Let me preface my remarks by stating that James and Nancy Laird's Restaurant
Serenade is, without doubt, one of New Jersey's finest (and costliest)
Interestingly enough, however, my sojourn here was faintly reminiscent of
the situation encountered several years ago when I dined at the Ryland Inn and
Nicholas on consecutive evenings. Nicholas was, at the time, not yet six months
old, but its cuisine was fresh and vibrant, alive with clarity of purpose and
intensity of flavor; in contrast, the Ryland Inn's offerings seemed overly
cumbersome and plodding.
More recent circumstances were similar, though not nearly so pronounced, and
in reverse order: dinner at Serenade was preceded by an evening at
Lorena's in Maplewood. And, once again, a certain degree of comparison/contrast
was inevitable. Leaving aside such issues as ambiance and service and
concentrating solely on the food, in my opinion, Lorena's cuisine acquitted
itself with a good deal more savoir faire. It exhibited a lighter, more
sophisticated touch in both its choice of its ingredients and in its
That is not to say, of course, that Serenade's culinary offerings are
in any way to be denigrated. Mr. Laird is certainly a highly acclaimed and
accomplished chef, quickly approaching the stratosphere of his chosen
profession. His starter of creamless purée of pumpkin soup ($13.00), for
example, is nothing short of supernal. The consistency is neither too thick nor
too thin, and the infusion of apples, chestnuts, and chives is an absolute
marvel of subtle restraint.
On the other hand, his grilled octopus ($15.00) is somewhat heavy handed.
Morsels of slightly chewy (as one would expect) octopus are companioned by
tender diced potatoes, olive oil, and pinch of preserved lemon. But the
presentation lacks flair, does absolutely nothing for the eye and even less for
the palate and, as you soon discover, suffers from a surfeit of oil.
The endive salad ($10.00) hits all the right notes, with shaved Asian pears,
earthy Roquefort cheese, and molasses-glazed pecans adding to the rich textural
complexity. Taste-wise, it cannot be faulted. Once again, however, the
presentation is somewhat lackluster, as the various components might have been
dropped onto the plate from twenty thousand feet. One does not expect a work of
art, but a more attractive display would undoubtedly do wonders to stimulate
The crab cakes ($17.00) have a more artistic flair and are quite good... but
not AS good as those sampled in numerous other Garden State
establishments. They are also over breaded and, in my opinion, overpriced. If
you insist upon traveling the seafood route, the fried Maine oysters ($14.00)
are pristinely plump and perfectly complemented by a zippy soy-ginger
mignonette and superb seaweed salad.
If a restaurant is destined to let you down, disappointment will generally
rear its ugly head with the entrées rather than the appetizers. At Serenade,
however, the obverse appears to be true, as main courses, for the most part,
have infinitely more to offer than their predecessors.
The filet mignon ($35.00), for example, is absolutely benchmark. The beef is
magnificently tender, its pillow of potato purée positively addictive, and the
accompanying peppercorn sauce a profound culinary catalyst. The pork (a special
entrée offered as part of the Friday evening prix fixe), which has been
known to turn dry at the drop of a fork, is undeniably moist and succulent;
unfortunately, its pairing with a mound of lemon thyme risotto is a rather
ill-conceived marriage and not terribly edifying to the eye.
On the seafood front, the pan-roasted sea bass ($34.00) hits all the right
notes: The flesh is delicate and flaky; and the topping of apples, cucumbers,
capers, and tomatoes is just assertive enough without overpowering the fish's
own natural flavor.
Calf's liver is a dish I dearly love but order only occasionally -- and with
good reason. Though its preparation is relatively simple, it is still quite
easy to muck up. For starters, if improperly trimmed, it can be off-puttingly
fibrous; secondly, depending upon the predilection of the chef, it is apt to
put in a well-timed appearance either bleeding on the server's socks or as
tough as shoe leather. Finally, I prefer my liver au naturel, or at least
gussied up as little as possible; and that is exceedingly difficult to come by
as it is generally smothered in onions and/or bacon or drowned in a God-awful
That being said, however, let me hasten to add that Mr. Laird's version is a
superlative effort. The liver is prepared to a perfect compromise between
medium and medium rare and exhibits an appetizingly silken texture.
Refreshingly unadorned, its thick slices recline on a bed of peas and green
& yellow beans; a luscious bacon-onion tartlet and superlative cassis sauce
provide first-rate complementary touches.
Desserts here ($10.00) are quite good; and the best bet is also the
simplest: homemade ice creams and sorbets. Recently sampled was an outstanding
rum raisin ice cream presented on a disc of caramelized phyllo with a garnish
of fresh fruit. Other standouts include a homey cobbler -- in whatever seasonal
guise it may appear -- and a pecan-crusted warm chocolate tart embellished with
a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
Serenade's wine list, as you would expect, is world-class -- and
pricey. A savvy oenophile may be able to discover a few reasonably priced
gems... but I wouldn't count on it. Even vintage offerings by the glass may end
up putting a hefty dent in your wallet. A 2003 Chassagne-Montrachet from Michel
Colin-Deléger, for instance, will set you back $19.00; and a 1999 Santenay
"Les Gravières" 1er Cru from the same producer will cause $16.00
worth of damage. Both, of course, are of excellent quality. Other offerings in
the $8.00 - $10.00 range are not nearly so impressive.
And speaking of prices... There is absolutely no question that Serenade
would never be considered a cheap date. As you have undoubtedly noticed, the à
la carte menu features appetizers in the mid and upper teens, salads and
desserts priced at $10.00 per, and only two entrées below the $30.00 mark. The
"Market Menu" and "Seafood Celebration," chef's tasting
menus, weigh in at $80.00 per person, $115.00 per person with wine pairings. No
wonder the weekend $59.00 three-course prix fixe (which also includes
coffee or tea) is considered such a bargain, although lobster and rack of lamb
carry hefty $8.00 supplements.
But there are other factors at work... On a recent visit, the Maître d' led
our party of five through the nearly empty, much-preferred cathedral-ceilinged
main dining room down a few steps to a lower dining area, which, I quickly
noticed, was soon to be shared by a party of 12 - 15 -- and subsequently was,
replete with a boisterous, peripatetic clientele flashing away with abandon to
capture the moment. We were seated next to the gas fireplace that the Maître d'
described as "cozy." And it might well have been, had our table not
be situated in direct earshot, eyeshot, and noseshot of the nearby kitchen
door, through which there passed a never-ending stream of various and sundry
restaurant personnel. Cozy? It think not.
Needless to say, we immediately asked for a change of venue and were
promptly seated in the main dining area. Our aforementioned abode is obviously
the least desirable table in the house, hence the restaurant attempts to fill
it as quickly as possible. But when one makes reservations well in advance,
arrives early in the evening, and notes that the establishment is the next
thing to empty, being shuffled off to Siberia is somewhat disconcerting.
And speaking of disconcerting... this brings us inevitably to Serenade's
service, which, in March of 2003, David Corcoran of the NJ section of the New
York Times described as "attentive, though it can feel brittle and
overrehearsed." If anything, the situation has actually degenerated.
Members of the wait staff position themselves like a phalanx of self-conscious
penguins auditioning for bit parts in A Chorus Line, their facial
features locked in a carefully controlled cybernetic countenance. No matter
what stage of your meal, you imagine their eyes boring into you, ready to swoop
in and deprive you of sustenance at the drop of a fork. The service is, in
short, intrusive to a fault. Interestingly enough, however, when I was trying
desperately to order a glass of wine at the outset of dinner, all attentions
appeared to be focused elsewhere.
The big question, of course, is to be found at the bottom line: Is Serenade
worth its not insignificant price tag? Portion sizes are certainly ample (at
times, almost too ample) and, in my opinion, presentations could
demonstrate a tad more sophistication, so I seriously doubt that anyone will
feel short-changed. And, given the upscale surroundings, this establishment is
the perfect venue for those who wish to splurge on that special occasion. So I
guess the answer is, very simply: It depends on who's picking up the tab. If
you are, bring the platinum card or a substantial amount of long green.
Cuisine: American with French
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Fri, 6:00
p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Business Casual
Alcohol: License; extensive and pricey wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
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