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Caron Wendell and Joe McLaughlin, co-owners of One 53, have a knack for creating charming enclaves in otherwise uninspired settings. Their first venture, a beautifully appointed Italian deli and pasta shop in Princeton called Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen, shares a strip mall with a discount tile store. Their first restaurant, the nine-month-old One 53, brings big windows, lots of light, and excellent bistro cooking to a former “beer-and-a-shot joint,” in McLaughlin’s words, in the unprepossessing downtown of Rocky Hill, just north of Princeton.
The restaurant has a sleek, modern feel. A full bar stands just inside the door, with a crowded, L-shaped dining room behind it. The bar is often packed, and the small tables opposite it are closely spaced, resulting in periodic awkwardness as people squeeze by to get to their seats.
The menu—a collaboration between the owners; executive chef Justin Braun, formerly of the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia; and Stuart Popik, the chef at Lucy’s—is a greatest hits of French and Italian bistro cuisine.
For appetizers, you can order brandade, a French dish of salted cod and whipped potatoes, or an Italian caprese salad of creamy buffalo mozzarella, basil, and oven-roasted plum tomatoes. Oven roasting brings out their sweetness and dodges the problem of woody, acidic, off-season tomatoes. There is pan-seared foie gras (with frisée, golden raisins, sherry vinaigrette, apple compote, and cranberry walnut bread) as well as fettuccini. Tarte tatin shares the dessert list with panna cotta.
Cheese and fish are the church and state of Italian cooking, but an appetizer of steamed mussels in a tomato and white wine compote came sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. The surprising addition—Braun’s idea—works. The sharp cheese complements both the briny Maine mussels and the crisp garlic toast served with the dish.
You might expect the owners of Lucy’s to play to their strengths and create a pasta-heavy menu, but only three pastas are listed. Tortellini with fresh peas avoids the saltiness that can bedevil dishes that include, as this one does, both Parmigiano Reggiano and pancetta. Angel hair with grape tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella was light, simple, fresh, and irresistible—exactly as it should be.
The 16-ounce, bone-in steak is substantial, juicy, and deeply flavorful—which it ought to be for $44. It arrives with lightly dressed field greens and sensational hand-cut fries made in the Belgian tradition: poached in low temperature oil, then fried quickly in hot oil to order. The crisp, golden-brown shafts snap like pencils, revealing a piping hot, pillowy inside.
The fabulous fries are included with every grilled entrée, including the $11 burger—which was served on an overly thick and starchy roll, masking the flavor of the meat (grilled medium though ordered medium-rare). The wait staff is energetic and eager to please, but order your meat a degree rarer then you’d like it to arrive. The grill cook was heavy handed on two occasions.
The smash hit was a tender veal chop topped with a rich Marsala wine and mushroom sauce, and served on an excellent, garlicky white bean ragoût with hints of sweet sautéed onion. Seared scallops were perfectly augmented by a warm citrus-and-bacon vinaigrette, at once tart and alluringly smoky.
Desserts make up in quality what they lack in variety. Bread pudding—one of the occasional nods to Anglo traditions—was soothingly moist and draped in a not-too-sweet caramel-bourbon sauce. The creaminess and mild flavor of panna cotta was offset effectively by crunchy pistachios and thick honey. Tarte tatin, the most lush of French apple tarts, perfectly concluded One 53’s French and Italian balancing act.