Who could have predicted that the sleepy village of Hopewell would evolve into a dining hot spot? On a recent Saturday night downtown was fairly vibrating, helped along by the new kid in town, Bell & Whistle, which opened in July. Ten years ago, when Brothers Moon launched, that restaurant was virtually a pioneer. A few years later the town got another boost from the Blue Bottle Cafe, followed in succession by Nomad Pizza and a host of above-average casual spots.
Bell & Whistle, which is tucked behind the Boro Bean coffeehouse, takes its name from its location near the town’s fire siren and a church bell. Jeffrey Bartlett, chef and co-owner, says the restaurant was a seven-year project with co-owner Jarod Machinga, a local developer whose construction firm oversaw the building of the unique, 1,300-square-foot space that seats 36. Its most striking feature is a vaulted ceiling clad in natural maple slats, with skylights adding to the abundant natural light, including that from a long wall of French doors opening onto a flagstone patio. A concrete floor is likewise handsome, but combined with the other hard materials, allows noise to reverberate without relief. (Bartlett says he has had few complaints.) Both Bartlett and Machinga live in Hopewell, in Mercer County, and made a point of using area artisans.
The local focus extends into the kitchen, with cheeses from Cherry Grove Farm and poultry from Griggstown Farm. Chicken from the latter is put to delicious use in everything from rich, authentically spicy gumbo to a Southern fried chicken breast so well executed that Paula Deen should be worried. Low Country cooking is epitomized by fried oysters (on one occasion moist and flavorful in hot, crisp breading; on another, room temperature and somewhat leaden). Smoky, tender, St. Louis-style ribs come with Kansas City barbecue sauce on the side, while the East Coast gets its due with creamy clam chowder spiked with plum tomatoes (and a hint of smoke), as well as Maryland crab cakes that, while moist and crabby, would benefit from a crunchier exterior.
Bartlett, 51, has 30 years’ experience as chef, restaurant manager and consultant. He seems to have learned well from time spent, for example, at the erstwhile Dakota Chop House (as evidenced by his deeply savory aged sirloin with house-made steak sauce) and, more recently, his work with the Catering Company of Blawenburg, which seems to have imparted a caterer’s sensibility about cost control. Those excellent bowls of chowder and gumbo, for example, go for $4 apiece. Two big Cajun-spiced pork chops with andouille rice, a corn fritter and tomato relish? Just $20. The dinner offerings allow for even more cost consciousness with sandwiches, a burger and a kids’ menu.
Bartlett rounds out his slate with popular Americanized dishes that aren’t bound by state lines, such as starters of Caesar salad, fish tacos and grilled steak quesadillas. Vegetarians get fully committed treats like garden pasta, which featured last summer’s roasted zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, plum tomatoes and fresh herbs. Another winner was a luxurious wild-mushroom stack that tucks four kinds of mushrooms in a creamy sauce of roasted garlic, sage and cognac between layers of puff pastry and drizzles the whole with white truffle oil. Duck, both pan seared and confited, made a snazzy appearance on a plate dotted with pomegranate molasses and mango sauce. On one visit, the duck was scrumptious; on another, run-of-the-mill.
Each plate contained thoughtfully chosen veggies or carbs, the latter often either plain Texmati rice or thin-cut house fries, which on one occasion were hot, crisp and perfect, and on another, pale and limp. The kitchen was still working out a few consistency issues in its early months, and there were a couple of outright misses, such as watery coffee and a wan, Alaskan salmon with overly sweet citrus butter reminiscent of lemon curd.
Overseeing the dining room and its , energetic serving staff is Donna Bartlett, Jeffrey’s wife of 22 years and a former banker. The welcome is sometimes warm, sometimes distracted.
Sweet, apple-caramel “blossom,” homey pineapple upside-down cake and ice cream are made in house and are among the best desserts. The rest, including an excellent black-and-white espresso cake, come from Baker’s Treat, the Flemington-based bakery whose profits support women in recovery from abuse.