On average, I dine out more than 150 times a year.
Only a small fraction of those meals wind up as restaurant reviews for NJ Monthly. (Speaking of which, check out my latest one online there: Hopewell’s Bell & Whistle.) Others turn out to be nonstarters. Still others, while noteworthy, don’t fall within the parameters of a full-scale review.
Here are two such places. Both are small, charming mom-and-pop byobs situated in small, charming Central Jersey towns. Bon appetit!
You may already be familiar with Blue Rooster Cafe & Bakery, which opened in 2008 in a lovely Victorian house on Cranbury‘s historic Main Street. It soon developed a following for its fabulous breakfasts, baked goods, and lunches. Dinner, not so much. ‘Expensive and mediocre’ was the comment I heard most often.
That situation began to change last October when owners Karen & Bob Finigan brought in a new chef, Richard Lipshanic. Just this week I got to sample his wares for the first time. Impressive. His classical training and experience – last at a resort in Maine – is evident in a tightly focused winter menu of 7 starters and 8 entrees that sent me scurrying to my food dictionaries to look up sauce salmi, capote capers, and pomme Macaire.
Long story short: fantastic lobster bisque soup of the day – and only $5; ravishing housemade butternut squash ravioli, $9 for four diminutive but flavor-packed crescents; and olive oil poached wild Scottish salmon with bitter greens and sweet balsamic dressing that my companion rightly termed “the best salmon I’ve ever had.” The sizeable portion is a steal at $24. Plus baker Bob Finigan’s elegant French sourdough dinner rolls, classic desserts at $5 a pop, and French press coffee.
Long story even shorter: Give dinner here another try. Apps average $9; entrees, $24. The current winter menu should be up on the website any minute, but for now, check it out on the Blue Rooster Facebook page.
The Alps Bistro
There are so few German restaurants left in New Jersey that I jump at the chance to dine at any new one that comes along. When good reports on the Alps Bistro in Allentown starting coming my way, I assumed it was located in the old mill on this sweet Monmouth county town’s Main Street that had housed mediocre German restaurants for decades. Not so!
Its eight tables are in a storefront location further up the street. I’m not going to mince words here: I found the fare – which includes all the German and Austrian staples, but also a few Polish and even Hungarian dishes – solid, reliable, and well priced. I’m just not as crazy about it as just about everyone else who has weighed in – including the two couples I dined there with, one member of which is a bona fide German expat! He loved it, so who am I to quibble?
The unrivaled standout dish, we all agree, is chicken paprikash, a special that as far as I can tell is often available. Leek and potato soup, too, is very good, and curry wurst – the popular, slightly sweet German street food – is the best part of a mixed wurst plate that, like many dishes here, comes with several accompaniments of your choosing, among them German potato salad, spaetzle, red cabbage, and sauerkraut. Sauerbraten with gingersnap gravy, rouladen, schnitzel – standard but creditable and hearty versions are all here.
The most endearing part of the Alps Bistro for me is the amiable, sincerely hospitable folks behind it, Ginger and Marty Locke. On a cold winter evening, the golden glow emanating from their sweet little place is an accurate beacon for what lies within. Alps Bistro doesn’t have a website, but check it out here on Facebook.