By Karla Cook
Jan. 27, 2012
IF you find yourself in Hopewell and hungry for gumbo, Bell & Whistle is the place to go. Deeply flavored and very reasonably priced at $4, this mildly spicy stew offers the essence of the so-called holy trinity — celery, bell pepper, onions — along with chicken, andouille and crawfish in every bite.
Bell & Whistle, a charming new restaurant, was opened in July by Jeffrey Bartlett, the executive chef, and his business partner, Jarod Machinga. It was preceded by seven years of preparatory work and construction — and a journey of some 30 years that earned Mr. Bartlett a degree from Johnson & Wales in 1981 and took him to the kitchens of the Nassau Inn in Princeton, the Stockton Inn and Urban Word Café in Trenton, among other spots.
The tidy, one-story boxlike structure, named for its proximity to a church bell and a fire siren, is tucked behind the Boro Bean on the picturesque main street of Hopewell. Outside, its stacked stone, brick and glass, along with its red-framed window-door combination, evoke a firehouse.
In a phone conversation after my visits, Mr. Bartlett described the restaurant’s fare as “comfort food from all over the country.” But the food, especially the meats, needs minor tweaking, as does the atmosphere.
On a sunny day in the dining room, for instance, the rectangular room was warm, open and inviting, its expanse of windows along one side looking over a patio that promises al fresco dining with the arrival of temperate weather (and furniture). On a winter’s night, however, the room felt almost bleak. The lighting had a greenish, institutional feel, and the ambience was not helped by expanses of the cold, dark, undraped glass; the artificial candles that have neither glow nor heat; and the auditory brightness of stone walls, stone floors and high ceilings.
As for the menu, in addition to the gumbo, there was another table favorite during my two visits: fried oysters, three of them, on a thick slice of fried green tomato and dressed with mayonnaise spiced with green peppers, celery, onion and tomato. Served smoking hot, crunchy on the outside, melting and creamy inside, they were prepared just as they should be.
The other meats and seafood I tried, besides a nicely turned-out fish taco of mahi-mahi and a respectable steak quesadilla — both appetizers — needed closer attention during cooking. Buffalo wings, though flavorful, were unevenly cooked, with one piece in my portion very cold at the bone. An appetizer of Key lime roasted shrimp, also flavorful, was overcooked, though the corn cake upon which the shrimp were nestled offered a tasty distraction.
The grilled chicken on a sandwich was surrounded by delicious fresh spinach, red onion, applewood smoked bacon, mozzarella and a roasted garlic spread, but the meat was dry. Roasted Alaskan wild salmon was mostly redeemed from too much time spent in the oven by its own fat content, a hot-sweet mango chili sauce and, my favorite, a smear of luscious lumpfish caviar over the fish. St. Louis-style smoked pork ribs were nicely flavored but lacked the falling-off-the-bone quality that is so appealing. Baked Maryland-style crab cakes were unremarkable, as was the seared Long Island duck breast.
Sides and appetizers, however, showed Mr. Bartlett’s playful side. I particularly appreciated the plethora of artichoke hearts roasted in duck fat laid next to the fanned slices of duck breast, the cucumber slices that replaced the traditional celery sticks with the Buffalo wings and the tang of a tequila-key lime mayonnaise with the shrimp.
At dessert, stick with the citrus ice cream. It was the only house-made sweet of those that we tried, which included Bourbon Street bread pudding, a dark chocolate layer cake and a black and white espresso cake. The ice cream, reminiscent of a Creamsicle, was well conceived, executed and balanced — just the thing for the neighborhood institution that Bell & Whistle could become with more attention to the setting and to what comes out of the kitchen.
THE SPACE Bright and sunny 46-seat dining room that is cozy by day and less intimate at night. The restaurant is all on one level, and tables are widely spaced.
THE CROWD Casual crowd, including families; servers varied in attentiveness.
THE BAR Bring your own wine or beer.
THE BILL Lunch items, $8 to $14. Main dishes at dinner, $15 to $24. MasterCard, Visa, American Express accepted.
WHAT WE LIKED Gumbo, fried oysters, steak quesadilla, fish taco, Key lime shrimp, Alaskan salmon, pork chop, ribs, citrus ice cream.
This article has been provided by The New York Times.