It might be a surprise to find a respected French chef practicing his craft in a quiet Bergen strip mall. But for Claude Baills, whose first restaurant, Claude’s, was on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and whose second occupied the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn for several years, the Franklin Square shopping plaza is where he has earned his most loyal following.
The Chef’s Table’s lace-curtained front windows hide its tiny dining room from view. But once you are through the glass front door, the collection of framed accolades and certificates, from such venerable culinary organizations as La Chaine des Rotisseurs and La Societe de Cuisiniers de Paris, are the first clues you have entered a cozy cocoon of gastronomy.
Baills and his wife Dolores, who graciously oversees the dining room, have decorated it in a personal style that whispers, rather than shouts, France. A dark-green carpet patterned with a fleur de lis pattern grounds the room, while the white stucco walls are crowded with oil and watercolor paintings, interspersed with a collection of rustic wooden birdhouses and Faience platters. Especially charming are the box graters that serve as shades for votive candles on each linen-draped table.
The dining experience begins auspiciously, with hot rolls, sweet butter and a little crock of mild and smooth chicken liver mousse. The dinner menu, which features familiar ingredients prepared in the classical French manner, includes a daily regional entree special. This is augmented by nightly appetizer and entree specials, narrated in detail at tableside by Mme. Baills.
Among the appetizers, we enjoyed a steamed artichoke, beautifully presented with the leaves fanned out like the petals of a flower. Escargots, served in tiny ceramic pots with toasty puff pastry “hats,” were tender and appropriately garlicky. The onion soup was buttery and full of deep flavor, but could have done with a little less salt. The Gruyere cheese, lightly charred from the broiler, was just enough to cover the crock without overwhelming the soup.
A standount is Friday’s special entree a bouillabaisse that’s heady with saffron and loaded with fish and shellfish. Baills is a master at cooking seafood. A special of sauteed turbot almost floated above the plate under an ethereal lemony glaze, and his perfectly cooked sea scallops took on an equally tasty but more earthly quality with mushrooms, shallots and veal jus.
The chef’s presentations are old-fashioned, often involving vegetables that are either piped or precisely cut. The crispy-skinned roast duck was plated alongside squiggles of lightly spiced pureed sweet potato, while a special of venison loin – the meat thinly sliced and deliciously rare – featured alternating ribbons of sweet potato and rich chestnut puree
Baills’ attention to detail results in harmony on the plate; the accompaniments have distinct flavors and textures that complement, rather than compete with, the main dish. His desserts are also old-fashioned. If it has been years since you tasted crepes Suzette or strawberries Romanoff, The Chef’s Table will recall those delicious memories. The sweet finales are but one of the many reasons to seek out this hidden gem.