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Oliver a Bistro
218 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, Burlington County, New Jersey
(609) 298-7177

By The Artful Diner
March 24, 2008

Even after ten years as a professional "hired belly," it still never ceases to amaze me how restaurants and chefs can be so wildly inconsistent. On the one hand, the kitchen may send forth presentations that are utterly superb, feasts for the eye as well as the palate; then, on the other, dishes that are so inexplicably inferior you can't help speculating that they must have been created in some ghostly parallel universe.

This, unfortunately, pretty much sums up my sojourns to Oliver a Bistro, Matthew and Danielle McElmoyl's storefront BYOB in the heart of historic Bordentown. And this is a restaurant I desperately wanted to like -- I do like -- even after several significantly less than edifying dining experiences.

The interior is completely unpretentious; casual but cozy, its warm red walls, black wainscoting, and charming decorative embellishments seem to ooze romance from every nook and cranny. Here it is Valentine's Day every day of the year. And the service, during both my visits, was everything it should be: competent, friendly, and exceedingly helpful. If only the kitchen could get its act together...

And it seems to be the old familiar story -- appetizers, for the most part, completely outshining entrées. Among the starters, salads are pristinely fresh and attractively presented. The baby arugula ($9.00), for example, is tender and peppery and adorned with wonderful artichoke croutons and shavings of Parmesan cheese. The culinary catalyst is an ingratiating lemon vinaigrette. And the salad of field greens ($9.00) is also excellent. Embellished with morsels of warm country bacon, crumbles of earthy Amish bleu cheese, and grape tomato halves, the white balsamic vinaigrette strikes a subtly sweet chord. In both cases, the portion sizes are generous but not overwhelming.

By way of contrast, the presentation of mussels pomodoro ($14.95) is mountainous. However, the broth is exceedingly pleasant and the bivalves themselves are plump and succulent. Also highly recommended is the mushroom bruschetta ($9.00). Hefty slices of toasted Italian bread are tinctured with Boursin cheese, topped with sautéed mushrooms and shaved parmesan, and finished with a splash of truffle oil.

Appetizers acquit themselves with suitable aplomb; with the arrival of the main courses, however, things, unaccountably, begin to go awry. Although... I can state unequivocally that the New Zealand rack of lamb ($34.00) was absolutely first-rate. The meat was tender and flavorful and done to a perfect medium, precisely as ordered. A pillow of goat cheese mashed potatoes made an excellent accompaniment, as did the garnish of firm-to-the-bite broccolini. And the port wine reduction provided a perfect consummating touch.

Other entrées, however, did not fare nearly as well. The special seared salmon ($18.95) was nicely cooked through, exactly as requested. It was also, however, incredibly salty. And what was true of the fish was also true of its culinary companions, braised lentils and haricots verts. There is no question that someone in the kitchen ran amok with the salt shaker.

But the worst was yet to come. The super lump crab cakes ($19.95) were simply terrible. As a general rule, crab cakes are pan seared, deep fried, or broiled and exhibit a golden brown exterior that yields to a meaty, nicely textured core. But the two representatives proffered here were unbelievably mushy and could easily be pushed together into a single mass with the gentle pressure of a fork. As if to add insult to injury, there was little or no discernible taste of crab. In the meals-I'd-like-to-forget department, the crab cakes are a sure winner...

... But the prime pork porterhouse ($21.95) finished a close second. The meat was incredibly tough, but, oddly enough, it wasn't dry; rather, it exhibited a strange spongy consistency and proved to be completely inedible. A very good Gruyère potato gratin and apple cider jus notwithstanding, this dish was a complete disaster.

To the restaurant's credit, both the crab cakes and the pork were removed from the check. Be that as it may, however, these were two items that should never have been allowed to escape the confines of the kitchen. Period.

Desserts ($5.95), courtesy of pastry chef and sometime host and waiter James Berry, are homey but not exceptional. The Key lime pie, for example, highly touted by one critic, I found to be merely passable. The rice pudding was good, the raspberry cobbler inordinately soupy, and the banana cream pie boasted slices of banana that were nearly as unyielding as the aforementioned pork.

The coup de grâce, however, was delivered at the very end of the meal. Can you imagine a bistro without benefit of espresso? Neither can I. But that is the case here... and the decaf coffee ($1.50) I sampled was weak and tepid.

Given Mr. McElmoyl's impressive credentials -- an alumnus of such illustrious kitchens as Sails in Somers Point, the Renault Winery in Egg Harbor, and Lacroix and Brasserie Perrier in Philadelphia -- his culinary solecisms are difficult to fathom.

There is no question that Oliver a Bistro is a likeable & popular restaurant and that several of Mr. McElmoyl's presentations acquit themselves exceedingly well. But after several disappointing meals, it would also seem apparent that a good deal of fine-tuning in the kitchen is still very much in order.

Cuisine: Eclectic
Hours: Lunch: Weds - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY & MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Generally moderate; but one surf 'n' turf special hit the $55.00 mark
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.oliverabisto.com

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