What can you say about a Jap- anese restaurant that sets its tables with paper placemats
(of the American presidents, no less),
has no website, takes no reservations,
scrawls its specials on a dry-erase board
and is packed every weekend and often
If the restaurant is Sakura Bana in
Ridgewood, you can say it must be doing something right, and you can add
that it’s been doing so pretty much
non-stop since it opened in 1984. Back
then, the floors were covered in tatami
mats and customers had to leave their
shoes at the door. That custom faded
away in the ’90s. In late 2006, Sakura
Bana closed to expand into the space
next door, doubling its size. The day it
reopened in mid-2007, its fans, myself
included, stood in line, thrilled to have
The attraction is simple: sushi
of exceptional freshness, including
hard-to-find varieties. That means uni
(sea-urchin roe) so fresh it is served
in its shell, tentacles still wriggling.
AMBIENCE: who needs ambience when the sushi’s this good?
SERVICE: efficient, less so when
the place is packed
WINE LIST: BYO
PRICES: Sushi and sashimi
platters, $15-$45; special rolls,
$12-$22; cooked entrées, $15-
$20; donburi, $13-$25; noodles,
HOURS: Dinner: Tuesday
through Thursday, 5: 30–10 PM;
Friday and Saturday, 5:15-10: 15
PM; Sunday, 5-9: 30 PM. Lunch:
Tuesday through Saturday, 11: 45
AM–2: 30 PM.
V, MC, AX, d ,X
43 Franklin Avenue, Ridgewood
Jouvenet’s esteemed jewel box across
town. Reycraft, in a phone call after my
visits, rightly called Chez Catherine “an
institution” and expressed nothing but
gratitude toward his former employer.
“He took a chance on me,” said
Reycraft, a Staten Island native who was
raised in Freehold. “It was a wonderful opportunity. But Chez Catherine is
more of a special-occasion place. Many
patrons go only once or twice a year.
My goal is to get people in here once a
week. The quality is the same, but we’re
reaching for a lower price level and a
more casual setting.”
Compared to Chez Catherine,
Amuse delivers slightly less ambitious
French food in a more modern style at
a somewhat lower price in a more casu-
al setting. But I can’t quite swallow that
term, bistro. While the menu includes
such bistro stalwarts as onion soup,
moules frites and steak frites, Reycraft
prepares them with unusual finesse.
A restaurant calling itself Amuse
ought to send out an exemplary
amuse-bouche, and this one does (for
example, whipped duck-liver mousse
on toasted brioche with chive oil). The
care continues right through delivery of the check, which comes with
labor-intensive, one-bite sweets made
by Hodges’s mother, Margaret Hodges,
proprietor of the Maggie Cooks catering firm in Westfield.
Amuse does resemble a bistro in its
comfy, cheerful (and alas, noisy) setting
and its relaxed, unfussy service. Then
again, you have expert execution of classics like hollandaise for a spring starter
of tender white asparagus, or velvety
saffron emulsion over wild king salmon,
or an ethereal dessert soufflé (passion
fruit, in my visits).
These are served in a simple, airy,
well-lit space lightened by blonde wood,
seating 50, with French doors opening
to the sidewalk, increasing the capacity to 60. Reycraft (2004) and Hodges
(2010) each graduated from the French
Culinary Institute in New York, but
didn’t actually meet until she joined
Chez Catherine in 2011.
At Amuse I got my first taste of
lollipop kale—a pretty cross of Brus-
sels sprouts and red kale that tastes of
both—in an exquisite dish of seared
scallops in brown butter, plump raisins
and toasted hazelnuts. A big swoosh
of creamy salsify purée with capers
completed the composition. Like almost
every dish here, this one blended classic
and modern, using pristine ingredients
that make delicious sense together.
The seasonal menu changes often. One
evening in early spring, haricots verts ac-
companied king salmon; asparagus lined
up beside excellent pan-seared calf liver;
and snow peas graced grouper amandine.
Each veggie had been individually roasted
to maximize its flavor. All three dishes
came with potato in a different form:
sautéed red and white fingerlings for the
salmon; potato gratin for the liver; and
a shredded potato and leek cake for the
grouper. The first two were superb; the
potato cake was gray and sodden. Other
duds included a bland, under-salted veg-
etable potage (thick soup) and a puzzling
starter of two house-made ricotta ravioli
in brown butter with toasted cashews and
dried cranberries—ingredients in search
of a reason to buddy up.
One form of potato not to miss is the
frites—dark, crisp, piping hot, delivering acres of earthy flavor. I enjoyed
them with a juicy prime skirt steak,
rarely feeling the need to dip them into
the supplied ramekin of sauce choron
(béarnaise with tomato purée).
As for desserts, I have one request
of Reycraft and Hodges: Please open a
bakeshop. And soon. I tried eight desserts, each a winner.
There’s the passion-fruit soufflé,
worth the $14 price tag. Passion fruit
also showed up as ice cream accompanying a fantastic tart filled with salted
caramel and topped with chocolate
ganache. Passion-fruit curd provided
the perfect underpinning for three
marvelous miniature pavlovas served
with house-made coconut ice cream.
Raspberry sorbet enhanced a lemon
tart with impeccable shortbread crust.
Attention is lavished even on coffee
and tea, which come with a small carafe of warm frothed milk.
Westfield is lucky to have two admirable French restaurants, one a beloved
classic, the other its modern, easygoing