We were greeted by Joe Palombo himself, a tall, friendly man who knows his menu and cheerfully offered suggestions. His excitement is contagious, and my dining companion and I eagerly read the descriptions.
Our server brought water, took our drink orders and returned with a basket of bread and herbed oil for dipping.
We decided to skip appetizers and go for salads and entrees. Half-sizes are available at lunch. My friend selected the Mediterranean ($4.99), mixed greens with shrimp, crab and avocado in a white truffle vinaigrette. I enjoyed the subtle flavors.
Subtle is not a word for my selection: fresh poached pear, candied pecans and crumbled blue cheese salad with pear vinaigrette ($4.99). This pretty salad also had dried figs and sliced fennel, all served over baby spinach. This was a bold salad and every bite had another flavor or texture. We both decided it was the better of the two.
Tables are close in the main dining room, at the front of the establishment, and when the place gets crowded, it can get noisy. Actually, it's a big buzz, making it difficult to hear other conversations. (For a bit of fun, we tried to make out what the others were saying, but couldn't.)
Our entrees were served on large rectangular white plates. My companion's jumbo lump crabcake ($11.99) came with two sauces, oven-dried tomato and dijon cream. It was a big round cake, all lump crab with a hint of sauteed vegetables. I didn't dare ask how it's made - crabcake recipes are precious secrets in these parts - but it was one of the best I've had in a long time. The breading was light, providing a crunchy shell and not interfering with the seafood. I preferred the oven-dried tomato sauce, an offering that gave the crabmeat a new taste. The dijon cream was more typical.
My entree was not only flavorful, it also helped a good cause. Each Triple J Chicken ($10.99) order provides $1 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of New Jersey. The dish was developed by Palombo and two young brothers, one of whom had been a "Wish Kid" aided by the foundation and who has now recovered from his serious illness.
It was a plate of tender pieces of white-meat chicken sauteed in a brandy sauce with herbs, roasted peppers, caramelized leeks, grilled portobella mushrooms and sauteed asparagus. Sometimes, white meat chicken can be dry; this was moist and tender. The vegetables were firm and the brandy sauce was full-flavored.
The portions here are ample, but not overwhelming, and we savored every bite.
When everything you eat at a place is an 8 or better on a 10-point scale, you order dessert - especially when you find out that they're all homemade.
Anybody who reads this column regularly knows that the Discreet Diner has a special fondness for creme brulee. The first two items on the dessert tray? Creme brulee cheesecake and creme brulee.
My companion heard the rest. She opted for Bavarian cream ($7). It was a cake-like slice filled with strawberries and blueberries. Creamy and not too rich, it was perfect for a hot, summer day.
Torn between two cremes, I chose the cheesecake ($7). It was awesome! The burnt top gave way to the creamy middle with a hint of cheese and a moist and sweet graham cracker crust. Almost heaven.
Answers to some frequently asked questions: No, Joe Palombo is not related to the Philadelphia Palumbo family (note the spellings). No, his place has no connection to a Philadelphia eatery of a similar name; his is named for Mirabella, Italy, his grandmother's hometown.
And, yes, you should visit.
Discreet Diner | Joe Palombo's Mirabella Cafe
210 East Route 70, Barclay Farms Shopping Center, Cherry Hill
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Reservations: Recommended, especially for tables on the veranda.
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Children's menu: Yes
Entertainment: Live performances Wednesday to Saturday.
On the Web: www.mirabellacafe.com
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