CulinAriane, in Montclair, New Jersey

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So, if you watch Top Chef on Bravo TV, you probably know Ariane by now. She and her husband, Michael, own and operate restaurant CulinAriane in Montclair, New Jersey. I had the pleasure of meeting both of them after eating dinner at their restaurant last night.

I’ll start by saying this:  I know Ariane hasn’t been doing well on the show.  I know that she’s consistently landed herself on the elimination block in both episodes so far.  And I know that she can do better than that.  She’s a Culinary Institute of America graduate, along with her husband.  They’ve gotten culinary educations from the most prestigious culinary school in the country.  She can do better.  She’s worked at some great restaurants and gotten some strong experience.  She can do better than the TV version of her has done so far.  I know it.  And my stomach tells me it’s true, because I ate her food and it was good.

The restaurant is located at 33 Walnut Street, off of Grove Street, which is one of the main roads running through that section of town.  The place is small.  In fact, it is downright tiny.  When I called to ask questions and to make reservations last week after the premier, the girl who picked up the phone told me that the restaurant was 10 tables, tops.  I counted even fewer than that, since some of the deuces were pushed together to form a couple 4-tops.  No matter — the place was charming, cozy, and warm — a welcome respite from the freezing cold and gusty winds outside.

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Dinner started with an amuse bouche of seared tuna loin with a mango salsa.  A triangle of crispy fried wonton skin sits on top.  This was a single, complimentary, refreshing bite, which was followed by the bread and butter — in this case, the croissant pictured above with a covered ramekin of soft butter.  Ariane’s patrons previously complained, requesting that she provide them with plain dinner rolls, but she persevered with her croissants because she felt that the croissant more accurately reflected her cooking.  Even though this is a minor part of the meal, this shows me that she’s got character.  It shows me that she has standards, and that she has the conviction to stand by those standards — even if it means ignoring her customers and going with what she believes she should serve, and how it should be served.

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My appetizer arrived, and the roasted chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, and goat cheese polenta with veal demi-glace (topped with crispy shallots — an elegant and refined version of onion rings) smelled so intoxicatingly good that I dug right in, completely forgetting to take a picture of the dish until I was halfway through with it.  When I first saw the menu, I thought the choice of goat cheese was an interesting and safe choice.  I initially told myself that I would have preferred a cheese with more character than simply goat cheese, but it ended up working beautifully with the dish.  My only complaint was that the polenta was a bit on the runny side, since this was looser than the grits I have for breakfast on occassion.  Clearly though, this was a minor complaint since I became visibly upset when I emptied my bowl and scraped the bottom with my spoon for whatever bits of polenta goodness I could scrape up.

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Next up was Ariane’s signature dish, which has been up since the restaurant opened.  The seared sea scallops with mushroom ragout (I, apparently, was fiending for mushrooms that night.  That sounds funny, “Fiending for mushrooms.”  It’s not like that.), white truffle oil, and mushroom syrup were delicious.  Perfectly seared, tasty mushrooms, delicious sauce — it was a very good dish.

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I finished my meal with a dark chocolate peanut butter mousse cake with a crushed peanut covered truffle.  The plate was garnished with fresh raspberries, mint, a raspberry coulis and a persimmon coulis.  I ordered this instead of the lemon meringue martini, because the description of this dessert made it sound more complex and interesting.  In retrospect, I should  have ordered the meringue, considering that turned out to be Ariane’s worst nightmare on the show later on that evening.  Oh well.  I’ll try it next time.

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This was what was left of my dessert, because I am a disgrace.  I must be getting old, because I can’t even stuff my face like I used to anymore.  It kinda sucks.  I really didn’t want to disrespect the kitchen by not finishing my food, since it was all very good, but I was full and my sweet tooth was more than satisfied (it was a big friggin dessert!).

Mr. Duarte introduced himself to me during my meal, while I was waiting for the next plate to come out.  I mentioned that I would be missing Top Chef since I wanted to come and eat at the restaurant.  He promptly invited me to join him and his wife, family, and friends at a local Irish pub, 3 blocks away.  I initially decided that I wouldn’t do so, since I figured it would be creepy.  Then, at the end of my meal, since I was repeatedly asked to join everyone in watching the new episode, I obliged and managed to capture a thoroughly bad and blurry picture of the 3 of us:

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This was taken with a Canon XTi that I set on self timer on top of a mostly empty glass at the bar. I stupidly pointed the thing too far right, which explains the lean. Also, the bar was REALLY dark, so apologies for the blurriness.

The Duartes were some of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.  Chef Ariane Duarte was especially charming — she was clearly upset at how she represented herself in culinary competition, especially with her nightmare lemon meringue, but that was okay, I thought.  She was down, but clearly not out, as the old, trite saying goes.  She has the support of her friends and her family, while she works hard to support her own family.

During dinner, while looking around, I noticed that as early as 9:15, there were a pair of 4-tops that stayed empty for the rest of the night.  “What a shame,” I thought.  It would have been great to have two more parties there, to round out the evening and pack the house.  “They deserve it,” I thought, in a gluttonous daze from the ridiculously good polenta.

So what’s my final verdict, you ask?  I think that almost everything that has been said in this blog (in previous entries, of course) about Ariane’s cooking so far has been accurate.  Even before anyone said anything about her cooking on Top Chef, I looked over CulinAriane’s menu on their website, and I said that it didn’t look inspired or original.  For example, I’ve been making a seared fish dish with mango salsa since I was about 16 years old, even though I never read a cookbook, never had it in a restaurant before, and I didn’t watch the Food Network at the time.  I’m pretty sure I’ve had a very similar scallops dish somewhere before, and I would much rather see it as an appetizer than as an entree, especially since I was getting tired of eating it after the 2nd or 3rd scallop.  Additionally, the dish could have used some textural contrast (maybe the crispy shallots?), since it was just soft scallops on top of soft mushrooms (I suppose you can only use crispy shallots and mushrooms so many times in your menu before it gets old, though).

Additionally, for a restaurant that has been described as seasonal, I was surprised to see fresh berries on the menu.  My dessert had raspberries and the special dessert of the evening was a blueberry and white chocolate bread pudding with butterscotch sauce.  I had issues with that, but I suppose berries are used all the time in plenty of dishes all over the place.  It’s just not the same when you have to import your berries from some South American country or some other faraway place, you know?

No matter.  At the end of the meal, I heard a number of guests leaving the restaurant while saying, “That was so good.  That was so worth it.  That was soooo good.”  So, in the end, does it really matter whether or not the menu was cutting edge or inspired or original?  If the food is good, and if it is prepared with care and good technique, why is it necessarily a bad thing that it isn’t inspired?  It obviously makes the people of Montclair happy.  And after all, isn’t that what cooking for other people is all about?  Making them happy?

I’ll tell you what would make me happy — if I got to work as a part time dishwasher on nights and weekends.  I should look into that. . . .

CulinAriane restaurant is located at 33 Walnut Street, Montclair, NJ 07042
Phone: 973-744-0533
Fax: 973-744-0733
Hours: Wed – Sat, 5:30 – 10:00
Reservations are highly suggested.

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4 Responses to “CulinAriane, in Montclair, New Jersey”

  1. That place looks fantastic. Now if only I could get a pass and get out there… Maybe I’ll make a go of it this weekend.
    Haha, hey are you busy this weekend? I’ll buy if you drive.

  2. restaurantouring Says:

    I’ll drive if you’re not in Iraq (maybe). Being somewhere in the tri-state area helps, too.

  3. You know, I really should have checked this before I left. I’m still at Dix.

  4. […] first ate at CulinAriane back in mid-November (read about it here). I went after seeing chef Ariane Duarte talk about her small Montclair restaurant on Bravo […]

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