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Blue Bottle Café
101 East Broad Street
Hopewell, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 333-1710

By The Artful Diner
August 14, 2006

I liked the Blue Bottle Café from the moment I crossed the threshold. Its three diminutive dining areas -- replete with various representatives of the restaurant's namesake, including blue bottles of Saratoga Spring Water ($6.00) available for quaffing -- exude a kind of unassuming bistro-like Mediterranean charm that most diners will find immediately attractive. When the restaurant is going full tilt, which is most of the time, the noise level can be high, but that only adds to the fun. If patrons come expecting a homey, slightly cacophonous environment, including the antics of an occasional child, they will not be disappointed.

But while the ambiance may shout "bustling bistro," Aaron Philipson's contemporary American cuisine, like the upscale Hopewell/Princeton-infused clientele, exhibits an air of casual sophistication. It is elegant without being egotistical, thoroughly exciting the palate without confounding the eye.

I am quite familiar with Mr. Philipson's cookery, as he was the sous chef at Piccola Italia in Ocean two years ago when I gave the restaurant exceedingly high marks. A short time after my review was posted, his wife, Rory, joined on as pastry chef. Subsequently, of course, the couple decided to strike out on their own, opening the Blue Bottle Café. And judging by several recent visits, both appear to be at the very top of their game.

The early spring bill of fare -- which was still in place when I visited in mid-June, but will undoubtedly be changed somewhat by the time this review is posted -- was a compact affair, listing only four appetizers, three salads, eight entrées, and four sides. This is always a good omen in my book, as it demonstrates that the chef is infinitely more concerned with the excellence of the few rather than the mediocrity of the many.

The crab cake ($11.50) is a superlative starter. It is perfectly pan seared, light and sweet, and completely devoid of filler. Set on a bed of marinated cucumber and red pepper relish, it is then surrounded by a gossamery corn emulsion. Continuing in the seafood vein, the Prince Edward Island mussels ($10.50) are pristine and marvelously plump. They swim to table in a fabulously flavorful butter-enriched broth awash with spicy chorizo sausage, roasted fennel & garlic, baby tomatoes, and sliced chives. If you're a bivalve fan, this presentation is a must try.

The roasted tomato and herbed goat cheese tart ($8.50) is a creamy delight -- some might say too creamy -- but Mr. Philipson tames its textural richness with artistic squiggles of earthy pesto vinaigrette and a tiara of baby mâche & herb salad. And speaking of greenery, the baby spinach and frisée salad ($8.00) also hits all the right notes. The baby spinach leaves are impeccably fresh, the slightly bitter frisée appropriately feathery; and both are beautifully complemented by an amalgam of sautéed mushrooms, luscious roasted shallots, and tender haricots verts. The culinary catalyst, however, is an enticing creamy sherry vinaigrette. And there's just enough dressing to properly invigorate rather than inundate the objects of its affection.

Entrées are no less impressive. On the seafood front, the roasted monkfish ($23.00) is a superb effort. The flesh of this denizen of the deep is somewhat akin to lobster, which means, if improperly prepared, it can turn rubbery at the drop of a fork. But Mr. Philipson's presentation is flawless of both taste and texture. Meaty slices are gently pillowed on a mound of luscious garlic mashed potatoes with crunchy haricots verts, almond brown butter, and sprinkling of sliced almonds in strong supporting roles.

The day boat scallops ($25.00) are also not to be missed. They are beautifully pan seared, succulent and seductive, and luxuriate on a sumptuous seabed of roasted fingerling potatoes, spring onions, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, and morsels of crisp bacon. The consummating touch is a positively celestial leek emulsion.

For confirmed carnivores among us, the chef sets forth an impossible to resist "Duo of Beef" ($29.00). Fall-off-the-bone tender braised tomato- and chipotle-glazed short ribs are set on a corn and scallion polenta cake decked out in a tiara of sautéed spinach. And two tasty medallions of nicely-textured, slightly-rarer-than-ordered New York strip make top-notch traveling companions.

If Mr. Philipson has a signature dish, however -- a presentation that is worthy of a pilgrimage -- it is undoubtedly his handmade potato and herb gnocchi ($18.50). Seldom have I encountered diminutive dumplings so utterly transcendent. But there is infinitely more involved than their ethereal countenance. The presentation is a true gastronomic gestalt, incorporating tender English peas, sautéed mushrooms, asparagus spears, and an exceptional brown butter sauce. This is surely the sine qua non of any visit to the Blue Bottle Café.

And desserts, courtesy of Mrs. Philipson, are every bit the equal of their predecessors. An utterly delectable blackberry financier ($8.00) is perfectly complemented by a scoop of blackberry gelato; and the chocolate-hazelnut dacquoise ($8.00) beguiles the palate with its luscious cookie crumb-brown butter base, layer of decadent chocolate-hazelnut mousse, and exquisite garland of chocolate ganache.

In my opinion, however, the showstopper is the orange-blossom Pavlova ($7.50). Named after ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, this delightful denouement is low in fat -- the theory being that ballet dancers are compelled to watch their weight -- but high in flavor. Fresh strawberries and blackberries adorn two discs of orange-blossom meringue, while an accompanying dollop of tangy mango sorbet is perfectly counterpoised via the delectable ministrations of a creamy vanilla yogurt sauce.

My only minor quibble is that Mrs. Philipson, who also serves as hostess, is an ebullient and omnipresent figure on the scene. Her outspoken praise for her husband's cookery is certainly understandable. I would humbly suggest, however, that Mr. Philipson's prowess in the kitchen speaks eloquently enough for itself, and that a less loquacious approach might be infinitely more in keeping with the sophisticated yet understated quality of his cuisine.

Cuisine: Contemporary American
Hours: Lunch: Weds - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner; Tues - Thursday, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.: CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Online: www.thebluebottlecafe.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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