Restaurant Review

Epernay

Quintessential bistro dishes shine at this traditional French restaurant in Montclair.

You say brasserie, I say bistro. Actually, it’s Franco Del Barba, the gracious host of this Montclair BYO since it changed hands in 2006, who insists on brasserie. “A brasserie has a different feeling—more fun and almost like a family, rather than stuffy and old fashioned,” he insists.

If you ask me, nowhere is it written bistros have to be stuffy. In the United States, bistro and brasserie are used loosely and sometimes interchangeably, but in France a bistro is a small, family-run place with traditional dishes such as steak frites, escargots and onion soup, while a brasserie (which translates as “brewery”) is larger and more decorative—which makes Epernay a bistro that adopts some of the look of a brasserie.

Whatever you call Epernay, the food has been traditional since the restaurant opened in 2000. It remains so now, even since Jayson Grossberg—the talented South Jersey chef who turned heads (mine included) at his now-shuttered Alphabet Soup—came aboard last year as consulting chef. “After 10 years with the same food,” Del Barba explains of the change, “you have to start again.” The day-to-day running of the kitchen is under the direction of Epernay’s longtime chef, Randall Vindas.

It’s always dicey to change a once-successful formula; despite Grossberg’s prodigious skills with sophisticated modern American fare, the collaboration hasn’t proven entirely successful.

In fact, I would have been hard-pressed to recognize Grossberg’s hand at all, although there are hints of it in dishes like tuna tartare with crispy shallots and pan-roasted salmon with a nicely finessed salsa of cucumber, avocado and cantaloupe tossed in lemon-soy vinaigrette. Only problem is, the salmon is lackluster, and that summer salsa remained on the menu long into the fall. It was not the only such offender; other ingredients that wore out their welcomes included watermelon, heirloom tomatoes and sweet corn.

Among these hangers-on, only a white bean-and-tomato salad that accompanies several entrées earned its extended run. Unfortunately, it is paired in one instance with bone-dry free-range chicken and, on Saturdays, with duck confit, the plat du jour. The latter comprises two generous pieces, but my serving proved baffling. One piece was deeply flavorful and pleasantly unctuous, the other, a mess of fat, flabby meat and salt.

Yet other quintessential bistro/brasserie dishes shine. Whopping bowls of mussels (your choice of preparation) can’t be beat. My favorite is the well-balanced saffron-and-tomato broth, but even if you opt for white wine and garlic or curry and cream, you can bank on a plethora of small, sweet, tender, grit-free specimens in ridiculously flavorful sauce. Similar satisfaction can be had with the classic 12-ounce dry-aged New York strip steaks, whether au poivre, topped with molten Roquefort, or with a side of frites. Same goes for starters of tender-toothy escargots in blessedly restrained garlic-herb butter, as well as steamed clams, which play well together with sliced chorizo, sweet red pepper fillets and fresh lemon.

Both the joys and disappointments come with fairly substantial price tags. With many entrées flirting with or exceeding $30, there should be consistency. Even desserts (fairly priced) offer a roller coaster ride, with classic crème brûlée and sabayon with berries providing the highs, and leaden profiteroles and ice-flecked coconut rice pudding the lows.

I’ve heard grumbling about service here, yet we experienced nothing but attentive and personable treatment. Credit owners Bob Nicosia and Brian Martin as well as Del Barba. Servers are quick to return eye contact when you want something, be it an extra bowl for discarded mussel shells, small plates for sharing entrées, or even the check when you need to make a quick exit. This is refreshing. As in any good French establishment, attention is paid to coffee, and wines are handled well, with buckets and sets of ample, quality glasses for as many reds, whites and rosés as your party brings.

Both floors of Epernay, which seats 60, bustle on Saturday nights, yet even when the upstairs gallery is hopping, service does not suffer. The decor is clichéd but lovable: vintage French commercial posters; a mixed bag of vibrant paintings of wildly fluctuating merit, framed and unframed. White butcher paper over white linens is another brasserie touch, as welcome as Epernay’s onion soup in the requisite brown glazed crock.

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