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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Bacchus Chop House & Wine Bar
318 Passaic Avenue
Fairfield, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 439-3901
Restaurant Now Closed.

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
November 12, 2001

You don't have to be a professional foodie to recognize that this eatery aspires to be infinitely more than a typical run-of-the-mill steakhouse. The addition of the words "Bacchus" and "Wine Bar" to the otherwise humble moniker immediately raises a red flag, ditto the valet parking, upscale décor, live jazz, extremely solicitous service, and the fact that the establishment is owned by Michael Frodella, who also happens to be the proprietor of Bruschetta, an upscale Italian restaurant just a few doors away. But while Bacchus strives valiantly to achieve first-class status, there are still a number of glaring anomalies that have "economy coach" written all over them. These -- along with a few glitches in the kitchen -- need to be seriously addressed.

Upon entering, you are confronted with a bustling lounge area replete with a glass-topped bar that, through the miracle of fiber optics, dazzles (and dizzies) patrons with a continual change of colors. True to the Bacchus theme, there is an excellent selection of vintages, as well as numerous possibilities available by the glass: 1998 Trimbach Pinot Blanc ($8.25), 1999 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre ($9.75), 1998 Monte Antico Sangiovese ($6.25), 1998 Ramsey "Lot 11" Pinot Noir ($8.25). If you're a wine lover, this is a great spot to give vent to your oenological passions... Just be advised that you may not have a great deal of camaraderie in your joyous pursuits. For while the vintage options are quite cosmopolitan, the local habitués appear to prefer less complex forms of liquid libation. Management quite obviously set their sights on a suave and sophisticated clientele. It would appear, however, that these best laid plans have gone somewhat awry.

When you're ready to get down to the serious business of eating, you will be escorted to table by one of the sweet young hostesses... who just happens to be decked out in fetching garments specifically designed to accentuate her more than pleasing nubility. I must confess that I am as much an admirer of the female form as any man. However, when confronted with this type of culinary exhibitionism, and since said hostess will be making conspicuous sojourns to the dining area on a regular basis, the cynic in me conjures up visions of a devious diversionary plot at work -- could this not be a ploy to deflect a normal, healthy, red-blooded American male's attention from the business in hand, namely the food? I'm not suggesting that this is the case, but it does cross one's mind... as well as one's line of vision. Suffice it to say that, for a restaurant attempting to cultivate an urbane image, this is not a particularly subtle approach.

Once firmly ensconced in the attractive main (nonsmoking) dining area caressed by the subdued lighting provided by a whimsical starfish chandelier and the equally whimsical jellyfish wall sconces, matters improve dramatically. You notice immediately that the service is snappy, knowledgeable, and professional to the core; this establishment has obviously dedicated itself to providing its patrons with a most pleasant gastronomic experience... And this certainly extends to the inclusion of a menu insert listing the daily specials and their prices. A welcome change from the noble recitations and monetary guessing games encountered elsewhere. A word of warning, however... Should you be in search of a quiet romantic repast, you would be well advised to arrive early in the evening, as the noise level can be formidable.

The food, courtesy of Scott Fulmer, formerly of Shelby's, and Dave Massini, late of Mezzanotte, is something of a mixed bag. It is entirely possible to dine well here... but one must pick and choose with considerable circumspection.

Take the appetizers as a case in point. The grilled hickory smoked shrimp ($12.95) embellished with a spicy chilled pineapple, mango, and papaya salad set on a bed of fried spinach -- a delicate and delicious balance of contrasting flavors and textures -- provide a perfect example of the heights this kitchen may attain if properly motivated. Conversely, the grilled vegetable caponata ($7.95) -- an amalgam of sautéed wild mushrooms, eggplant, roasted peppers and tomatoes that has been shaped into a cylinder, placed atop a bed of arugula, and sprinkled with diced tomatoes and shavings of Parmesan cheese -- strikes one as completely heavy-handed, providing inspiration for neither the eye nor the palate. This rustic Sicilian specialty, at its flavorful best when served at room temperature, is successfully sabotaged by an extended period of exile in the nether regions of the frige.

The mozzarella stack ($8.95), featuring layers of fresh cheese interspersed with red & yellow beefsteak tomatoes and a portobello mushroom cap consummated with balsamic vinegar and basil oil, is both bountiful and extremely satisfying. The baby arugula salad ($6.95) dressed with red onion, tomato, and crumbled Montrachet cheese is also quite palatable, although the lemon dressing is entirely too acidic. On the other hand, a special of grilled diver sea scallops ($12.95) on a seabed of field greens finished with a zippy red chili vinaigrette is a clear winner.

Entrée-wise, the prime beef, dry-aged twenty-eight days, is most assuredly the way to go here. The New York strip steak (12 ounces, $23.95; 16 ounces, $29.95), for example, is a sensuous and savory delight, just slightly on the chewy side but simply bursting with flavor. The filet mignon (petite, $23.95; 14 ounces, $28.95) wrapped in bacon is appropriately moist and tender. Committed carnivores, however, can do no less than cast their lot with the 42-ounce porterhouse for two ($62.95). Succulent and seductive, it is all that it should be. You may, of course, opt for the 24-ounce porterhouse for one ($34.95)... but this is no time to show restraint.

Just one caveat: Based upon my own experiences, as well as noting the comments of other reviewers, the kitchen has a marked tendency to send forth its meaty offerings significantly UNDERdone. Since this seems to be something of a chronic occurrence, in lieu of sending your blood pressure into orbit by engaging the chef in a fruitless philosophical discussion regarding the taxonomy of bovine cookery, the most propitious course of action is to place your order a notch above your usual preference. In other words, if medium-rare is your cup of tea, have a go at medium and all should be up to snuff.

Even though carnivorous pursuits may be the name of the game here, matters piscatorial are also well represented. But whereas beef dishes are straightforwardly prepared, simply embellished, and pretty much right on target, finny fare is infinitely more of a hit-or-miss proposition. And much of the problem, in my opinion, stems from the fact that these presentations are entirely too convoluted.

I love the exquisitely fresh unadorned flavor of John Dory... but this delicately textured denizen of the deep fights a losing battle against a formidable sesame marinade and an overdose of garlic and ginger ($22.95). Even the noble ahi tuna fails to overcome a dualistic onslaught of red chili vinaigrette and wasabi cream ($24.95). On the other hand, the pan-seared halibut ($22.95) consummated with a citrus sage demi-glace is utterly ethereal.

Unlike most steakhouses, entrées here are served with potatoes -- usually roasted red bliss -- and a smattering of vegetables... But don't let this deter you from digging into some of the excellent side dishes. The "Mashed Potato of the Day" ($3.50), for instance, is always worthy of consideration -- a rich and lumpy rosemary Gorgonzola on one occasion, pesto Romano with a hint of mint on another. The fresh California spinach, whether creamed ($4.95) or sautéed ($4.50), is also highly recommended, as is the macaroni and cheese ($5.95). All are suitable for sharing.

Desserts, on the other hand, are nothing to write home about. The mango coconut cheesecake ($5.95) is strictly generic, inordinately dry, and topped with diced mangos... the coconut is conspicuous by its absence. The fresh berry cream Napoleon ($6.95) boasts pastry that could have been whipped up in Sarah Lee's kitchen. If you really must placate your sweet tooth, and calories are no object, go for the chocolate brownie topped with caramel ice cream ($6.95). Infinitely more refreshing, however, is the blackberry cabernet sorbet ($5.95)

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, this eatery still has a great deal going for it. Be that as it may, there is one important matter that warrants immediate attention. Inquire as to proper dress, and you will be told that "smart casual" is de rigueur... Look around, however, and you realize that this fashion statement is subject to a host of dubious interpretations. Jeans and sneakers abound, along with occasional sweats or, in warmer weather, shorts and tee shirts... And what about the gentleman -- and I use that time loosely -- who arrives wearing a cap advertising his favorite sports team or automotive parts boutique, and keeps same glued to his cranium during the entire meal? Hardly the epitome of sartorial finery... or of good taste. But not a peep from the powers-that-be.

If the members of Bacchus' management team truly desire to move this establishment into the ranks of dining's upper echelons, to rival the likes of Bruschetta, its decidedly classier sibling, and to cast its lot with an infinitely more sophisticated clientele, the institution and stringent & democratic enforcement of some manner of dress code would seem a suitable starting point.

Cuisine: Steak and seafood
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Fri, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual (?)
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking area
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License; excellent wine list and selections by the glass
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Special: Live jazz on Tuesday, Thursday, & Friday evenings; frequent wine events

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