The eggs, scrambled with cream, cooked with patience over low, slow heat, are folded with strands of scallions and set, with a ripple of sharp parmesan, over toasts. They’re an appetizer on this easygoing weeknight at A Toute Heure in Cranford—the mark of a sure-footed kitchen confident enough to start off a dinner with the most basic of ingredients.
A Toute Heure, two years old this month, is the domain of chef-owner Andrea Carbine, who set up shop in this homey corner building with the idea of creating an American version of a bistro. That is to say, she and chef de cuisine Kara Decker fashion a daily-changing menu of regionally sourced foods prepared without fuss or frills, like those simple, yet perfect eggs. They serve it all without pretense in a warm, wood-accented room that defines cozy.
They cater to a local clientele, most of whom drop in, toting bottles of wine, for whatever is on tap that night—be it a silky house-made liver pate, or pork-and-veal meatballs strewn with caramelized onions and served with curry-charged ketchup, or a pile of hush-puppies given a shot of energizing heat by pickled jalapenos. Those locals know to gird themselves for weekend nights, when the no-reservation policy (save for parties of six or more) can make for long waits on the deck. Yet there’s a camaraderie on that deck—some sharing of wines, some reminiscences of A Toute Heure dinners past – that makes it a pleasantly communal experience:
Do you think there’ll be enough chocolate pot pie to go around tonight? Have you tried a red Rhone blend with the brined chicken? Inside, the big-ticket decoration in the low-lit dining room is a double-wide blackboard chalked full with names of the farmers, cheesemakers and other purveyors who provide the ingredients that fuel A Toute Heure’s kitchen. Starting about now, with rhubarb and peas and berries, crops from Carbine’s own garden in Cranford will take hold of the menu and, come high summer, just about take it over. It’s micro-seasonal, deliberately so, and yet there’s a soul to the food here that gives it year-round continuity and comforting familiarity.
It’s about, after all, those eggs, that fundamental liver pate and, perhaps, a puff pastry tart filled with an earthy chop of long-cooked wild mushrooms, onions and a film of fontina that unites the starter. You also can kick things off by nibbling on a short selection of small bites, such as the spirited meatballs or, my favorite, cippolino onions densely glazed with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with sharp, yet creamy blue cheese. It’s a terrific combination and it makes you think about what you can do at home with a little vinegar, onions and a few flecks of cheese. I’m still thinking about what I can do with my next catch of mussels, thanks to A Toute Heure’s humble-goes-haute rendition swathing Prince Edward Island mussels in a velvety saffron cream sauce, then boosting the spice quotient with crumbles of chorizo.
The skinny Belgian-style fries on the side, served with a petite pot of garlicky aioli, makes it better than a trip to Brussels. Halibut poached in olive oil and plated with parmes and stoked mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and a splay of preserved lemon advances A Toute Heure’s simple-is-right theme. So do the seared New Jersey sea scallops. Their crackling crusts yield to super-sweet meat and, quickly, find smart plate mates in a tart-crunchy apple-fennel salad and a cider vinegar-infused beurre blanc. The pot pie is the I-want-whatever-that-is dish at A Toute Heure. It won’t matter to you what’s inside when you see it come out of the kitchen. You’re going to jones for that beehive of a puff pastry top covering a pottery crock and won’t much care if it’s concealing beef or chicken or just vegetables.
On this night, it’s buttery braised beef and a passel of root vegetables cloaked in a red wine-enriched gravy that demands a soup spoon. Yet it always comes down to a roasted chicken in a bistro, and if a bistro can’t do a roasted chicken right, it’s got no business calling itself a bistro. This brined, bone-in bird is high on interior juice, with a drizzle of garlic-licked oil moistening the crisped skin. I’d gobble it down, straight, any old night of the week, even without the aid of the accompanying toasty fingerling potatoes and plump stew of portobellos. I’d also gobble down a bowl of the vanilla-spiked whipped cream in record eating-contest time, though I’d be foolish to miss the lemon verbena bread pudding it tops. What a great idea, I think to myself, as I hog this dessert. A gentle, lyrical herb giving style and substance to the chunks of bread and swirl of custard that make up a typical bread pudding.
You don’t need hard smacks of accenting flavor, just a subtle touch of something provocative. Save the punches for the chocolate pot pie, which is – happily – all about over-the-top ganache cut by slivers of pear and a balancing squirt of rum. The apple-toffee cake is the choice for a super-sweet tooth, built on a foundation of wines apples and capped by creamy toffee. Get it with one of A Toute Heure’s homemade ice creams – say, the sweet cream or the ricotta with candied citrus. Once cosseted inside A Toute Heure, you’ll get what it’s about: comforting, yet not clichéd, food prepared with technical precision, respect for the seasons and resolutely in tune with stewards of the land and sea. It’s food you’ll want to eat any day, any time. Andrea Clurfeld is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey.