August 2006 • New Jersey Countryside

Twelve Restaurants We Love

by Ernest Jaeger

“I have a feeling time has halted, I’d like two straws and a chocolate malted, because that’s how young I feel.”

These words form the musical Mame kept going through my head during a recent dinner at Raymond’s, the creation of restaurant owner Raymond Badach in the space that formerly held his 28. The current scene, which evokes a ‘20s luncheonette, brought me back to the second act of Mame. The first room of this casual storefront eatery at 28 Church Street in Montclair is a vintage luncheonette with a small counter, black and white honey-combed tile floors, Formica-topped tables, wooden booths, globe lights and mirrors above white tile walls. One would expect George and Emily form Our Town to take seats at the counter any minute and order a strawberry phosphate, except that there are coffee and espresso machines behind the counter now..

The mirrors on the walls in the back room reflect wood floors, wooden tables surrounded by bentwood chairs and a red vinyl banquette that surrounds the room. The two rooms are divided by a wall of seltzer bottles on shelves.

The food here is different than at 28 – much more Brooklyn than Soho, although Chef Matt Seeber apprenticed at Gramercy Tavern before moving to a number of restaurants downtown. He has created a menu that features some familiar foods done with great creativity and a number of surprises in American bistro style.

We started with a bean soup, one of the daily specials. The pureed white beans were delicious; the accents here were duck confit, sage leaves and Parmigiano cheese, which added a bit of salt and spice to the creamy white beans. A beet soup with a dollop of crème fraîche had incredible color, darker than raspberry, a color Gauguin might have used. Bits of smoked salmon contrasted with the refreshing essence of beet. A Mediterranean platter included very credible versions of hummus, tabbouleh and baba ghanouj, the last having a wonderful smoky flavor. Accompaniments of feta cheese, tomato, olives, and caper berries were perfect accents to the trio.

An entrée of salmon, medium rare as requested, was presented over buttery roasted potatoes and onions, topped with spinach. The spinach cut the richness of the potatoes and onions and underscored the salmon’s flavor. A grilled trout presentation was spectacular, as well. The moist trout was served on a mound of sautéed vegetables, including mushrooms, carrots, lentils and bacon. The colors were beautiful and truly elevated the trout.

Pastry Chef John Sauchelli, who worked in the kitchen at Serenade in Chatham, has created a dessert card of old favorites. The two desserts we tried were exceptionally fine. The strawberry rhubarb pie was really a masterpiece. The crust was flaky, the strawberry rhubarb filling just tart enough and the crumb topping scented with cinnamon. The pie was topped with a lemon semifreddo that echoed the tartness of the rhubarb.

A rice pudding went beyond comfort food. The pudding was creamy and came with a surprise layer of berries, as sweet as jam, on the bottom of the dish. The treat was topped with a triangle of yellow gelatin that was intensely flavored with citrus, truly an elevation of this homey dish.

Other dessert choices included cheesecake, banana bread pudding and Valhrona chocolate cake. Given the surroundings, perhaps the chef might think of creating some original ice cream concoctions. Ice creams and sorbets are on the dessert list, but the surroundings call for something more like a really original sundae or a banana (maybe a mango?) split.

Raymond’s is casual, but the service is not; in fact the service is non-intrusive and extremely efficient. The waiter clad in jeans, white shirt and black apron, even brought me a fresh placemat after I had soiled the first one with tabbouleh, and I wasn’t even chided for the small mess. We left Raymond’s without knowing our waiter’s name, he didn’t interrupt us many times to ask how everything was, nor did he announce each dish telling us how much we would enjoy it. Grander restaurants in New Jersey might take lessons from Raymond’s service.

Raymond’s serves breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch. Take-out is available from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with curbside service. Take-out at dinner is available on the nights when the restaurant is not terribly busy.

Prices at Raymond’s are tied to a fiscal reality. In fact, one could probably eat here three or four times a week. We certainly would if we didn’t live an hour from Montclair.