Restaurant Review

The Orange Squirrel

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. That describes chef Francesco Palmieri and his enthusiasm for his new restaurant. But in the kitchen his passionate and serious side comes to the fore.

The two tables by the window have more space between them than do some others.

Francesco Palmieri admits he embroiders the truth when customers ask him about the unusual name of his restaurant, which has been doing brisk weekend business since it opened in December.

“It’s more fun and interesting,” he says. “I tell them I used to train squirrels for a living. I do give a different story every time. I say my father was overprotective of the squirrels that used to eat the vegetables in his organic garden, and he would trap and release them in the park, and I would spray orange paint on them to see if they come back. That’s fake, but my dad did have an organic garden, and my wife and I do tend it now.”

Unlike his yarns, Palmieri’s food is for real. Often during the evening, he scurries into the dining room to deliver dishes to tables. He wears a plain white apron over his chef’s jacket, and with his affable, offhand manner, if you didn’t know he was the chef and owner, you might assume he was returning to the kitchen to peel potatoes. But engage him on the subject of food or watch him cook (there are no doors between kitchen and dining room), and the passion and work ethic of this 39-year-old CIA graduate (class of 2000) becomes apparent.

While Palmieri dreamed up the name Orange Squirrel, he says he doesn’t have a name for his style of cooking. His parents are from Italy, and he traces his love of cooking to watching his mother make manicotti when he was a lad. Pride in his heritage helps explain the excellence of his crisp, tender veal Milanese, pounded floppy as an elephant ear and served on the bone, or his fabulous kabocha squash ravioli with crispy sage, brown butter, and a dusting of powdered amaretti cookies.

But you have to range further to account for dishes like his chicken pot pie with baby root vegetables, bechamel, Grana Padano cheese, and puff pastry crust, one of the tastiest (and largest) I’ve had, or his steamed mussels with tomato confit and basil butter in turmeric-coconut broth, one of his most popular apps.

“In the end,” he says, his style consolidates “a lot of things I’ve learned along the way.”

For example, the powdered amaretti cookies, which also go in the ravioli filling, are an idea he picked up while cooking at Pino Luongo’s Coco Pazzo in New York City, a job he began on September 13, 2001. Two days earlier, he was about to leave for his job at Windows on the World when he heard the horrifying news. He had worked at Windows, under executive chef Michael Lomonaco, since he graduated from the CIA. (Lomonaco was spared on 9/11, Palmieri says, because he was at the optometrist having an eyeglass prescription filled.)

“We lost 72 people that day,” Palmieri says. “I didn’t know them all, but I don’t think there’s anyone around New York and northern New Jersey who didn’t have a direct or indirect relationship with someone in the towers that day.” Palmieri eventually became acting executive chef of Coco Pazzo, then sous chef of Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town. Meanwhile, since his student days at Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied interior design, then at CIA, he had been squirreling away money from jobs washing dishes or busing or waiting on tables, all with one goal in mind—to open his own place one day.

“I worked hard for ten years, saved what I could, bought and sold some property, and made a little money, and finally went in with my two brothers to buy the two storefronts” that are now Orange Squirrel.
Palmieri initially looked in Montclair, a top North Jersey dining destination, but like many others he found real estate pricey and liquor licenses both crazy pricey and unavailable. So for practical reasons as well as civic pride (he grew up in Bloomfield and lives there), he opened in his hometown, contributing to the recent swell of upscale eateries there.

Word quickly crossed the Bloomfield-Montclair line. “I have about 10- to 15 percent Bloomfield customers,” Palmieri says, “about 60 percent Montclair, and the rest mostly from Glen Ridge, Caldwell, Livingston, and Short Hills.”

What they come for are standout starters such as creamy kabocha squash soup; spinach salad with pomegranate, gorgonzola, and pine nuts; and roasted baby beet salad with shaved hazelnuts, blood orange, and irresistible crispy goat-cheese fritters. Rack of lamb with mint-pomegranate glaze and pistachio powder is excellent. At $37, the 28-day dry-aged ribeye steak with chipotle butter and garlic confit is the most expensive item on the menu. But seasoned, grilled, reseasoned, and finished in a smoky wood oven, it is worth the drive from anywhere. However, despite crispy shallots and Meyer lemon butter, olive oil-poached halibut is mild to a fault.

Entrées come with one side, usually in an iron ramekin: roasted fingerling potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts with bits of pancetta, caramelized cippolini onions, and apple-ginger spiked kabocha squash. These are so good you could make a satisfying meal of them at $8 each. A few, surprisingly, are yawns: Irish cheddar mashed potatoes, fontina mac and cheese.

On the “light fare” menu, available Monday to Saturday, 11 pm to 1 am, individual thin-crust pizzas are tasty, but a hamburger garnished with addictive hand-made potato chips had a big problem: the patty was dry and lacked flavor.

It’s easy to get carried away with the exciting food Palmieri turns out, but the place does have issues, as even he acknowledges. The dining room is small and cramped, and so are the tables, especially for a party of four drinking wine, passing side dishes, and making room for the long-handled skillet dishes like ribeye and chicken pot pie. Understandably, Palmieri is loathe to turn people away on weekends, but on weekdays he removes a table or two to open up space.

The room is wearyingly (Can you please repeat that?) loud. The chef says he recognizes the need for more soundproofing. He also understands that “we do need to get more adult with desserts.” The Dirt Trio (three different shot glass-sized, rather sweet parfaits) at least will please your kids.

Finally, the Squirrel, which buys top-drawer ingredients, is not cheap. All these drawbacks would rob it of a three-star rating if not for the quality of the food and Palmieri’s professed desire to get everything right.

Click here to read a story on how upstart Bloomfield is nipping at the heels of über-dining-destination Montclair.

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