NORTHFIELD - If you ever dined at Celina's Cafe here, you can be sure that you will have a similar experience when you go to Gianna's Cafe, its new incarnation.
Nothing but the name has really changed since Chef Lou Macera and his wife, Theresa, took ownership. And, I am happy to say that I had an equally delicious meal this time as I did when I reviewed Celina's four years ago after it first opened its doors.
All along, Macera has featured engaging menu items for lunch and dinner that have remained consistent and dependable. His focus on healthful, inspired foods - including many vegetarian selections - has been a draw for loyal customers.
This is one of the only restaurants I know of in our community where you will find brown rice as an accompaniment instead of white rice, and tofu made into a palatable main course.
The interior decor has always been pleasant and stylishly appointed. The L-shaped dining room loops around to where Macera and his cooks busily rustle up recipes in an exposed kitchen, from where tantalizing aromas emerge.
To start, our server brought us a basket of soft herbed rolls that had the texture and taste of focaccia, along with a saucer of olive oil spiked with assorted seasonings including red-pepper flakes, a hint of garlic and tiny calamata olives. This was an instance when garlic was used sparingly to enhance the oil's essence, not overpower it, which is how it should be done.
The BBQ chicken-and-smoked gouda pita pizza ($9) was very tasty. Usually I stay away from poultry on pizza, but I wanted to try something with chicken, since we ordered seafood and beef for dinner.
Four triangles of grilled pita bread came topped with diced chicken lightly coated with sweet barbecue sauce and a thin slice of melted gouda cheese, which added a wonderful smokiness to an otherwise ordinary flavor. The combination of sweet and savory worked well in this appetizer and successfully whetted our appetites.
Entrees still come with a house salad, and for a minimal extra charge, soup may be substituted. As always, my guest and I had one of each.
The salad, a mix of lettuces with cucumbers, tomatoes and lots of toasted sliced almonds, comes dressed with fruity, mildly sweet raspberry vinaigrette.
The soup du jour - spilt pea with carrots - was comforting on a wintry night. Not too thick or thin, it was flavorsome without the addition of ham, which is typically how it's made.
Key-lime lobster ($28) arrived in a large bowl brimming with what seemed like an entire lobster cut into manageable, bite-sized, tender pieces sauteed with chunky tomatoes, garlic, cilantro, basil and spicy red pepper atop perfectly cooked linguini, all floating in a lime-butter broth. I loved its citrusy, clean characteristics. Normally, you associate anything key lime with summer, but this dish works year round.
A textbook 12-ounce peppercorn-and-garlic-crusted New York strip steak ($24), glossed with marvelous red-onion marmalade, came sizzling to the table cooked medium-rare as requested. We were taken by its top-notch quality at such a reasonable price.
A fan of crisp grilled asparagus and a mound of roasted-garlic, smashed red-bliss potatoes were ideal companions making this a wonderfully simple, excellent combination.
For dessert, the peanut-butter mousse bombe ($6), coated in thick chocolate ganache and chopped peanuts, was decadent to say the least. Each bite of the creamy mousse paired with such luscious chocolate was like eating one of the best versions of chocolate-peanut butter pie we'd ever tasted. One dessert was more than enough to share after such a fulfilling dinner. Plus, the coffee was as good as we remembered.
Two young servers together handled the entire dining room - greeting, seating, serving and bussing. Ours was charming and very proficient. Nothing was left undone, except that once we had to ask him for a water refill. In the scheme of things, a minor oversight.
Named after Macera's daughter, Gianna's Cafe made a seamless transition in delivering delightful fare that will no doubt continue on.
(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
The Plaza at Center Point
1205 Tilton Road
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Appetizers, $9 to $12; entrees, $18 to $28
Our bill for two: $70 plus tip