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Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
Eat early—unfashionably so. Visit Five Bistro when the evening’s young enough that you have a good chance of being the first customer. Tables on one side of the restaurant look out onto Daggett Avenue. Seating on the other side of the eatery offers views into the station where the staff assembles. It’s engaging to watch them gearing up for a night’s work. Their enthusiasm is reflected in the kitchen, even though it’s off to one side of a comfy small bar, hardly noticed—until the food starts coming out.
Arriving first is an amuse-bouche, a crusty disc of bread topped with a schmear of goat cheese and gossamer-fine green sprouts, as well as a coin of pickled daikon that’s piquant and crunchy. It tastes like the chef crafted it expressly for you—and strived to please. There is much of that at Five: the sense of the personalized, the attention to fine points.
Tableware here, for example, is beautiful. A jumbled coil of tagliatelle arrives in a steep-sided white bowl that shows off the butter-browned ribbons of pasta. Slices of locally grown oyster mushroom are tossed in, along with a fling of infant, emerald arugula. What elevates this starter is Marcoot Jersey Creamery’s Tomme, a salty, luxurious cheese that smells like hazelnuts and this past summer’s hay.
Marbles of gnocchi arrive cradled in a similar deep bowl. The decisive ingredient is a sugo, an Italian classic usually made with duck gizzards, but done here with confit-tenderized chicken gizzards. Yes, it sounds odd—but it’s lovely, rich, and sweet, with an overlay of aromatic goat cheese. The gnocchi are tender, with a satisfyingly pliant texture. A separate broad, flat tureen contains a pool of chilled turnip purée, made creamy-smooth with crème fraîche and topped with a scatter of fine greens.
Enormous copies of artist Tamara de Lempicka’s Art Deco paintings adorn the walls, with the colors interestingly adjusted from the originals. We were interrupted in our art contemplation by the arrival of main courses. We sampled all four on the menu. (OK, we more than sampled.) All were artistically arranged; each hit high notes with little, if any, disappointment.
You’d no more have a bistro menu without roast chicken than you’d perform your air-guitar routine without a windmill. Five’s oven-burnished half chicken is a must-try. Roasted to juicy delight, with the skin bubbled brown and crisp, it would be a success by itself. But it’s also arranged with slices of shiitake mushroom, fragrant braised fennel, and peppery leaves of endive.
A puckery lime-caper vinaigrette is splashed over scallops the size of stick-shift knobs. A garden’s worth of vegetables—including carrots, cauliflower, pea shoots, and grilled onion—accompanies the bivalves. The offering is delicious, and it seems almost churlish to complain, but we must: Three scallops, even this size, for almost $30?
Alluring yet overexposed, pork belly has become the Kim Kardashian of proteins. Still, Five’s rendition is altogether superior. Carré cubes of pattypan squash are tossed on the plate with cavolo nero, also known as lacinato kale. It’s braised and piled under the pork. A glossy-gold fried duck egg sits on top. The layers of fat and meat are succulent, fabulously rich. In another dish, curls of crunchy fiddlehead ferns, zucchini slices, oniony ramps, and chunks of golden potato are artfully composed around a trio of masterfully grilled lamb chops, the platter swirled with a glossy red-wine reduction that accents the flavor of the lamb.
Preoccupied with the food and still thinking about those Lempicka paintings, we didn’t notice how quickly the place filled. Though the handsome wooden floors threatened to amplify the dreaded dining din, the atmosphere remained subdued, the conversation easy. (“Is Lempicka’s dinner-jacketed dude angry,” we asked, “or just affecting cool?”) While generous table spacing allowed for privacy, we did notice covetous glances at ours, laden with food—another advantage of eating early.
Only Farmhaus, incidentally, plays in the same charcuterie league as Five. And Five is largely unparalleled in its love affair with cheese. It’s all from small dairies. Flavors are intense; textures bewitch. A triple-cream Ludwig Farmstead Creamery Vermillion River blue cheese is tangy and pungent. Baetje Farms contributes a splendid, velvet Coeur du Clos, with its mushroom earthiness. Five is a place where a selection of cheese—along with a house salad of greens, pickled white asparagus, and house croutons—could make a perfect meal. And it could be even more perfect with a glass of wine, chosen from a list whose vintages pair superbly with the cheese. The Coeur du Clos, for instance, was made for the 2011 Paul Vattan Domaine de St Romble Sancerre. The cheddar? Try Saga Wines’ NV Cult cab sav.
A meringue the consistency of marshmallows is torch-browned—it tastes like it came from the flames of an autumn campfire. Under it is a brownie, glorious as fudge, one of Five’s notable desserts. Around it is an irresistible caramel smooth with goat’s milk. An equally and ruinously worthwhile way to finish dinner is a mascarpone cheesecake, loaded with lime curd that puckers the palate, then topped with a caramel dust that leverages its sweetness.
Perhaps the bread had not baked yet during one visit. None came to our table, though baskets appeared on other tables later in the evening. And specials announced to diners later in the night were not mentioned to us. These few slip-ups were inconsistent with the otherwise expert, talented service. Such might be the price paid for dining early. If so, pay it from time to time.
The Bottom Line: Bistro fare is done well and charmingly presented.
Average Main Course: $27
Acoustics: They’re like the best you can say about your daughter’s new boyfriend: acceptable and inoffensive.
Chef: Anthony Devoti