Restaurant Review

A Toute Heure

This Bistro-French, New American restaurant, set in a restored 1930s house in Cranford, aims to share everything they love about local, seasonal food.

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It’s become customary for restaurants to credit the sources of their meats and produce on the menu. A Toute Heure, set in a restored 1930s house in Cranford, goes a step further. Two large blackboards dominate the compact, 34- to 40-seat dining room, with its gray walls and wooden floors. Scrawled in colorful chalk, the boards list more than 30 local and regional suppliers whose seasonal products the kitchen transforms into pleasing, well-conceived dishes. Owners Jim and Andrea Carbine explain on the restaurant’s website that the blackboards are inspired by ones in French bistros, where, under the heading A Toute Heure (“at any hour”), chefs list their daily specials based on what’s fresh at the market.

Andrea, a self-described military brat and a 2003 graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Mid-Atlantic award in 2009 and again this year. She caught the locavore bug early in her career, when she cooked at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle and fell in love with the cornucopian selection of local products at the Pike Place Market. When she worked as a caterer in San Diego, the Delmar Market there proved equally compelling. Three years ago, Andrea, 30, and Jim, 49, opened A Toute Heure.

“Our dream,” they explain on the website, “was to run a bistro of our own that shared everything we love about local, seasonal food and the casual character of our favorite haunts around the globe.”

To free herself to concentrate on what restaurant people call sourcing, in October 2007 Andrea brought in fellow FCI alumna Kara Decker, 32, former executive chef at Chez Catherine in Westfield, to lead the day-to-day kitchen operation. Together they create the menus. “It takes a lot of time outside the kitchen to bring the best products of our area into the kitchen,” Andrea says.

Guests are usually greeted by Jim, who describes the day’s dishes, how they are prepared, and the ingredient sources. We had to restrain ourselves from overindulging in a piquant presentation of rosemary-tinged nuts, good bread from Breadsmith in Cranford, sea salt, and plain and herb butters. We started our first meal with faultlessly fried wild Gulf shrimp fritters delightfully contrasted with lemon-garlic aioli. Crisp puff pastry warm from the oven cradled sautéed cremini, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms from upstate New York that fortified the dulcet tones of caramelized onions and cymbal strikes of tangy Valley Shepherd (NJ) goat cheese.

Reinterpreting the traditional bistro salad (mixed greens, mustard dressing, bacon, poached egg), A Toute Heure tops the salad with a sunny-side up Jersey farm egg on a crusty, buttery crouton. Bacon bits provide smoky counterpoint to the vinaigrette of Dijon mustard and apple-cider vinegar and the zesty wild arugula. A “Bites” category on the menu offers smaller appetizers priced at $6. We tried one—tender, cumin-scented lamb meatballs with a refreshing yogurt-mint sauce—and liked it.

Main courses are strong. A stellar one was moist, delicate Atlantic cod nestled on tender navy beans flavored with white wine and tomatoes—grown in the garden adjacent to the owners’ home a block and a half from the restaurant and canned in the kitchen. A nod to Portuguese cooking united tender littleneck clams, succulent pork-belly cubes, diced potatoes, and house-made skinless chorizo sausage in a rich, spicy broth made with those preserved tomatoes.

Chicken may be the Rodney Dangerfield of restaurant proteins, but A Toute Heure pays loving respect to half a free-range, naturally raised chicken from Murray’s, an estimable Pennsylvania group of family farms, kind of what Niman Ranch is to pork (and now beef). After searing in a hot pan, the chicken is pressed with a brick and roasted, yielding succulent meat and crisp skin. This gorgeous bird was accompanied by spinach gratin and fluffy sweet potato purée, all nicely offset by creamy garlic vinaigrette.

Cassoulet is almost a requirement for a restaurant as French-influenced as A Toute Heure, and the kitchen’s version—white beans suffused with the flavor of duck confit, pork belly, and the kitchen’s own garlic sausage—would pass muster in the homeland.

The winning streak continues with dessert. Moist and light apple cake (the fruit from Terhune Orchards in Princeton) had rich cinnamon ice cream as a debonaire chaperone. Peanut butter pie with a crisp chocolate chip crust had a mousse-like, peanutty filling that avoided the familiar sin of kiddie sweetness. Velvety espresso pot au crème irresistibly brought together another dynamic duo, coffee and chocolate.

Although the petite dining room can get noisy when full, the waitstaff’s professionalism keeps the atmosphere warm and relaxed. This, combined with the kitchen’s care and the Carbines’ dedication to seasonality and local producers, can only help the couple achieve their aim of, in Andrea’s words, “strengthening our community.”

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