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Chef's Table: One of Bergen's Hidden Gems

Unique is an understatement for this Franklin Lakes-based French restaurant

Though , located in Franklin Square shopping center, can seat less than 50 people, it is one of the best in the area, as the dishes are well-prepared, well-presented and contain fresh ingredients.

And it is a break from your go-to restaurants. French restaurants are a dying breed these days. There are only a few in Bergen County, and they’re truly diamonds in the rough, with all of the pizzerias, diners and Chinese joints in the area.

On their lunch menu, Chef’s Table offers specialty salads like a mixed green crab meat salad with a zesty lemon dressing, club sandwiches like tuna, chicken and ham and entrees like rib eye, veal medallions in a mushroom sauce and chicken with spinach sautéed in white wine. And, of course, what would a French restaurant be without traditional dishes like boeuf bourguignon or escargot? The main dishes range from $13 to $17, while most appetizers and desserts are $5.50 each.

I opted for the escargot and special salad as my appetizers. The escargot was exquisite. It was tender, soaked in a garlic butter sauce and was topped with a flaky puff pastry, an added dimension and way to texturize the delicate escargot. The dish looked like five mushrooms; light crust lay atop the fake shells that housed the juicy escargot.

Chef’s Table has a number of regulars, and after a bite into an escargot, I knew why. The restaurant has the staples of an authentic French restaurant — such as puff pastry and butter — but lacks the richness of most French dishes. None of the items on the menu (based on what I tried) are that heavy, and the portions aren’t excessive. Even if you order an appetizer, entrée and dessert, you’ll walk away full, but not an OMG-I’m-going-to-die kind of full.

After all, the chef is from the south of France and has years in the business. Claude Baills, chef and owner, worked at the Four Seasons, Manhattan-based Laurent Restaurant and the Palace before opening his own Claude’s in Manhattan and Claude’s Ho-Ho-Kus Inn, a favorite dining spot of former president Richard Nixon.

The entrepreneur opened Chef’s Table more than 12 years ago, where his masterful dishes have set him apart from his Bergen competitors. The restaurant, which is open limited hours and has a lot of senior clientele, is a clutter of artwork. Almost every inch is covered with a painting of a landscape, framed photographs and vintage-looking pots and pans. The uncoordinated room might be tacky and inauthentic to some, endearing and quirky to others. Either way, it’s not how you would envision a typical French restaurant.

The escargot outshone the salad, which was Boston lettuce with blue cheese and pecans in raspberry vinaigrette. The blue cheese was sharp and overpowered the salad. The salad wasn’t bad, but it was the least memorable in comparison to everything else.

I ordered the shrimp and scallops with tomato, garlic and mushrooms over bowtie pasta as my entrée. The scallops were a decent size and didn’t taste of fish, a telltale sign that they were fresh, and the pasta, al-dente, a telltale sign that Chef’s Table is worth another trip.

I tasted the crab salad, which had some of the best crab I’ve had in a while. It was served with mixed greens, tomato and hard-boiled egg. The salad wasn’t served with dressing, but rather lemon juice, which accented all the other flavors and kept the dish light. I also tried the rib eye, which was charred, melt-in-your-mouth tender.

The chicken and spinach sautéed in white wine was only okay, in my opinion, because the sauce tasted too much of beef and the spinach was too salty for my taste, but it was the only thing that was truly mediocre.

If you’re in the mood for meat, the rib eye won’t disappoint. If you’re in the mood for anything other than meat, get the crab salad. It was my favorite, and it was especially refreshing on the humid day we dined.

For dessert, my table ordered the profiteroles in chocolate sauce and a pear-apple pie that was served with vanilla ice cream. As you would expect from any good French restaurant, the ice cream in both was creamy and tasted homemade. However, both dishes were too sweet for my liking. The profiteroles were not as airy as I had hoped them to be, as the crust wasn’t flaky or light as their regular bread.

Overall, the meal started off stronger than it ended, but I would still recommend it.

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