The Orange Squirrel: Simple But Not Simplistic

by Melody Kettle

Zucchini & Walnut PlinSaint & CynarI’ll be honest: I did not pay for the meal I’m about to describe, nor is the tasting menu I enjoyed available on the menu*.  So, what value is there in my opinion of The Orange Squirrel?  Lots. What follows is not a review, but rather a description of the great talent of the effervescent, epicurean artist, Chef Francesco Palmieri, owner and chef of Bloomfield’s The Orange Squirrel. 

I dined at The Orange Squirrel last Saturday evening on the very gracious invitation of Chef Palmieri. Over the course of the evening I sampled as many of his artful creations as would require three visits to ingest. That said, I found all but one to be extraordinary in composition, creativity, and flavor.

The Newark born, 39 year old Bloomfield resident, Francesco Palmieri, exhibits a  mercurial nature, topped only by dedication to his craft.  In the kitchen Palmieri is swift, and agile.  He darts from branzini on the grill, to a pot pie in the oven, then over to an immersion blender to create a foam.  He and his staff, namely his Chef de Cuisine, Andy Watterson, who graduated the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) with Palmieri, interact silently, and with impeccable timing.  Click Here for a video peak inside The Orange Squirrel kitchen.

Francesco’s unwavering passion and innate enthusiasm for creating food is so great, that he may seem casual about being a restaurateur, and describes himself at times as being the “anti-restaurant.” Upon serving one of the courses I describe below, he gently presented the plate and declared, “This is my Pea-gnocchio. If it’s not creamy I’m going to quit tomorrow.”

Tomato, Watermelon, Mozzarella di BufalaPrior to embarking on a culinary career, Francesco worked in commercial art, and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology where he excelled in interior design.  He then decided to attend the very prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and upon graduation landed a job at Windows on the World.  Following the tragic events of September 11th, Francesco began work, on September 13th, at Pino Luongo’s, Coco Pazzo, and then, at Geoffrey Zakarian’s, Town.

Francesco’s flare for art is manifest at The Orange Squirrel where mod meets industrial and seamlessly becomes urban flare.  Throughout the Three Mushroom and Artichoke Tempuraevening I also noticed the diverse demographic of the clientele at The Orange Squirrel: Baby Boomers, Millenials, hip, and gentrified.

So let’s begin with a cocktail.  The Orange Squirrel offers an artful and inspired selection of choice cocktails. I deferred to the mixologist, and was presented with a wonderfully fresh cocktail, “Saint and Cynar.”  The cocktail is a blend of Champagne, St. Germaine, and Cynar, a bitter Italian aperitif made with 13 herbs and plants.  The drink was garnished with a colorful and fragrant orange peel.

The meal began with an amuse bouche, in the form of the most endearing little plin, stuffed with zucchini and walnut, served with a port wine gastric.  Plin, which means, “pinch” in Italian, is a tiny pasta package made with fine “00” flour, egg yolk, and semolina.  This amuse bouche channeled all things grandma: warm, cuddly, and cute.  Palmieri describes it as tasting like “a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” I insist, it’s far more delicious and luxurious than that!

Scallop with Brown Butter and Cauliflower PureeAs you read the following courses, keep in mind that Palmieri does not like to hide his food behind a barrage ingredients.  You’ll notice that each dish includes between three to five particular ingredients, manipulated and elevated to a flavor level beyond ordinary expectations.

The amuse bouche was followed by Francesco’s riff on tomato and watermelon salad.  It contained three varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and two types of watermelon, topped with creamy mozzarella di bufala, and dressed with a broken, reverse ratio balsamic vinaigrette.

At this point, I finished my very soothing cocktail, and was served a glass of 2009 Wolftrap, a blend of  Syrah, Mourvedre and Viognier.

The following course I would consider to be the least stellar among a menu of superstars. It was three mushroom (Crimini, Shitake, Oyster) and artichoke tempura tossed with high quality white truffle oil, with an artichoke dipping sauce.

But what arrived at the table next was among the closet things to heaven my palate has ever encountered.  A Skate Winglovely seared diver scallop, served with brown butter and cauliflower puree, lightly sprinkled with poppy seeds. Simple – but not simplistic. The cauliflower puree, infused with rich brown butter so closely imitated the essence of fresh, sweet, yet savory, scallop. With the subtle toasty crunch of the poppy seeds it was, in a word, ethereal!

Then, the melt-in-my-mouth Pea-Gnocchio arrived.  Francesco makes the potato-less gnocchi with a sweet pea puree, flour, egg, and Grana Padana cheese.  The green, creamy gnocchi were served in a brown butter and sage foam, in which  little carrot balls, peas, and edamame playfully floated.  Again, a lively, satisfying, and immensely cared for creation.

Braised Short RibNext, came the sweet and striated skate wing; a great example of maximizing minimal ingredients.  The delicate wing was served with a tender baby arugula salad, dressed in a walnut vinaigrette, with scattered brandied cherries, and gently dusted with walnut powder.  Francesco’s use of just four ingredients - skate, walnut, arugula, and cherry – perfectly pits the sweetly tart, brandied cherries against the laid back sweetness of the skate, and the peppery arugula with the bitter nuttiness of the walnut.  Truly maximizing the minimal to enhance the whole.

The meat course arrived next, a braised beef short rib with a pomegranate and ginger glaze atop a crispy, fried Vidalia onion.  The short rib was braised for four hours, and as a result, I did not have to lift my knife once.  Notably, Francesco exercises great temperance when saucing his dishes.  He gave the rib just enough glaze to enhance, but not engulf the tender, charred beef.

The Dirt & Irish CremeDessert began with a rhubarb tart served with Roagna, a Barolo and Chinotto dessert wine - red, rich, and perfectly complimentary.

This was followed by The Orange Squirrel staple, a dish developed by Francesco’s wife, Elena, The Dirt.  The Dirt features three tall shot glasses filled with parfait, each a different flavor.  This month, The Dirt was inspired by Girl Scout cookie flavors, such as chocolate mint, and other flavors similar to Butterfinger and butterscotch.  Francesco accompanied this course with his homemade Irish cream liquor.  A wonderfully fun finale to a flavorful evening!

Click Here for more photos.

*Although the tasting menu is not available on the menu, the individual courses mentioned are.