All-American Food With New-Age TouchesA Review of the Laurel Restaurant, in Maplewood Karsten Moran for The New York Times
The narrow dining room at the Laurel.
LEAVE it to a former vegan to produce one of the ideal hamburger platters in northern New Jersey. Lauren Dwyer, whose cookbook collection now includes Fergus Henderson’s “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating,” serves it at the Laurel, the little but excellent restaurant she opened in May in Maplewood.
The hamburger is served on a Balthazar Bakery bun, with hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup.
The small, spare restaurant opened in May.
Here is what the platter includes: the burger, a mixture of three cuts of beef (short rib, brisket and chuck) that Dennis Dwyer, Ms. Dwyer’s dad and the chef, cooks on a flat-top grill to give it a nice crust; a Balthazar Bakery pain de mie bun; hand-cut fries (cooked twice to make them extra crisp); and a dainty pile of bread-and-butter pickles. With it, too, are two kinds of sauces: homemade ketchup and a “secret sauce” in which the mystery ingredient, I’m guessing, is curry powder. Made from mostly the same ingredients as commercial ketchup, the homemade version has an entirely different character, perhaps because everything in it is so fresh.
Regardless of which you select to put on your burger, you can’t lose. At the Laurel, nearly every dish is what you would make if you had time and the talent of both Dwyers.
At first blush, the menu seems to favor all-American dishes like macaroni and cheese or potpie fragrant with fresh herbs and massive pieces of tender, poached chicken beneath a golden biscuit lid.
A closer look, however, reveals more New Age flourishes: a salad made with this year’s “it” vegetable, kale, blended with chopped almonds, smoked Gouda and slivers of tart Granny Smith apples, and a gingery vegetarian stew seasoned with warm spices like cumin and cinnamon that a vegan can eat with confidence and pleasure.
None of these dishes are complicated, but each shows an attention to detail that is especially impressive in a restaurant run by a 27-year-old whose most recent jobs were in a spa and an art gallery. In a phone interview after my visits, Ms. Dwyer explained that she learned to cook as a child by observing her father, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who formerly cooked at Sign of the Dove in New York, among other places. Obsessed with and delighted by cooking, she spent 10 years visiting restaurants abroad and in New York, and expanding her extensive collection of cookbooks, some of which are on display in the restaurant.
Among her collection are books not only by Mr. Henderson, Julia Child and Alice Waters, but also by Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli chef renowned for his vegetables, and Ferran Adrià, who has been called the greatest chef in the world.
Inspired by all the dishes she tested and tasted, Ms. Dwyer has created new ones. For around six months, she tinkered with chickpeas: Should she roast them? Bake them? Use fresh or canned? Ultimately, she deep fried canned chickpeas and then seasoned them with 10 spices (cumin, coriander and cayenne, among them). Then she added Maldon sea salt and brown sugar. Her decision turned those chickpeas into an instant best-seller.
She took Scotch eggs, the lowliest form of pub food — they are “usually kind of gross,” she acknowledged — and turned them into a delicacy. Deep fried in a blanket of sage-scented pork sausage and fat panko bread crumbs, they are wonderful with or without the mustard cream and pickled cucumbers that accompany them.
Although Ms. Dwyer is responsible for about 95 percent of the recipes used at the Laurel, she gives her great-grandmother much of the credit for the meatball recipe. Unlike Italian meatballs, which are often mushy, the kind the Laurel serves, which are fried, are light on the inside and moist and crunchy on the outside. Fresh oregano and mint are snipped into the meat, which is also seasoned, in the Greek way, with cinnamon. I nibbled delicately on one of these meatballs; then I ate all three.
Despite the lineup of near-perfect dishes, the Laurel is not a terribly comfortable place in which to linger. The pews repurposed as benches are hard, and the marble-top bistro tables are tiny. Still, what it lacks in seat cushions, it makes up for in decorative touches. My favorites are the pages of the Time-Life series “The Good Cook,” edited by Richard Olney, that Ms. Dwyer, a former art student, laminated and used to paper the bathroom walls.
Sadly, the Laurel serves only one or two desserts; its kitchen is too small to accommodate a bigger repertory. During my visits earlier this summer, it didn’t serve any. I consoled myself with the coffee, which is excellent, and the hope that Ms. Dwyer and her dad will someday acquire the bigger kitchen their talents deserve.
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