When I first picked up the menu of this Bernardsville BYO, I thought, Here we go again. Do we really need another collection of crab cakes, pasta Bolognese, braised short ribs, steak frites and chocolate lava cake?
Several visits changed the thought to, This is what a global bistro should be. Its French onion soup reminds me why I fell in love with this classic years ago. It draws intelligently from today’s international larder to enliven a Maryland crab cake with avocado salsa and caper remoulade, and to update sautéed cod with baby bok choy, white bean purée and spinach pesto (a recent special). And does so at a reasonable price.
A veteran team conceived and owns this popular spot. Afrim Berisha, a partner in Vine, the bistro’s Mediterranean cousin in nearby Basking Ridge, ran what was known as Grill 73 for seven years before he and his partners sold it in 2009. It went through several incarnations and didn’t prosper, so Berisha and his partners “decided to give it one more try,” he told me in a phone conversation after my visits. Buying it back in 2010, they renovated the space, introduced a new menu and dubbed it Bistro Seven.Three.
Two handsome storefront rooms with large windows seat 90 and suggest an updated French bistro. Lively bands of red and cream paint and running mirrors offset dark wood floors. Despite acoustic tiles, this is one buzzing space, its close-set tables usually full. At least my table for four managed to communicate over the constant thrum without suffering raspy throats the next day.
Chef Edgar Ramirez, 39, has worked for Berisha and partners for years. Originally from Guatemala, Ramirez came to America 25 years ago and cooked in a number of New Jersey restaurants, along the way learning French, New American, steak house and seafood styles.
At Seven.Three, Ramirez’s kitchen turns out toothsome house-made manicotti with roasted tomato sauce and equally reliable coq au vin, the chicken’s skin varnished with a Burgundy sauce of immense depth and flavor. Ahi tuna crusted with white and black sesame seeds is lightly seared, preserving its sushi-like interior, and served on a light, crisp rice cake. Good, garlicky grilled hanger steak—crowned with a medallion of melting herb butter that mingles with the beef juices—comes with terrific frites. Ramirez’s capellini with crabmeat puts some Italian restaurants to shame.
Several of the best dishes build intense sauces from classic French stocks. These include recurring specials like beef stroganoff and a lamb shank so tender I could have eaten it with a spoon, as well as items ranging from the French onion soup to velvety wild-mushroom bisque.
There were a few surprising letdowns. Short ribs braised in Barolo tasted more like overcooked pot roast. Despite an outstanding baby arugula salad and a fine endive with candied walnuts and feta, the Caesar was inexplicably bland. In perhaps the only truly misconceived dish, spinach-and-cheese dumplings oily from the deep fryer were jarringly matched with Thai chili dipping sauce.
Desserts, from pastry chef Vicente Cabrera, more than made up for the few glitches: seasonal pear and cranberry crisp; rich but not cloying tres leches cake; flavorful almond biscotti that, correctly, need dunking in the (very good) coffee to soften. I even warmed to the crisp, subtly sweet mini-cannoli, despite the ends being dipped in chocolate—usually a clunky touch that crowds out the subtlety of the ricotta filling.
Berisha described Bistro Seven.Three as just “a neighborhood restaurant.” Personally, I’d travel a distance to dine here. You rarely see so many styles done so well at such a reasonable price.