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There are so many first-rate restaurants in Montclair that it takes courage to open a new one, but CulinAriane should do very well. On our first visit, a Saturday, we arrive early because we can’t get a later reservation—and it even proves difficult to get a late reservation on a Wednesday.
From the moment you enter this tiny corner bistro, you notice lovely touches, such as buttery homemade croissants instead of bread. From the pristine tables to the servers in black pants and button-down shirts to the gentle hum of a restaurant under control and ready for customers, everything is comme il faut. In good weather, outside tables offer a pleasant dining alternative.
CulinAriane (loosely translated as Ariane’s cooking) is owned by Ariane and Michael Duarte, both Culinary Institute of America graduates. Ariane is in the kitchen full-time, and Michael is the gracious host who also makes desserts.
The food here is very good, an uncomplicated menu with a couple of daily specials, all beautifully presented. Dinner begins with a tiny amuse-bouche: one evening it’s tortilla chips topped with guacamole, goat cheese, and beets; another time a tiny mushroom burger. Both are delicious.
Be sure to order the white asparagus appetizer when it’s available, served in a sprightly vinaigrette with chopped morels, micro greens, and shaved Parmesan. Green asparagus soup served over fresh asparagus is also good. I particularly like the crisp, juicy, popcorn rock shrimp with lemon-garlic crème fraîche, and the meaty, cornmeal-crusted oysters with horseradish cream. I’ve had better crab cakes, but I have rarely tasted such delicious tuna sashimi. Chef Duarte’s Sashimi Tuna Flower consists of small cubes of tuna glossed with sesame oil and soy atop petals of wontons, garnished with ruffles of pickled cucumber and a chive stem, served with parsley and wasabi crème fraîche. It is as appealing to the eye as it is to the palate. The salad with shaved fennel and gorgonzola cheese and the heirloom tomato salad with watermelon and feta cheese, on the other hand, are too meagerly dressed.
For the main course, the crisp red snapper fillet with sweet rice, creamy bok choi, and a coconut Thai sauce is pearly inside and quite delicious, and so is the black bass special served with black barley, arugula flowers, and pomegranate vinaigrette. Nicely cooked halibut with bacon on sautéed Yukon potatoes is bathed with a broth flecked with chives and chervil that takes it to quite another level. The imported mushroom ragout is delicious enough to eat as a meal by itself, but its pairing—with bronzed pan-seared scallops drizzled with white truffle oil—is inspired. The rosemary-encrusted Australian rack of lamb with minted gnocchi is worth a try, as is the chicken breast with cumin-flavored Moroccan apricot stew and chewy herbed quinoa. I’m less sure about Chef Duarte’s version of surf and turf: a filet mignon with a scampi-style lobster, creamy mascarpone mashed potatoes, and a red-wine reduction that’s fairly good but would be better if the meat and fish were not on one plate.
Leave room for Michael Duarte’s desserts: a blood-orange panna cotta, perfectly textured and not too sweet; white-chocolate strawberry trifle layered in a stemmed parfait glass; and the nectarine cobbler. Avoid the dessert cheeses; sage Derby, St. André, and blue cheese are all refrigerator-cold and dry at the edges.
Reviewed in: September 2006