This Pacific Northwest-style farmhouse restaurant, where wine is a raison d'etre, offers up New American cuisine.
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When I asked the fresh-faced server what she could tell me about the blended white from Oregon called Sokol Blosser Evolution, one of 50 wines by the glass, the response I expected was not “absolutely nothing.” Her reply was sheepish, not sarcastic, but the follow-up I anticipated—“Let me get the sommelier for you”—never came. This might not be such an issue at some restaurants, but it is at Terra Nova, a 240-seat restaurant in Sewell where wine is a raison d’etre.
Behind a curving, 40-seat, Brazilian granite bar, about 200 varieties of wine are stored. During a second visit, I took a seat there among the upscale clientele. The friendly bartender had a solid handle on the sauvignon blancs and knew her oyster of the day. These two experiences illustrate the key word for Terra Nova, in food as well as service: inconsistent.
Located in a sprawling farmhouse-style building of exposed timber and stone, Terra Nova has, in addition to a wine bar, a raw bar and a sushi bar. “Terra Nova stands for ‘new world,’” explains executive chef Antonio Cammarata, 46, who owns the Sewell restaurant, as well as three Landmark sports bars, with brothers Filipe, 47, and Max, 40. “So our menu is a new world, a fusion, a little bit of everything.”
The Napa Valley, which Cammarata “fell in love with” during research trips out West, is the overarching influence, but there are touches of Italy as well. The Cammarata brothers were born in Catania, Sicily, and came to the States as boys. So you’d think Terra Nova’s selection of crudo—the citrus-splashed, olive oil-anointed, sashimi of the Italian coasts—should be fairly authentic. But of Terra Nova’s three versions, two were Asian-influenced tuna presentations, and the third wasn’t crudo at all, but a silky filet mignon carpaccio with underdressed arugula.
One clue to Terra Nova’s problems is the size of its menu—more than 60 items in all. There are plenty of pastas, flatbreads, tapas, composed entrées, and mix-and-match seafood dishes for which you pick your fish, its method of cooking (grilled over an oak fire, blackened, or pan-seared), and its sauce (mango salsa, lemon beurre fondue, garlic lime, or Asian ginger vinaigrette). Phew. Even with Terra Nova’s staff of eighteen in the kitchen, it’s a lot to handle.
Oversaucing is a problem. Rubbery scallops arrived over a crab, leek, and potato hash that tasted of nothing but cream. I liked the tempura “bang bang” shrimp, but they were adrift in a sea of overly sweet chili sauce. Sonoma skewers—grilled kebabs of chicken, steak, shrimp, and veggies—would have been fine had they not been drenched with a treacly barbecue sauce fortified with Anchor Steam beer and orange juice. Despite the addition of dried red chilies, a big bowl of “fiery” mussels was about as fiery as the North Pole—though the surprisingly delicate tomato broth brought some complexity to the scrawny bivalves. As for the flatbread, I liked its crown of creamy goat cheese mingled with sautéed spinach and Portobellos better than the bread itself, mushy under the toppings.
My favorite dish was the most straightforward. Filet mignon. Salt and pepper. Grilled perfectly. A veil of Gorgonzola melted over the top was the only ostentation, and, really, all that steak needed. Other highlights came in unexpected places, like the simple, refreshing mixed-green salads included with entrées. The Sonoma skewers came with long-grain basmati rice that was fluffy and aromatic with white raisins, dried apricots, and slivered almonds. The rice’s transporting Asian flavor made little sense with California-inspired kebabs, but I was glad it was on the plate. Other hits included asparagus tempura, Caprese salad on (crisp) flatbread, and jambalaya, a mountain of rice studded with sweet fennel sausage, chicken, and shrimp. We happily packed up leftovers for the next day.
Terra Nova’s sushi, turned out by two Japanese chefs, are a safe bet. The maki is eclectic, while the nigiri is basic (no orange clam, toro, or uni) but very fresh and well-crafted. “Our sushi has really taken off,” says Cammarata, who estimates it accounts for 30 percent of sales.
Desserts are a mix of house-made (apple crisp) and outsourced (chocolate lava cake). Both were adequate, if unexceptional. (Just don’t ask for coffee past 9:30 pm; the pot will have already been “turned off,” as my waitress reported one night.) I’ll take a glass of elegant Sauternes or ice wine. They’d go really well with a cheese plate, one of the seemingly few things Terra Nova doesn’t offer.
590 Delsea Drive
Food: New American Ambience: Well-dressed wine enthusiasts in a Pacific Northwest-style farmhouse Service: Flighty and uninformed to friendly and polished