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1790 Springfield Avenue
Maplewood, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 378-8990

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

When contemplating the not insignificant culinary merits of Verjus, "If only..." is surely this restaurant critic's lament. "If only I lived in closer proximity..." "If only my duties as a hired belly didn't prevent me from returning as often as I would like..." In France, charming eateries of this caliber seem to be found on nearly every street corner in even the tiniest of out-of-the-way hamlets. On American terra firma, however, such establishments are few and far between... Which makes Verjus such an incredible find. If you live within easy commuting distance and are free from the encumbrance of copious note taking over dinner, I must confess, I envy you.

Chef Charles Tutino and his wife and co-proprietor, Jane Witkin, have put together a dining experience that is wonderfully profound in its simplicity. If you have a decided aversion to a superfluous and often disquieting array of decorative glitz and glitter, you will feel at home the moment you cross the threshold. Ms. Witkin, whose grace and charm permeate the front of the house, has embellished the restaurant's interior in precisely the same manner. The off-white walls receive just the proper splash of color from the paintings of Mary Andrews and other local artists, tables and comfortably cushioned chars are well spaced, and the deep brown carpeting keeps the noise level at a minimum. The delightfully diminutive bar, which accommodates a mere five patrons, provides a cozy venue for intimate preprandial libations. This is a dining room designed for adults: stylish, sophisticated, sedate... but not at all intimidating.

... Ditto Mr. Tutino's cuisine, which is Gallic to the core but decidedly unfussy. This is French bistro fare with an urbane, cosmopolitan flair. Ingredients are impeccably fresh, presentations direct and straightforward, portions ample but not prodigious; all is in perfect harmony. Mr. Tutino, an alumnus of New York City's La Côte Basque & Capsouto Frères and former instructor at the French Culinary Institute, is quite obviously an intuitive and intelligent chef -- but he cooks from the heart.

Should you be at all adventurous of palate, you must begin with the escargots bourguignon ($7.00). Served out of the shell in a covered ceramic crock, the snails are firm and succulent of texture, their endemic earthiness pleasantly palliated by a luscious garlic sauce and dash of anise liquor.

The duck liver terrine ($7.50) is also an extraordinary starter. Utterly decadent and accompanied by the usual accoutrements -- cornichons, caperberries, Dijon mustard -- including cranberries, its mellifluous, velvety texture totally bewitches the taste buds. And the same may be said for the sugar and salt cured gravlax ($9.50), which is sprinkled with fines herbes, embellished with capers & a red onion confit, and drizzled with a Dijon mustard honey sauce.

Other recommended starters include warm grilled asparagus served with a lovely orange vinaigrette ($9.00) and a grilled artichoke salad ($9.00). The latter alternates artichoke hearts with leaves of Belgian endive and is crowned with a sprinkling of lentils and lemon garlic vinaigrette.

Entrées also give diners an interesting range of possibilities from which to choose. The saddle of Australian lamb ($24.00) is all that it should be and more: tender, fabulously flavorful, and just the proper shade of pink. An outstanding leek gratin and roasted tomatoes make perfect complements, as does the tomato jus. The hanger steak ($18.50) is quite commendable and reaps the benefits of a red wine shallot reduction and luscious mound of garlic mashed potatoes.

Fowl is also an integral part of Mr. Tutino's culinary repertoire. Several reviewers, including one of the members of our party, indicated they felt the roast one-half chicken ($18.00) was a bit on the dry side -- but I did not find it so. The flesh was quite moist and received an added dimension from a delicious layer of mushroom duxelles sequestered beneath the perfectly browned and crispy skin. The grilled quail ($21.00) set on a bed of wild rice is wonderfully seductive, lovingly enhanced through the ministrations of an olive oil raspberry marinade and snappy raspberry reduction.

Finny fare is always memorable here; the offerings are absolutely pristine and prepared with a deft and discerning hand. After basking in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, and ginger, the yellowfin tuna ($24.00) is grilled to a benchmark medium rare, embellished with a portobello mushroom cap, sautéed spinach & crunchy straw potatoes, and consummated with a racy balsamic vinaigrette. Like the aforementioned chicken, the herb-crusted salmon ($19.00) has also been accused of being slightly overdone. Once again, however, I would beg to differ. Since salmon is one fish that I prefer to be cooked through -- that is, not translucent at its core -- I find Mr. Tutino's preparation to be right on the money. And the accompanying combination of vegetables, including a lovely julienne of wilted cucumbers, proves to be an excellent point/counterpoint to the savory filet.

Desserts are, in a word, superb. There is nothing fancy or chichi going on here; like all that has preceded, they rely on the freshest of ingredients and the chef's unerring skill. The profiteroles ($8.50), filled with chocolate chip ice cream and lovingly caressed by a warm raspberry sauce, are without peer. The tarte Tatin ($6.50) is classic... and finds a most convivial companion in a dollop of crème fraîche ice cream. The molten chocolate truffle cake ($7.50) has become something of a culinary cliché of late, but Mr. Tutino's version is surely one of the most delightful renditions of this particular genre that I have sampled in recent memory. The roasted pumpkin ice cream and chocolate sorbet with Earl Grey tea (both $6.50) are also recommended, as is a highly civilized cheese course ($9.00), featuring an excellent rotating variety -- Bucheron, St.-André, Roquefort, L'Explorateur, L'Edel de Cléon, etc. -- and a garnish of freshly sliced apples.

The compact, reasonably priced wine list is particularly noteworthy, as it leans heavily on a host of interesting French vintages and matches up extremely well with the cuisine. The 1999 Chateau Carbonnieux ($10.50 glass/$39.00 bottle), a blend of 65% sauvignon blanc and 35% semillion, strikes a sophisticated balance between luscious fruit and refreshing acidity. The 1997 Domain Rollin Bourgogne Aligote ($6.50/$22.00) is more basic in its appeal but still quite enjoyable.

When it comes to red wine, I am quite fond of the 2000 Federic Esmonin "Clos Prieur" Gevrey-Chambertin ($7.50/$28.00), an exemplary match for salmon and those dishes that benefit from the subtle nuances of a pinot noir. The 1998 Gigondas from E. Guigal ($32.00), on the other hand, is an admirable complement for steak and other hearty presentations.

Verjus isn't perfect -- What restaurant is? -- But whether dining à deux or en masse, its homey charm, delicious cuisine, and reasonable prices are sure to satisfy even the most discriminating palate. And this lovely establishment possesses one attribute that, sad to say, seems to elude a vast majority of eateries: focus. Mr. Tutino and Ms. Witkin know precisely what they are attempting to achieve... and they continue to do so with a definitive and delightful touch of class.

Cuisine: French
Hours: Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Lunch: Tues - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License and full bar
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes, but the restrooms are not accessible

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