By FRAN SCHUMERMAY - New York Times
Like many dishes I ate at Restaurant Lorena's, now entering its tenth year and among Open Table's top 100 restaurants in America in 2014, the warm crepe of crab and mushrooms reminded me of my early training as a critic. I was 8. My mother had a passion for fine French restaurants. The pricier the better.
This crepe, similar to many dishes prepared at this small, quietly elegant restaurant in the heart of Maplewood's charming downtown, was hardly cutting edge. No new flavors or taste sensations presented themselves. David Chang's latest innovation it was not. Its presentation and style, in fact, was as old as it was when Julia Child first attempted to master the art of French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in 1949. In its traditional way, however, the crepe was simply delicious and, at certain moments, transporting. This is the pleasure of eating a great dish: a small, if fleeting, encounter with perfection. I closed my eyes and all of a sudden, parking was available everywhere in Maplewood.
More specifically, this crab and mushroom crepe had texture but no weight. In it were shimmering lumps of crab meat in a sauce that tasted mostly of butter and cream. And yet, it was not cloying; it slipped down the gullet like satin. Swallowing a forkful was like swilling pleasure. A mix of morel and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms lightened the dish, as did a droplet of truffle oil. Merely an appetizer, it was well worth its $21 price and certainly cheaper than a flight to Paris.
If you are the kind of diner who has to rush out and embrace the latest trend (and I am sometimes she), then yes, you might find the food, even the place, a bit old school. The room, after all, is slightly dull: elegant, but very beige. In early April, the window boxes were full of (beige) dead leaves. On the other hand, even my friend who calls Lorena's stodgy (and he spends his life trailing great chefs), agrees that it is undeniably excellent. What it does, it does skillfully and with grace.
The pistachio and Dijon-mustard crust added texture to the flawlessly cooked rack of lamb, the rosy meat yielding juice when simply touched by the prong of a fork. The pan-roasted filet of beef served beside a winey short rib, another sumptuous entree, cut like butter. Even more pedestrian dishes, skate and chicken, stood out. Adorned with olives and golden raisins, the satiny skate shimmered beneath its preserved-lemon glaze. The air-cooled Amish chicken breast oozed golden juice beside a mound of nutty, Minnesota wild rice and tiny stalks of broccoli rabe sautéed not in olive oil but in — what else? — butter.
Like every bit of fennel, escarole, baby carrot and cipollini onion that sneaked its way into various entrees, the rabe was a vegetable worth savoring. Humberto Campos, the chef and owner who opened the restaurant with his wife, for whom it is named, in 2005, builds his menu around vegetables, he said on the phone after my visits. I only wish he served more of them.
The hand-rolled cavatelli, lolling in a parmesan broth and festooned with a poached egg on top and bits of savoy cabbage and smoky bacon, is another fine way to start your meal. To end it, go for the duo of vanilla and coffee crème brûlées. Again, this dessert wasn't nouveau anything; it simply offered the sugary pleasure of eating a perfect vanilla crème brûlée and the deeper, darker one of consuming great coffee. One spoonful might prod you to do what the late Mrs. Child did after having her first real taste of French food: learn how to recreate it.
A slightly different impulse pushed Mr. Campos, who is originally from Rahway, into the business. "I loved the controlled chaos environment of a restaurant; it was unlike anything I'd ever experienced," he said. After other, less inspiring jobs, he changed directions, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1997.
Not surprisingly, about 65 percent of his customers are regulars, he said. Among them is the couple who drive up from Cherry Hill every year to celebrate their anniversary, and the family that has been celebrating milestones at Lorena's over the last 10 years. A more recent, anonymous customer recently inquired, through an associate, whether Mr. Campos could prepare foie gras and halibut to eat aboard a private jet. "At first, I thought it was a joke," said Mr. Campos. When he affirmed that it wasn't, he prepared the meal, which a private car then whisked away to Newark Airport.
For the rest of us, takeout is not an option. However, if classical French food is what you crave, then Lorena's may very well provide the meal of your dreams.
THE SPACE The look is quietly elegant, perhaps a little dull. Tsk. Tsk: an acoustical ceiling. Paintings on the wall are by Dora Maar, the photographer and artist who was also Picasso's muse. Table seating for 52 diners in two small dining rooms. Wheelchair accessible.
THE CROWD The earlier the hour, the older the crowd. At peak hours, it is mostly middle-aged. Families appear with children more frequently at brunch but occasionally at dinner. In all ways, the service is impeccable. If you bring wine, it will be decanted into oversize glasses.
THE BAR Customers may bring their own beer and wine.
THE BILL Brunch: $7 to $21. Dinner: appetizers, $12 to $21; entrees, $36 to $52. Desserts, $15.
WHAT WE LIKED Crepe with crab and mushrooms; ricotta cavatelli; chicken breast with wild rice; pan-seared local skate wing; duo of filet of beef and short rib; rack of lamb; coffee and vanilla crème brûlées.
IF YOU GO Brunch: Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Dinner: Wednesdays through Sundays, 5 to 9 p.m. Between November 1 and January 1, dinner will be served seven nights a week. Reservations are taken no earlier than a month in advance and are highly recommended. Parking on street or in nearby lots.