Enter Bistro d’Azur in South Orange and you’re immediately enveloped in what co-owner Mary Conway aptly calls “the vibe of an upscale beach club in the South of France.” Conway’s husband, Tom, an architect in Summit, has transformed the interior of the former Noodlefan. Now, under a sky-blue ceiling, Greek fisherman lamps hang above tables sufficiently spaced to allow intimacy, but also a view of everyone else, which gives the room its celebratory atmosphere. After opening last September, it quickly gained a devoted following.
To launch Bistro d’Azur, their first restaurant, the Conways teamed up with chef Richard Krug, whom Mary knew from her work as an event planner at Orange Lawn and Tennis Club in South Orange. Krug also seeks to transport you, and mostly succeeds. Two of his best appetizers are classically French. Pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras is gratifying and velvety under crisp skin. Were there more of the buttery cauliflower purée beside it, I’d gobble it up with a spoon. The lobster crêpe feature a full third of the meat of a 1.5-pound lobster. If its rich, white sauce seems a bit unexciting, the butter in it is hard to resist.
More contemporary, the beet and goat cheese salad is lighter, yet equally seductive—the beets tender and sweet, the arugula so springy you would swear it was just picked. “I order my produce one day; two days later it’s brought to me from the farm,” says Krug. “It never sits in a warehouse.”
Krug grew up in Old Bridge. At 20, he began prepping salads at a TGI Fridays. After graduating from the CIA in 1996, he cooked at Lorena’s in Maplewood, Whispers in Spring Lake, and Orange Lawn in South Orange until it was sold in 2018. Now 55, he has the know-how and confidence to try new things. In his bouillabaisse, the usual leftover white fish is forgone in favor of a thick and meaty halibut fillet. Mussels, plump and tender, are cradled in their shells—perfect for scooping up the saffron and fennel-scented broth.
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An organic breast of chicken, served with wing joint attached, had golden juice and hearty flavor. Steak au poivre was tender and nicely marbled, though lacking the namesake pepperiness. Roasted lamb chops were perfectly cooked, juicy and pink, but they lacked the slightly gamey flavor that distinguishes lamb from other red meat.
There were other issues. On one visit, the lobster crêpe was barely warm, a survivable flaw; but the same problem with butternut squash soup was nearly fatal. Was the tepidness a fluke? Perhaps. A half hour later, at the next table, a server ceremoniously poured the same soup from a tea pot, the soup issuing steam.
Shelled escargot did little to enhance Krug’s revisionist paella, and the scallops that were its centerpiece were slightly overcooked. Fingerling potatoes, in every dish in which they appeared, were overcooked. So, too, was a fillet of salmon. After a dismal bite or two, it was barely touched. At the end of the meal, the server took it away without comment. Granted, I hadn’t sought out anyone to complain. But a more attentive staff would have asked if we had found fault with the dish and possibly removed the $32 charge from the bill.
Happily, the meal ended with a memorable up. The lemon meringue—not a pie, but a bowl layering sweet, sour, crumbly and smooth—was one of the best desserts I have eaten all year, or ever. Meringue is often just sugary air. This one, because it’s cooked, has heft and the fresh morning flavor of rich, sweet cream. A runner-up was a dish of vanilla, cinnamon and coffee ice creams produced in a state-of-the-art Musso Lussino machine.
Bistro d’Azur, just two months old when I dined there, has clearly become a local favorite. Given the excellence to be found on the menu and the uplifting beauty of the space, I am certain that, in time, it will evolve into the reliably first-rate restaurant its owners intend it to be.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:French/Mediterranean
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers: $14–$22; entrées, $27–$39; dessert, $10
- Ambience:Colorful and radiant
- Service:Enthusiastic, if inexpert
- Wine list:BYO, plus wines by the bottle from Unionville Vineyards