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37 Main Street
High Bridge, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 638-5560

Note: Michael Coury is no longer at Circa. Joe Spiratta, previouly from the Ryland Inn, is executive chef at Circa.

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
March 13, 2006

Chef Michael Coury, manager Rudy Alvarez, and several other partners have transformed a local "happy-tappy" -- an infamous biker bar, to be precise -- into a beautiful bistro-like space that beguiles patrons with its comforting, casual elegance. A turn of events, I might add, that has undoubtedly made the good citizens of High Bridge and the surrounding area positively ecstatic.

The homey, spacious bar/lounge boasts splashy sponged burnt orange walls, dark wood, classic pressed tin ceiling, and stone and copper accents. Both the bar and the restaurant proper, it should be noted, come replete with French doors, which will permit open air/al fresco dining in warmer weather.

This cozy bar area, of course, is the perfect spot to enjoy a special preprandial libation or glass of wine. At the present moment, the wine list is cosmopolitan in scope, but Mr. Coury will soon be doing a bit of fine-tuning, focusing in exclusively on French, Italian, and Spanish selections. From the current catalog of vintages, noteworthy choices are a crisp and refreshing 2003 Morro Bay Chardonnay from California's Central Coast ($7.00, glass; $26.00, bottle) and an exceptionally smooth and supple 2003 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhone ($7.00, glass; $26.00, bottle).

A gleaming hardwood floor, mirrored walls, and crisp white napery highlight the main dining area, along with a rustic counter/sideboard where breads, cheeses, and other items are prepared for your pleasure. The menu is a reasonably compact affair headlining small plates, soups & salads, entrées, and sides. There is also a "Raw/Roll Bar" -- the spicy lobster roll ($12.00) is just that and highly recommended -- as well as a supplemental sheet of daily specials (including prices) with one or more suggestions in each category.

While Mr. Coury, a graduate of NYC's French Culinary Institute, is best known for his superbly imaginative Italian cuisine -- nodo in Princeton, Café Colore in South Brunswick, Ciao in Basking Ridge and, most recently, the Jefferson in Hoboken -- his current venture is decidedly French/Mediterranean in scope. Presentations are robust yet refined, tempting diners with a number of intriguing innovative offerings as well as the chef's own unique spin on tried and true bistro classics.

When it comes to starters, the hummus served with triangles of pita bread ($7.00) is particularly satisfying. It is wonderfully smooth, finished with a touch of olive oil, and contains just enough garlic to tantalize the palate without allowing paralysis to set in. If you'd prefer a bit more zip, be sure to sample the shrimp and merguez sausage sautéed in garlic and olive oil ($12.00). The shrimp are addictively crunchy to the bite, and the merguez -- a red, spicy sausage from North Africa flavored with harissa, a hot chili paste -- adds just enough heat to thoroughly invigorate rather than incinerate your delicate taste buds.

I also like the sake-marinated grilled Kobe beef ($13.00). A diminutive dollop of sesame-Brussels sprouts slaw adds an intriguing complementary touch; and while the meat is quite tasty, the only drawback is that it is also, in my opinion, inordinately fatty.

Soups and salads also make excellent preludes. Among the former, the hearty white bean and escarole soup awash with morsels of that zesty merguez sausage ($6.00) is just the ticket to ward off the early spring chill; and the puréed parsnip and bacon tinctured with black pepper ($6.00) is lusciously viscous and brimming with flavor.

There are several standouts among the salads: Baby spinach is tossed with more of that marvelous merguez, piquello peppers, feta cheese, and finished with a subtle sherry vinaigrette ($9.00); and a daily special of mixed greens sports a disc of creamy Coach Farms goat cheese and is embellished with tender cloves of roast garlic, morsels of bacon, and shaved apple ($12.00). Both are highly recommended.

Entrées also distinguish themselves: Pristinely plump mussels swim to table in a savory Pernod broth and are accompanied by a paper cone of perfectly crisp fries ($19.00); grilled tuna niçoise is set on a pillow of Bibb lettuce and garnished with olives and haricots verts ($26.00); and mustard-encrusted wild salmon is accompanied by buttered leeks and green lentils ($23.00).

But carnivores need have no fear, as Mr. Coury's kitchen also grills a mean steak. The filet mignon is done to a right-on-the-money juicy medium rare, topped with a delectably earthy crown of crumbled bleu cheese, and sided by scrumptious garlic mashed potatoes and benchmark creamed spinach ($32.00). And the special grilled veal chop ($32.00) is another sure winner. Tender and succulent, it is topped with a combo of braised escarole and sautéed mushrooms and consummated with a dash of sweet vermouth.

Desserts, courtesy of Mr. Coury and Ashley Palma, are all well made and in complete harmony with all that has preceded them. Crème brûlée is a long-standing bistro favorite, and Circa's version, tinged with absente (an emerald green spirit distilled from a variety of herbs and spices), is prepared to perfection here. The trio of rice puddings ($7.00) -- chocolate, vanilla, and mint -- is also up to the mark. The nod for my favorite, however, would surely go to the "Funny Bone" ($7.00), a decadent chocolate cake roll packed with luscious peanut butter filling. The restaurant also lists a very nice cheese course ($12.00) among its small plates, which may also be enjoyed in lieu of or in conjunction with desserts.

I would mention only one caveat: While members of the wait staff are excellent, the kitchen is prone to an occasional glitch. On two occasions, there was an inordinately long wait between the conclusion of appetizers and the arrival of entrées.

Additionally, at times, presentations demonstrate a lack of consistency. In one instance, the coq au vin ($18.00) was without peer, the red wine broth heady and flavorful, the chicken moist and succulent; in another, the broth tasted like burnt alcohol and the fowl was unaccountably tough, as if the dish had been rushed through rather than slowly cooked. During one visit, the pan-seared sea scallops ($24.00) -- set on a seabed of sweet potato purée, topped with sautéed mushrooms, and embellished with a truffle vinaigrette -- looked dark & brooding, rather sloppily plated, and the bivalves were rubbery of consistency. On the next visit, however, the very same dish was picture perfect and the scallops of impeccable texture.

Since the restaurant only made its debut during the latter part of November (2005), these miscues are probably due to the fact that the kitchen is still trying to establish its rhythm. Once it does, there is absolutely no question in my mind that these minor faux pas will be completely rectified.

Chef Coury and his co-proprietors are to be commended for providing the citizens of High Bridge and the surrounding area with a sorely-needed first-rate dining experience. Circa is highly recommended.

Cuisine: French/Mediterranean
Hours: Lunch & Dinner: 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m. daily; bar open to 2:00 a.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar area only.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Street parking; nearby free lot
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.circa-restaurant.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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