Driving along Route 23 in Pompton Plains, it's easy to spot Bistro Speciale by the bright lights that issue forth from the building. The peaked roof creates both the look of a chalet and the cavernous, high-ceilinged interior of this fun and casual restaurant where children are as welcome as grown-ups. Opened a year ago, Bistro Speciale is decorated with terra-cotta-colored walls punctuated with large, gray exposed pipes that I assume make up the ventilation system. Wood tables are dressed with cloth place mats, and cozy booths dot the room--simple but attractive.
Service is also simple but not always adequate. One night, our waiter not only can't understand why I want him to remove the foil from the top of the cork in the wine bottle, but also proceeds to fill the wineglasses to the rim.
Prices are low, and many of the dishes are better than the low-key atmosphere would lead one to expect. An appetizer of two small, spicy crab cakes with a citrus-corn salsa is delicious, and I love the contrast between the crisp fried pastry and the soft, pungent four-cheese filling of the delicious Sicilian Dumplings. A hot and spicy chicken rice soup is also good, but the duck spring rolls taste stale, and the fritto misto (all shellfish) is overcooked. Grilled artichoke hearts with crèfraîche, chives, and goat cheese are pleasing but would be improved by something crisp on the plate as a contrast in texture.
The wood-oven-baked pizzas are individual pies large enough to easily feed two children or two adults with small appetites; the Greek pizza, topped with feta cheese, black olives, spinach, and sun-dried tomatoes, is absolutely luscious, but the seafood pizza is too spicy for all but the most fervent fire-eater. Rigatoni Matisse--large tubes of pasta tossed with well-flavored sausage, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes in a spicy tomato sauce--is better than the lobster-filled ravioli, which is not only bland but also lukewarm.
I recommend the special of salmon stuffed with crabmeat, the rack of New Zealand lamb (surely the tiniest little rib chops imaginable), and the grilled pork loin with vegetables. The best entréof all is a special of roasted sea bass on a bed of grilled vegetables; under the crisp top is fish so tender and well flavored that it reminds me how much I enjoy fish.
Desserts look pretty and sound attractive, but we sample almost all of them and each is heavy and bland. The chocolate mousse comes with a hard coating as if it's sat out all day, and the rice pudding tastes like glue. Even the standard tiramisù lacks flavor. --V.S.
600 Route 23N, Pompton Plains (973-835-8338). Lunch: Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 PM; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 pm; Sunday, 4 to 10 pm. Brunch: Sunday, 11 am to 2 pm. Wheelchair access easy. All major credit cards. Dinner for two without wine averages $60.