To spend an evening at A Toute Heure in Cranford since A.J. Capella came aboard as executive chef last September is to celebrate the invigorating convergence of a rising Jersey talent and a much-loved location.
That thought went through my mind one Saturday night as the last bite of Capella’s delectable Basque cheesecake met my tongue, the bitterness of its traditional burnt top balancing its sweet, soft interior. For the third time in as many weeks, I’d lingered with friends until almost closing time at the charming, 40-seat boite, which occupies the first floor of a restored 1930s cottage. Garlands of tiny white lights twinkled outside French doors at one end of the dove-gray dining room. Through a cutout window at the other, I could see Capella, 29, carefully plating the night’s last orders in the petite open kitchen. I felt remarkably at home. Capella—and just about everyone else in the place—seemed so, too.
One of the first restaurants to showcase Jersey farms when it opened 12 years ago, A Toute Heure had a French name (loosely meaning “at any time”) but a largely American menu. In 2017, its founders, Andrea and Jim Carbine, retired and sold ATH to Marco and Nathally Florio. The Florios encouraged their first executive chef, Alex Gomes, to transition the menu gently, even keeping some ATH classics (which he did, earning three stars from NJM.)
Within a year, however, Florio, 49, was on the hunt. “I wanted to think bigger, to make ATH all it could be,” he says. “I needed a chef who shared that vision.” Among his plans: Sunday brunches and themed suppers, plus special events.
Florio found his man in Anthony-Joseph (A.J.) Capella, considered a rising star on Jersey’s dining scene. As a Wallkill Valley high school student, Capella had taken his first restaurant gig at a local pancake house to earn money for a Jeep Cherokee. “I quickly realized how much I loved cooking,” he says. “So I found the best restaurant in my area and asked for a job.”
That restaurant was Latour at Crystal Springs, and shortly after Capella came on as a line cook, Anthony Bucco took over as executive chef. It was the start of a years-long friendship and culinary awakening, says Capella. “Anthony taught me to respect ingredients. He once made me apologize to a bunch of onions because I had cut a few of them so horribly.”
At Bucco’s urging, Capella earned a CIA diploma. In 2010, he returned to New Jersey, rejoining his mentor, first at Uproot in Warren, then at Hamilton Farm Country Club in Gladstone, and later at the esteemed Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station. Other forays included line cook under Corey Heyer at the Bernards Inn in Bernardsville. Capella returned to the Ryland in 2015, further honing his skills under chef Craig Polignano and, later, Chris Albrecht. He eventually rose to chef de cuisine, a position he held for two years.
In 2017, Capella seemed on track to achieve his goal of becoming an executive chef by age 30. But he could not resist the opportunity to work under the famed Grant Achatz, even as a lowly line cook, at Achatz’s Aviary in Manhattan.
“I told myself, when I took that line-cook detour at Aviary—after 18-hour days tweezing flower petals onto hundreds of complex tasting plates, on nights I slept in Penn Station after missing the last train home to New Brunswick—I’d bring all that experience back to New Jersey and get a kitchen of my own.”
A little over a year later, with dining powerhouse Ryan DePersio acting as matchmaker, Capella took the helm at ATH. Recalls Florio, “We told A.J., ‘We know what you can do. Go ahead and knock it out of the park.’”
Capella may not be Aaron Judge, but he’s hit some home runs. He sautéed a heaping bouquet of wild Jersey mushrooms in butter, nestling them onto a velvety bed of white polenta topped with a quivering sous-vide egg. A cast-iron-seared Rohan duck breast—sweet and juicy from a brown-sugar marinade—romped with a frisky green-olive tapenade and a wreath of crisp fried kale. As for his flash-fried brussels sprouts sprinkled with sea salt, apple cider vinaigrette and sweet bursts of pomegranate seed, we snarfed ’em down like candy.
Most memorable was Capella’s take on the classic and ever-popular duo of Spanish octopus and potatoes. After gently poaching the tentacles in an aromatic broth and sautéing them in brown butter, he nests some choice morsels, along with delicate beads of trout roe, in a dainty white bowl. With a technique learned at Aviary, Capella covers these treasures with a cloud of aerated potato mousseline. The dish arrives at the table looking as innocent as a bowl of vanilla ice cream. But each sensual, exquisitely flavorful bite of octopus, bathed in silken potato, may leave you blushing.
Capella riffs almost as magically with chicken and dumplings. Skinning and deboning a D’Artagnan breast, he pounds it flat and rolls it into a little baton. He then wraps the removed skin around the baton and pan sears it.
“You get chicken that is juicy and soft inside, with 360 degrees of crunch in every bite,” he says, accurately. As for the dumplings, he replaces them with house-made potato gnocchi, flash-fried crisp. The combo was so delectable, I forgave Capella for placing it upon a dull mound of roasted salsify and chestnut purée.
Regulars will be pleased that ATH’s signature Parker House rolls—lovingly baked at nearby Breadsmith using the Carbines’ original recipe—still kick off every meal. “Not because I had to,” Capella says, “but because I like them.”
While he champions Jersey’s bounty, Capella is by no means shackled to it. For one evening’s crudo special, he bejeweled rosy slips of kampachi flown in from Japan with vermilion beads of Princeton-grown calamansi, fermented in house with Thai bird chilis. The puckery pop of the petite citrus and the gentle chili heat brilliantly amplified the delicate, super-fresh fish.
Capella’s menu is concise. At its largest, on weekends, it usually offers five appetizers and seven entrées. “My staff is small,” he explains, “and so is the kitchen.” The upside? Each dish is carefully considered, with every ingredient purposeful. This was evident in our shaved veggie salad, its crisp ribbons of carrot and fennel brightened with bits of house-pickled watermelon radish and a perfectly balanced Meyer-lemon vinaigrette. The same purposeful economy ennobled the mustard-laced steak tartare and the mussels in green curry soothed with coconut milk.
The menu is not as small as it seems because Capella changes it often, not just with each season. “I run a dish for about two weeks,” he admits, “and then I get bored.”
Capella is developing desserts himself and should keep it up if he can. Bitter versus sweet gave the Basque cheesecake an enjoyable jolt. But equally gratifying were the close harmonies in his warm sticky-toffee pudding with golden raisins and his coconut-milk tapioca with coconut sorbet, crumbled ginger snaps and bits of mango.
Best of all: under Capella, every visit to A Toute Heure holds the promise of delicious discovery.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $12–$18; entrées, $28–$42; desserts, $10
Ambience:Intimate and charming
Service:Informed, happy and helpful