Mes Rêves” means “my dreams” in French, and if you dream of finding lovingly cooked bistro classics in the thick of Essex County, rest assured Mes Rêves is no mirage. The dream, though, is that of co-owners Quang Tran, the chef, and his wife, Tammie, the manager and hostess.
“My mother,” says Tran, “opened a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant just up the avenue in Montclair in 1995. But no one in our family knew how to run a restaurant. It closed within months.” Tran adds soberly, “I wanted to prove to everyone that our family could open a restaurant and succeed.”
Mes Rêves, open since February, is doing just that. Large abstract canvases (painted by Tran’s uncle, Stephen Ng) add color and energy to Mes Rêves’s airy, brick-walled, 49-seat storefront dining area. An upholstered loveseat and armchair by the front window add a homey touch. No one had to camp out in those seats, perhaps because reservations always seemed to be honored on time.
Tran, 42, has been working toward his goal most of his life. When he was 10, in 1979, his family emigrated from Vietnam and settled in Nutley, sponsored by an uncle who was a chemist at Hoffmann-La Roche. “I was always in the kitchen, learning Chinese cooking from my grandfather and Vietnamese from my mother,” he says. “I loved to cook, but I majored in marketing at Rutgers.”
Tran consulted on business and restaurant projects and returned to school “not for an MBA,” he says, “but for a certificate from the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.” There he learned Gallic kitchen technique (“stocks and sauces”) from faculty legends André Soltner of Lutèce and Alain Sailhac of Le Cygne. Following graduation, Tran worked in the school’s restaurant, L’Ecole. “But the dream of a restaurant was always simmering on the back burner,” he says. He and Tammie moved back into the house in Nutley to raise their two kids, and started scouting for a restaurant location nearby.
“This is an area with high restaurant standards,” Tran says. “People here have traveled to Europe and are familiar with various cuisines. When they come [to Mes Rêves], they’re looking for a solid bistro experience. I’m not into experimenting with textures or reinventing food. To me, French cuisine is the ultimate. I respect the emphasis on high-quality, fresh ingredients and the flavor-driven simplicity. The dishes my diners want to eat are here—steak frites, rack of lamb, a nice roasted chicken, a fresh salmon filet. And come winter,” he adds, “old-fashioned, hearty coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon.”
Mes Rêves’ menu offers a half-dozen appetizers, a trio of salads and eight entrées. Specials cycle in for a week at a time, such as lean, pan-seared halibut, or a seasonal risotto, perhaps with wild mushrooms or spring peas. “A tight menu lets me perfect each dish and get every detail right,” Tran says. He does not repeat accompaniments or even sauces, so every dish has its own identity and taste profile.
Though the food is not adventurous, it occasionally surprises, as in a crispy calamari salad on romaine that Tran says is André Soltner’s recipe. The mound of pale rings are remarkably flavorful, light (merely flour-dipped, not battered) and crisply tender (the result of precisely three minutes in a 375º fryer).
Every dish my party tasted at Mes Rêves was exactingly cooked and full of flavor. Lots of restaurants prepare mussels in a white wine broth. But Tran’s generous bowl, with a saffron-perfumed, garlic-spiced chicken stock and chardonnay broth, was as alluringly complex as a bouillabaisse. The sweetbreads appetizer was equally seductive—crisp outside and velvety within, thanks to quick deep-frying. Its rich Bordeaux reduction teased the mouth with a sprinkle of fresh-grated wasabi. Foie gras is here, too, of course—a chunky Hudson Valley specimen, nicely seared, with a Sauternes and balsamic glaze but without the usual fruit accompaniment. I, for one, missed that indulgent touch.
In two visits we ordered all eight entrées, and every one earned what one dining companion called “an easy recommend.” Tran offers two versions of a 12-ounce, lightly marbled New York strip steak “because,” he says, “every Paris bistro does it both ways.” I preferred the bold steak au poivre, rolled in green peppercorns and coated with a creamy black pepper sauce, over the sauceless, steak frites. Both versions come with nicely browned, house-cut truffle fries (that could use more truffle oil).
A hefty four-chop rack of Australian lamb got a Provençal twist with couscous and ratatouille, the latter’s garden-fresh vegetables added in stages to retain their individual flavors. A whole deboned Cornish hen was marinated with garlic, thyme and orange juice, then pan-seared skin-side down for crispiness. Finished in the oven, it was served with chasseur sauce, a mushroom and Madeira reduction. The dish’s rustic gratifications were enhanced by a Yukon Gold potato purée, creamy with butter. By contrast, Tran’s duck entrée was elegant: a Hudson Valley breast in rosy pink slices gentled with a port wine reduction. Its memorable side dish combined brown and wild rice, chopped toasted almonds and dried cranberries.
Jersey skate, cut in a generous filet, not the brownie-sized brick all too common nowadays, had crackling skin, a scattering of salty fried capers and a pleasing mushroom-stuffed tomato. Sadly, the eight-ounce North Atlantic salmon filet was served skin off. “At first, it had the skin on,” Tran says, “but no one ate it.” Still, it was delectable, pan-seared “in a super-hot pan to caramelize the edges,” finished in the oven and plated with grilled asparagus. Pork tenderloin was also pan-seared, and gained additional flavor from a marinade of garlic, thyme, Dijon mustard and honey. It came with Brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon lardons. (Our overly chewy sprouts needed more time in the pan.)
Tran is planning to add a traditional chocolate soufflé for fall, but he will still offer his trio of house-made desserts. Bread pudding was just about as good as bread pudding gets, with flashes of vanilla, cinnamon and rum. Tran’s grandfather’s recipe yielded a sumptuous crème caramel (which the menu calls flan), with a jiggly texture and a caramelized-sugar foundation. The chocolate almond pistachio crème brûlée was the standout. The name is a mouthful, and so is the three-layer dessert—a semisweet chocolate base, the almond-pistachio flavored custard and the crackly sugar lid. The portion is big enough to share, but you may not want to.
Newark Liberty Airport is one way to get from Essex County to France. Mes Rêves is another.