Health-conscious American food is served at this cozy and relaxed restaurant in Frenchtown.
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Although she cooks many of the dishes and oversees the kitchen, Julie Klein, owner of Lovin’ Oven in Frenchtown, says she does not consider herself the head chef.
“We’re more a family of chefs,” she says, referring to herself and four others. It would be hard to imagine it any other way. Hanging prominently on the wall is a collage of an old-fashioned oven with a heart inside, radiating beams of love. The collage is by Chaz Hampton, a local artist and friend of Klein’s. Art by other friends and locals decorates the 46-seat dining room, where Klein and her husband and partner, Mike Quinn, provide the tight-knit town with what Klein calls “the kind of food you’d make for friends coming over.”
When they moved last year to Frenchtown from Milford (where they opened in 2004), Klein and Quinn made their new warehouse space admirably warm and friendly. A newly installed glass garage door provides light (and access to a patio in warmer seasons). The wooden tables and chairs were bought from neighboring Two Buttons, a home-furnishings import store owned by author Elizabeth Gilbert (the couple’s restaurant landlord). Two Buttons makes for fun browsing on weekends while waiting for a brunch table at Lovin’ Oven. You could also stroll the towpath along the Delaware River—the hostess will give you a beeper.
“Comfort food with a healthy slant, made from scratch,” is how Klein further describes her cooking. Those allergic to foodie feel-goodery shouldn’t be put off. Lovin’ Oven caters to mainstream eaters as well as to vegans, locavores and the gluten-intolerant. Rarely does the healthful goal interfere with yumminess—and never in the appetizers, the strongest part of the dinner menu. A roasted pear and blue cheese salad with candied walnuts is lightly dressed in a balanced cranberry vinaigrette, so that the pungent cheese and not-too-sugary nuts play off each other.
A grilled Caesar (a head of grilled romaine, dressed and served whole) is charred so well that the bold flavor engrosses you, and the dish, including the cutting, becomes fun. Grilled shrimp served over avocado mousse benefits from a healthy dose of salt and pepper and a well-suited chipotle cream sauce; although the mousse itself could have used salt, the shrimp compensate for any flaw. The cheese plate came with a puzzling garnish of sliced red onion and cherry tomatoes, but that too is easily overlooked when much of the bread and cheese are the outstanding products of Bobolink Dairy. The sautéed broccoli-rabe topping on the bruschetta is inspired and should earn grateful grunts from those who appreciate the vegetable’s bracing bitterness.
Entrées aren’t always as successful. Grilled salmon came overcooked and uninspired; cod was remarkably bland, despite scattered olives. Millet-and-cauliflower mash, a recurrent side, was gluey and underseasoned.
In general, the less-expensive fare is better. Grilled polenta with sautéed greens and white beans is a surprisingly satisfying vegan option; the dish revels in dark greenery, fruity olive oil and balsamic reduction. And though the butternut-squash ravioli had too much cinnamon, they were still enjoyable al dente.
Desserts are all made in-house. Six years ago Klein was considering enrolling in a baking program when she realized that, “for the same amount of money, I could open my own place and learn by doing.” Now she serves desserts that look decidedly—though appropriately for the restaurant—homemade. The layer cakes, which change weekly (we had vanilla-hazelnut), may be a little sweet and heavy, but that’s the side on which café desserts should err. A salted chocolate tart encasing dark, runny caramel was also rich and satisfying. Even the one dessert we disliked, a peanut butter-chocolate pie, will probably please fanatics whose idea of heaven is a jar of Jif and a spoon.
Breakfast is the meal we’d most eagerly return for. Free-range eggs from Happy Farms in Pennsylvania are cooked with care and nestle beside sweet-potato biscuits and sautéed kale, both of which are revelations. Because it has the deep flavor to stand up to such hearty fare as eggs and sausage, kale serves perfectly as the nutritious, low-calorie side we suddenly realized has been missing in most breakfast platters. The sweet potato provides just the right amount of sweetness in the biscuits; we wonder why we don’t see them elsewhere. Thick-cut challah French toast is fluffy and enormous.
At breakfast, when diners chat and read sunlit papers, and waiters refill your coffee after every few sips, we best understand where Klein is coming from when she says, “I love this town. I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing. I’m just totally blessed.”