Restaurant Review

Resto

What is “modern French,” the cuisine of Madison’s year-old Resto? In the hands of chef-owner Robert Ubhaus—an Edison native who trained in Paris, Italy, San Francisco, Long Beach Island, and at New York City’s French Culinary Institute—it’s above all “fine dining without the pretension.”

Another aspect of the 35-year-old chef’s concept is presenting traditional flavor pairings, such as tarragon and lobster, “but in a different guise.” With the crustacean, for example, he created a tomato consommé with a tarragon-and-lobster flan in the middle.

Resto—the name, Ubhaus says, is Parisian teenage slang for a casual restaurant with good food—changes its menu frequently, so I didn’t have the opportunity to taste that dish. And with the restaurant introducing a new menu at a rate of better than one a month, you may not get to try the dishes my guests and I had. But you will probably see the same thoughtfulness and care from a kitchen that would rather err on the side of excess caution than of overstatement.

An example was an appetizer in which big, fresh smoked prawns straddled lemon-scented blini with garlic-chive emulsion. The lemon and garlic provided the reference to traditional scampi. But the flavors were downright reclusive.

“I don’t feel the overwhelming need to blow somebody’s mouth out with truffle oil or spice,” Ubhaus says, a tad defensively. “To have one thing overpower all makes not a lot of sense.” No argument there. He explains, “We wanted just a faint hint of smokiness in the background, just to accentuate the sweetness of the prawns. That being said,” he adds, “I am very accommodating. If somebody wanted to change something up, if I have something in the kitchen I can do it with, I’m happy to do it.”

I thought Ubhaus took subtlety too far in a couple of other dishes as well. A deconstructed (i.e., each component separately presented on the plate) salad of endive and red watercress came with a creamy scoop of whipped-herbed brie sitting on a cluster of golden raisins. The red watercress, with its flavor reminiscent of beet greens, was a discovery, but the lump of soft cheese and the raisins stubbornly resisted involvement with the greens. An entrée of Barnegat Light dayboat scallops needed a dance partner, but the red-wine-wilted frisée and salsify frites came off as demure spectators.

Ubhaus and his capable sous chef, CIA grad Alex Ruperto, do have their triumphs. One was a duck confit raviolo, a generous starter in which a ragù of wild mushrooms and caramelized onions rich with duck stock amplifies the sensuousness of the preserved leg meat, all snuggled between two nearly gossamer sheets of pasta dough. This dish represents another aspect of Ubhaus’ modern French: conflation. “When I was in Italy, we did a papardelle with a duck ragù,” he says. “I was thinking How can I take that Italian dish and make it more French? The first thing that comes to mind when I think of French and duck is confit.”

We also enjoyed an appetizer of frogs’ legs deftly fried in what Ubhaus calls “a French version of a tempura batter, [lightened] with sparkling water” and served with a piquant gribiche mixed with a dollop of crême fraîche.

Resto’s decorous desserts included a baked meringue topped with a mild milk-chocolate mousse and blackberry compote. I appreciated the playfulness of a tarte tatin made with roasted pineapple instead of the traditional apple.

Ubhaus makes frequent forays into his cozy dining room to ask patrons, in essence, How ’m I doin’? “I would say about 60 percent of the time I get honest commentary,” he says. “I’m very lucky to have some regular guests who will say something. And being the owner, I can change it right away. You always have to be striving to improve every day.”

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