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It takes more than good food and service to make a great restaurant. It takes a special awareness of clients and how best to please them. One evening we mistakenly arrive at Lorena’s one hour early for our reservation. Since the restaurant has nowhere to wait, at the suggestion of the charming hostess, Lorena Perez, we go nearby for a drink. Within fifteen minutes, Perez collects us at the pub where we’re waiting and insists on putting our drinks on her tab. Perez, along with her fiancé, Chef Humberto Campos Jr., co-owns her self-named restaurant. Even if the food were awful, after such treatment I’d still like Lorena’s.
Fortunately the food is excellent. Lorena’s occupies the space where the much loved and highly regarded Jocelyne’s used to be, and it’s a worthy successor. It’s so tiny that you can actually see the minuscule kitchen as you enter the restaurant. The dining room is reminiscent of France’s small, personal establishments. With its damask drapes and pristinely napped tables, congenial, unobtrusive, and competent service, and low noise level, eating here is an altogether pleasurable experience.
Chef Campos, who worked at the Ryland Inn with Craig Shelton and at Restaurant Nicholas with Nicholas Harary, shows the same attention to detail as do his mentors. Simple appetizers, like green and white asparagus with shaved fennel, orange segments, and blood orange vinaigrette, taste freshly picked from the garden. A peppery watercress salad with black Mission figs, roasted-shallot vinaigrette, and duck confit napped with a port reduction awakens all the senses. Two rolls of smoked salmon filled with celery root, slivers of green apple and red radish and garnished with American caviar taste as luxurious as they sound. So does chilled Maine crabmeat wrapped in wafer-thin slices of zucchini on a bed of saffron sauce with fresh herbs. I like the tangy, tender sweetbreads crusted with lemon and mustard and served with pickled red onion, asparagus, and a veal-stock reduction. But the winner on all counts is the smooth and creamy seared duck foie gras with a sweet Banyuls wine reduction, figs, apricots, cranberries, and a hint of vanilla.
As for main courses, expect delights such as lobster out of the shell with a truffle-butter emulsion, ruffled hedgehog mushrooms, and celeriac purée—an unbeatable combination. A roasted pheasant breast doesn’t have the taste of the wild bird, but the flavor is good and it comes with a pleasing mix of diced sweet potatoes, turnips, Brussels sprouts, and quince with a black-truffle sauce.
I’ve never eaten the South Pacific fish called hiramasa, offered as a delicious special on one of my visits and whose texture is a cross between swordfish and scallops but creamier; Chef Campos roasts it and cleverly plates it with parsley sauce, olives, braised fennel, and preserved lemons. Grouper with a crisp skin and a truffle-flavored sauce is well prepared, as are the sweet seared scallops with chanterelle mushrooms, asparagus, butternut squash, and a carrot-and-ginger emulsion with a hint of coriander.
Among a few earthy and homey selections on the menu are the braised lamb shank with saffron risotto, baby vegetables, and braising jus, and a pork confit, both good; the latter dish—meat braised with spices, then reassembled into a thick disk and served with chestnuts, carrots, fennel, and caramelized apples—is a perfect winter meal.
You may finish with a plate of cheeses, in good condition and of decent variety, served with crisp, oily slices of French bread and rose-hip jam. For those who prefer to end on a sweet note, good options include the crème brûlée flavored with lavender, the individual pear tarte Tatin with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream, and the Hacienda, a soft-centered individual chocolate cake topped with orange zest and garnished with a crisp tuille and ice cream. Avoid the too-thick crêpes, with their toothachingly sweet caramel filling, and the dry flourless chocolate cake.
Reviewed in: February 2006