Chef C.J. Reycraft characterizes his cooking at Amuse in Westfield as “classically influenced modern French bistro.” Before they opened in January, Reycraft, 32, and his fiancée, Julianne Hodges, 26, learned a lot about classic haute cuisine and impeccable service working together—he as chef de cuisine, she as pastry chef—at Chez Catherine, owner Didier Jouvenet’s esteemed jewel box across town. Reycraft, in a phone call after my visits, rightly called Chez Catherine “an institution” and expressed nothing but gratitude toward his former employer.
“He took a chance on me,” said Reycraft, a Staten Island native who was raised in Freehold. “It was a wonderful opportunity. But Chez Catherine is more of a special-occasion place. Many patrons go only once or twice a year. My goal is to get people in here once a week. The quality is the same, but we’re reaching for a lower price level and a more casual setting.”
Compared to Chez Catherine, Amuse delivers slightly less ambitious French food in a more modern style at a somewhat lower price in a more casual setting. But I can’t quite swallow that term, bistro. While the menu includes such bistro stalwarts as onion soup, moules frites and steak frites, Reycraft prepares them with unusual finesse.
A restaurant calling itself Amuse ought to send out an exemplary amuse-bouche, and this one does (for example, whipped duck-liver mousse on toasted brioche with chive oil). The care continues right through delivery of the check, which comes with labor-intensive, one-bite sweets made by Hodges’s mother, Margaret Hodges, proprietor of the Maggie Cooks catering firm in Westfield.
Amuse does resemble a bistro in its comfy, cheerful (and alas, noisy) setting and its relaxed, unfussy service. Then again, you have expert execution of classics like hollandaise for a spring starter of tender white asparagus, or velvety saffron emulsion over wild king salmon, or an ethereal dessert soufflé (passion fruit, in my visits).
These are served in a simple, airy, well-lit space lightened by blonde wood, seating 50, with French doors opening to the sidewalk, increasing the capacity to 60. Reycraft (2004) and Hodges (2010) each graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York, but didn’t actually meet until she joined Chez Catherine in 2011.
At Amuse I got my first taste of lollipop kale—a pretty cross of Brussels sprouts and red kale that tastes of both—in an exquisite dish of seared scallops in brown butter, plump raisins and toasted hazelnuts. A big swoosh of creamy salsify purée with capers completed the composition. Like almost every dish here, this one blended classic and modern, using pristine ingredients that make delicious sense together.
The seasonal menu changes often. One evening in early spring, haricots verts accompanied king salmon; asparagus lined up beside excellent pan-seared calf liver; and snow peas graced grouper amandine. Each veggie had been individually roasted to maximize its flavor. All three dishes came with potato in a different form: sautéed red and white fingerlings for the salmon; potato gratin for the liver; and a shredded potato and leek cake for the grouper. The first two were superb; the potato cake was gray and sodden. Other duds included a bland, under-salted vegetable potage (thick soup) and a puzzling starter of two house-made ricotta ravioli in brown butter with toasted cashews and dried cranberries—ingredients in search of a reason to buddy up.
One form of potato not to miss is the frites—dark, crisp, piping hot, delivering acres of earthy flavor. I enjoyed them with a juicy prime skirt steak, rarely feeling the need to dip them into the supplied ramekin of sauce choron (béarnaise with tomato purée).
As for desserts, I have one request of Reycraft and Hodges: Please open a bakeshop. And soon. I tried eight desserts, each a winner.
There’s the passion-fruit soufflé, worth the $14 price tag. Passion fruit also showed up as ice cream accompanying a fantastic tart filled with salted caramel and topped with chocolate ganache. Passion-fruit curd provided the perfect underpinning for three marvelous miniature pavlovas served with house-made coconut ice cream. Raspberry sorbet enhanced a lemon tart with impeccable shortbread crust. Attention is lavished even on coffee and tea, which come with a small carafe of warm frothed milk.
Westfield is lucky to have two admirable French restaurants, one a beloved classic, the other its modern, easygoing offspring.Click here to leave a comment