GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Celina's Mulberry Grille & Market tries to cover all the bases, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Based on its location in a strip mall directly across from the entrance to AtlantiCare's Regional Medical Center and surrounded by several medical offices, Celina's would seem to have a built-in market - no pun intended.
We would expect all three meals to be busy, with people stopping by for coffee before their shifts and as a handy, go-to spot for a quick snack, lunch or more laid-back dinner.
Upon entry, the room itself is pleasant enough, with walls the color of gold and taupe or toast and plum, depending on whom you ask. A counter with high seating looks out over the parking lot, and another counter with stools wraps around the coffee area. Two oversized booths are located toward the back, while an assortment of tables and chairs fills out the rest of the high-ceilinged room.
We liked the assorted warm breads that arrived first from the kitchen. Next, crispy coconut shrimp ($8) seemed a small portion at three shrimp, although they were hot and crisp with a chewy, coconut crust. Served over a bed of baby lettuces, the dipping sauce - described as jalapeno cilantro and coconut flavored - tasted only of coconut milk and offered little to the enjoyment of the shrimp.
An order of stuffed mushrooms ($7) seemed like a better value, although my dining mate immediately questioned their doneness. The mushroom caps looked dried and wrinkled, something that can be avoided by coating the mushrooms with fat before cooking. The filling of ricotta cheese, bacon, onion and horseradish was flavorful and a nice change from the typical crab-based stuffing mix.
Our soup of the day was mushroom barley, a bland version with plenty of cooked grain, celery, carrots, onion, mushroom slices and a touch of tomato that needed basic seasoning and would have benefited by the use of some more intense herbs, even if the liquid used was water rather than stock. My dining companion proclaimed the house salad as "pedestrian," and the ranch dressing we ordered couldn't really save me from disagreeing. The Bourbon-glazed salmon ($17) was a tiny piece of salmon fillet, overcooked and heavily glazed - something akin to wearing too much make-up. It was the salmon we were interested in tasting, not only the sweet glaze. One plus was a large portion of assorted fresh vegetables du jour, although they too had little in the way of seasonings, making the colorful veggies boring to eat.
While the menu offered a choice of mashed potatoes or Jasmine rice, we were offered no such choice by our server. The mashed potatoes we received were basically good. More disappointing was the open-faced hot roast turkey ($13) made from what the menu described as oven-roasted, sliced turkey breast that arrived sliced like luncheon meat for a sandwich, served over white bread with a homemade turkey gravy too salty for the dish. Served with more of the vegetables du jour, mashed potatoes and a hunk of good corn bread, we wondered what all the fuss was about the cranberry chutney which, to our eyes, looked pretty much like the jelled cranberry sauces of Thanksgivings past.
The menu suggested a homemade dessert while our server said all desserts were made by a baker and delivered, prompting a quick discussion of the difference between housemade, homemade and made on the premises. The chocolate-peanut butter bombe ($4.75) fortunately was the best part of the meal, with a chocolate as well as a peanut butter mousse coated with dark chocolate, rolled in peanuts and drizzled with caramel sauce over the top.
The service staff seemed young and inexperienced; the busperson never assisted our waiter, who struggled to give us good service even though the restaurant was hardly busy. Our server, though friendly enough, didn't understand the concept of clearing dirty dishes before attempting to deliver the next course. Our server actually stood there trying to decide what to do with the hot soup and salad he was holding as our empty appetizer plates blocked his way.
After he cleared, we had to ask for replacement silverware for the set he had just carted away. He solved the problem for the entree and dessert courses by just leaving everything else on the table in front of us, placing new napkins and silverware sideways in the only empty spots on the table. Good service is important, and is something that must be taught and enforced by management. The service at Celina's was "green" at best.
Celina's was busy, so it must be doing something right. Since the pricing structure for appetizers and entrees are in that middle range, we think the kitchen and service alike needs some more scrutiny.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt 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.)
Celina's Mulberry Market & Grille
68 West Jimmie
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Liquor license: BYO
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers, $6 to $8; entrees $13 to $21
Our bill for two: $58 plus tip
Web site: www.celinascafes.com