French cuisine has spent decades underneath silver cloches, surviving amidst culinary trends and modern applications desired by many American diners today. France’s longtime domination in fine dining has been defined by decadence, tradition and technique, which is why this nostalgic genre still satisfies those in search of a quintessential night out. I couldn’t help but wonder though if it would ever subvert these sorts of stereotypes—and better yet, would the French want it to? The answer after visiting Faubourg Restaurant in Montclair NJ, is yes.
Backed by two hospitality veterans, Dominique Paulin and Olivier Muller, Faubourg marks the first foray in restaurant ownership for both of the Frenchmen—who have each spent the past 20 years working under one of the world’s most prolific restaurateurs, Daniel Boulud. Paulin, who now resides in Essex Fells, started formulating a plan over two years ago to open Faubourg and recruited Muller, a longtime friend and coworker, to join him. Since its debut in June 2019, Faubourg has lured Montclair-goers in droves.
“Our intention was not to do a fine dining restaurant,” said Muller, who is the executive chef in addition to co-owner at Faubourg restaurant in NJ. It was with this in mind that he and Paulin, who’s in charge of all things front-of-house, decided to bring a brasserie concept to Bloomfield Ave. The décor was envisioned to be modern and stylish—with help from Brooklyn architect Craig Shillito—and the menus, approachable.
“A French brasserie is where people come in to dine, meet friends—it’s very much like when you go to a faubourg. In France, a faubourg is a place where you can visit that has all these little shops and restaurants. It feels like Montclair,” explained Muller. The pair opened their restaurant as an homage to that type of French suburb with the same name. This is not the first establishment, however, to serve up French classics in a bistro setting—even in our area. But what Faubourg has done with its food and overall space is what makes it feel fresh and exciting. And also what you’d expect from two Daniel Boulud alums.
Today the 10,000-square-foot, bi-level space has all the makings to attract a high-society crowd, yet Paulin and Muller still maintain their trajectory towards approachability. The former bank-turned-movie theater-turned-retail shop is outfitted in muted tones of navy blue and copper, banquettes, globular lighting and features three different dining areas, each with their own bar. There’s not a starched white linen in sight and the vibe is significantly less stuffy. Perfect for wandering in on any given weekday, but fancy enough for a special occasion.
“We had to break up the space because of the size,” said Paulin, who recognized the building’s potential from day one. This came after carefully scouting other vacant locations in the area, including what’s now Montclair Social Club. “We knew we wanted to have an outside bar, mezzanine, private dining, a cocktail lounge and banquette seating to be comfortable. The high ceilings and large glass windows make it feel bright and airy.” Other dramatic design aspects that encompass Faubourg include dark oak floors, Carrara marble bar tops, steel fixtures, an open kitchen, glass-enclosed wine cellar and seating for close to 200 people.
The food, while rooted in French cuisine, is shaped by Paulin and Muller’s life experiences and pulls from a rather global pantry. Ranging from childhood to world travels, it would be impossible to trace the inspiration to just one thing. The menu Muller’s created is thoughtful, and most of all challenges us as diners to reconsider what we think we know about French food—that it’s heavy, coated in butter and doused in cream. In reality, it finds success through seasonality, technique and oftentimes minimalism when it comes to ingredients. Muller admits to sourcing locally whenever he can and says Faubourg’s menu will change to reflect what’s in season, and it already has. The dishes during my recent visit were each technically precise, respectful of their ingredients and oh-so-pretty in appearance—the breakout star being Muller’s coq au vin.
Odes to classic French cuisine appear more than once in the form of gougères, essentially a savory cream puff that Faubourg makes with comté cheese. Muller is also pulling off a well-known delicacy, escargot (or snails), and serving them alongside crispy chicken oysters tossed with hazelnuts, mushrooms, all on top of a parsley purée.
In other areas, Muller’s upbringing in the French-German region of Alsace is more apparent. The tarte flambée, for example, is a regional Alsatian dish and very simply consists of a paper-thin flatbread that’s smeared with crème fraîche and studded with matchsticks of bacon. When it comes to the table, it’s the smell of smoky pork that interacts with you first, before you get to bite into the shatteringly crisp pastry and creamy center. The barbajuans are another option that could double as a drinking snack, touching upon a different corner of France, The French Riviera which sits on the Mediterranean coastline. These tiny, salty parcels closely resemble ravioli and are filled with swiss chard and ricotta before being fried. They’re highly addictive, so do as I would and get an order for yourself, and another to share.
Now I’ve never been one to write home about a salad, but I’d be remiss to not acknowledge Faubourg’s more vegetable-forward offerings. Even though it’s barely breaking 40 degrees outside, the jumbo lump crab and kumquat salad alongside the beet and endive tower were welcomed additions that both sang notes of early spring in terms of bright flavors and striking color palettes.
Muller takes a sophisticated approach here to his aforementioned coq au vin, which is an otherwise rustic dish. Chicken drums and thighs are first marinated in red wine for 48 hours, then seared off and braised until fork-tender. At the table, you’ll notice the sauce enrobing the chicken in a deep shade of chocolatey brown while lardons, roasted mushrooms and onions float among the stew. Muller makes his Alsatian heritage known yet again, pairing his coq au vin with a German side of spaetzle—an idea he originally developed and had on the menu at DB Bistro in Midtown. The lemon sole, in comparison to the coq au vin, was surprisingly the richest dish I had during my visit. Thankfully, the buttery flavor of the sauce was punched-up by a generous amount of citrus.
At Faubourg restaurant in NJ, skipping dessert would be a grave mistake. One that you would surely never make again after tasting pastry chef Melissa Rodriguez’s creations. The standouts to note are her tarte aux pommes fine and chocolate coulant—classic, traditional French desserts that she gives a contemporary spin. The tarte aux pommes fine, in simplest terms, is a glorified apple pie. Rodriguez starts with buttery puff pastry and tops it with fanned out layers of thinly sliced fruit. During baking, the apples get slightly caramelized around the edges and are finished with a shiny glaze and edible gold. The chocolate coulant, on the other hand, is what American’s know best as a molten lava cake—a firm exterior giving way to a runny center. While small in stature, this cake is not to be underestimated in terms of richness. Rodriguez pairs her coulant with more edible gold and a quenelle of salted caramel ice cream, a tactic to bring out the true chocolate flavor of the cake as well as scale down the sweetness of an otherwise overindulgent dessert.
Everything from Faubourg’s prime real estate to its food has reassured me that, yes, Monclair did need to add another eatery to its already ballooning restaurant scene. With seats packed every weekend (and even a rather large crowd during a Friday lunch rush), it seems that diners are responding quite well to Paulin and Muller’s “casual-elegant” approach. Putting to bed the notion that dining out on French cuisine has to be a strictly luxurious endeavor. Stop by Faubourg Restaurant in NJ and see for yourself!
Photography by Peter Bonacci