Tablespoon Café, a French bistro in Cranford, is not hip. That may be what I like most about it—along with its flawless rack of lamb, fish stew, tarte tatin and profiteroles.
The café’s storefront and green awning are unprepossessing; you could mistake it for a coffee shop. Inside, the acoustic-tile ceiling and linoleum-like floor are somewhat offset by linen tablecloths, capacious Windsor chairs and paintings of the French countryside brought from France by owners Waala Elsawi, the chef, and his wife, Magali Boulanger, the attentive hostess and manager.
“This,” said one of my guests, who has traveled widely, “is exactly what a bistro in France looks like. Nothing glamorous. Very homey, the equivalent of a pub.”
Unlike much American pub fare, Elsawi’s food—largely, though not rigidly, French—ranges from very good to rapturous. We loved the large ravioli oozing goat cheese in a delicate shallot, brandy and truffle-oil cream sauce. Lobster bisque with Madeira was light and luxurious.
The kitchen often has a staff of one, which is why the couple will not seat more than 35 people a night, even on weekends, though they have enough tables to accommodate twice that many. “I prefer to do everything myself,” explains Elsawi. “In that way, I know what comes out of the kitchen. My customers like to stay for hours, and that’s fine. I’m very old school.”
From the kitchen comes rosy rack of lamb in an herbed bread-crumb crust. Elsawi sprinkles cod with an abundance of caramelized shallots, adds lemon juice, salt and white wine, then roasts. The flesh emerges moist under a crunchy lid. Fish stew is equally fine. The broth, briny and sweet, includes saffron, but its smoky edge comes from kielbasa.
Elsawi’s portions are ample. Consider the six plump and juicy medallions in the pork tenderloin entrée, splendid even without their satiny dijon cream sauce. Also generous is the organic roast chicken, its skin crisp, its interior moist, its impact heightened by a dark pool of house-made, burgundy-spiked veal demi-glace that someone should bottle.
Born in France, Elsawi, 55, and his brother, Sami, acquired their passion for cooking from their Cairo-born mother. After graduating from cooking school in France, Elsawi worked in small-town restaurants there and immigrated to the United States in 1981. He met (and married) Boulanger in 1993 in Normandy, France, where she’s from.
In 1996, he and Sami opened Le Rendez-vous in Kenilworth. Two years later, Elsawi sold his share and opened La Petite France in Red Bank with Boulanger. After a successful 11-year run, they decamped for France to reconnect with family. Upon their return in 2010, they opened Voilà in Point Pleasant Beach (“people pronounced it ‘Viola,’” he says). Hoping for a more appreciative audience, the couple relocated to Cranford in 2015 and gave their new venture a name easier to say and remember.
Are there glitches? Salads needed more interesting greens; scallops and shrimp flambéed with cognac conveyed barely any cognac flavor. The New York strip steak in a steak frites was tough and lacked beefy flavor. Moreover, the frites were fat and limp, not the thin, crunchy batons one craves.
But all is forgiven come dessert. “I love to make dessert,” says Elsawi. He makes everything from scratch. Tarte tatin, a luscious mass of caramelized apples, had a beautiful, buttery crust. Profiteroles, the pastry light as clouds, were filled with French vanilla ice cream and coated with a thick, bittersweet chocolate sauce. Elsawi also makes excellent sorbets.
“Many high-end restaurants look nice from the outside,” he says, “but you do not know who is cooking your dinner.”
At Tablespoon Café, you do, and it makes all the difference.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $7.50-$15; entrées, $24-$36; desserts, $9-$12
Ambience:Intimate and unpretentious.