By Bob Sacks
Get over it! What’s Your Beef is no more. A Rumson institution since 1969, it is now just history. The salad bar and the walk-up window to order your meat are gone, but in its place, at the same River Road location, is the new, but feels-like-it’s-been-there-a-long-time, Russell and Bette’s.
This fresh iteration of the old concept is more of a French/pan-European Bistro, and if you leave your memories and comparisons at the curb, you’ll really enjoy your dinner there. After the original transition, it took some time for the kitchen and staff to shed the enormity of the past and work out a new menu; but more recently, with the arrival of Peter O’Connell, the much-accomplished Jersey Shore chef, well-known for his long and successful run as chef/owner of the sorely missed Pasta Fresca in The Grove, all is now well there, and the new menu offers up some very good food.
We started with a signature dish, Eggplant Meatballs ($10); roasted eggplant formed into golf ball-sized spheres, lightly breaded and fried, and plated with a mildly spicy Heirloom tomato sauce, and curls of shaved Asiago cheese was an excellent appetizer. The texture and smoky flavor of the “meatballs” are nicely complemented by the sauce, which enhances, but does not overwhelm them. Highly recommended.
A rich vegetarian broth was the base for a well-made, deeply flavorful, French Onion Soup ($10). The addition of rye croutons and Gruyere cheese topped off the generous bowl of steaming soup.
Moules Frites ($14) arrived as a large bowl of good-sized Prince Edward Island mussels, steamed in a savory white wine garlic broth, and served with a highly addictive plate of crispy shoestring French fries, dusted with sea salt. The grit-free mussels were tender, juicy and very tasty.
High quality, true sushi-grade tuna, was the centerpiece of the Tuna Poke ($14). Served in a pretty martini glass, the cubes of tuna had been marinated with a dice of pineapple and sesame oil, and dusted with sesame seeds. Nice to look at and even nicer to eat.
A pleasant surprise was the Seasonal Salad ($14); baby arugula, crumbled goat cheese, Farro, roasted red and yellow beets, apples, and candied-spiced pecans, were dressed in a cider-honey and thyme vinaigrette, making for a refreshingly different and satisfying starter.
Grilled Swordfish ($32), a special of the night, shared the plate with grapefruit sections, baby greens, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a blood orange drizzle. It was quite enjoyable, but a minute or so less cook time would have made it even better.
One of my guests had nothing but praise for her Hangar Steak ($32); topped with a small ball of roasted black-garlic butter, and presented in a cast-iron skillet with asparagus stalks and red bliss cheddar-smashed potatoes, it was served perfectly medium rare as requested, tender and juicy, which allowed the rich flavor of the meat to shine.
Another nightly special, succulent Day Boat Scallops ($36) were pan-seared to a golden shade of bronze, and presented with a fresh heirloom tomato sauce, as well as an interesting risotto which contained lobster, asparagus and saffron.
We also enjoyed the Braised Short Rib ($28); the slow-braised boneless rib, fall-off-the-bone tender, was topped with a sherry-garlic cream, and shared the plate with porcini mushrooms, sautéed greens, garlic mashed potatoes, and Asiago cheese. Real comfort food!
Each wine on the list is available by the glass as well as the bottle. 2016 Chateau St. Michelle ($10/glass-$40/bottle), a Chardonnay from Washington State, was a simple white wine; pleasant, but nothing more, it was not overly oaky or too fruity/sweet, and paired well with the lighter dishes. For a red we chose 2015 Greystone Cellars Merlot ($9/glass-$32/bottle), from California which was surprisingly balanced between acid, fruit and tannin, creating an easy-to-drink, unfussy accompaniment to the beef dishes.
A Flourless Chocolate Cake ($10) was very well made, and just rich enough to satisfy a sweet end to the meal without venturing into the land of wretched excess.
Service was kind and caring, and the pacing of the courses just right; not too fast, not too slow.
The room bears a resemblance to its former incarnation, but renovations to the front of the restaurant to make it lighter and brighter were underway at the time of our visit. There is live music on the weekends and a large, lively barroom.
So, don’t mourn the past, and what once was. Russell and Bette’s should not be compared to its predecessor. It deserves recognition on its own, as a fun, casual, neighborhood restaurant, serving interesting, well-prepared dishes.
Russell and Bette’s
21 W River Rd,
Rumson, NJ, 07760
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Follow him on Instagram @dinnerwithbob.
This article was first published in the Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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