Restaurant Review

Silver Oak American Bistro

Ridgewood’s restaurants come and go, but almost all of them are intriguing. One of the latest to open is Silver Oak American Bistro, a minuscule storefront with an exciting regional menu that’s primarily Creole, Cajun, and Southern.

The restaurant is owned by Mike and Helen Feygin, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, and Chef Gary Needham, who’s from Louisville, Kentucky. Needham trained the old-fashioned way, apprenticing in many highly rated restaurants and hotels, most recently Washington, D.C.’s Galileo Restaurant. At one point he owned a Louisville barbecue eatery called Pigasus, so it’s only natural that Silver Oak focuses on Southern cooking, including barbecue. The menu changes as new market ingredients appear, so summer diners can expect to see fried green tomatoes and corn bread.

The 30-seat space is cramped and noisy, but it’s worth putting up with a little discomfort because the food is pretty terrific. From the first taste of the addictive homemade potato chips that arrive with the menu, along with both a barbecue and a creamy dipping sauce, it’s easy to like this place.

Be warned that many dishes pack a hefty punch of hot peppers. One of my guests suffers for the rest of the evening after inadvertently biting into a chunk of jalapeño in a fritter accompanying a main course of nicely cooked Tuscan fried chicken. But not every dish is spicy. Perfectly delicious homemade pasta with wild mushrooms, shallots, and white-truffle sauce, which can be ordered as either an appetizer or main course, is hearty yet gentle.

Most menu items are prepared a little differently from what you might expect. Plump snails are served in a spicy Cajun sauce with spinach, tucked into a mushroom nest. Oysters Bienville—an appetizer developed in the late 1930s at New Orleans’s famous Antoine’s to honor the city’s founder, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville—traditionally consists of oysters topped with a creamy sauce containing chopped shrimp or crawfish, mushrooms, sherry, and a touch of cayenne pepper. Needham’s rendition, served in an individual cast-iron pan, has more than a touch of cayenne but is better for it. Other worthwhile appetizers are a boned chicken wing stuffed with house-made boudin sausage and served with frizzled leeks and hoisin sauce; shrimp sautéed with Southern ham and redeye gravy, served over cheese grits; and soft-shell crab over garlic–white-bean purée and Cajun ratatouille. A Maryland crab cake and a Cajun boudin sausage are nicely teamed with a soothing Granny Smith slaw. The only totally unsuccessful appetizer is the leaden hush puppies stuffed with artichoke and mozzarella.

A decent salad of mixed baby greens is included in the price of the main course. Fancifully named entrées worth ordering include the Rich Man Poor Man—grilled monkfish and lobster tail with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, and a yellow-pepper coulis. Dueling Lamb pairs an herb-basted grilled rack of lamb with a goat-cheese crust and lamb sausage—the loser of the duel according to the menu—served with ratatouille couscous and kalamata olive sauce. Equally good are the spicy short ribs braised in red wine with a white-bean ragù and white-corn polenta. I also like the full-flavored, crisp roasted Mahogany Duck, accompanied by rice and fennel, and a special of tilefish en papillote, served over a layer of grits with what appears to be a baked crab cake tucked into parchment paper. Spicy Craw-Catfish looks strange—a large oval, crisp on the outside with potato shreds covering the fish and its juicy, flavorful crabmeat filling—but it is absolutely delicious. Strangely enough, Needham’s famous baby-back ribs, although plentiful and tasty, are dry.

For dessert, opt for the succulent apple pie with caramel-bourbon sauce, the four-berry cobbler, or the sweet potato pie with a coconut macaroon crust. Crème brûlée has a soft top, chocolate mousse cake with a coconut crust is too rich for more than one bite, chocolate banana pie has no chocolate flavor, and peach bread pudding is soggy.

 

Reviewed in: July 2006

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