Regardless of cuisine or atmosphere, there are, essentially, two kinds of restaurants. At the first, the menu is large and varied, and diners are encouraged, or at the very least allowed, to mix and match items to create their meal. Those who ask for a substitution, like extra vegetables instead of a starch, or "sauce on the side," are pleasantly accommodated.
At the second type, the menu is not merely a guide, but rather is a set formula for the dining experience the chef hopes to create. Each dish often includes a variety of elements carefully combined to create a cohesive whole. To remove or alter any components would change the chef?s vision for both the taste and look of the plate.
Caf頍atisse, which serves dinner only, is a restaurant of this kind. Chef-owner Peter Loria?s menu clearly reads "no substitutions," and "no crybabies, only the chef," giving diners fair warning that deviance from his menu is not permitted. The choices are few, with four to five selections each for first courses and entr饳, and a single salad. And, on Saturday nights, the menu is prix-fixe only.
However, Loria?s portions are more significant than the two-bite "tasting" plates served elsewhere. This is a good thing, because it allows us to appreciate how Loria layers flavors and textures like no other Bergen chef; with each bite, one discovers another nuance. And some may find his menu descriptions daunting. The "white chocolate Stilton cranberry couscous" that was a component of the venison loin entr饠did take some deciphering, but turned out to be an ideal accompaniment. "Don?t ask, just eat" is our best advice, particularly for the unadventurous.
One guest who joined us at Matisse falls into this category, but he was surprisingly pleased with his filet mignon. The generous medallion of beef, we agreed, was properly charred, and topped with an astonishingly delicious jumble of julienned Italian frying peppers and kosher dill pickles. In addition to the curious-sounding couscous, the venison entree includes elements more frequently found in desserts. Dusted with coffee and cocoa powder, the venison is served with chanterelle mushrooms saut饤 in chestnut butter, sliced candied foie gras, chocolate balsamic demi-glace and drizzled with cranberry jus. In Loria?s hands, all the ingredients meld into a sublime eating experience.
Loria constructs his dishes as small towers, combining the varied elements but often allow the diner to literally see the layers. An appetizer called ?pan seared scallop, shrimp and mussel chowder? is a classically flavored yet deconstructed version of the traditional soup; the ingredients are stacked attractively atop a green onion wheat berry cracker.
Loria?s wife and sous-chef, Paula Hayward, is responsible for Caf頍atisse?s luscious desserts, which also tend to be presented vertically. Choices like coconut pannacotta and ginger macadamia shortbread with mango sauce, caramelized bananas and pineapple or toasted nut financier (a moist cake) with pear coulis are characterized by rich flavor rather than intense sweetness.
Caf頍atisse is housed in an old firehouse and is as layered with color and charm as Loria?s and Hayward?s food. The intimate dining room is a luxurious jewel-box, inspired by and decorated with copies of paintings by Henri Matisse, the French artist for whom the 14-year-old restaurant is named. The service, overseen by maitre d? Larry Falcone, is equally artful. In the warm weather, dining is available outside on Bergen?s prettiest restaurant terrace.
Overall, Loria and Hayward have created a garden of culinary delights. The secret to enjoying the experience is to put yourself completely in their capable hands.