Ariane Duarte closed her beloved Montclair restaurant CulinAriane because she no longer wanted to run a special occasion place, she said, but “wanted to have fun.” She appears to have gotten her wish with her new restaurant in Verona, Ariane Kitchen & Bar. When we left the restaurant last Friday night, we had to shove past the crowds that had gathered at the bar — a robust and lively bunch that were clearly happy to be at Duarte’s hot new venture. While I have to say I preferred the quiet intimacy of her last place — which probably has something to do with the fact that I’m middle aged, and my tastes now veer more toward the tranquil and less toward the raucous — I’m happy to say Duarte’s food is still top notch.
Seated in the back, in one of the restaurant’s funky and plush oversized seats, I had to the chase the waiter away when he approached the table with our third helping of croissants, the bread that is served before the meal. As good as it was, I heeded every mother’s exhortation to not “spoil my dinner” by filling up beforehand.
Hoping to balance out the huge amounts of butter I’d consumed in those croissants, I started with the much more harmless beet salad, a lovely combination of red and yellow (or were they orange?) beets sprinkled with a light dusting of pistachios and a subtle vinaigrette. My husband had the cornmeal crusted oysters and declared them fabulous (I would have tried them, but I’m not a fan of oysters). For dinner, I’d heard the pork chop was a winner, so I opted for that, though it was a tough choice given that some of the other items on the menu — the branzino, the chicken pot pie, the burger — looked equally tempting. Cured with juniper berries and topped with a bacon onion jam, the chop was flavorful and juicy, even though I ordered it more well done than recommended. The “cheesy grits” underneath had a nice silky texture but were a bit overpowered by the cheese — and I’m someone who loves cheesy things. My husband’s salmon was perfectly cooked and paired with a combination of cauliflower, kale and lentils. It was like eating a plate of “superfoods” and perfect for anyone who might find the pork or pot pie a little too heavy.
Which is not to say anyone, even those mindful of their waistline, should miss dessert. Granted, we tried only one — too stuffed to fit much more into our expanding stomachs — but having sampled many of CulinAriane’s desserts, I can only assume they’re sophisticated, not overly sweet, and a great way to end the meal without exploding. Such was the case with the trifle (a special that night), a fairly basic dish, but one that had just the right amount of shortbread, blueberries and blackberries, and whipped cream.
I will miss CulinAriane and its special place in the (sometimes overrated) Montclair dining scene, but Ariane Kitchen & Bar is a nice alternative. If only it were a little more quiet.
Ariane Kitchen & Bar, 706 Bloomfield Ave. Verona, 973-744-0533