When Dream Cuisine Cafe opened in 2007, it seemed doubtful that this tiny, Provençal-influenced David could stand up to the two-story Goliath of Toscana Ristorante, a chain operation that looms over it in the Cherry Hill strip mall where the two restaurants are located. Watching crowds pour into Toscana to eat fettuccini Alfredo and veal Parmigiana while his place, serving the less familiar food of Southern France, remained nearly empty, initially frustrated Dream Cuisine owner and chef Vincent Fanari, a native of Nice, France. He soon stopped serving weekday lunches and picked up temporary work at Plough & the Stars in Philadelphia, where he had served as executive chef for ten years before opening his own restaurant.
Then Dream Cuisine got a couple of favorable reviews. And Fanari, who learned to cook from his mother, grandmother, and aunts, and later at culinary school in Nice, was invited to cook a dinner at the James Beard Foundation in New York. That started local online communities buzzing about the restaurant. Before long, the place caught on.
“People are starting to know about us,” says Fanari, 45. “We’ve got more regulars coming back, and new people who have been able to read the feedback from customers, which has been very helpful.”
On a recent Friday night, the place was full of diners enjoying the intimate atmosphere made all the more inviting by an acoustic guitarist playing folk songs. The decor evokes sun-splashed Provence with yellow and blue walls and burgundy tablecloths and banquettes. (The color scheme is by the restaurant’s co-owner, Beth Malesich, a trained architect.) Two young waiters attentively run the dining room, which is separated only by a beaded curtain from the kitchen and the pony-tailed Fanari.
Diners can order à la carte or prix-fixe. The latter includes a house salad, choice of appetizer, and dessert. The price of the entrée ($36 to $48) is the price of the meal. It’s not only a bargain; it had me reminiscing about the leisurely, multicourse dinners I cherished while travelling through Provence a few summers back.
The generous starter salad combines mixed greens with almonds, apples, dried cranberries, and goat cheese, dressed with champagne vinegar and olive oil. We also liked the salad of baby greens topped with apples, walnuts, and almond-crusted brie, a generous wedge lightly browned in a sauté pan. The “small bites,” or appetizer part of the menu is limited to just four choices plus an occasional special. Dream ratatouille, a classic Provençal stew of eggplant, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and basil, is, as the name suggests, dreamy. Even better is the option to top the ratatouille with a few grilled jumbo shrimp, which were pleasantly peppery due to their char.
Another classic French dish, albeit more typical of Northern France or Switzerland, was raclette and prosciutto melt, a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto topped with squares of raw-milk mountain cheese melted under the broiler and drizzled with truffle oil. A special appetizer one evening consisted of three baked chickpea-dough patties, which were a bit flavorless, topped with an earthy mix of sautéed portobellos and tomatoes.
In typical Provençal fashion, tomatoes and capers star in several dishes, as in the jumbo shrimp nicoise main course, where large grilled shrimp are topped with tomatoes, basil, shallots, garlic, lemon, and capers. Like most of the entrées, it was served with asparagus and an outstanding potato gratin. A farmed whole Pennsylvania trout, tender and fresh, came with a sauce of browned butter and lemon, topped with a touch of the Provençal sauce and crispy croutons. Fanari says Dream Cuisine uses local produce, wild or sustainably raised fish, and free-range meats, and creates very little waste in the kitchen. (For example, it doesn’t have a deep-fryer so there is no used oil to discard, and the restaurant buys few if any ingredients in cans.)
Of the meat dishes we tried, roast rack of lamb with red wine and mushroom sauce was a bit chewy, while filet mignon was thick, perfectly cooked, and served in a tasty cognac and black pepper sauce. The filet mignon comes alone or topped with grilled shrimp or scallops. We tried the scallops, both with the steak and on their own, grilled, with a cooked French pesto sauce, which differs from the Italian version in leaving out the pine nuts.
Desserts are limited to three or four choices a night, which is fine when those include the rich warm chocolate cake and the classic tarte tatin. By baking the cake twice, adding more batter the second time, Fanari creates a fudgy center and a slightly crunchy shell. For the tatin, he caramelizes the apples in a pan for an hour before wrapping them in puff pastry and baking. Cheesecake was light and creamy but should have been taken out of the refrigerator earlier.
Even though the shopping center’s owners last year renamed the plaza Tuscany Marketplace, causing further confusion for those trying to find the inconspicuous Dream Cuisine beyond the bright lights of Toscano, Fanari says his Italian neighbor has even proved useful at times. “It’s so over the top that sometimes people don’t even see us,” Fanari says. “But sometimes we get people who go there and decide to try us next.”