Oliver a Bistro
218 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, Burlington County, New Jersey
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
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
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
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
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking
Price: Generally moderate; but one surf 'n' turf special hit the $55.00
Handicapped Accessible: Yes