WHAT’S FOR LUNCH? EARLY DINNER IN RUMSON

Vegetarian French onion soup with complimentary pimento cheese and crackers at the bar of Russell and Bette’s.  (Photo by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)

By SUSAN ERICSON

Skipping lunch in lieu of a date for early happy hour at Rumson’s charming new Russell and Bette’s on West River Road proves to be smart thinking, as PieHole finds a superabundance of dining choices here.

Pansy-filled window boxes and white stucco give the outside of the restaurant a cheerful veneer. Inside, we find an engaging old-world mood, with dark wood paneling and brick interior walls. Vintage stained glass chandeliers add color, while the bar to the right of the entrance is original to its predecessor, What’s Your Beef.

Warm bread pudding with vanilla ice cream is served in a cast iron skillet. (Photos by Susan Ericson. Click to enlarge)

In another place and time, Russell and Bette’s (pronounced like ‘Betty’) could easily be mistaken for a seasoned French countryside bistro filled with local history and nostalgia. If that’s the atmosphere owner Marilyn Schlossbach is going for, she nails it.

Knowledgeable bartenders and wait staff are part of the former steak house regime, some working here for decades.

Taking a seat at the elbow-worn bar, we’re greeted by bartender Liz — “just Liz,” she said. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and we’re right on time for happy hour, which lasts until 7 p.m. A ream of menus that include happy hour specials, blue plate specials, dinner and, in case we want to be up on all offerings, a brunch menu for Sundays, gives us plenty of reading material.

A complimentary ramekin of whipped pimento-cheese-spread and crackers materializes with our drink order. The pimento cheese is so good that we’d return just for that and drinks. Liz tells us that it’s a nod to the previous restaurant’s communal crock-of-cheese spread. Individual ramekins are more hygienic, she said, adding that Schlossbach’s brother, a restaurant inspector in New Jersey, has the owners setting a high bar for cleanliness.

The blue plate special dinner, served until 5:56 (really — that’s what it says on the menu) is a $25 prix fixe three-course dinner with options of soup or salad, four entrees and dessert. PieHole falls for what might colloquially be called an early-bird special simply because we’re on time for it.

The French onion soup served in a crock covered with melted Gruyere cheese is actually a vegetarian recipe, and better than most onion soups we’ve tasted. The dark brown broth has a depth of flavor that can only come from hours of preparation. We hope it stays on the menu indefinitely.

An entree of coq au vin blanc tasted nothing like the traditional chicken cooked in wine sauce, though, pairing a nicely roasted chicken breast, served on the bone, with a frustratingly sad wine sauce. The sauce was lumpy with flour and had no discernible wine flavor. The underlying mound of garlic-mashed potatoes though, was not only memorable, but a dish to be craved.

Before dessert we sampled two happy hour dishes; moules frites, or mussels and fries ($7), and wings ($6), both of which increase in price after 7 p.m. We found the wine flavor that was absent from the chicken entree in our dish of Prince Edward Island mussels. Tender, garlicky, full of wine broth and accompanied by thin parmesan-dusted fries, the dish is delightful.

Asian-inspired and peppery, the sticky chicken wings are tasty, but typical as far as bar snacks go.

Dessert from our three-course dinner turns out to be the biggest hit of the evening. Like crossed swords, our spoons fight for space in the bourbon walnut bread pudding. Served in a cast iron pan and topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and fresh berries, on another night, if it was dark enough, we might have licked the pan clean.

Russell and Bette’s is open from 4:30 p.m. to  10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Brunch on Sunday is served from 11:30 a.m. The restaurant is closed Tuesdays.

SUSAN-ERICSON

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