Bistro 55 — Rochelle Park, New Jersey (Or, Tommy, You Ignorant Slut!)

Tommy, of the justifiably well-known local food blog, tommy:eats, has become unhinged and is currently raving about a new local restaurant that, if it fixes its many flaws, very well may be the local equivalent of Blue Smoke or the late, much-lamented Jeanty at Jacks. But it didn’t come close the other night. His mania is surprising because pretty much everything he writes about restaurants is worth reading. The guy knows what he likes and has high standards that he isn’t afraid to articulate.

So my lovely wife and I were looking forward to a casual evening at Bistro 55 (sorry, no website yet; the link is to the the parent company), especially because she had just returned from London, where people have strange ideas about how to make vodka martinis (they use gin). And here is where the problems started. Not with her martini, which was fine, but with the 15 minutes that it took between ordering and receiving our drinks. Before you get pissy and and make a snide comment about how there is nothing wrong with that kind of wait, realize that we were sitting at a bar table, one of four very nice communal tables, complete with stacks of rolled up napkins and flatware. 15 minutes is just silly. It’s a bar! Here is what I said in an indignant e-mail I sent to Tommy. “The drinks were slow because there was one bartender working with about six waiters dicking around at the server station. And my Manhattan was good, but not excellent, especially because the twist I specified was suspiciously red and round and had a short stem.”

This is in a restaurant owned and operated by a company that has experience running restaurants! In addition, I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the owners was there. Ignoring the obvious problem, getting one’s customers their drinks quickly ensures that they will have the opportunity to order more of them, and that usually has a positive effect on the restaurant’s bottom line.

The nice people across the table had a great looking, and large, bowl of potato chips that looked suspiciously fresh from the oil. We were caught staring and were promptly offered a taste. We declined but ordered some for ourselves. The chips were definitely fresh and came sprinkled with Parmesan (I think) and some overcooked garlic slices. The dish is a great idea; nicely fried chips with a salty cheese garnish. But the dark brown discs of garlic didn’t improve the flavor.

Our next course was the much touted (by Tommy) mac & cheese with chorizo and roasted tomatoes. Another dish that was a great idea but executed with insufficient attention to detail. The breadcrumbs liberally sprinkled over the top of the dish were raw. I imagine that the correct last step before serving is a quick trip under the salamander to brown the top and make the breadcrumbs nice and crunchy. Oops! Forgot that one.

I’m going to toss in a positive observation about this joint, lest you think that nothing went correctly. The renovations turned out very well. The bar itself is great looking, with a large chalk board on the back wall, listing some of the many excellent beers they offer. There is plenty of warm-looking wood, comfortable stools and, as Tommy has noted, cute little hooks under the bar for purses. I already mentioned the communal bar tables, but they deserve some thought. What a good idea!

My wife was jet-lagged and a bit tired of eating in restaurants, so she ordered a serviceable Caesar Salad with grilled chicken. Very plain, with a good dressing. It’s not a dish that can be ethereal, but it sure can stink. This one was fine. I ordered the “Bistro Burger,” because I think the quality of the burger says a lot about the kitchen, and because Tommy waxed poetic about its “grass fed” beef. When it arrived, my first thought was that I had ordered from the kids menu by mistake. The cute little burger was dwarfed by the large, icy brioche bun. Okay, I am exaggerating; it wasn’t icy, merely very cold. And not room temperature cold — refrigerator cold, or maybe sitting on a chilly plate for too long. I don’t know, but it wasn’t toasty and hot the way it should have been. Hell, I would have been happy with “not cold.” Getting back to the burger . . . it was nicely cooked, with some char, and it was the correct temperature. But it was so little! I felt embarrassed for it.

Here’s some more praise. That beer list I mentioned is truly impressive. I could spend long rainy afternoons tasting the beers, assuming that the wait improves to significantly better than 15 minutes. I had a pint of the Ramstein Oktoberfest, made in — wait for it — Butler, New Jersey! Great stuff, and it was recommended by our friendly but otherwise clueless waiter. My Chardonnay snob wife had her usual, from a short but very fairly priced wine list.

If and when this restaurant works out the kinks in the kitchen and the waitstaff, it has a shot at being the place that Tommy and I so desperately want. But it’s about half-way there, and judging by the crowds, there isn’t much pressure to improve. I hope I am wrong, but I fear I am correct. That doesn’t mean that I will never return; I’ll go back, just not with the glee that Tommy has exhibited.

Update (11/12/2009): Please see my short, and much more laudatory description of a recent visit.

15 Replies to “Bistro 55 — Rochelle Park, New Jersey (Or, Tommy, You Ignorant Slut!)”

  1. “and judging by the crowds, there isn’t much pressure to improve”

    this has been my biggest fear since day one.

    already the “mixologist”, who presumably had a hand in designing the cocktail list, is gone, and the cocktail list has been abbreviated. that’s not to say the fellas can’t make a cocktail, but i’d prefer to choose from an interesting, proven list, rather than having to direct the production of a cocktail, which will likely not be very good, since they’re free-pouring, rather than paying enough attention to proportions.

    i’m going to return to have that burger again. i do think i recall a friend commenting on the burger, after he read my glowing review. i believe he said “too much bun.” i’ll have to confirm that memory, and go back to see if they’ve screwed up that burger.

  2. Interesting point about the cocktails. One of my favorite bars, and favorite bartenders, has a constantly changing list of signature cocktails. I think that it keeps the bartenders on their toes, and the patrons interested. There is nothing wrong with the old reliables, but I imagine it is tough to keep them fresh after a while.

    Trust me, the burger is insultingly small.

  3. Two questions:
    1. Will you reveal this wonderful bar/bartender with the changing list of cocktails, or are you gonna keep that a secret?!? 🙂
    2. This is really an honest question: is the burger insultingly small, or is the bun insultingly large?

    I had a very good burger at a no-name bar in the city last night and thought it was all the better b/c it was served on an english muffin, thereby saving me from scooping the bun lid AND leaving additional room for beer. Leffe Brown, if you must know. New to me, and quite tasty!

  4. The wonderful bar is called Blue Smoke, and the wonderful bartender is named Andrew. He makes a superb Manhattan, but is also interested in the newer drinks that the bar introduces occasionally. Outside of the burger, which is the best in the city, the food is competent. But the bar is one of the best I have ever enjoyed. Give it a try.

    The burger is too small, and the bun is too big, Weird that they managed to screw up both. My guess is that I got a 5 ounce burger, and the bun was big enough for a patty at least twice that weight. I tried to be a bit amusing in my blog post, but in reality I was irritated. It was $14, about $7 more than it should have been. The fries were good though!

    The idea of an English Muffin disturbs me. I know that it should work well, but I just can’t warm to it.

  5. Chumley’s, the widely popular hidden bar on Bedford St in NYC has been serving burgers on English muffins for a while. Pretty good, as I recall.

    What’s an english muffin anywho. Sourdough?

    I was thinking about this burger issue. Your preferences leans toward larger burgers. I’m happy with a 6 ounce burger, so I’m thinking I wasn’t insulted because it’s about 6 ounces. I did have to gut the bun though. I’m going to do more research very soon.

    Blue Smoke’s burger cannot be more than 6 ounces. 7, tops. Granted, the bun is perfect, in just about every way including size, but the burger is not very big.

  6. Chumley’s is, alas, closed. I had the burger only once, and I don’t recall that it was anything special.

    I would guess about 7 ounces for the Blue Smoke masterpiece, but everything is in proportion, thus a much better experience. When I am served food in a restaurant, I expect to be able to eat everything. But Bistro 55 served me a 5 ounce burger on a 10 ounce bun.

    Well, we were both wrong. I just got off the phone with an incredibly friendly person at Blue Smoke who told me that the burgers are “exactly 8 ounces.”

  7. And you can be sure that in a Danny Meyer restaurant, they ARE. EXACTLY. 8. OUNCES. 😉

    Great to know you were talking about the bar at Blue Smoke! Will have to give that a shot.

    And Tommy, english muffins are very definitely NOT sourdough–unless marked as such. I’m not a fan of the stuff.

  8. OK, so, firstly…

    I’d be very surprised to know that the Blue Smoke burger is 8 ounces. Very shocked indeed. I’ve handled a lot of meat in my day, and I would not have guessed 8 ounces. This could be a function of shrinkage, of course.

    Secondly,
    Chumley’s is closed? That’s a shame, if only because it was such a cool little time capsule, and they had beer, which is a good thing.

    Thirdly,
    I had the burger at Beestrow 55 tonight, and it was certainly not small, and the bun was an appropriate size. Now, there’s a chance that the kitchen made sure my burger was big, as I’m known to the restaurant (as I’ve acknowledged on my blog), or IANAC got a strangely small burger, or we’re just not tracking on the bun-to-burger ratio thing. I hope it’s the latter, because I don’t like special treatment, and I like my recs to be spot on. We should go together one night to get to the bottom of this, but then we’d actually have to meet in person, which doesn’t fit into my blogging wheelhouse very comfortably. Exceptions have been made in the past, however, to which Curlz might attest, if pushed.

    What makes english muffins taste special?

  9. I guess that it is possible that I was misinformed, but the person who answered the phone seemed quite sure of herself. I assume that the weight is before cooking.

    Yes, it had a fire, and the structural damage was significant. There are rumblings about a reopening, but I wouldn’t count on it.

    I am sure that you had a wonderful time! Having an in with the owner tends to sharpen the attention of the people who count. And that’s not a criticism; of course that’s the smart thing to do on their part.

    I expect my burger and bun to be roughly the same circumference. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. I am sure that joining you would be amusing (although probably not for you) but if we went together, the experiment would be tainted. Better that you go in disguise. You may borrow one of my wigs.

    As for what makes English Muffins taste special? Why, nothing. That’s why you don’t use them for burger buns.

  10. LOVE sitting at the bar many places, so I’m guessing Blue Smoke would work out just fine…thanks for that rec!
    Fwiw, if you need a place to go on Bedford Street, Daddy-o’s (TERRIBLE name) has tater tots. And (supposedly) homemade ketchup along with ’em. And some fine cocktails, as I recall. I spent a mess ‘o fun afternoons/evenings there a few summers ago when a friend was doing shows at one of the theaters in that part of town. Of course, that was also before Keste opened, and I did get to Little Owl at the height, and Centro Vinoteca when it first opened, and… Go get some tater tots.
    Curlz
    Oh, and I can attest. And I could even say some fun was had. More than once! But don’t let that get out.

  11. Perhaps these will bump it up: Indian-spiced popcorn. Tamarind margarita.

    And my stepmother declared their tandoor chicken to be the best piece(s) of chicken she has ever eaten anywhere. In the world.

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