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Can renovating the dining rooms and exterior of a restaurant also rejuvenate the food? It might not seem likely if the kitchen goes untouched in the fix-up and the chef/owner, his cuisine, and his waitstaff remain essentially the same. But Kevin Kohler’s Café Panache has made an art of defying expectations—few restaurants live to celebrate a 23rd birthday, as Panache did this year. Now the dining experience has improved considerably. The evidence is on the plate as well as on the walls.
Kohler recognized that the building he took over in 1985—a former Long John Silver’s with generous kitchen space—needed an update of its earlier remodeling. “I needed curb appeal,” is how he puts it. The renovation this summer, masterminded by his wife, Christy Kohler of CK Design in Mahwah, went well beyond curb appeal.
Where a concrete entranceway used to give a welcome-to-the-bomb-shelter feel, now a swank vestibule with a leather settee opens onto a reception area whose arched ceiling glitters with gold leaf. In the main dining area, formerly colonial-gray walls are now a warm nutmeg hue. Extending the building toward the street allowed for creation of a front dining room. Its deep windows on three sides splash afternoon sunlight on lovely sea-green walls.
“I feel I’ve forged a path between destination fine dining and a neighborhood place you can come to once or twice a week,” Kohler says. “My customers want great food, but not the haute cuisine frills.”
Frills or no frills, on two Tuesday evenings in August, Café Panache was bulging with patrons. Partly that’s because in summer the clientele leaves town on weekends but dines out during the week. Still, no Ramsey ordinance dictates that they have to eat at Kohler’s place. They want to. Watching the regulars greet the chef/owner and each other, you’d think you were at a wedding.
“This is like a club, now in its second generation,” says Kohler, 51. “We have so many regulars with their own tables. Since the renovation, we’re so busy I have to ask them to make reservations, and that’s something new.”
Our experience was more like a tale of two restaurants. Back in April, before the renovation, my dinner with three guests yielded only one outstanding dish—a saffron-scented Provençal fish soup replete with garlicky roux-topped croutons. That night, steak was dull, pasta undersauced, and desserts not quite redemptive. The room, fussily decorated with old-fashioned sconces and prim swagged curtains, was cramped, and our harried waitress murmured “C’mon, c’mon” when I hesitated over my order.
But two recent visits revealed a revitalized chef and staff. Kohler’s menu, which changes daily, reflects what is at its seasonal peak. Mornings he swings by Abma’s Farm in Wyckoff. “My heirloom tomatoes, my salad greens, my beets, squash, leeks, and kohlrabi—they inspire me,” he says. Fish, mainly Jersey-caught, is delivered daily. Kohler forages mushrooms on regular hikes in northern Bergen County. (“Yellow chanterelles, they seduce you like perfume,” he says.) He uses nothing frozen, not even shrimp. “My freezer is a joke,” he says. “All that’s in it is ice cream.”
Kohler has always had talent and technique. He trained in fine kitchens including the Four Seasons and the Palace in New York and Chez Panisse in Berkeley. “But I’ve always been a Jersey boy,” he says. “I wanted to work closer to home and our three kids.”
After 23 years, Kohler has a repertoire of hits that rotate on and off the menu, such as the seafood soup. It appears regularly, sometimes in Provençal form, sometimes in a Portuguese version with sliced chorizo. The broth, always made of roasted tomatoes and lobster stock, is packed with the catch of the day—monkfish, clams, squid—and finished with a splash of sherry or Chablis.
Monday through Friday, the café offers a five-course tasting menu ($75 per person), but most customers go the traditional three-course route. Many start with Kohler’s excellent house-made filled pastas. Filet mignon ravioli is plump with meltingly tender red wine-braised beef and redolent with truffle oil-scented French butter.
The chef is especially deft with seafood appetizers that transcend their origins. Devotees are partial to Kohler’s shrimp salad sassed with candied watermelon rinds. A silken tuna tartare, piquant with ginger and kaffir lime, perches on a bed of avocado slices and crunchy seaweed. Jersey diver scallops sliced translucently thin are cooked only in their lemon-based dressing, like ceviche. The dish is lively with caramelized red onions, Hawaiian pink salt, and—eureka!—deep-fried nuggets of onion mixed with capers.
Entrées may not be quite as dependable, but there are plenty of standouts, and portions are generous. A scallop main course, lightly seared and served with a snappy side of braised fennel, is outstanding. Kohler’s pan-seared salmon fillet, surrounded by smoky cubed pancetta and Jersey corn niblets, is far more interesting than the salmon entrée most bistros serve. (Kohler’s preparation involves bacon fat, which he swears burns off in the searing.)
Liver scares people, but not here, where it is a mainstay. “Women love the liver,” Kohler says. His take is tender and tasty, not at all “liverish.” He pan sears two thick strips of calf’s liver and serves them tangy with mustard seed and sweet with raisins in a port-wine reduction.
Yet a filet mignon was overcooked and unflavorful—sadly reminiscent of the steaks we ordered pre-renovation. Sliced duck breast that accompanied a rich, perfectly prepared duck-leg confit was also done past the ideal pink stage. Kohler says he is considering leaving the fatty skin on to protect the meat from drying out. Asked about overcooking, Kohler said, “There’s a difference between New York rare and Jersey rare.” Meaning, he explained, that people here like their meat cooked a tad more than people in Gotham do. I’m dubious. On one visit, we saw a customer send back his filet mignon as overcooked. The kitchen cooked him another.
Desserts, made in-house by sous-chef Greg Stott, are captivating. Ice creams are fragrant with natural flavors. Fruit tarts flaunt spot-on pastry crusts and thick fresh-fruit fillings. A fudgy bittersweet-chocolate pie gains from a foundation of thick, tangy raspberry puree. An ample vanilla crème brulée was pronounced “sheer perfection” by the 13-year-old Francophile in our party. She was right.
If Kohler and company can bring the same finesse to meat as they do to fish, they will make this beloved institution fully worthy of its name.
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130 East Main St
Gourmet bistro, featuring Jersey-caught fish, house-made pasta, and mustard seed-crusted calf's liver with port wine reduction. Patrons may bring beer or wine.