Here’s something I can’t recall stating before: Having sampled pretty much the entire dinner menu at this winsome American bistro, I would happily order any and all of it again. And again. That this gem is situated in an ordinary strip mall in tiny Belford in Monmouth County, sandwiched between a luncheonette and a pizza shop, makes this statement even less likely.
Food rules at Belford Bistro, where the space is a bit drab. The storefront is dimly lit, drawing eyes to the brilliantly illuminated open kitchen, where chef/proprietors Kurt Bomberger and Crista Trovato share kitchen duties equally. This 30-something husband-and-wife team met while working at Windows on the World and between them have spent time at Aquavit, Gramercy Tavern and Ocean Grill. They opened the bistro in January 2008, about the time they started their family, which now includes a 2-year-old girl and a 10-month-old boy.
Trovato says the higher-rent towns of Red Bank and Atlantic Highlands “were over our heads, so when we found this spot we thought it was a great location, right in the middle.” Over time, they have, in fact, gained a loyal, food-savvy following from Monmouth County’s well-heeled communities, including Rumson and Little Silver. This puts Saturday night reservations at a premium.
The decor is bare bistro—frosted-globe pendants, dark wood wainscoting and tan textured wallpaper relieved by rectangular mirrors and shimmering gold drapery panels adorning the storefront window. Cream-colored table linens, modest votives, quality wine glasses and curved-back wooden chairs complete the understated theme.
The couple’s restaurant pedigree is evident in the precision, creativity and first-rate ingredients of dishes such as crab cakes and braised short ribs—dishes that Trovato says customers won’t let them take off the small, seasonal menu. The crispy crab cakes (available as appetizer or entrée) enfold a delicate, creamy filling that lets the crab’s sweetness shine, even when topped with a dollop of brilliant lemon-scallion aioli. A tangle of bright green mâche, peppery cress and herbs provides contrasting texture and color; in the entrée, decadent whipped potatoes, almost fondant in texture, nearly upstage the crab cake. Those potatoes appear in other dishes as well and should not be missed.
Likewise the short ribs. Even though this dish is numbingly overrepresented on restaurant menus, here the customers are right: The ribs earn their honored place. Boneless ribs are oven braised in red wine until they are, as one articulate tablemate put it, “meltingly tender and well rendered of fat so that the dish is not greasy.” Customers do grudgingly allow accompaniments to vary by season, but you can’t go wrong, whether it’s mascarpone risotto or blue cheese-crusted Yukon gold potatoes with Cognac cream sauce.
Boston Bibb salad is another menu perennial, notable for wedges of perfectly ripe avocado, creamy hard-cooked egg, applewood-smoked bacon and Gorgonzola, all beautifully presented in Dijon vinaigrette. One guest’s request to ditch the egg due to allergies and to have the vinaigrette on the side was met without fuss. You can expect courses to be well paced, brought in unison and placed before the proper diner, and empty plates to be removed only after everyone at your table has finished. Even with people waiting to be seated, you will never feel rushed.
But more on the wonderful fare, which spans the continents with surprising ease. Duck spring rolls, for example, comprise four generous pieces, each with crunchy-crisp, light, oil-free jackets and meaty, moist innards. Accompanying tamarind dipping sauce is anything but cloying, but the best part of this dish just may be the bright, bracing relish of pineapple, red pepper, corn and crystallized cashews.
Partake of the Italian offerings and be rewarded with five-cheese agnolotti with a Parmesan-and-prosciutto cream sauce that plays nice with, rather than overwhelms, the pasta, or pappardelle Bolognese featuring toothsome, fresh-made noodles in just enough meat sauce. The sauce has a welcome mineral tang of pork, and the dish is topped with Pecorino Romano, which contributes its own welcome tang.
No matter which geographical direction you choose—including good old American grilled, crispy chicken; rustic lamb ragoût; and Berkshire pork tenderloin—everything sparkles. So do desserts, which the chef/owners share in making. Cheesecake French style means light and delicious. It would suffice on its own merits but here is heightened with a lacy almond brittle and an exceptionally intense passion-fruit sauce.
It is not often that a diner takes home dessert, but after downing several satisfying spoonfuls of what must be the world’s biggest and best Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup facsimile, a tablemate just couldn’t let hers languish. Yet even it is upstaged by Drunken Chunky Monkey, an inspired extravaganza of chocolate-walnut brownie, vanilla gelato, caramelized bananas, dark rum and toasted homemade marshmallow. Elsewhere, this could be gloppy. Here, it manages to be well balanced and almost sophisticated.
Belford Bistro does have its imperfections, costing it half a star. There’s the dueling heating/cooling system, which means the room is often too hot or too cold. The table nearest the tiny vestibule should be taken only as a last resort. Despite a carpeted floor, noise bounces uncomfortably around the high-ceilinged room. And don’t expect a warm greeting, much less a smile, from the glowering guardian of the front desk. In the end, these problems do not stand in the way of an exceptional experience in an unexpected location.