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Grill 73
73 Mine Brook road
Bernardsville, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 630-0700

By The Artful Diner
December 10, 2007

If there's one restaurant every town needs, it's a free-wheeling bistro that serves up generous portions of solid, unpretentious eclectic fare at reasonable prices. You don't expect any great gastronomic revelations, just comfortable and comforting cuisine that somehow manages to soothe the soul as well assuage the appetite. Owned by members of the Berisha Family, who also preside over the upscale Vine in nearby Basking Ridge, for the most part, Grill 73 more than fulfills these modest expectations.

The atmosphere -- red and gold banquettes, closely spaced bare limestone-topped tables, and silverware rolled in white cotton napkins -- is quintessential bistro. And the service, which seemed downright hostile during my first visit two years ago, is now the epitome of pleasant efficiency. Evidently the offending parties -- who were nowhere to be found -- decided that serving the public simply wasn't their bag... for which the public should be eternally grateful.

Ambiance and congenial servers notwithstanding, Chef Edgar Ramirez's food is certainly the major draw here. To start things off at dinner, for example, you might consider the Greek salad ($8.00). Pristinely fresh leaves of chopped romaine are arranged in a small bowl and buttressed by cherry tomato halves, red onion, pitted kalamata olives, and crumbled feta cheese. The accompanying red wine-shallot vinaigrette is simple yet seductively satisfying.

The fresh mozzarella tower ($8.50) is as eye-catching as it is delicious. Thick slabs of mozzarella alternate with slices of grilled zucchini and a portobello mushroom cap and are bathed in a basil-infused olive oil. Roasted red peppers arranged around the periphery and a cherry tomato tiara add engaging splashes of color.

My personal favorite among the appetizers is the fried cheese and spinach dumplings ($7.00). Five beautifully textured pockets are filled with blue cheese and presented with a zippy Thai dipping sauce. And this proves a perfect culinary marriage, as there is just enough heat in the sauce to counterpoise the rich creaminess of the blue cheese.

Seafood also holds a prominent place among the starters, including such traditional preludes as pan-seared Maryland crab cake with fresh tarragon remoulade ($11.00), fried calamari sided by spicy marinara ($8.00), and littleneck clams swimming in a light tomato-garlic broth ($9.00).

When it comes to entrées, there are several standouts. The fish & chips ($22.00) is absolutely the best version I've sampled anywhere. The tilapia is embraced by an ethereal tempura batter and companioned by excellent crispy, lightly battered fries ($4.50 as a side dish). The presentation is accompanied by ramekins of ketchup, malt vinegar, and tartar sauce. Definitely first-rate. And the tilapia piccata ($23.00) -- generous filets set atop luscious garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach -- was also quite good, although the extremely salty spinach ultimately marred the dish.

Continuing in the seafood vein, the grilled wild Pacific prawns ($24.00) also hits all the right notes. The crustaceans are at the peak of crunchy good health, set on a creamy seabed of mixed vegetable risotto, and embellished with Thai dipping sauce.

Within bistro precincts, pasta is usually a good bet, and that is also true at Grill 73. The penne Bolognese ($15.00) is exemplary. The pasta is al dente and the meat sauce has just enough cream to soothe the palate without overwhelming it. And the Mediterranean orecchiette ($15.00), featuring kalamata olives, feta cheese, grape tomatoes, and sweet Italian "Tuscan" peppers tossed with garlic and splash of olive oil, is also up to the mark.

The only pasta dish that didn't quite make it, in my opinion, was the eggplant lasagna ($15.00), which I sampled several years ago during my initial visit. This was a free-form affair that arrived in a large blob and offered layers of mixed vegetables and ricotta. The dish was definitely "over-cheesed," and the "light pink sauce" displayed a rather strange orange hue. Thankfully, it is no longer on the menu.

In point of fact, I much prefer lunch here. The kitchen puts out a first-rate burger ($8.50) -- smothered in melted cheddar, garnished with lettuce, tomato & red onion, and accompanied by more of those deliciously crispy lightly battered fries -- and a more diminutive portion of the aforementioned penne Bolognese ($9.00).

And salads and sandwiches are highly recommended as well. The harvest vegetable salad ($9.00) -- mixed greens, julienne carrots, grilled zucchini, gorgonzola, cranberries & candied walnuts tossed with a zesty Dijon dressing -- is excellent... ditto the Cobb salad ($9.50), which comes in a crisp tortilla shell splashed with red wine vinaigrette. Sampled sandwiches include a special oven-roasted turkey wrap ($9.00) and a generous grilled chicken quesadilla replete with guacamole, caramelized onions, shredded mozzarella & tomatoes, and salsa and sour cream dipping sauces ($10.00).

Desserts ($7.50), with the exception of the chocolate lava cake, are all made in-house by the pastry chef from Vine and include a homey Granny Smith apple-cranberry crisp, top-notch bread pudding crowned with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, and an OK Key lime tart.

Like any popular bistro, Grill 73 can be quite noisy when it's going full tilt. Children are both seen and heard... and, from what I've experienced, occasionally allowed to run free while parents do their best to ignore their obnoxious antics. This is yet another reason why I prefer a relatively quiet weekday lunch to a free-for-all weekend dinner.

Cuisine: International Bistro
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Brunch: Sun, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Accepted for parties of 6 or more only
Parking: Street parking and nearby lot
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.grill73.com

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