Review: Rosemary & Sage in Riverdale
Friday, August 13, 2010
BY BILL PITCHER
The RecordRESTAURANT REVIEWER
Most of North Jersey's notable longstanding restaurants have left their culinary calling cards. It's the filet mignon ravioli at Cafe Panache in Ramsey, for instance. Latour in Ridgewood is known for its beef Wellington. The Saddle River Inn's chateaubriand is epic.
The cuisine at Rosemary & Sage in Riverdale would be in those same discussions if not for this one tiny detail: Once a dish is on the menu, it's history. Over the last few years, I've sampled wild boar with antelope chili, shrimp and trout on citrus pasta and pork stuffed with blue cornbread, and in every case, they were gone with the next menu revision, swapped out for another adventure, arguably, each better than the dish it replaced.It's been that way for most of the last 20 years at Rosemary & Sage, the small, pretty new American restaurant that never seems to
get the buzz it deserves, despite a very loyal following that's gaining in years. The new menus come a little less frequently now for chef-owner Brooks Nicklas. Now 59 and with a teenage daughter, he's reduced the new menu frequency from biweekly to bimonthly but the pairings are no less creative, the experience no less exciting.
Most new menus evolve the same way, with Nicklas settling onto the back deck of his lake home in Sullivan County, N.Y., looking around for inspiration. He built a little smokehouse there for curing lamb sausages ($12), which are wrapped in crispy layers of puff pastry. He taps his maple trees to make syrup, used for everything from pancakes for young customers to the base of his barbecue sauce, which accents a juicy Berkshire pork chop ($26). He and his wife and co-owner, Wendy Farber, barter with nearby farmers for berries, and the result is a blackberry ice cream that tastes so freshly picked, all that's missing are the prickers and juice-stained fingers.
Even the dishes that sound more curious than classic — the ones that have you suspecting Nicklas uses a dartboard when picking side dishes — are winners. A crab- and pecan-topped fillet of grouper ($28), a safe, mild main dish, is matched with something bright and acidic (a quenelle of plum and fennel tomato mousse), crunchy (a julienne of barely sautéed carrots) and classic (a clam chowder-inspired sauce). It's terrific.Entrees, whose prices include a mixed greens salad with mustard vinaigrette, can be upgraded to a five-course, prix-fixe dinner (add $23) with your choice of appetizer, dessert and soup — one warm, one cool, "less than a teaspoon of cream per serving," the waiter recites as if he's said it a million times. He probably has. He's Bruce Farber, Wendy's brother, and the two of them keep order in the dining room, announcing specials, taking orders, serving wine and delivering checks. If there's a weakness at Rosemary & Sage, it's that the two of them can't be everywhere, and the delay before ordering or waiting for the check can be pronounced. Don't be shy about getting their attention.Soups ($5) are light, the chilled asparagus-leek subtly sweet and grassy, and the warm butternut squash bisque remarkably smooth and rich, even without the cream and spices weighing it down. The basil-cured salmon appetizer ($12) offers a double dip of the bright herb, first in the sweet-salty cure that firms and flavors the bright pink flesh, then again with the little chiffonade sprinkled amid lovely golden heirloom tomatoes. Prince Edward Island mussels ($12) are in a Thai-coconut broth suitable for sopping up with not just the accompanying lime-infused croutons but also whatever is in the bread basket, in this case, miniature corn muffins with five-spice and mango preserves.Restaurant standards — chicken and steak — are also excellent, the D'Artagnan chicken breast ($23) beautifully browned and spilling scallions and aged cheddar from its sides and the hanger steak ($25) paired with a funky darphin potato, a humble latke bound together by goat cheese and little else.Desserts are whimsical takes on classics ($8): pineapple upside-down cake exactly the size of a fresh pineapple slice, with the blackberry ice cream; a blondie with not just vanilla ice cream but also sesame brittle; and strawberry shortcake with a cheesecake ice cream so dense, you could chew it. The ice cream and sorbet selections change constantly — there are usually at least a dozen all together — and you're free to mix, match and substitute.
Lemon poppyseed cake was far more tame than the potent strawberry papaya and pineapple sorbet I chose to pair it with, the strawberries just barely a whisper behind the wild tropical jamboree. We left a few moments later, swearing we'd return soon, but knowing full well that by then, with a breeze of inspiration and a few strokes of a pen, Nicklas will have written this menu into history, and a new one will await.
Rosemary and Sage
26 Hamburg Turnpike
Riverdale, New Jersey