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One 53
153 Washington Street
Rocky Hill, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 924-1019

By The Artful Diner
May 29, 2007


I have always been of the opinion that the name of a reliable bistro is the most important entry that a knowledgeable diner can have tucked away in his/her journal of restaurant possibilities. The bistro is the ultimate culinary escape hatch. Whether wolfing down for business or pleasure -- or amalgamation thereof -- this genre of eatery seems appropriate for every occasion.

And I would venture a guess that One 53 is one bistro that will soon be -- if it is not already -- safely sequestered away in the little black books of New Jersey's culinary cognoscenti. Even now, reservations, especially on a bustling Saturday night, can be difficult to come by. One saving grace, however, is that, should you decide to pop in at the last minute, you can always chow down at the comfy bar where it is first come, first served.

The restaurant's interior is accented with modern lighting and bare tables adorned with crisp white napkins. In true bistro fashion, accommodations along a banquette are in particularly close proximity, which only adds to the feeling of esprit de corps. This is a friendly place: Owners Caron Wendell and Joseph McLaughlin will immediately make you feel welcome, and the convivial clientele will add a decidedly festive note to your dining experience.

The menu, which was created by the proprietors and supplemented and beautifully executed by Chef Justin Braun, is a compact and focused affair printed on rustically textured brown paper. Mr. Braun is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and alumnus of the Inn at Little Washington's well-regarded kitchen -- a credential that speaks for itself -- but he never loses sight of the restaurant's bistro roots.

You begin with an assortment of breads sided by a garlicky white bean hummus. If you find this impossible-to-resist, you can always assuage your cravings with a side of equally garlicky white bean ragoût ($5.00), either as a prelude or accompaniment to your main course.

Appetizers proper, however, are also highly recommended. The Maine mussels ($11.00) are of excellent quality, plump and succulent, and arrive swimming in a rich and exceedingly buttery white wine broth awash with roasted garlic and chopped tomatoes. But an even better starter, in my opinion, is the special of grilled wild mushrooms over risotto ($10.00). The rice is marvelously creamy with the tiara of mushrooms adding a wonderfully earthy touch. The culinary catalyst, however, is a verdant pool of basil-infused truffle oil. A winner on all counts, and the portion size is just right.

Salads also make excellent starters. Leaves of endive topped with a Stilton-apple salad and walnut garnish ($8.00) might sound rather ho-hum, but the subtle ministrations of a superb rhubarb vinaigrette provide an exciting splash for the palate. The Caesar salad ($7.00) -- sheaf of grilled romaine gently caressed by a creamy anchovy-imbued dressing -- also has a great deal to offer the tired taste buds.

If you really want to explore the restaurant's bistro roots, however, I would highly recommend the brandade ($9.00), a delightfully flavorful Provençal purée, which incorporates salt cod, olive oil, garlic, milk, and cream.

Entrées offer diners an interesting variety of possibilities. If you want to keep it simple, you can order up a top-notch One 53 burger ($11.00; with Swiss or Cheddar, $12.00). Done to a perfect medium, the meat remains moist and juicy and is generously apportioned. Accoutrements include a tangle of field greens and huge mound of wonderfully crispy hand-cut shoestring fries (also available as a side, $5.00).

The special grilled swordfish ($26.00) is obviously more upscale, but it still manages to maintain a casual demeanor companioned by greens and fries. The fish itself is thick and luscious, perfectly cooked through, and exhibits just the proper texture. I would also highly recommend the chicken Milanese ($19.00). The scaloppini are lightly breaded, quick-fried, and inordinately tender. Peppery leaves of arugula provide a suitably soft pillow, and a luscious tomato salad awash with onions and olives a delightfully complementary traveling companion.

The sautéed shrimp with roasted garlic over angel hair pasta ($18.00) was also quite good, but it deserves a bit of clarification. For starters, the crustaceans were at the peak of good health and done to a turn. The pasta, however, was not angel hair but more akin to spaghetti. And though the dish probably would have been okay on its own, when preceded by the aforementioned Maine mussels, the combo succeeded in causing problems for both peristalsis and palate. The buttery broth of the former and the surfeit of oil contained in the latter resulted in entirely too much of a good thing.

But no matter what your entrée choice, when in season, be sure to order a side of the roasted asparagus ($8.00). The spears are just the right size -- neither too thick nor too thin -- firm yet tender to the bite, and not at all fibrous. Topped with shavings of Parmesan, they are a tasty companion to any meal.

Save room for dessert, though, as they are superlative. The blood orange panna cotta ($6.00) is textbook and just the right consistency; the hazelnut dacquoise with mocha mousse ($8.00) is a study in delicious decadence; and the chocolate bread pudding with caramel bourbon sauce ($7.00) and the apple tart garnished with vanilla gelato ($6.00) are homey delights.

In true bistro fashion, there is a very nice wine list to complement your meal -- fifty-three wines under $53.00 -- with a captain's list also available. Particularly noteworthy are a crisp and refreshing Pascal Jolivet Sancerre ($41.00) and a heady Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico Riserva ($38.00).

As noted above, One 53 is exceedingly popular with local residents... and the good word appears to be spreading at the speed of light. So make weekend reservations well in advance or come early and be prepared to chow down at the bar. Whenever and wherever you may put in an appearance, however, I guarantee that you will not be disappointed.

Cuisine: American Bistro
Hours: Dinner: Sun - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: Most major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.one53nj.com

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