It’s said that there’s a ghost at Bell’s Mansion. Built in the early 1800s as a home for Robert P. Bell, president of the Morris Canal & Banking Company, the historic house had several owners, including the Salmon family of Salmon Brothers Construction Company, and then remained empty for about twenty years. Three years ago Robert and Jean Duda opened a restaurant in the mansion, and they make their home on its upper floors. According to our waitress, several people have spotted a ghost; if there is one, it’s friendly, because the restaurant doesn’t feel inhospitable.
It has several small, casual dining rooms, plus the Tap Room, which boasts a stained-glass window and ceiling panel, as well as an elaborate, mirrored oak bar built for the Palmerton Hotel in Pennsylvania during the late 1800s. There is dining outside when weather permits.
Chef Roger Mora Valverde’s comprehensive menu, served in the Tap Room as well as the dining rooms, includes raw-bar options, steaks, vegetarian dishes, creative entrées and appetizers, and even sandwiches. Unfortunately, the menu sounds much better than the dishes taste. Butter-poached lobster medallions turn out to be not medallions, but a small tail, and it’s slightly overcooked. Garnished with sweet pea shoots—a nice touch that one doesn’t often find—it comes with two corn cakes sandwiched with mozzarella. Four small half-moon dumplings with ginger-flavored pork filling are tender, tasty, and attractively plated on individual small square dishes arranged on a larger one. I like the flavorful garlic shrimp and spicy sausage slices, though they’d be better if the sourdough bowl in which they’re served were less soggy; the bacon-wrapped scallops are tepid and overcooked, the crab cakes have more filler than crab, and the fried oysters are shaped like mini hand grenades and almost as hard to bite into.
One standout entrée is the rack of lamb, a special, with individual chops attractively crisscrossed on the plate over a rich brown sauce and accompanied by a buttery squash purée garnished with asparagus and frizzled leeks. Individual shepherd’s pie is homey and comforting; the drunken duck breast marinated in Cuervo and sliced is worth ordering, though it’s slightly dry, as are the barbecued baby-back ribs. Chicken Gabriel, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with mushrooms and cheese, is woefully overcooked, and what’s billed as Beef Wellington is one of the strangest dishes I’ve ever seen—a filet mignon sliced through the middle and stuffed with mushroom duxelles, with a pile of finely shredded phyllo dough mounded on top, then baked until crisp and slightly charred. It is unattractive and difficult to eat.
Dessert is the best course. Sliced pineapple deep fried in tempura batter is delicious, and so are the crème brûlée, roasted banana in a soft tortilla, individual pecan tarts, and a glazed cheesecake. Warm chocolate sponge cake with mint chocolate chip ice cream is dry.
Reviewed in: July 2006