When I received an invitation to try a brand new restaurant called The Cake Lounge in Little Ferry, New Jersey, I wasn't sure quite what to expect. Walking past Palermo's Café & Bakery, and ascending the steps to the floor directly above it, I assumed this would be an intimate evening spot for desserts, drinks, and live music. Ah, but this charming place turned out to be so much more than, well, a cake lounge.
With a nod to their native home in Sicily, the Bruno family established Palermo's Custom Cakes & Bakery some thirty years ago in the Garden State. Having earned wide recognition for their superb confections over the decades, they felt it was a propitious time to extend their brand beyond cakes and pastries. "We wanted to open up something where we could combine our background in sweets with the savory front-end [Italian] cuisine," co-owner Paolo Bruno explained, adding, "We wanted to keep it as authentic and as upscale as possible for the area."
Eclectic is perhaps best way to describe this contemporary Italian restaurant. Though seemingly random, the disparate collection of elements in the dining room was curated, with careful attention to detail, to afford an exquisite setting for dinner, dessert, drinks, or, as was the case for my Comestaccomplice and me, a fabulous evening out.
Before we even looked at our menus, two important aspects of the overall experience revealed themselves. First, the dining area was designed for the visual, physical, and auditory comfort of the diner. There was an emphasis on contrasting materials and textures throughout; the interplay of different woods, granites, and limestone in various shades of cream and black, together with a skillful use of glass and mirrors, created a stunning yet calming environment. Replicas of famous landmarks and a statue of Buddha stood out among the diverse sculptured confections on display in the unique Cake Gallery along the dining room's southern wall. "We wanted it to be upscale contemporary with a bit of an urban chic feel to it," Mr. Bruno told us. Grounding this setting was the creamy-soft leather upholstery of the chairs and banquettes.
Further punctuating the tone of casual opulence was the tasteful, live background music—comprising mostly Italian-American standards—that alternated between vocal and instrumental. (On our Thursday visit, we were treated to the musical stylings of John Micalizzi.) The only off-note in the vibe was the pair of televisions mounted over the bar—one tuned to sports news, the other to European football games. A glass partition between the bar area and the dining room did little to abate the distraction of the large screens.
The second memorable aspect of our evening was the impeccable service. We were greeted warmly and treated graciously. After declining two tables, we were finally settled, most elegantly, into one of the best in the house: a semicircular six-top reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood. The headwaiter, Gennaro, came here from Sicily specifically to lend his hospitality skills to his family's new venture. He and his assistant were flawless in their service; they were informative and solicitous without being obtrusive. When one of us, attempting to exercise frugality, ordered an inexpensive wine, we were made to feel good about the selection. While many other establishments patronize the patron at this juncture, Gennaro made us feel comfortable.
Video: Gennaro describes I Piatti del Giorno
Perhaps the best part of this agreeable atmosphere was the absence of the rarefied air that typically excludes all but a privileged few; in less than three months, The Cake Lounge has established itself as a welcoming place for all. "We didn't want to create something that was outside of its own demographic," Mr. Bruno told us. That sentiment was also reflected in the reasonable menu prices: generous appetizers and pasta dishes were priced in the teens; mains ranged from the low 20s into the 40s.
We began with complimentary bruschetta, an appetizing start to our sumptuous banchetto.
One of the most telling aspects of any restaurant experience, at least for this diner, is the quality of the bread, and yes, the butter. The Cake Lounge scored highly in this category. The bread was crusty, creamy, and yeasty in proper proportion. While I prefer olive oil with my bread, I simply had to taste the butter as well. The burro had a rich, farm-fresh flavor, though possibly a grain too salty—but certainly not enough to lose points.
Almost all our dishes were selected from the chef's menu. Our starters, though quite sapid, did not really provide an accurate indication of what was to follow. While the Stuffed Artichoke—a whole flower head, stuffed with Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, and garlic—was rather tasty, its unctuousness made the dish slightly heavy.
The Caprese was presented as a tower of alternating fresh mozzarella and tomato slices, culminating in a crown of fresh basil leaves, with roasted peppers encircling its base. This beautiful interpretation elevated a simple salad to artistic heights. Because this starter was listed on the regular menu, I should like to try it again when tomatoes are in season.
Our secondi were truly a main event. The Rack of Lamb alla Romana—brushed with Dijon mustard and sprinkled with seasoned bread crumbs—was outstanding. Upon determining what rare meant at this restaurant, my dining partner ordered her lamb medium rare to ensure the rack would be red rather than blue. It proved to be the right choice, for the doneness of the eight chops varied considerably—from medium on the outer ones to rare on the ones inside. The meat was as tender as could be, imparting deeply grassy and pure flavors as it melted in the mouth. While a mustard application can often overpower such a dish, the light touch of Dijon complemented the lamb's flavor in perfect measure. A glass of Villa di Capezzana Carmignano—with its medium firm dark fruit, hints of smoke, and smooth tannins—was the perfect wine pairing for this viand.
My Fillet of Salmon—topped with artichoke hearts, Boursin, and bread crumbs—was a pleasant departure from the usual preparations. The creaminess of the seasoned cheese, together with the mild acidity of the Mediterranean thistle hearts, matched the rich flavors of the perfectly cooked salmon, without overwhelming them. A glass of Primarius Pinot Noir—a light-medium-bodied Oregonian, with berry flavors and slight smokiness—was an exquisite wine partner to this fish dish. As with the lamb, this generous serving was plated artistically with its accompanying mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. Both mains were as delightful visually as they were gustatorily.
To even think of forgoing dessert at The Cake Lounge would be utter folly. One look at the tray of luscious dolci immediately overpowered any possible resistance we could have offered.
My Comestaccomplice's initial reaction to the confectionery Lobster Tail was, "Wow, that's one serving?" After a very satisfying meal, it seemed almost too decadent to contemplate such an enormous portion. Upon taking her first bite, however, any misgivings dissipated quickly. This creamy crustacean was a marvelous marriage of flaky, buttery pastry with thick, rich whipped cream. Its perfect sweetness was achieved by judicious restraint in the use of sugar; there was just enough to distinguish the dairy flavor of the cream from that of the crust. While both elements were deep and rich, their flavors were clean and pure at the same time. When dairy becomes even slightly old, it imparts a faint barnyard flavor—before turning sour. The components of this sweet Tail were clearly fresh.
My companion's luxurious Espresso Martini was so seductive, she wanted to sip it all night. Martinis are not only specialty cocktails here, they're also confections. In addition to serving cake-inspired martini drinks, The Cake Lounge offers signature martini desserts—e.g., Strawberry Shortcake, Tiramisù, Nocciola, Red Velvet, etc.—crafted and served in martini glasses.
For my final course, I chose the more traditional Tiramisù. As with everything that preceded it, this lovely layered dessert was fashioned into a delicious work of art. The flavors of the coffee-infused ladyfingers, creamy mascarpone custard, and cocoa, paired exquisitely with a cup of espresso and a large snifter of Sambuca con la Mosca (literally, "Sambuca with the fly"). There were indeed "flies" in my liqueur—in the form of toasted coffee beans. It was a marvelous cap to a highly satisfying evening.
Launched just eleven weeks ago, The Cake Lounge has enjoyed an auspicious start. "As we move forward in the next few months, we'll be doing wine pairings, spirits pairings, cocktail pairings, along with dessert pairings," said Paolo Bruno, adding, "We're going to be introducing dessert flights with spirit, beverage, and cocktail flights … something you can't get anywhere else." The future surely looks sweet.
The Cake Lounge
389 Liberty Street (CR 503), 2nd Floor (NE corner Harding Pl)
Little Ferry, N.J. 07643-1008 (map)