Bistro 18 has received several good reviews, including a three star rating from the Star Ledger. During HFTK’s quest to find the best restaurants in northern New Jersey, I thought Bistro 18 would be a safe bet. Contrary to praising reviews, Bistro 18 was a disappointment.
The dining experience began well. We were graciously greeted upon entry, and seated in the glass enclosed anteroom that runs along the South Fullerton sidewalk, which also houses the entries to other businesses. I’ve walked passed Bistro 18 on many evenings and observed the glass room lined with diners. The room is functional: it’s all-season, all weather, and allows for people watching without street noise and exhaust. Aesthetically, however, I found the room to be an awkward, business-minded afterthought that compromised aesthetics.
The server, who was attentive and amiable throughout the course of our meal, promptly opened our wine, and quickly brought over a basket of bread. The fresh bread was accompanied by a chunky and delicious eggplant caponata laced with caramelized onions; a pleasant change from olive oil or butter.
When it came time to order, we opted for the special PEI Mussels ($15). We were served a moderate portion of mussels in an uninspired and bland tomato sauce. Unfortunately, the mussels were among the worst I have ever had. Tough, shriveled and remarkably puny, the mussels were nearly impossible to pull from the shell without substantial tugs of the fork. Inevitably, red sauce splattered the area, leaving nothing but a black bivalve remnant on the fork.
My husband ordered the red snapper ($26) prepared with thin potato crust, mushroom-spinach and red wine sauce. The snapper landed itself in the same class as the mussels. The picture of the snapper (at left) tells the story. There was no looking past the incredibly unappetizing presentation of the fish. And the taste? Bland and unpleasantly “fishy,” the dish lacked the pleasant sweet, nutty flavor snapper is known for. I’ve always enjoyed well-prepared red snapper skin which can be flavorful, crispy and colorful. Why the natural, omega rich skin should be replace by a thin potato crust is beyond me.
The red wine sauce that accompanied the snapper was see through thin, and dry around the rim of the dish. Likely, a result of ill timing, resulting in a turn off upon presentation. In sum, the snapper was no better than a fish dish I’d expect from a diner.
On a positive note, I ordered the pan seared duck breast served with caramelized sweet potato, wild rice, and natural jus-Madeira ($29). As always, I requested the duck rare and it was served appropriately. The duck was tender, with a nice crispy skin, a clean bite, and pleasing presentation. The sweet potatoes and sautéed spinach were satisfactory, but failed to dazzle. Though I do enjoy potatoes or root vegetables with duck, it’s often nice to have a tangy accompaniment with a citric or acidic bite, to contrast the richness of the duck.
As noted, the service was very good and attentive. Plates were changed, glasses filled, and the server was available, but not imposing. Had the food lived up to the service, I would not hesitate to return.
18 South Fullerton Avenue
Montclair, NJ 07042