, onion, and peppers and then topped with Swiss cheese and baked until golden brown. Equally delicious were the salmon cakes served up with a side of horseradish cream.

The house salad (included in the price of the entree), on the other hand, is strictly UNDERwhelming. Tired greens, sprouts and cucumber slice are drowned in a treacly orange poppy seed dressing. And, even in the midst of New Jersey's glorious growing season, you are treated to a single anemic cherry tomato.

Entrees, however, are most clearly indicative of Ms. Thorp's "on again/off again" gastronomic affair with her patrons. A special of fettuccine, chicken, white beans and escarole is right on target and the perfect repast for a warm summer's evening. Her signature dish, on the other hand, honey pecan chicken swimming in a cranberry cream sauce, is entirely too rich and overbearing for most palates. Several other dishes, notably the pork Normandy (more properly suited to the fall season) and lobster ravioli, are similarly gussied up.

Finny creatures, though, fare somewhat better. A special pan-roasted sea bass is gently caressed by a delicate tomato-bacon vinaigrette. The salmon filet, whether baked in a horseradish crust or grilled and embellished with a honey mustard soy glaze, is also a delicious possibility... Once again, however, even among the recommended entrees, there is a down side. Nearly all are accompanied by two additional less than edifying comestibles: the first is a rather salty rice pilaf that looks suspiciously like it was cloned from a plastic pouch; the second is a mound of bland, slightly overcooked veggies.

But the major disappointment is still in the offing... Since Robin's Nest bills itself as a bakery as well as a restaurant, you naturally anticipate that Pastry Chef Robin Winzinger's dessert creations will be up to the mark. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Pie and tart crusts are absolutely flavorless, custard fillings taste boxed, creamy tortes are the consistency of quick-drying cement... and all appear to be suffering the debilitating effects of an extended exile in the frige.

Yet, even with the aforementioned faux pas, this establishment continues to appeal to a wide-range of customers. After all, the portions are generous and the price is right. However, even with its reasonable tariffs, "sticker shock" is still a definite possibility: like the $90.00 (including tax, tip and a $22.00 vintage) my wife and I shelled out during our most recent visit... And that is far too high a price to pay for such mediocre fare.

If you just happen to be passing through, you could certainly do worse than chowing down at Robin's Nest... but, given the number of excellent restaurants in the immediate area, you could also do infinitely better...

Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Weds - Thurs, 4:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri - Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: In bar area and adjacent dining room only
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite and street parking
Alcohol: License
Price: Appetizers: $2.75 - $8.95; Entrees: $12.95 - $21.95; Desserts: $4.75

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