Restaurant Review


After putting aside his cuisine dreams for nine years, Tom Finnelli has finally opened his own New American BYO Mémoire in Ridgewood.

Talk about a dream deferred. Tom Finnelli grew up in Park Ridge wanting to own a restaurant. When his parents insisted he go to college instead of culinary school, he obeyed, became an accountant, and after nine years in the field was offered a partnership at McGladrey. Turning down the promotion but continuing to work there, he earned a 2008 degree from the French Culinary Institute as a night student. He catered dinners and gave cooking lessons. Last October, he opened Mémoire, a New American BYO in downtown Ridgewood.

Mémoire has bare brick walls and a minimalist allure. A two-sided fireplace adds a welcoming flicker to the center of the 90-seat dining room. Finnelli adds his own welcome as guests enter and thanks them heartily as they leave.

Wait­—after all those years, he’s not in the kitchen?

“If you work in the business,” he told me in a phone interview after my visits, “it’s hard to work on the business and do what needs to be done.” He hired an experienced executive chef, Giacomo “Jack” Mistretta, from Esty Street in Park Ridge and Napa Valley Grille in Paramus. Mistretta has brought several winning dishes from his past, including his Esty Street autumn salad and ravioli.

Finnelli offers a novel $28 two-course prix fixe before 7:30 Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday (slow nights for most restaurants). With the American diet under a microscope these days, skipping dessert can feel virtuous, and there’s plenty of sweetness in the $28 price.

From the limited prix-fixe menu, we ordered sous-vide shrimp with barbecue spice, roasted-pepper coulis and a smattering of dirty rice with black-bean and red-pepper-cilantro rice. Finishing the shrimp on the grill appealingly toasted and heightened the spices, but the tenderizing sous-vide step seemed superfluous. House-made flatbreads, with arugula and not quite enough prosciutto, were oversoaked in lemon vinaigrette. Still, the two courses were well worth the $28 tab.

On the seasonal menu, tender white beans and halved grape tomatoes enhanced an appetizer of expertly grilled octopus. Excellent house-made pasta fleshed out the dish, but seemed unnecessary. Seared foie gras came with a pear-jalapeño tartlet that exuded a bit too much heat, masking the rather veiny but masterfully cooked Hudson Valley foie gras.

The best appetizer was a honey-roasted pumpkin soup. Silky yet substantial, its sweetness deftly offset with a touch of curry, a sage leaf and toasted pumpkin seeds, the soup came with an irresistible swirl of nutmeg crème fraîche. I could eat that soup every day.

Among the entrées, the surprising star was smoked tofu, the slices served cool and topped with a confit of seasonal mushrooms, pickled onions and soy-truffle oil. Duck was presented as a duo of sliced, roasted breast and confited leg over well-seasoned celery root and potato purée. A pool of assertive blackberry-citrus reduction completed the dish.  A winning cabernet sauce tops a well-seasoned New York Strip steak cooked rare, as ordered. It was served sliced, which is unusual for strip steak. Finnelli said that made a better presentation.

Butternut squash ravioli (in a brown-butter, walnut, sage and Maytag blue-cheese sauce) got somewhat fried in the butter, giving it a tough, pierogi-like texture. Farmed Atlantic salmon, grilled to the requested medium rare, was served over Israeli couscous and roasted fall vegetables. It was a bargain at $23. A pan-roasted grouper filet was past its peak, and a bland mushroom beurre blanc sauce did it no favors. A large braised pork shank with pappardelle and root vegetables was dry and, its braising liquid frankly run of the mill.

Desserts were inconsistent. A ramekin of warm pear-cranberry crisp with a cinnamon-oatmeal crust topped with cranberry-swirl ice cream was a highlight; but a flavorful espresso crème Anglaise and a velvety bittersweet-chocolate ganache could not compensate for the dryness of the chocolate cake. Apple-pie ice cream topped with crumbled cinnamon pie crust was terrific, but dense, doughy beignets with a cloying cinnamon apple-cider glaze sat on the plate, half finished.