The mussels are expertly cooked, poofy pouches that squirt quenching juice from the sea, tender and not a bit rubbery. They’re partnered with chorizo I’d call mild, batons of fennel oddly lacking the flavor of anise, and a broth that’s bland. Flat-out bland.
I take a bite of the toast slathered with something that looks like old-school Russian dressing that’s set atop the mussels. Shy. Meek? Yes, that might be a more accurate modifier for both the sauce and the bread that needed a slap of garlic. The starter also comes with a cup of pommes frites, fries that have a textbook look to them, but are short-changed salt—or any seasoning, for that matter. I’m bewildered. Why would the kitchen fear salting a dish that demands at least a dash of salinity?
Such is the conundrum of Bonne Assiette, which translates as “good palate” and is set in lovely Pennington. A French bistro is what this town deserves, located as it is a stone’s throw from The Pennington School and clustered amid the welcoming shops of the downtown district—a bistro with classics, that’s open for both lunch and dinner, a spot where you can bring your own wine and settle in for comforting food and conversation.
Owned by its chef, Assi LiPonte, Bonne Assiette is disconcerting from the get-go. The dining spaces are at sixes-and-sevens as we arrive. Tables are partly set, or not set at all. There’s a need for warmth through design, a cry for someone to tidy up the place, to make it worth that settling in. And mindful service would be nice.
For there are possibilities here. There just needs to be follow through. Take the tartare of filet mignon: There’s a generous round of coarsely chopped beef presented with a coddled egg yolk, a wash of mustard, a pert mound of minced shallots and a splay of cornichons; toasts are provided to complete the assemblage. But, aside from that quick jab of wishy-washy mustard, the rest of the ingredients on the plate either are the dullest incarnations I’ve ever tasted or completely unseasoned. Anchovies, capers, better quality Dijon mustard are options to consider. So is tossing the raw beef with sea salt and pungent freshly ground black pepper.
Probably the worst offender in the taste-shy department is the salad of Bibb lettuce ringed by wedges of rock-hard pears and a crumble of Roquefort that had no tang at all, not even a lick of the soul typical of a blue cheese. The dressing is billed as walnut; there was only a scant drizzle of the muted stuff on the plate.
Scallops prove the chef knows how to properly cook seafood: Plated with a stew-like mix of nubby farro and tiny-diced vegetables, the beautifully bronzed scallops are topped with a mini dollop of caviar and a glaze of orange beurre blanc that needed to let the citrus speak with more force. Again, a dish with potential.
I can’t tell you if the herb-roasted chicken has potential. It was woefully overcooked and it, too, needed more than just flecks of seasoning to shine. We ordered as a side dish of sauteed Swiss chard, billed to come with garlic butter. Butter, yes, but barely-there garlic. Barely.
Desserts, we’re told, aren’t made in-house. We try a layered creamy cake with scents of hazelnut and chocolate, a spray of whipped topping and a few blackberries. There’s an off-taste to the confection, as if it had absorbed the taste of perhaps an onion or leek while being stored in the fridge.
French bistro fare is too important, too classic, too right for every season of the year to treat with an attitude that ranges from offhand to careless. Attention in the kitchen and focus on the diner in the dining rooms doesn’t have to swath a setting in formality and turn it from bistro to big-ticket.
Bonne Assiette, 23 West Delaware Avenue in Pennington. BYO. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; dinner only Sunday; closed Monday. 609-737-7174; bonneassiette.com.