Suzanne Zimmer Lowery reviews Gazelle Café and Bistro in Ridgewood, where two young chefs with no formal training are cooking with confidence.
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When two young chefs with no formal training open a restaurant in a town with dozens of successful, long-running establishments, a certain degree of confidence and bravado is required. That is exactly what Jim Miceli and Ron Norrell had eight years ago when they opened the 36-seat Gazelle Café across the street from the Ridgewood train station.
The pair met at a catering company, where they found they shared a common interest in creating colorful modern dishes in which “everyone gets something on the plate from a different food group,” says Norrell. Offering upscale, satisfying fare, cooked and served in a healthy fashion (eschewing cream sauces, frying and heavy butter sauces), has remained the focus at Gazelle and made this a popular spot—so popular, in fact, that on weekends parties of more than two without a reservation may find themselves turned away.
Whether at one of the small wooden tables or at a stool by the window, those seated in the golden-colored wedge of a room, with warm amber lighting, are greeted with a hearty welcome from the chefs, who work their magic mere feet away in a pristine open kitchen where no space is wasted.
Stimulating starters include plump mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat and artichoke, served with red-pepper coulis or the delicate pastry-wrapped julienne- vegetable strudel with a hint of creaminess. Yet it is often the nightly specials that stand out. Grilled shrimp served over arugula with feta, tomatoes, red onion and a side of lemon-oregano vinaigrette showcased a talent for pairing and contrasting fresh flavors and textures. That salad and others, in both side and full portions, arrived artfully composed. There is always a special soup of the day, such as creamy seafood chowder with clams, scallops, mussels and mahimahi, which would have benefitted from slicing the fish into smaller, more bite-size pieces.
Two main-course beef specials were the favorites of our visits. Fall-off-the-bone braised short ribs in a rich red wine sauce was a knockout. Just as good (the chefs credit a recipe from Bobby Flay) was the Spanish-spiced ribeye with piquillo pepper and sherry-vinegar steak sauce. Unfortunately, several requests had to be made for a little sour cream to go with the baked potato.
The chefs offer an impressive set of side dishes and encourage patrons to mix and match. Sides—including mashed cauliflower, hot red cabbage with apples, and rotini pasta in garlic broth—can be purchased individually or in groups of three as an entrée for $12.
In many cases, the sides are already matched to main dishes. Roasted sweet potato sticks, which should have been crisper, appear alongside the combo of crab cake and grilled flat-iron steak. The surf side of the duo was perfectly tender inside and crispy outside, but the steak was tough and underdone. The same sweet potatoes come with grilled baby rib lamb chops bathed in a silky and flavorful rosemary-and-garlic demi-glace. To our disappointment, on more than one occasion the baby chops were unavailable and were substituted with a less desirable loin chop.
With so many meat dishes enhanced by perfect sauces, it was a surprise to find big, juicy, wine-marinated, garlic-roasted shrimp with caramelized tomatoes without a sauce at all—and it was paired with a brown rice pilaf that was a bit too crunchy to offer any moisture.
For dessert, the heart-shaped linzer cookies, dusted with powdered sugar, were delightful. Alas, crème brûlée struck out twice when our spoons broke through the perfectly bronzed, crisp layer of sugar, only to reveal custard that was lumpy and overcooked. Mama’s individual apple cake with cream cheese frosting was a crowd-pleaser that managed to save the finale.