No menu is posted in the packed entryway, but the couples waiting for reserved tables discuss their favorite dishes from memory. The small parking lot is perennially full, and some neighbors on the adjacent residential side street have put chains across their driveways to ward off the overflow. In the crowded dining room, one can’t help overhearing nearby conversations, and waiting for the restroom often means hovering next to someone else’s table.
It sounds like a recipe for indigestion. But there are two good reasons a meal at the Blue Bottle is exhilarating rather than exhausting: the owners, chef Aaron Philipson, and his wife, Rory, the hostess and pastry chef. His cooking is inspired; her desserts are delicious. Her hospitality, if a bit overbearing, is energetic and sincere.
Aaron is a native of Red Bank; Rory was born and raised in nearby Montgomery. Though they both graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, they didn’t meet until they were working at Marcel Desauliner’s Trellis Restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia. The year was 1997, and a decadelater they are happily married with a restaurant of their own. White walls adorned with blue bottles give the café its name. The prefab building, which has housed several restaurants in its time, is divided into two small dining rooms and a drafty glass porch.
With her brassy personality, short blond hair, and resonant voice, Rory can be seen and heard throughout the restaurant—seating patrons, discussing wine, and talking up the menu. Ask for a suggestion and she will likely reply, “Everything’s amazing.” If she seems a bit smug, it may be the result of basking in the constant praise of her customers. “Is everything delicious?” she asked our table. Well, yes. But her tone was rhetorical rather than inquiring.
The excellent bread comes from Amy’s in Manhattan, but nibble it sparingly to leave room for Aaron’s starters. Sliced eggplant wrapped around a creamy garbanzo bean hummus was accompanied by roasted red peppers, zucchini, and a delicious tomato relish. It was refreshingly substantial despite being vegetarian. A meaty crab cake was well served by a basil-infused crème fraîche and a slightly tart roasted pepper, artichoke, and corn salad.
But the standout starter was a hearty medley of spankingly fresh Nova Scotia mussels, cockles, and shrimp in a white wine broth tinged with tomato. Save a piece of bread to sop up the plentiful broth.
Skip the salads. One night at dinner the baby arugula and shaved fennel salad was over-chilled, which did wonders for the crisp shaved fennel but left the blood-orange segments and soggy lettuce lifeless. The Blue Bottle Salad—tossed with grapes, toasted hazelnuts, and Manchego cheese—was uninspired and drenched in a heavy-handed red-wine-and-honey vinaigrette.
Aaron’s much-praised gnocchi is a must in any of its seasonal incarnations. The original, frequently resurrected, is among the best. Delicately herbed potato pasta—sautéed with English peas, oyster mushrooms, asparagus, and truffle brown butter—absorbs the flavor of every ingredient so that each bite is a microcosm of the entire dish. The gnocchi emerge from the pan slightly seared, giving them an unusual, appealingly crisp surface.
The kitchen’s attention to detail is also evident in its meat dishes. A lean pork chop gains astonishing flavor and moistness from a 24-hour soak in a liquid spiked with equal parts salt and sugar. The grilled chop is then served on a bed of garlicky spinach, with sautéed potato-and-chive spaetzle and a piquant sauce made from dried apricots and ginger—an altogether winning and well-balanced dish.
Equally well executed were the moist, rich short ribs in a red wine reduction, the tangy sweetness of the sauce balanced by an excellent celery root and leek purée.
Blue Bottle could stand to coax a little more flavor and suppleness from its fish. A bland pan-roasted halibut was served with marinated but chokingly dry chickpeas. Ancho-rubbed salmon was dry and dull.
Rory’s chocolate mousse should not be missed. A chocolate cookie-crumb base supports an airy chocolate-hazelnut mousse capped with rich chocolate ganache—one of the best interpretations of this classic that I’ve ever tried. The mixed-berry crisp perfectly balances sweet and tart and is topped with crumbly almond streusel and a scoop of luscious mascarpone ice cream from the Bent Spoon in Princeton.
The staff has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the menu, but don’t plan on changing your mind once you’ve solicited their advice. When I ordered the pork chop over a strongly suggested buffalo ribeye, the waitress flatly told me I was making a mistake. She was wrong. Still, it’s refreshing to find servers who know and care enough to speak their mind.—Stan ParishClick here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:American - Modern
- Price Range:Moderate
- Ambience:Cramped, chaotic, yet oddly charming
- Service:Informed and opinionated
- Wine list:BYO