Mélange’s chef-owner, Joe Brown, attributes his eclectic tastebuds and cooking talents to where he grew up—Willingboro, the post-World War II planned community built by Levitt & Sons, Inc. whose mission was to move urban dwellers out of cities and into suburbia. Willingboro remained a largely white enclave into the late 1950s, but after a court battle over discriminatory policies that reached the New Jersey Supreme Court, the town became a true melting pot of cultures and races.
“Everybody knew everybody, and we were always in and out of each other’s houses,” says Brown. “One day you could be eating matzo-ball soup, and the next it would be chicken cacciatore.”
While neighbors’ meals may have made an impression on him, it was Brown’s mother, born in Tennessee, who had the biggest impact, both with her southern specialties and her no-waste policy, being the mother of ten children. Brown received professional French training at the Restaurant School in Philadelphia and later worked in several Italian restaurants. But it was the trips to New Orleans with his wife, Robin, where it all gelled, leading Brown to develop his own blend of Louisiana and Italian fare for his first restaurant, Mélange Café in Cherry Hill, that opened in 1995 and closed earlier this year. His second site, Mélange@Haddonfield, opened in 2007.
The 90-seat dining room is rich with color, from the plum-toned walls to the vivid original paintings depicting jazz and dance scenes by Moorestown artist Paul Gordon. Adding to the restaurant’s warmth is Brown himself, who bounces back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen. “I’ve always been a very hands-on person,” says Brown, 49. “I’ll greet you and seat you and make sure you’re being properly taken care of, and then sometimes I’m on the line cooking, on a particularly crazy night.”
Brown’s mélange of cooking styles, for the most part, works. Take the rich and flavorful crabmeat cheesecake. (Savory cheesecakes are more common in the South, according to Brown.) The crabmeat and Creole-cream cheese-filled wedge bears a pecan crust and is topped with caramelized onions and wild mushrooms. A meal in itself.
Other winning appetizers included lightly breaded fried oysters topped with a horseradish and Dijon-cream reduction, and the spicy vegetable stir-fry, a mix of seasonal vegetables in a soy, ginger, and wasabi sauce topped with cayenne-coated pistachios. The staff refer to these Cajun-inspired dishes as “aggressively seasoned” rather than “spicy,” but Brown says anything can be adjusted to individual tastes.
A less successful appetizer was the restaurant’s twist on “surf and turf,” which combines three seared sea scallops with slow-cooked shredded short rib meat, each tasty on its own but fighting each other’s flavors, not to mention the even more intensely flavored side of risotto infused with truffle oil.
For entrées, jambalaya, a spicy, not-very tomatoey stew of shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, Andouille sausage, and ham, was thoroughly satisfying. So was the shrimp-and-cheese grits—five jumbo shrimp, sautéed with onion, mushrooms, tomatoes, and garlic, served atop a mound of Parmesan-laden grits. Seafood pomodoro was also a winner, a generous serving of shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, and crab cooked in a slightly sweet tomato-basil-cream white wine sauce and served over fettuccini. A pan-roasted leg and thigh of chicken was meaty and tender, finished with a garlic- and rosemary-accented chicken stock.
Duck gumbo (minus the traditional okra) alternated slices of crispy-edged duck breast with slices of Andouille sausage to form a flower around a timbale of rice—beautifully presented but overly smoky in flavor.
Desserts were outstanding, especially bread pudding, which the kitchen calls bread cake, topped with a bourbon cream sauce. Other standouts included pecan pie; chocolate soufflé, crunchy with a warm, gooey center; and sweet potato cheesecake.
- Cuisine Type:American - Cajun/Creole - European - Italian
- Price Range:Moderate