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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.

Terra Nova
590 Delsea Drive
Sewell, Gloucester County, New Jersey
(856) 589-8883

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
May 14, 2007

Printable Copy of this Review

There is absolutely no question that Antonio Cammarata's Terra Nova is an exceedingly handsome establishment. It boasts tile floors, exposed bricks, rich woodwork, an open kitchen, and wine bottles, wine racks, and wine paraphernalia in every conceivable nook and cranny. It also headlines an impressive catalog of vintages, approximately 50 of which are available by the glass.

Since Gloucester County isn't exactly a mecca of fine dining, when I heard that Mr. Cammarata had traded in the bustling, family-friendly food and environs of an Italian bistro for the decidedly upscale Napa-ish American cuisine and décor, replete with crudo and raw & wine bars, I was immediately interested. And, after several visits, I must agree that Terra Nova has a great deal of potential; however, as of this writing, there are just too many elements that don't quite gel.

Let's start with the service... The black-clad servers are young and enthusiastic; but they are often pushed to the max by the invading hordes. They also need to be more attentive to their customers' needs and requests. On one occasion, for example, my wife and I ordered double espressos ($4.50 per). When they arrived, however, they were clearly singles ($3.00 per). How do I know? The next time out we ordered singles and received more juice than we had in the supposed doubles! But when we queried our server, she couldn't be bothered to check with the bartender who was manning the espresso machine; she just went ahead and charged us for the doubles.

Speaking of the espresso machine... perhaps said bartender could use a crash course in the operations manual. My wife's rendition was strong and potent and just the right temperature. Mine was lukewarm and about as robust as stale dishwater.

And there are food faux pas as well...

The restaurant offers a number of grilled fish (ahi tuna, $22.00; Canadian king salmon, $19.50; Nantucket swordfish, $19.00; Costa Rican Tilapia, $17.00; California sea bass, $21.00) and shellfish (jumbo shrimp, $18.50; diver scallops, $20.00; lobster tails, $28.50) paired with a choice of sauces (mango salsa; lemon beurre fondue; scampi butter; Asian ginger vinaigrette).

An excellent concept -- if executed properly. But the sea bass I sampled was decidedly "fishy" of countenance and undercooked (and this is one denizen of the deep that should not be translucent at the center). The lemon beurre fondue was good but not exceptional; the almond rice pilaf was unremarkable; and the haricots verts were oily and overly salty.

The veal chop ($28.50) was another victim of undercooking. Actually, the chop had a great deal going for it: stuffed with Asiago cheese, prosciutto, and baby spinach, accompanied by a luscious mound of Yukon gold mashed potatoes & tender spears of grilled asparagus, and nicely complemented by a heady amarone drizzle. The top half was perfectly cooked and exceedingly tasty, but the bottom half, below the stuffing, was the next thing to raw.

Terra Nova is another in a long line of restaurants in which the appetizers far outclass the entrées. Several of the latter, however, are not without redeeming value. The crispy lemon chicken ($17.50), for instance, is especially well prepared comfort cuisine. The crust of the boneless breast is crispy, just as advertised, yet the flesh is mouth-wateringly moist and tender. It is set on a bed of utterly addictive soft mascarpone polenta and embellished with a first-rate lemon-rosemary reduction. My only quibble is that the sautéed baby spinach, like the above-mentioned haricots verts, is both oily and salty.

If you intend to travel the grill route, my advice is to stick with red meat, which the kitchen does extremely well. And the oak wood sirloin ($24.50) is certainly a high point. The meat is slightly chewy, just as it should be, but done to a perfect medium and bursting with flavor. And the potato Fontina torte, a mini segment of scalloped potatoes, is a dynamite accompaniment. Equally impressive is the filet mignon sided by asparagus & wild mushrooms and finished with a heady roasted garlic port reduction ($27.50).

Appetizers, though, are the real stars here, certainly demonstrating infinitely more finesse and sophistication than the main courses. The crab cake ($9.00) is one of the best renditions I've sampled in some time. In point of fact, there are two mini cakes, panko-crusted and broiled to a beautiful golden brown. There's a hint of filler and the seasonings are just right. The cakes are separated by a luscious slice of fried tomato and companioned by a white cocktail sauce and squiggles of a zippy green onion remoulade. Highly recommended.

The Pacific Rim roll ($8.50) is another outstanding starter. Crunchy and ethereally battered shrimp tempura is presented on an arched oblong plate topped with seaweed salad and enhanced with a honey-soy reduction. A clear winner that is as beautiful as it is bountiful.

Salads also make excellent preludes and are obviously freshly assembled. The Tijuana Caesar ($4.50/$7.50), for example, is composed of pristinely fresh hearts of baby romaine, luscious Grana Padano cheese, and an excellent lemon-garlic dressing. The baby spinach salad ($8.50) is freshly tossed with a wonderful apple cider vinaigrette and adorned with slices of hard-cooked eggs, candied walnuts, and morsels of earthy Maytag bleu cheese.

Desserts -- although our server bragged that there was a pastry chef on the premises -- have little to offer. The apple crisp ($6.50) wasn't that flavorful and absolutely gelid at the center; the bittersweet chocolate tart ($6.50) was embraced by an all-too-crumbly, slightly stale crust and was as tasteless as its copious topping of roasted banana whipped cream; and the chocolate truffle cake ($6.50) was equally forgettable. The only denouement that can be reasonably recommended is the "Barely Lemon Cheesecake" with fruit purée, which is absolutely true to its name and exhibits a delightfully creamy texture.

As noted at the outset, Terra Nova's wine list is quite impressive, boasting selections from California, the Pacific Northwest, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, and Spain.

By the glass, the 2003 Franciscan Oakville Cabernet ($12.00) is an excellent choice, as are Oregon's 2005 Benton Lane Pinot Gris ($7.50) and Sacred Hill's 2005 Pinot Noir ($8.50). The St. Clement 2005 Chardonnay ($8.00) may appeal to some, but it is entirely too oaky for my palate.

By the bottle, try the 2005 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio ($30.00), 2004 Sonoma Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay ($45.00), 2003 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir ($66.00), or the absolutely stunning 2003 Concho y Toro Don Melchor Cabernet ($80.00).

To some extent, Terra Nova is at the mercy of its own clientele and must go with what the traffic will bear... And it doesn't appear that the traffic will bear a great deal. The hordes that file in here would never be accused of being serious foodies. No, these are members of the "Clean Plate Club," who appear to be more interested in quantity than quality. In point of fact, I have never seen so many seriously overweight people in the same place at the same time.

As noted at the outset, Terra Nova does have a great deal of potential... and it is clearly something of a welcome oasis in the culinary wasteland that is Gloucester County. But in order to appeal to serious diners as well as the "meat 'n' potatoes" crowd, the restaurant needs to fine-tune both its entrées and its service.

Cuisine: Napa-ish American
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 12:00 midnight; Sun, 12:00 noon - 11:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list with over 50 selections available by the glass
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.terranovarestaurantbar.com

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