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Word of Mouth
Restaurant Now Closed
729 Haddon Avenue
Collingswood, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 858-2228

Decoratively speaking, Word of Mouth is a stunner: iconographically-infused stained glass partition, sumptuous tapestry, imposing gilt-edge mirror, and a magnificent mishmash of cushy, extravagantly comfortable upholstered chairs. (All this pales, of course, before the Dalíesque dalliance to be discovered in the men's restroom... but I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise.)

Amazingly enough, however, despite -- or, perhaps, because of -- these ornamental oddities, the dining area still manages to maintain a casually elegant air that doesn't seem at all out of place or overblown. This is especially apparent when the sun is setting and the entire scene is bathed in the muted glow of candlelight. Go for a cozy table next to the large picture window overlooking Haddon Avenue or, better still, since the high ceiling and hardwood floor can make matters rather boisterous, in warmer weather, elect the red canopied exterior and be treated to an up close and personal view of Collingswood's human flora and fauna.

Greg Fenski, who, along with his parents, Robert and Elizabeth Sanabria, also owns restaurant Food For Thought in Marlton, is the power behind the stove. You will undoubtedly find his New American cuisine with occasional international diversions decidedly lusty and robust. He does hit many of the right notes... and yet, there are a number of seemingly inexplicable anomalies...

First of all, some menus grab your attention right out of the box, shift the salivary glands into overdrive, and have your taste buds purring while still digesting descriptive possibilities. The printed bill of fare proffered here, however, seems to have precisely the opposite effect. Chew on a few sentences and semantic (and gastronomic) somnolence is likely to set in. Fortunately, the food itself is infinitely more exciting than the explications.

Secondly, though I initially dined at Word of Mouth during the still temperate waning days of summer, several offerings appeared to bear the unmistakable marks of bleak midwinter: pork tenderloin with candied apples, sweet potato dumplings, and port wine sauce; oven-roasted duckling with wild rice pudding; balsamic-glazed chicken breast with rosemary roasted potatoes. The current menu -- just recently revised -- is infinitely more in keeping with the prevailing season; hopefully, Mr. Fenski will see fit to update it once again before warmer weather sets in.

Finally... while the quality of the restaurant's comestibles is beyond reproach, every so often there appears a totally baffling ghost in the machine. And, by far, the biggest culinary clinker is the bland-leading-the-bland, run-of-the-mill, dull-as-dirt, under whelming and under seasoned vegetable medley that is the kiss of death to any entrée it touches. You know, all the usual suspects: woody carrot nuggets whittled down to resemble their younger siblings, broccoli and cauliflower florets, snow peas, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam. And even though this unappetizing array has received a sound and thorough thrashing at the hands of several restaurant critics, it continues to make far too many guest appearances for its own -- and the diner's -- good.

Despite these missteps, however, a number of Mr. Fenski's offerings are highly recommendable. And a good place to begin is with what I would consider the chef's signature dish: house-made gnocchi with shrimp ($10.00). The pan-fried dumplings exhibit a light and feathery texture and are garnished with ribbons of fresh basil, tomatoes, toasted garlic, and splash of olive oil. The consummating touch is a crown of beautifully seared, delightfully crunchy crustaceans.

Placing second (in a virtual photo finish, I might add) is a presentation of the chef's incomparable jumbo lump crab cakes ($11.00). The crisp exterior of two golden orbs yields to a sweet, succulent core endowed with just enough roux to add a welcome touch of silkiness. The counterpoints are a rustic corn & black bean salsa and provocative cilantro-lime vinaigrette.

The seared ahi tuna ($11.00) -- sumptuously rare sesame seed-encrusted slices arranged vertically around an epicenter of oriental slaw sprinkled with a subtle but sensuous ginger dressing -- is another exceptional starter... as is the duck quesadilla ($9.50), tender morsels of sweet meat and caramelized onions folded in a flour tortilla and paired with a first-rate pineapple salsa. If you'd prefer a somewhat lighter prelude, the mixed greens adorned with Gorgonzola, grilled pears, candied walnuts, and drizzle of white balsamic dressing ($8.00) is also quite excellent.

Entrées offer diners several palpable hits and a few near misses. The most praiseworthy presentation, in my opinion, is the incomparable "filet mignon" of veal ($32.00). I have a special place in my heart for this particular dish, but it is rarely as well prepared in this country as it is in Germany. Even after two decades, the version that continues to haunt my taste memory -- and the standard by which all others will be forever judged -- was that served up at the Hotel Obermuhle in Garmish-Partenkirchen. Simply adorned with a dollop of garlic butter, to this day, its phenomenal flavor and textural purity simply defy description.

Mr. Fenski's rendition doesn't quite reach the same heights, but it comes very, very close. Arriving at table a perfect medium rare and kissed by an exquisitely demonstrative demi-glace, its refined rusticity is a soul-satisfying gift to the palate. An assertive mound of basil-garlic mashed potatoes makes a first-rate accompaniment, as does the sautéed broccoli rabe.

The rigatoni ($16.00) also has a great deal to offer. A number of diverse constituents -- al dente pasta, tender chunks of chicken, and morsels of Asiago cheese -- are all brought into sharp synergetic focus via the intervention of an outstanding sun-dried tomato pesto cream sauce. A relatively simple dish but highly recommended on all counts.

Finny fare, on the other hand, while showing a good degree of promise, is somewhat less successful... On one occasion, the pan-seared skin-on filet of striped bass ($26.00) is exceedingly moist and tender and finds a most agreeable complement in a heady red wine sauce. Unfortunately, its natural flavors are completely eclipsed by an aggressive dusting of herbs. On the second try, the fish is likewise prepared to the peak of perfection but is set on a decidedly dark and brooding wild mushroom and tomato ragout. The dish could surely benefit from a bit of brightening up. And the same is true of the white balsamic glazed crispy salmon ($20.00) set on a positively gloomy seabed of ratatouille and roasted potatoes.

The pan-fried tilapia ($24.00) -- a crispy golden brown crust yielding to a mouthwateringly luscious interior -- is yet another pristine specimen. A delightfully delicate beurre blanc sauce is finesse personified, as is a tiny tiara of jumbo lump crabmeat... But an all-too-lemony risotto commits a heinous act of citrus sabotage, while the aforementioned dreadfully dreary vegetable medley sounds the final death knell on what could have been an exceedingly appealing presentation.

Desserts ($6.00), all made at the restaurant's elder sibling, Food For Thought in Marlton, are solid enough, though not particularly inspiring. The white/dark chocolate mousse cake with ladyfinger crust is quite good... ditto the creamy raspberry-mango swirl cheesecake and light and tangy lemon chiffon pie. The banana-walnut cake is a bit more generic but should still appeal to those with an incurably sweet tooth.

Service is this eatery's last chance to let you down and, unfortunately, it usually does. On our first excursion, the hostess who greeted our party was decidedly chilly. The attitude she conveyed was that customers were a constant inconvenience. During two subsequent sojourns, we encountered a gentleman seated at the front desk, munching away on his dinner; and he continued his militant mastication while showing us to our tables and presenting menus.

Servers here aren't exactly brusque, but they aren't terribly personable either. Their body language seems to suggest that they have more pressing engagements elsewhere. These strange goings-on, especially in a restaurant of this caliber, are difficult to fathom. A remedial course in "Service 101" should be looming on the horizon.

Certain minor culinary and organizational eccentricities may be winked at. Those encountered here, however, are particularly annoying as they are so easily rectified; and yet they apparently continue to slip through the cracks. There is no question that Word of Mouth has all the ingredients to place it at the forefront of the ever-burgeoning Collingswood restaurant scene... but a good bit of fine-tuning is still very much in order.

Cuisine: New American
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Street parking only
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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