For a moment, the South of Jersey had become the South of France.
The twinkling glow of trees strung with lights framed the patio where we sat at Dream Cuisine. An illuminated church spire rose over the horizon. And as a gentle spring evening breeze rustled across our table, it carried the rippling sound of a fountain nearby. When the food arrived, the smell of seafood in garlic butter and tomato sauces piqued with Nicoise olives wafted up invitingly. I inhaled the aromas and poised my fork for a taste of Provence, when . . .
"Happy birthday to you!!!"
The recorded music was being piped out of Toscana, the cheesy Italian restaurant a dozen yards from our table. And it blared across the pedestrian plaza of the Village Walk for what seemed like the fourth time that hour. The reverie was broken, yet again.
It's no wonder the much smaller Dream Cuisine has been slower to take hold than Vincent Fanari might have hoped. The low-key 40-seater he opened in September with his partner, Beth Malesich, is easily overlooked, with a Cherry Hill strip-mall storefront that has hosted a long line of failed restaurants. The name is also unfortunately forgettable - especially for a restaurant whose food actually does evoke a memorable place, Southern France.
But to watch the crowds steadily packing in for chain-level Italian food on the pergola-decked terrace of Toscana, an elaborately overdone faux-Tuscan villa from the owners of Italian Bistro, has been a challenge to Fanari's morale.
He even closed for lunch and took a side job recently to support the bistro, returning for daytime hours to Old City's Plough & the Stars, where he was the longtime executive chef.
It shouldn't be so difficult for honest French bistro fare to get noticed - especially with a four-course prix-fixe menu that, from $30 to $40, is a real bargain. But such is the lot of genuine food that dares to exist beside the powerful magnetic force of a mediocre suburban chain. Dream Cuisine's spare little room may not compete with the Italian stage set across the walk, but it is comfortable enough, with a cushy banquette, fabric-wrapped chairs, and walls the color of clay tiles and blue sky. The outdoor patio is a delight.
The fluorescent open kitchen could be less glaring, true, but you'll reliably see Fanari there, a flat-top toque capping his silver ponytail as he bobs solo beside the broiler, ladles and whisks.
With only a modest flow of customers since he opened in September, the menu is still somewhat limited. And the straightforward presentations are rustic French, rather than fussy French, with chunky tomato-based sauces that evoke the Mediterranean garden. This food reminds me of the grandmère cooking you'd find at a neighborhood cafe - if your neighborhood happened to be near Fanari's native Nice.
The intoxicating smell of garlic and Pastis rises up from broiled scallop shells that cradle both tiny bay and larger sea mollusks - and I sop up with crusty bread every last drop of the remaining crumb-thickened juices. A lightly seared tuna steak comes posed over real ratatouille - the Provençal vegetable medley of eggplant, zucchini, onions, peppers and basil-laced tomatoes, sauteed separately in olive oil before being brought together for a final simmer.
A similar, but slightly more refined, sauce infused with a splash of demiglace gravy comes with the grilled lamb chop appetizer, the addition of salty olives sparking against the tender, rose-colored meat.
Sheer slices of prosciutto streaked with olive oil are topped with a lightly breaded square of pungent raclette, a rarely seen mountain cheese. I wrap each morsel of crispy, oozy curds in a cool ribbon of prosciutto for an ultimate ham and cheese bite.
I'm pleasantly surprised by Fanari's homemade pastas, but they are a reminder of Nice's proximity to Italy. Delicately spun capellini come beneath a tender chicken breast topped with melted Gruyere and the soft folds of pink prosciutto - a simple dish that I've lately come to crave. Wider fettuccine twirl around big sweet shrimp in a tomato-caper sauce that is more French Riviera than Italian "scampi." Even the pasta with gorgonzola sauce is more tomato-based than the rich cheese sauces you'd find in Northern Italy, the sweet gorgonzola adding just the peck of a creamy blush.
Fanari's pesto is also Frenchified, the basil leaves quickly blanched to retain their emerald vibrance, the garlic's pungence softened by a poaching in milk, and the whole sauce touched with wine and stock at the finish. It was a vivid complement to good grilled scallops that didn't need much flourish.
Likewise, a simple grilled filet mignon with classic Bordelaise gravy spoke for itself, as did the perfectly roasted chicken breast, all crispy skin and moist meat. Both came with a textbook gratin dauphinoise - a layered square of thinly sliced potatoes roasted in cream and cheese, set on its side like a heat-crisped deck of cards.
On their own, these understated dishes are pleasant enough, and fairly priced for the quality. In the context of Fanari's four-course prix-fixe menu option, though, it is one of the best French bargains around. And the salad course is more than just throwaway mixed greens. One came with sweet gorgonzola, walnuts and pears; the other propped an irresistible wedge of oozy, almond-crusted brie over fresh greens and apples.
Dream Cuisine is still far from perfect. My crab cake, bound with a strange fish filler, fell apart on the plate. The seafood options here, in general, could be broader.
The restaurant's single server was lovely, but I'm doubtful that Dream Cuisine can handle a crowd. Even on a quiet night, Fanari's timing was challenged, as he twice sent out half our table's dishes several minutes before the others.
Still, I get the distinct feeling that the chef is actually cooking here with heart. And when a piping-hot slice of freshly baked apple tarte tatin arrives, the apples glistening with tawny caramel over flaky crust, I find myself hoping that the scoop of vanilla ice cream on top will melt as slowly as possible. It's only a matter of moments before "Happy Birthday" interrupts this dream.