AMBIENCE Intimate and unpretentious
SERVICE Gracious and e;cient
PRICES Appetizers, $7.50-$15; entrées, $24-$36;
OPEN Dinner, Tuesday-Saturday ;
F21 N. Union Avenue, 908-276-1900; tablespoon-cafeonline.com
By Fran Schumer
Tablespoon Café, a French bistro in Cranford, is not hip. That may be what I like most about
it—along with its flawless rack of lamb,
fish stew, tarte tatin and profiteroles.
The café’s storefront and green awning
are unprepossessing; you could mistake
it for a co;ee shop. Inside, the acoustic-tile ceiling and linoleum-like floor are
somewhat o;set by linen tablecloths,
capacious Windsor chairs and paintings
of the French countryside brought from
France by owners Waala Elsawi, the chef,
and his wife, Magali Boulanger, the attentive hostess and manager.
“This,” said one of my guests, who has
traveled widely, “is exactly what a bistro
in France looks like. Nothing glamorous.
Very homey, the equivalent of a pub.”
Unlike much American pub fare,
Elsawi’s food—largely, though not rigidly,
French—ranges from very good to raptur-
ous. We loved the large ravioli oozing goat
cheese in a delicate shallot, brandy and
tru;e-oil cream sauce. Lobster bisque
with Madeira was light and luxurious.
The kitchen often has a sta; of
one, which is why the couple will
not seat more than ;; people a night,
even on weekends, though they have
enough tables to accommodate twice
that many. “I prefer to do everything
myself,” explains Elsawi. “In that way,
I know what comes out of the kitchen.
My customers like to stay for hours, and
that’s fine. I’m very old school.”
From the kitchen comes rosy rack of
lamb in an herbed bread-crumb crust.
Elsawi sprinkles cod with an abundance
of caramelized shallots, adds lemon juice,
salt and white wine, then roasts. The
flesh emerges moist under a crunchy lid.
Fish stew is equally fine. The broth, briny
and sweet, includes sa;ron, but its smoky
edge comes from kielbasa.
Elsawi’s portions are ample. Consider
the six plump and juicy medallions in
the pork tenderloin entrée, splendid
even without their satiny dijon cream
sauce. Also generous is the organic roast
chicken, its skin crisp, its interior moist,
its impact heightened by a dark pool
of house-made, burgundy-spiked veal
demi-glace that someone should bottle.
Born in France, Elsawi, ;;, and his
brother, Sami, acquired their passion for
cooking from their Cairo-born mother.
After graduating from cooking school
in France, Elsawi worked in small-town
restaurants there and immigrated to the
United States in ;;;;. He met (and married) Boulanger in ;;;; in Normandy,
France, where she’s from.
In ;;;;, he and Sami opened Le
Rendez-vous in Kenilworth. Two years
later, Elsawi sold his share and opened
La Petite France in Red Bank with Boulanger. After a successful ;;-year run,
they decamped for France to reconnect
with family. Upon their return in ;;;;,
they opened Voilà in Point Pleasant
Beach (“people pronounced it ‘Viola,’”
he says). Hoping for a more appreciative
audience, the couple relocated to Cranford in ;;;; and gave their new venture
a name easier to say and remember.
Are there glitches? Salads needed
more interesting greens; scallops and
shrimp flambéed with cognac conveyed
barely any cognac flavor. The New York
strip steak in a steak frites was tough
and lacked beefy flavor. Moreover, the
frites were fat and limp, not the thin,
crunchy batons one craves.
But all is forgiven come dessert. “I love
to make dessert,” says Elsawi. He makes
everything from scratch. Tarte tatin, a
luscious mass of caramelized apples, had
a beautiful, buttery crust. Profiteroles,
the pastry light as clouds, were filled
with French vanilla ice cream and coated
with a thick, bittersweet chocolate sauce.
Elsawi also makes excellent sorbets.
“Many high-end restaurants look nice
from the outside,” he says, “but you do not
know who is cooking your dinner.”
At Tablespoon Café, you do, and it
makes all the di;erence.
more like, Maybe he’s right, but there are
also other ways to do it.”
Donnini says she’s thinking about orga-
nizing open meetings to brainstorm ways
to make wineries more female friendly on
issues such as pregnancy, parental leave,
day care and overcoming stereotypes.
Winemaking definitely requires more
brain than brawn. While growing grapes can
be part of the job, the winemaker’s primary
focus is choosing the styles of the wines and
bringing them into being through expert
fermenting, aging and blending.
“I have physical limitations as a woman,
and that frustrates me,” says Doninni, 50.
“But 90 percent of the physical tasks I
can do. The other 10 percent”—including
things such as barrel washing—“anyone
would need help with.”
Each of the three panelists came to
winemaking in a different way. Cross-
Gambino—who says, “I’m 39 and have
been for some time now”—grew up on
a California farm, got a law degree and
a PhD. in nutrition, served as President
Jimmy Carter’s coordinator of human nu-
trition policy, and wrote diet and fitness
books before she and her husband bought
the farm that now produces her wine.
Villari, a Jersey native, studied viticulture and oenology at the University of
California at Davis. She and her brother
decided to save the family livestock
farm by converting it to vineyards and
Donnini and her husband were lawyers
who realized their passion did not lie in litigating and corporate life. She took online
courses at UCDavis, and they planted their
first vines in 2004, opening the winery in
2007. Donnini has since won more than
three dozen awards in regional and international winemaking competitions.
Like the others, she has what she
calls “a complicated feeling” about being identified as a woman winemaker. On
the one hand, “it doesn’t matter that I’m
a woman,” she says.
On the other hand, “when I realize I’m
being recognized because [women mak-
ing wine] is not the usual thing, I get my
dander up and think, Why not?”
Nonetheless, she has asked her hus-
band not to promote her wine on that
basis. “I don’t want to get false accolades
because I’m a woman,” she says. “I just
want to get good accolades because I’m
making freaking good wine.”