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
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
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
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Handicapped Accessible: Yes