A friend described the Grand Cafe to me as "the most European restaurant" she's ever dined at in New Jersey. But what she meant as a compliment initially made me apprehensive. I have lived in and traveled throughout Europe, and I firmly believe that American restaurants have taken the lead in service, creativity, and atmosphere. The last thing I needed was some snooty temple of French haute cuisine in well-heeled Morristown.
Alas, the Grand Cafe is quintessentially French in its overall formality. Owners Desmond and Alice Lloyd, who opened this restaurant in 1981, created a space that is romantically lit, luxurious in appointments, and sophisticated in style. As no luxury in life is free, the prices here reflect the opulence.
The all-male tuxedoed waiters and captains buzz around the room with the same gallant attentiveness as their counterparts in Paris. Yet service is a bit uneven. It's easy to distinguish the seasoned waiters from the new faces, who still move a bit cautiously through the dining room. Although my waiter makes several mistakes on several occasions, he is nonetheless charming and sincere. If he takes cues from the pros here, he'll undoubtedly have a long and lucrative career.
Executive chef Philippe Pinon, who came on board three years ago, hails from Maxim's in New York, and was classically trained in Paris and Switzerland. His menu is decidedly nouvelle, shunning, for the most part, rich butter and cream sauces for lighter vegetable sauces and jus reductions. The perfect example is an excellent pan-roasted quail appetizer stuffed with fresh morel mushrooms and seasoned with parsley juice and red wine.
Other great appetizers include the sauté Hudson Valley foie gras with quince-and-orange sauce spiked with Pear Williams; the sultry steak tartare with warm black bread; and the crispy poppyseed-crusted duck confit with French beans, smoked breast of duck, and hazelnut sauce. The only appetizer that is out of its league is the lobster open ravioli. Chef Pinon's version stacks lobster chunks atop porcini mushrooms between two slabs of pasta, with a heady dose of truffle sauce. It is a terrible, collapsed mess. Please, Mr. Pinon, stick to what you know best: fabulous French food.
Chef Pinon has a deft knack with fish. All of his seafood dishes are excellent, especially his savory sauté John Dory bathed in a rosemary-sage sauce and served with a lobster risotto. Honorable mention goes to the grilled Atlantic salmon with spicy sweet peppers served atop a bed of white beans. Among the meat dishes, the roasted organic chicken with a coriander sauce is juicy and delicious. Two other entrées stand out: the fantastic rack of lamb with a roasted-garlic crust and the beautifully grilled veal chop with braised cabbage, potatoes roasted with thyme, and an earthy, rich morel mushroom sauce. The wine list, to its credit, is not Francocentric, but why stray from French wines in this setting? Prices range from the mid-$20s to well into the thousands. There's something for everyone.
Try to save room for dessert to witness pastry chef Jeffery Walsh's excellent creations. Mr. Walsh trained at the Ryland Inn before coming to the Grand Cafe, and makes a perfect crèbruléand a beautiful chocolate-and-Grand Marnier souffle. --A. G.
42 Washington Street, Morristown (973-540-9444). Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:45 am to 2 pm. Dinner: Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 9:30 pm; Saturday, 5:30 to 10 pm. Wheelchair access easy. All major credit cards. Dinner for two without wine averages $100.