The Orange Squirrel restaurant is artistic, off-the-beaten-track and full of contradictions. Which is just how owners Francesco Palmieri and Elaine Biancamano like it.
It’s a place where comfort food -- like Irish cheddar mashed potatoes and chicken pot pie -- coexists happily with sophisticated menu offerings like black truffle shavings and lamb chops with mint pomegranate/pistachio powder glaze.
“A lot of people open a restaurant for the fantasy of opening a restaurant,” observes Palmieri. “For us it starts and ends with our food. We don’t compromise.”
The Orange Squirrel has always been a Patch favorite. Earning raves in restaurant reviews (see November 2010 and May 2011) the restaurant was also recognized last month when the New Jersey Star-Ledger published their list of “The 30 finest dining experiences from around the state.”
“You have to taste it, dream about it. I keep a piece of paper by my bedside and jot down ideas,” he confides. When Palmieri and wife Biancamano dine out elsewhere, he says it is not unusual for them to order twenty dishes to get a taste of everything.
Friday was The Orange Squirrel’s three-year anniversary. Palmieri drew up a chair to chat with Patch about what it’s like to own a restaurant that, even in a notoriously competitive industry and a bad economy, has managed to thrive.
“We want our menu to appeal to everyone,” Palmieri says. “Most restaurants you go to, the diners in there all look the same. But here there’s a whole different mix: young kids, hipster-looking types, professional people in suits, distinguished couples. You can do that in big cities but it’s not easy to do [in the suburbs.]”
Though he and Biancamano were striving for a “downtown Soho, East Village vibe” Palmieri notes that the mood of a place is not something that can be controlled by its appearance, much less the owners’ intentions: “It has to happen on its own.”
There is, in fact, a chic, city-like feeling to the dining room, with its controlled palette of orange, maize, chestnut and cream juxtaposed with brick, steel and glass in the bar area. The restaurant’s exterior also has an urban look, situated just a block east of the Garden State Parkway entrance.
Many restaurant owners would view the location as a drawback. Not Palmieri. He loves it.
“This is a great area,” grins Palmieri. “We’re anchored by Honda, Subaru and the BMW dealership. You can see Town Hall and [Watsessing] Park from here.”
On Friday afternoon, to mark the occasion of the Orange Squirrel’s third anniversary, Palmieri and Biancamano were on hand to chat with drop–in friends and well-wishers. As a special promotion, complimentary delicacies and drinks were offered to anyone who walked in the door.
The small plate of savories included lamb meatballs, risotto mushroom fritters, chicken drumlets with orange glaze, chive crepes, salmon brillets and pizza squares. As an accompaniment, diners were poured a glass of scarlet red, spiced rum punch.
When Palmieri describes what goes into making the drink, it becomes clear how the Orange Squirrel had earned its reputation.
“We only use house-infused liquor,” Palmieri explains carefully. “For instance, we don’t have name brand flavored vodkas. That’s something we’re passionate about. We try to balance the tart and the sweet. We pay attention to the details.”
The “details,” (or list of ingredients) for the punch are:
Squeezed prickly pear
Ruby port wine
Garden mint (from Palmieri’s own yard)
Lemon juice squeezed by hand
“simple syrup” = melted sugar and water in equal parts
The result is velvety smooth, fresh and tangy. At this point, Palmieri mentions that his favorite book is the story of a French chef entitled, "The Perfectionist.”
No big surprise there.
“What we do [at our restuarant] is very intimate and sacred," says Palmieri. "You have to understand that and expect it. We try to treat everyone like celebrities. We want that connection.”
The Orange Squirrel is located at 412 Bloomfield Avenue
Lunch 12-3 / Mon-Fri
Dinner 5-11 / Mon-Sat
Late Night Fare 11-1 AM/ Mon-Sat
Reservations are highly recommended for Friday & Saturday evenings.
Dress: Metropolitan Neat. Please, no sports attire or hats.
Click here to see the website and sample menus.
Francesco Palmieri has been recently sworn in as a member of the Bloomfield Restaurant Week Committee.
Restaurant Week, planned for May 2012, will offer delicious 2- and 3-course meals to patrons at a discounted price. The committee, currently visiting participating establishments, is actively seeking sponsorships from local businesses.
“This will be, I believe, the first formal Restaurant Week in Bloomfield,” said Palmieri, noting that towns like Montclair, Millburn and Maplewood have hosted similar events with success. “It will benefit the township and help organize the flow of commerce. Hopefully people will say, 'let’s take a chance on Bloomfield'.”
What do you think of the idea of Restaurant Week? What do you think of the Orange Squirrel? Tell us in the comments section!