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
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
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
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.
Hours: Lunch & Dinner: 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m. daily; bar open to
Credit Cards: All major
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar area only.
Parking: Street parking; nearby free lot
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
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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