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Woodbridge, NJ

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Venue Review: The Warehouse Restaurant And Gallery

He's Got Game
The Warehouse Restaurant And Gallery
The Gazette

How could chef Lawrence "Chip" Johnson improve his game? As head chef of the Briarhurst, his game was game: wild boar, red deer, elk, bison, all strategically arranged in delicate sauces. How could you beat that playbook? Well, knocking a few bucks off would be nice. And when Johnson bought The Warehouse in July, that's basically what he did. In this downtown dinner spot, diners can dig into the same impressive dishes without all the fuss and forks of formal dining, and save a little coin.

Fans of Johnson will immediately recognize the hands behind blends such as Red Deer braised with carrots, celery, garlic, onion and tomatoes with m o u n t a i n mushroom risotto ($29), or Colorado lamb shank slowcooked in a sweet molé, with rich, bitter red chile crepes and cilantro-lime roast red potatoes on the side ($28).

Sure, $28 a plate isn't cheap. But a similar lamb dish at Briarhurst is $34. Same with the cashew-crusted crab cake: $17 at Briarhurst, $15 at The Warehouse.

This is good because The Warehouse lacks the white-starched tablecloths and other frilly touches of similarly priced places. In fact, the place really used to be a warehouse and still has the iron beams and raw brick walls (now they are graced with bright, abstract canvases.) If anything, the dining room, dominated by a big wooden bar, is too casual for the price. It feels like a brewpub (which it was, and may soon be again), not the type of place you drop $100 for a special occasion. Some light renovations - maybe a few banquettes to break up the room, could go a long way.

These concerns melt away, though, as soon as the food arrives. On one plate, a stunning arrangement of fat alabaster scallops swimming around a tower of wild mushroom risotto in a shallow pond of Ferrari-red jus ($25) had the power to dissolve all peripheral concerns.

It was hard to resist dipping a spoon into the jus, just to see what could make it so bright. On the tongue, it was clear: red pepper, puréed and strained, then laced with the licoricey accent of fennel. It's fabulous and light - a perfect bath for such gorgeous scallops.

Johnson really is a master.

His grilled pork chops come marinated in garlic and rosemary with a sweet-and-sour apple-rhubarb chutney and a stack of light, crispy, deepfried, sweet yellow tomatoes.

Even the most humble sides are true talents. The quartersize sautéed baby pattypan squash piled on the side of a bass (I never thought I'd say this) tasted better than the stuff out of my own garden. Johnson sometimes serves roasted elephant garlic from local farmer Dan Hobbs that is infinitely more interesting than its California brethren - somehow more bitter and at the same time more floral. There's nothing better.

But The Warehouse has some work to do. The great menu is there. Now Johnson now needs to watch it like a hawk because the consistency isn't.

The soup of the day ($5) recently was a miso beef with udon noodles swirling with green onion, sprouts and ribbons of carrot. Great idea. Way, way, way too much salt. Even my wife, who sometimes adds extra salt to tortilla chips, pushed it aside. Perhaps just a simple mistake by a low-level cook, but it should have been caught.

Same with the Broiler Flambeed Fussili ($13). The jumble of squiggly pasta, forest mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, pinyon nuts and asparagus tossed with a red-pepper coulis sounded like a great light lunch. But whoever did the tossing added too many squirts of oil, and this well-conceived meal arrived as greasy as pay-by-thescoop lo mein.

A close eye on every dish should easily fix the inconsistencies. And it better happen soon because with construction on Cimarron Bridge closing down easy access, The Warehouse is going to have to bring its A game to survive.

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