In the past two years, chef Rich Cusack has been on a mission to bring French food to South Jersey. It started with June BYOB, a highly regarded Philadelphia restaurant that he closed during the pandemic, then reopened in 2021 across the Delaware River, in dining-rich Collingswood. The intimate, white-tablecloth establishment immediately earned a spot on this magazine’s annual Top 30 Restaurants list in 2022 and again in 2023.
So we at New Jersey Monthly were intrigued when, in April of this year, Cusack and his wife, Christina, opened Café le Jardin, a larger and more casual French bistro, in nearby Audubon. Although Café le Jardin is located just two miles from June BYOB, the town of Audubon does not have a well-regarded and beloved restaurant scene like Collingswood’s.
Convincing less adventurous diners to experience one of the world’s most high-end cuisines has been a difficult sell. To succeed, Cusack created a more accessible French menu at a friendlier price point, while still applying the same care and attention to detail he’s brought to all his cooking since graduating from the Restaurant School of Philadelphia in 2009 and working alongside French masters like Daniel Boulud and Pierre Calmels.
“Most people in America don’t understand French food,” says Cusack, 36. “The Café is a good way to introduce French food at a calmer pace in a more suitable environment.”
With its sunny yellow walls, wood-top tables, salvaged-bentwood bistro seats and large outdoor patio, Café le Jardin seats 72, almost double the amount of June BYOB. Though the setting is more casual, Cusack says he stays true to his “commitment to French food.” To remain viable, business manager Christina Cusack has urged her husband to include recognizable French dishes on the menu like moules-frites, crêpes and steak frites, as well as all-around favorites like a burger. She also pushed for a $35 three-course tasting menu on Monday nights and a $10 Sunday sandwich menu.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” says Christina, 35, who grew up in Audubon, which she describes as “a great town that’s just getting bigger and better.” The couple had originally sought to open their second restaurant in Collingswood, but after landlord and town issues, shifted their sights to a newly available space in Audubon.
Of course, running two restaurants means twice the work, but it also means that Café le Jardin can take advantage of the resources and talents Cusack has built up. Take Jay Shipp, the 26-year-old chef who worked with Cusack at June BYOB for several months before being asked to run the kitchen at Café le Jardin; prior to that, the Camden native had cooked at Porch & Proper in Collingswood and Kitchen 519 in Glendora.
On the ingredient front, Cusack’s resources run deep, from organic lettuces and radishes that Black Sheep Farm in Mullica Hill grows especially for him, to succulent shellfish from Brigantine Oyster Company, to pungent French cheeses and truffles he has shipped in weekly from a cheesemonger in France’s Loire Valley.
I had the pleasure of sampling those cheeses when my dining companions and I ordered the sumptuous cheese starter one evening, which came with generous wedges of runny Camembert, sharp blue chèvre, and aged Pur Brebis goat’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, presented on a board with berry compote, honey, almonds, mixed greens, and crusty French bread from Orwashers Bakery in New York. We also tasted the French truffles, which Cusack dusts onto the crispy fries and grinds to a paste to add to the whipped egg yolks in the redolent truffle deviled eggs. Another standout small plate, the galette de crabe, borrowed from Philadelphia’s Le Bec Fin, is a round of shrimp mousse infused with chunks of crab and scallops, finished with a sherry-and-whole-grain-mustard dressing.
The closest thing to a pasta dish on the menu is the Parisian gnocchi, which veers widely from the sometimes gummy potato-based dish found in most Italian restaurants. Here, the gnocchi are made from a pâte à choux (pastry) dough, resulting in light and fluffy pillows, served in a cheesy Mornay sauce. (Cusack says this is a go-to for his young children, who think of it as mac and cheese.) I found myself lapping up the last of this same Mornay sauce used to dress the tender scallops in the coquilles St. Jacques.
Among the main courses, a favorite was the grilled lamb, a dish created by Shipp. Marinated in merguez seasonings of cumin, cayenne and paprika before being grilled, the sliced lamb round is topped with a merguez yogurt sauce and served atop aromatic couscous. Also excellent was the roasted rabbit leg, a hearty serving of braised then seared rabbit with a nicely caramelized skin. The briny white-wine broth in the moules-frites was so delicious, we were spooning it up long after the tender mussels had been consumed.
Not as impressive was the loup de mer, a pan-seared branzino, which was a bit dry and could have used an additional sauce beyond the topping of mixed greens, artichokes and marinated tomatoes. Likewise, an extra splash of orange supreme sauce on the duck à l’orange would have helped finish the otherwise tasty duck-leg confit.
In keeping with the accessible approach, desserts are on the simple side, more in the vein of country cooking than high-end patisserie. The biggest surprise was the French cruller, which could put Dunkin’ out of business. The ridged spiral of deep-fried dough, iced with a maple glaze, was absolute perfection and a wonderful way to end my meal.
HOW WE REVIEW: Restaurants are chosen for review at the sole discretion of the dining editor, based on input from our food writers and critics around the state. Our reviewers visit a restaurant at least twice, always maintaining anonymity to avoid preferential treatment. The reviewer brings up to three guests per visit and tastes everything that is ordered. NJM reimburses the reviewer for all food and beverage expenses. After the final visit, the reviewer conducts a phone interview with the chef, owner or other key members of the team. The review is then submitted to NJM and edited for clarity and fairness. Stars are assigned by the editor in consultation with the reviewer. As a final step, an NJM staffer checks the review for accuracy, always calling the restaurant to confirm all facts.
Four stars = extraordinary; three stars = excellent; two stars = very good; one star = good; half a star = fair.
- Cuisine Type:French
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Starters, $8-$22; entrées, $23-$35; desserts, $8
- Ambience:Friendly bistro
- Service:Knowledgeable and attentive
- Wine list:BYO