Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Toute Heure

A Toute Heure is my favorite restaurant in New Jersey. Believe it or not, though, I've only been there twice.

A mom-and-pop operation (literally: the wife cooks and the husband runs the front of the house) with about a dozen tables, the restaurant is only two years old, yet it can be difficult to get a reservation on a weekend. The secret to their success is not much of a secret at all: the ingredients are fresh. Nearly everything is sourced local, from the greens, meats, and dairy products, to the Boylan's (high fructose corn syrup-free) soda from 42 km away and the Smarties candy gift from 10 km away. (One notable exception: if you want bottled water, it's Panna from Italy, which is pretty absurd in this blogger's opinion.)

The menu changes nearly daily, which means if you love their ______ and miss it, you may have to sit shiva for 300-something days until the next go-around. Last night, the menu featured a puffer fish with a house-made remoulade; it's available only for about 10 days out of the year. "Missing it" may be more than just a seasonal problem, too: sometimes, they run out of certain foods as the night progresses. Waste not, want not, my friends...tough for an American society that needs everything yesterday. The upside is that I believe it's impossible to get bad food at this restaurant (and I hope never to be proven wrong).

I went a little too crazy on the ordering last night; I find myself writing this at 4:00 am because I don't want to go to sleep on a full stomach (we finished eating seven hours ago). But it was hard to resist because to date I've only been here twice in as many years. Appetizers for me included crispy fried polenta with parmesan and bread crumbs and a roast chili tomato sauce; and a pan-sauteed sweet potato gnocchi tossed with brown butter over a bed of cavolo nero (black cabbage), garnished with a micro sage salad. I'm sure you know how the story goes: they were delicious. The polenta and roast chili tomato sauce went together like an old married couple; the gnocchi was a wonderful play on sweet and savory. I could've done without the cavolo nero, though: no seaweed (texture) on my gnocchi, thank you. Silly of me to order two similar plates of carbohydrates, but darned if I wasn't in the mood for both.

I also got a three-cheese sampler plate (hey, why not?): . The Shaker Blue bleu cheese from Old Chatham, NY went remarkably well with a the medium-bodied red wine my friend brought (it's a BYOB). The bleu cheese, with fruity notes of its own, brought out strong fruit in the wine that was barely discernible to me without the cheese. Let's hear it for unintended consequences.  The other two cheeses, the sheep/cow Tewksbury and Croton cheeses from Valley Shepherd, NJ were very good in their own rights, but less distinct for me.

The main course was a pork tenderloin roulade (roll) with a "chimichurri" (think South American pesto) inside over a squash purée. I don't know why the menu chose to put quotes around the "chimichurri," as it appeared to have everything a chimichurri should have: parsley, garlic, pepper, even a mild hint of cilantro. The pork was everything I dreamed it would be: juicy, tender, herby, and perfectly cooked.

In spite of their name, and that every website referencing the restaurant calls it a French bistro, ATH refuses to be pigeonholed. From the fried polenta with roasted tomato sauce (American) and gnocchi (Italian) to the chimichurri pork (South American) to the potato and leek soup (Irish) and steak frites (okay, French) my friends ordered, the restaurant clearly rounds a few of the culinary bases. Nothing on the menu is startlingly new or different: this is comfort food. The difference comes from fresh, local sourcing and execution, and I think this restaurant possesses it in spades. Which is good, because I'm starting to get hungry again....

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