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I’m very excited to hear that Chef Zod Arifai, whom I remember from Ten Square in Morristown, has opened his own restaurant in Montclair. Arifai has a stellar background, including Bouley and Aureole in Manhattan and Charlie Trotters in Chicago. General manager Jeffrey Khowong also has an impressive résumé, having worked at Sea Grill, Cello, Oceana, and Le Bernardin in New York City. How could this team possibly go wrong?
I soon find out. The new restaurant, Blu, sports modern black tables topped with woven-grass runners. The chairs are comfortable and the walls painted a warm and welcoming burnt sienna. But the room is small, with barely enough space for two rows of tables divided by a walkway, and it’s so noisy that once, while seated between two tables filled with screaming, cackling patrons, we became hoarse trying to conduct a conversation. This ruins the meal for my guests, who vow never to return. The restaurant needs to find a way to curb the volume.
Prices—appetizers cost $5 to $8, main courses $15 to $18—are excellent for the quality of the food, although portions are small. Most of the appetizers are more than acceptable, and some are very good, such as the mussels steamed in a spicy ginger-garlic sauce and the wild-mushroom risotto, creamy and woodsy and made even better by a drizzle of white-truffle oil. A salad of tender squid with jícama, pineapple, and peanuts in Thai vinaigrette with mini greens is unusually piquant. Tuna tartare served in a deep bowl with sliced avocado and Asian mini greens is excellent, but the portion is tiny. Three triangular seafood dumplings served with a tasty spicy coconut broth flavored with lemongrass has dough as tender as a butterfly wing.
Beautifully prepared Chatham cod, cooked through but pearly and translucent inside and served with cauliflower purée, black olives, and a gremolata of chopped lemon zest, parsley, and garlic, is a bit too salty but still good. An herb-roasted lamb loin cut into three long pieces and accompanied by a firm polenta rectangle, shiitake mushrooms, and roasted garlic, is tender and well flavored. A sliced seared duck breast with caramelized turnips and an apple-red wine purée is perfectly lovely. But the beef short ribs, described as slow-roasted at 200 degrees, aren’t as soft, moist, or flavorful as they should be.
For dessert, a clear, slightly thickened lemongrass soup containing cut berries, mango, avocado, and basil provides an unusual but pleasing flavor combination. An otherwise fine warm chocolate cake with cherry sorbet is garnished with candied black olives, definitely an acquired taste. Tapioca topped with mango, papaya, and large grains of black tapioca having the flavor and texture of Chinese red beans should be creamier. But the apple tart, a small rectangle of dacquoise (nut merengue) topped with three caramelized apple wedges, is perfectly delicious.
Reviewed in: February, 2006
554 Bloomfield Ave
Modern American cuisine, with French, Italian, and Asian influences, featuring seafood dumplings, hanger steak, and black olive cake
Cuisines: French, Fusion/Eclectic, Italian, Seafood