If Claude Baills—as traditional a French chef as walks the Earth—hadn’t fallen deeply in love with a certain Jersey Girl one day in 1974, we wouldn’t have the pleasure of eating his food now or luxuriating in her hospitality at their restaurant, Chef’s Table, in Franklin Lakes. And that would be a shame.
Early one September morning in 1974, minutes before Baills—a railroad stationmaster’s son from Roussillon, France—first came face to face with Dolores Case—a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson’s hotel- and restaurant-management program who had grown up in Teaneck—the chef believed his life was about to change. It did, but not in the way he expected.
He had risen through the ranks in what were then some of New York’s most illustrious kitchens, including Lutèce and the Four Seasons. A few weeks earlier, he had started a new job as executive chef of Laurent, the restaurant in the Lombardy Hotel. The job was just a stopgap, because he had decided to open his own restaurant in France, and had already arranged to ship his belongings home. Then he walked into the Laurent bookkeeper’s office.
Sitting there was a young woman, frazzled, bleeding and surrounded by police. She had just been set free after having been bound, gagged and slightly wounded by three men who had forced her to open the hotel safe. Grabbing the entire month’s payroll—Laurent staff then were paid in cash—they got away clean and were never caught. The young bookkeeper was Dolores. Claude took an immediate interest in her.
Of course, when I decided to visit Chef’s Table, I hadn’t yet heard that story—or the one about Salvador Dali requesting that Baills personally cook for him whenever he stayed at the Lombardy. (Despite his long tresses and outlandish mustache, the famous surrealist was actually “a very quiet man” who always left the menu up to Claude, Dolores said in a phone interview after my visits.)
No, what piqued my interest was the euphoric buzz I had been hearing. Searching, I found no website or menu, but posts on Yelp and other sites gushed words like “heaven,” “stellar,” “spectacular” and “to die for.” It took me two tries, a week in advance, to nab a midweek reservation. (Chef’s Table has only 45 seats. People call more than two weeks ahead for a Friday night, four weeks ahead for a Saturday, Dolores said.) I walked in guardedly optimistic. Two visits later, I left a believer.
Baills appears to cook from inside a time warp where no one got the memo that duck à l’orange is hilariously old hat. So bless his heart, he continues to make it (with Grand Marnier) so well you see why it became a classic. Moreover, he rightly rejects today’s rage for serving this poultry pink, making a slam-dunk case that duck’s flavor and texture peak at medium. Neither did he get the memo that located heavy cream in the axis of evil. His porcini ravioli in Madeira cream sauce are marvelously light and flavorful. “If [butter and cream] are used in the right amount,” he said on the phone, “the food will still be healthy and taste good.”
Yet he’s no slave to orthodoxy. Baills’s signature bouillabaisse comes from a recipe a Spanish chef taught him years ago. Its saffron-scented tomato base is richer than the French style, and potatoes bolster its mix of branzino, monkfish, snapper, shrimp, clams and mussels. His shrimp and lump-crab cocktail comes with a pretty, brandied pink sauce that tastes a bit like Russian dressing, only much better. A sprightly mustard sauce graces his excellent inch-thick Louisiana crab cake. In an inspired Baills flourish, escargot gently part with tradition in that each meaty morsel is baked in its own little cup topped with golden, flaky pastry.
Provençale shrimp and scallops over pasta had just the right balance of garlic and tomatoes. Boeuf bourguignon showcased a rich brown sauce, meat almost impossibly tender, and silky mashed potatoes. There are worthy daily specials. Wednesday’s lamb shank was terrific. So was Saturday’s rich cassoulet with duck-leg confit, pork, lamb sausage and braised white beans—and so big it made a hearty lunch the next day.
Some will find the decor charming. I found it reminiscent of a knickknack shop, chock a block with paintings, birdhouses, copper pots and other mementos of the couple’s travels. And talk about a disconnect: linen tablecloths but dime-store fake flowers on all 12 tables, where cheese graters cover the candles. On the other hand, the service is faultless. You feel totally cared for, never rushed.
If you’re wondering how Dolores and Claude wound up in Franklin Lakes, here’s the story in an escargot cup. They married in 1978, and opened Claude’s in Manhattan the same year. It looked like happily ever after until 1985, when they learned the building was to be demolished. They crossed the river and never looked back. With Claude in toque and Dolores in green eyeshade, they ran the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn, selling it in 1997 after it became “too big to run,” Dolores said. A year later they found a tiny storefront in a strip mall and opened Chef’s Table. Son Laurence, 30, who grew up in the restaurants, became manager in 2009.
I could have happily called it a night after two satisfying courses on each of my visits, but you don’t coast to the finish line here. Claude offers at least a dozen different desserts a night, baking, making sorbets, and doing all but the final assembly himself. “It’s what people want,” Dolores remarked. “There is not one thing that could be removed without disappointing someone.”
Of everything I tasted, I can fault only a clunky-thick caramelization on a crème brûlée. “Claude is one of the last classic French chefs,” Dolores said. “Trends come and go, but they always come back for the classics.”
Why no website? Word of mouth had always been enough, she said. But by the time you read this, tctnj.com should be live.