"Main courses come on platters the size of a small college campus, and they follow the same successful formula as the appetizers - basic, carefully chosen ingredients accurately cooked." -- The New York Times
AMERICAN BISTRO is the sort of restaurant that defiantly refuses to put on airs. It is what it is. Even its name is kind of dare: more Italian-American than American, more trattoria than bistro, it was christened when the chef and owner, a homegrown Nutley guy named Ken Mahon, heard a friend say that a place with such a nondescript name could never succeed.
It inhabits a worn stretch of Washington Avenue where Nutley's well-ordered residential blocks fade into a low-slung industrial miscellany -- railroad tracks, auto body shops, a sanitation truck garage. It's small, with just 19 tables and a long bar, its five television sets usually tuned to sports.
But in seventeen years, Mr. Mahon has overcome all handicaps of name, location and size, and methodically built his little bistro into a walloping success. In my two visits, one on a Saturday and one on a weeknight, no table stayed empty for long. Servers bustled purposefully through the narrow room, balancing enormous trays of food on one shoulder.
The success is easy to understand. The reasons are apparent in the unforced good cheer of the voice at the other end of the reservation line, in the easy welcome of the hostesses, in the giveaway antipasto platter on your table. Without pandering to some suburban common denominator, Mr. Mahon -- a bluff, compact man with more than a trace of eastern Essex County in his attitude and accent -- is making a mission out of keeping customers happy.
He likes to come out of the kitchen and chat with the regulars, he says, but only to a point. "If I'm not in there cooking and people see me out front," he told me, "they're going to say, 'Where's my freakin' food?'" He disdains chefs who cover up second-rate ingredients with fancy sauces: "People say, 'That's great chicken -- what do you do to it?' What I do is, I buy good chicken."
That antipasto platter gives a hint of what lies in wait for the rest of the meal. There's nothing on it that you couldn't find in your local deli, if that deli makes its own mozzarella and buy only the best semolina bread, roasted peppers, black olives and the dense, savory sausage called soppressata (here pronounced "spressat' ").
The menu takes a long path through Little Italy staples (fried calamari, zuppa di clams, the usual pastas with the usual sauces) and trattoria basics (osso buco, wild mushroom ravioli) to what might actually qualify as American bistro fare (blackened swordfish, potato-crusted sole). You might think that with so few seats and so many regulars, there wouldn't be much call for some of these dishes, but American Bistro has it down to a science. Service is well timed and efficient, and you can march briskly through your meal or linger over it.
Appetizers on a "bistro specials" menu include a terrific scungilli salad in the spirit of that free antipasto: plain and simple, but also gorgeous in its integration of flavor and texture, with the chewy, faintly briny scungilli playing off against silken roasted pepper and tangy, crunchy arugula. Another salad incorporates many large shrimp, a pile of perfectly cooked broccoli rabe, more of those roasted peppers, and enough garlic to lift the gross domestic product of Gilroy, Calif., the Garlic Capital of the World.
An entree-size appetizer of mussels and Manila clams Fra Diavolo incorporates dozens of flawless mollusks in a homemade tomato sauce that glow with the heat of red pepper. The children at our table were pleased by unsauced fried food like calamari and rock shrimp; adults were spotted sneaking samples.
"Please Save Room for Dessert!" the menu advises. This sound advice is hard to follow. Main courses come on platters the size of a small college campus, and they follow the same successful formula as the appetizers -- basic, carefully chosen ingredients, accurately cooked. Pecan-crusted rainbow trout with sautéed grapes is about as adventurous as Mr. Mahon gets, and it works just fine, the grapes giving off little explosions of juice and sweetness that play off against the mild fish and a tart lemon-butter sauce.
A spicy, salty Cajun coating was just restrained enough to complement a fine piece of tuna rather than overwhelm it. Seafood marechiara offers an extravagance of shrimp, mussels, calms, and calamari over a great bed of garlic-scented linguini. My favorite entree, by several lengths, was a glorious, exuberant plate of batter-fried soft-shell crabs over smashed potatoes and lemon butter, topped with onion rings. Save room for dessert, indeed.
But when your cheerful server arrives, bearing a platter so packed with sweets that they seem to gasp for breath, what can you do but give in? Some are made in house, some ordered in, but given Mr. Mahon's high standards, I'm not sure it matters. I couldn't get enough of his tiramisu, a striking, deeply caloric confection in which the ladyfingers are not merely a layer of the dish but protrude like the fingers of a baseball glove.
Mr. Mahon is not a wine connoisseur, he says bluntly, with an audible curl of the lip at the fancy French word. For his long and fairly priced wine list, complete with vintage dates and useful classifications (lighter and richer for both reds and whites), he listens to his suppliers and his regular customers, and he buys what they recommend. He has good suppliers and good customers. He's earned them.