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Apr 5, 2007 10:33 AM

Review - One 53 in Rocky Hill

I had high hopes for this place after reading positive reviews in both the New York Times and the Princeton Packet and I was not disappointed.

We went last weekend for my mother's birthday. I'll get the two negative things out of the way first so I can focus on the positive. (1) parking is abyssmal. There is a lot behind the restaurant but if you don't want your car to get hit, don't park there. I saw one guy plow right into the dumpster trying to back into a spot. There is plenty of on-street parking but you'll have to walk a few blocks. (2) service was lackluster at best. Granted, the place was packed and it was a Saturday, but our waiter all but pushed us out the door despite knowing we were there to celebrate a birthday. He couldn't have been less interested in us throughout the night. We were seated at 7:30 and left at 9:45 - not what I would call a long, drawn out meal. He didn't even offer us dessert. I think his exact words upon clearing the last of our dinner dishes were " So you guys don't want anything else, right?"

But those two things aside, this is a stellar restaurant. We were seated downstairs in the wine cellar, which had a great ambiance with the exposed beams and all the wine bottles lining the walls. There are two long tables that could easily seat about 15 people each. We had five in our group so we sat at one end of a table while a party of 4 had the other end. It was very cosy and not nearly as noisy as the upper level.

We all tried a variety of dishes and everything was amazing, well seasoned and expertly prepared. And the plating itself was gorgeous...someone in the kitchen had a real eye for detail. There was not a bad dish in the ones we tried. For the appetizers, the eggplant rollatini was rich without being too much so and the caprese salad was made with roasted tomatoes that were sweet like candy and creamy mozzarella. The arugula and goat cheese salad with beets was better then other renditions because they actually dressed the arugula with an assertive lemon vinaigrette that complimented the rich cheese. The soup special was a velvety smooth cream of asparagus with plenty of earthy flaovr. I think our favorite appetizer was the polenta fries with a trio of dipping sauces. The fries were creamy on the inside and crunchy on the outside with a heavy perfume of rosemary. The dipping sauces were quite assertive - a horseradish, garlic aioli and some kind of tomato-based sauce. All were well flavored and even spicy.

It should be noted that you can order a half portion of all the pasta dishes, which two of us did. The angel hair with garlic and shrimp was excellent, but the pasta was most certainly not angel hair. It was bordering on linguine-size. Still an excellent dish, with plump shrimp and chunks of roasted garlic in a creamy sauce. A half order with the grilled caesar salad was more food then I could comfortably eat. The grilled salad was also wonderful, with a slight char on the leaves and a smokey flavor from the grill. The dressing was assertive with garlic and anchovies. The scallops over lentils was better then I could have imagined - perfectly cooked scallops sitting on a bed of the best lentils I have ever eaten. I could have eaten an entire bowl of just those. I've never encountered lentils that were well seasoned before. Even the burger was good, although almost too large for a normal mouth to fit around. It came with a huge pile of crispy fries.

Desserts were not varied at our table since everyone wanted the chocolate bread pudding with hazelnut gelato and a caramel bourbon sauce. This is an excellent dessert and one that should not be missed, although the blood orange panna cotta sounded good too.

I should also mention that they have a full bar in addition to the wine. Someone behind the bar has a very heavy hand with the alcohol, which I guess is good considering they charged $12 for a whiskey sour. For the five of us the bill was $275 including tax and tip (and 5 cocktails). I thought that was a pretty good value for the amount and quality of the food.

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  1. My favs at one 5 3 is the mussels.......mmmmmmmm

    1. Cody Kendall's review in yesterday's Star-Ledger was quite glowing in its praise for the food at One 53, and there were no negative comments regarding the service, so apparently the service issues have been resolved. This place is on my short list of new places to try!

      8 Replies
      1. re: Ted in Central NJ

        WOW WOW WOW .... This place was fantastic. All of you have known my luck with restaurants lately...well I hit the jackpot last night. Perfect in all manner and respects: decor, food and service - the full boat. Me and Mrs. bgut1 took a little bit of a risk driving an hour out to Rocky Hill, NJ. As we were driving out she asked "isn't there anyplace you wanted to eat in Monmouth County?" Obviously my answer was no. I've grown kind of bored with the local food scene and wanted to try something different. I had kept One 53 in the back of my head since reading the NYT and Ledger reviews. We had a 9 PM reservation and arrived to find the restaurantand bar packed. Quite impressive for a Tuesday night. Although very minimalistic, the decor was handsome, smart, comfortable and chic. Think lacquered wood tables sans table cloths with nice place mats. I also noted a very friendly vibe throughout the place from the host to the servers to even the guests. For example, as we walked in, a couple who we obviously never met standing next us in the bar asked how we were and what we were doing on the 4th. Normally I would have been taken aback by such an inquiry, however, the setting fostered a nice friendly conversation (we learned that the couple had planned a nice dinner at a Monmouth restaurant). After being seated at our somewaht cramped table (possibly the only criticism of the night) we met our very friendly and informative waitress and presented her with a wine we had brought for the evening a Donhoff Riesling (one of our special night wines). While One 53 has a liquor license, we were glad to pay the reasonable $20 corkage fee as the online wine list did not impress. Food review to follow ......

        1. re: bgut1

          Hey, bgut,

          Congrats on finally hitting a winner! lol I await your review of the cuisine. But we travel for great food and knowing that your standards are as high as mine, I've already put No. One 53 on my "go to" list.

          1. re: RGR

            Go go go ... you will not be disappointed. BTW, RGR, Lorena's is probably next up on the "travel out of area" list with Fascino a close second. Obviously let me know if you go.

          2. re: bgut1

            Part II ..... For starters we ordered the clams in a garlic/white wine broth with grilled garlic toast (lovely) and a half order of the asparagus ravioli with morel mushrooms (3 magnificent pillows filled with the taste of summer) then we split a grilled Caesar salad. While nothing spectacular the salad was fundamentally perfect. Without asking they split the portion onto two perfectly suited plates. It looked like the portions served were as intended on the menu: half a heart of romaine with nice grill marks ladled with just enough Caesar dressing with nice long shaves of parmigiano reggiano and garlic croutons. Next came the entrees. Having read Cody Kendall's review in the Ledger, I had to order the Lemon, Basil & Garlic Griggstown Farm Chicken with Couscous. I usually don't order chicken (due to being to ordinary and never properly cooked). Coincidentally, the last time I recall having out was at Hammersly's Bistro in Boston and the preparation was very similar. This dish was pure perfection - crispy skin and lusciously juicy with the acid of lemon and the earthiness of the basil and garlic. It was a religious experience for me. DW ordered the Seared Diver Scallops over Baby Bibb Lettuce with a warm Citrus Bacon Vinaigrette. Six huge scallops perfectly cooked. A great dish. While full we pushed on and ordered dessert. I'll continue this later ....

            1. re: bgut1

              Part III ... My DW is a bread pudding nut. Having reviewed the menu before dining I knew she would love the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Caramel Bourbon Sauce. I wasn't intent on ordering another dessert however our server insisted that I order the Hazelnut Dacqouise with Mocha Chantilly. I must have really trusted her since I'm neither a dacqouise nor a mocha person (I don't even drink coffee). After ordering the desserts, I had noticed our servers interest in the bottle of wine we brought that evening. Noticing further that we had a nice bit of wine left, I offered her the remaining bottle to taste. She and the Host partook in my generosity and were very happy with the wine. In return they brought us two glasses of Prosecco on the house to go with our desserts - Nice touch. The desserts in a word were unbelievable. My dacquoise was nothing like I had imagined. Instead it was a deliciously rich and decadent chocolate/mocha creme sandwiched between two layers of nutty goodness. It may sound crazy but think ,,,, an adult Kit-Kat bar. My DW's chocolate bread pudding was the best we have ever had and that's saying a lot since I think we have tried most available on the east coast. Before we left, the host Derek came over to thank us for the wine and we proceeded to discuss the food and its preparation. Derek advised that the restaurant didn't have a freezer and that most of the food is purchased and used daily from the chickens to the scallops which were purchased in Philly that morning. He then gave us a nice tour of the wine cellar downstairs which lead to a great discussion of the wines on their captain's list. All in all a perfect evening and I didn't mind one bit the hour drive home (while my DW slept). One final note - the cost. I've posted before about how obscenely high the pricing at restaurants have become (i.e. Brandl). With that in mind I must commend One 53. The cost for all the food inclusive of the $20 corkage fee was $124 (excluding tip of course). That's phenomenal. Think about two apps, a large salad, two entrees, and two desserts for $100. A review of the menu will explain why. The salad was $7! the scallop entree was $26 (would have been $45 at Brandl) while the desserts were $7. Bravo to One 53!!! My highest recommendation!!! Run don't walk. And by the by, try to keep the place our little secret - the place is too packed as it is. Good Luck.

              1. re: zerosin3

                Hey, Chris,

                Just wanted to comment that when it comes to restaurant reviews, my pal bgut1 is one tough cookie (pun intended) -- but in a nice way, of course. Thus, receiving kudos from him re: your desserts is high praise indeed! Looking forward to trying them. :-)

                1. re: RGR

                  Oh RGR - I'm not really that tough!! :)

                  1. re: bgut1

                    Hmmm... Well, bgut1, you do have high standards. Kind of like me....;)

        2. One53 is a GREAT addition to the local area.

          While many Central NJ and Buck County restaurants has become high priced temples of mediocrity, One53 has elevated the level of casual fine dining to new heights!

          The food is expertly prepared with the freshest ingredients, the atmosphere is inviting with a Napa Valley esque decor, and the service is truly professional.

          We were fortunate enough to walk in on the evening of their soft opening, were graciously accommodated by Derek (GM?) & Scott our waiter and have since been back too many times to remember.

          Yes the place is very popular and reservations are a must. If it's your first time at One53, try to go midweek when the pace is not as hectic.

          We've also had great luck walking in early and dining at the bar. One53 welcomes diners at the bar and we've always enjoyed striking up a conversation with the owners, staff, other patrons and friends that may walk in.

          One53, as noted by others here and the local critics, is not to be missed!

          1. Last Monday, we wanted to go to a particular movie which wasn’t playing locally. It was, however, playing at the Montgomery Cinema, in Skillman. Checking a map to determine exactly where Skillman was located, I discovered that Rocky Hill was close by. This presented the perfectly opportunity to try One 53. When I checked Mapquest for directions, I further discovered that the movie theater and the restaurant were less than a mile apart. In fact, we had to drive right by One 53 to get to the theater.

            Our reservation was for 7 p.m. When we arrived, there were three or four people seated at the bar and about a half dozen occupied tables. The hostess indicated that we could sit at a table in the middle of the room or along the banquette. We chose the latter. With just a few exceptions, all the tables are very close to one another. Space around ours would have been tighter except for the fact that on my left, two tables had been pushed together in order to accommodate a party of three, thus providing us with a bit more elbow room. By the time we left, the place had filled up quite a bit. A good showing for a Monday evening. The restaurant has modern décor and pleasant ambiance.

            Our glasses were promptly filled with tap water, and bread arrived immediately. However, it fell under one of my pet peeves -- hunks of bread that have not been sufficiently sliced through so that separating a piece from the chunk becomes nearly a heroic effort. Once I did manage to secure a piece, it was decent, and the mashed bean spread that was served alongside was quite tasty. Our request for butter was promptly met. Service, overall, was fine.

            My husband began with the frisee salad, which he liked though he felt it was not as good as one he had a few weeks earlier at a restaurant in NYC. Foie gras addict that I am, I chose that for my starter. The slice of foie was of decent size, properly seared, and delicious. Alongside were some cooked, sliced plums and a small serving of frisee. Neither did much to enhance the foie, and there was no sauce. Thus, overall, a disappointing dish.

            For mains, my husband chose the salmon, and I went with the Chicken Milanese. Though both of us much prefer wild salmon, the fish was properly cooked, and the “succotash” accompaniment of corn, cabbage and mushrooms was tasty. My chicken dish was a take on the classic Veal Milanese. Three generous slices of chicken breast were pounded very thin, breaded, and expertly fried. They were placed over a bed of arugula, and topping the chicken was a “salad” of chopped tomatoes, onions, and olives. While all the components were tasty, the chicken was not nearly hot enough. My guess is that the cold salad cooled the chicken down too much.

            For dessert, we shared the chocolate bread pudding, which was seriously delicious – by far, the best of everything we had.

            My husband had a glass of Pinot Noir, which he said was fine.

            My husband and I agreed that there are very competent cooks in One 53’s kitchen, and the food we had was good but, in our view, not in any way rave-worthy. Also, there aren’t many other dishes on the menu that really appeal to us. Maybe the Griggstown chicken and the scallops. (Does the menu change seasonally?)

            Though it’s only 40 minutes from our house, we would not make a special trip to eat at One 53. But if we happen to go to the Montgomery Cinema again, we would go back.

            5 Replies
            1. re: RGR

              RGR - While I agree with your earlier assessment that the meal was by no means "fantastic" I don't think it sounds like it was bad either just that it didn't "blow you away". First with regard to the bread issue, I would hope that didn't detract too much from the meal as I recall many restaurants fail to completley cut their bread all the way through. As far as the foie is concerned, while I have had a sauce-less preparation before (in which case the foie is topped with fleur de sel), I agree it is not optimal. With regard to the other items on the menu, both the scallops and the griggstown chicken are divine. Its clear that you recognize the talent in this kitchen and would therefore hope you give them another chance. If nothing else you have to go back and try what I consider to be the BEST chocolate bread pudding in the state. Thanks for your review.

              1. re: bgut1

                Great - another place I have to drive an hour to eat at ;o)

                bgut - have you ever had the emperor's morsel bread pudding at Devi in nyc? If so, how does the chocolate one compare?

                1. re: seal

                  Sorry Seal. I've never been to Devi.

                2. re: bgut1

                  Hey, b.,

                  Didn't you notice that we did have the bread pudding, and that I did say it was "seriously delicious"? :-) And I did say we would give One 53 another try if and when we are in that area again. And, we will definitely try the scallops and the Griggstown chicken next time.


                  We have had the Emperor's morsel at Devi. I do love it, but it's been a while, so I can't make a comparison. Regardless, One 53's chocolate bread pudding is very, very, very good! :-))

                3. re: RGR

                  RGR, we've noticed the menu changes on a very frequent basis and this adds to One 53's appeal.

                  They're always adding daily specials and have changed the regular menu items with time. Our favorite starter when they first opened were mussels - now replaced by clams. The salads and pastas are changed frequently, using fresh and local (seasonal) ingredients as well.

                  For the rave-worthy experience, try the scallops. They're really the best selection on the menu. Have ordered on repeat occasions and can highly recommend!

                4. Our experience at One 53 was a bit are a few details.

                  --Made reservations on Tuesday for a Saturday evening seating.
                  --Arrived a few minutes early for our table, but were cheerfully seated.
                  --Joint was extremely busy, with all tables taken and staff hard at work.
                  --We were seated at the top of the staircase leading to the lower level. As this part of the restaurant is built over the basement, the floor is the ceiling of the lower level and every footstep is felt. As the staff works very hard (ie, moves fast and furious around the room), our meal was like dining at 3 on the Richter scale.
                  --Appetizer of roasted red peppers, mushrooms and garlic is not for the faint of heart. Those peppers were four-alarm. After two peppers, I could no longer taste my wine (a steely, fairly priced 2005 Pouilly Fuisse), so I left the remaining peppers , gulped some water and ate some bread (fantastic grainy bread served with agreeable white bean and garlic spread).
                  --I had the skate served over spaghetti squash. It was pleasant, but could have been cooked a minute or two less. Spaghetti squash was creamy, but a bit bland
                  --Dining companion had the salmon. She requested it medium, but it came out rare. Sent it back (wait person cheerfully took it back to kitchen), but it was returned barely warmer.
                  She found it fairly bland and ended up not eating much of it. Server asked about it and did not hesitate to remove it from our check, which I thought was a real noble gesture.

                  One 53 is a decent choice for dining in an area badly in need of reasonably priced alternatives to trips to Lambertville/Princeton/Bucks Co. We just didn't find it rave-worthy.
                  And we suggest you request a table away from the staircase.

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: famdoc

                    These less than stellar reviews are disconcerting. I may have to rethink recommending One 53. Sorry famdoc.

                    1. re: bgut1

                      There's been a few changes in the kitchen with an interim chef posted thru January (unconfirmed that it's Scott Anderson ex Ryland Inn, Les Copains and most recently Lawrenceville Inn & soon to be exec chef of the new Elements Restaurant opening next yr in Princeton??). Even so, we continue to find the cuisine and quality of the dining experience above par on a weekly basis. Will report back when more info is known on who's manning the stoves!

                      1. re: Foody4life

                        So does that mean that Justin Braun is gone? And what about Chris the pastry chef? If he's no longer there it would be a deal breaker for me.

                        1. re: bgut1

                          especially b/c those little molasses cookies that come with the bill are divine. are they not still there??

                          1. re: brownie

                            forget the molasses cookie ... what about the divine chocolate bread pudding !!!! :)

                          2. re: bgut1

                            bgut1 - Justin is in the kitchen along with Scott Anderson. Chris has gone on to a place in NYC, though your beloved chocolate bread pudding remains! Scott has added dishes to the daily specials including a goat cheese with caramelized onions tart for a starter and for entrees: grilled pheasant (griggstown farm) with potato gnocchi & chanterelle mushrooms; bronzini; and a new preparation of skate wing. The grilled pheasant was a welcome addition to the menu and was cooked to perfect temp and texture, although the bird suffered from a lack of seasoning and the gnocchi was a bit inconsistent. A bit of fresh herbs would have helped here. There is also new pasta selections including an excellent homemade peppered pappardella with rabbit ragu. Very hearty and included a generous portion of rabbit.

                          3. re: Foody4life

                            A change in the kitchen would definitely explain the disparity between our recent experience and that of other, more enthusiastic, Chowhounds.
                            Let me emphasize, however, the staff could not have been nicer to us from our arrival to our departure. And, the fact they comped us my wife's entree was a real plus. Unfortunately, either because of the crowd or because of confusion in the kitchen, they did a poor job on her salmon. As I said in my review, the skate was good, but a few minutes overcooked and the spaghetti squash really lacked definition. If you're really committed to trying the joint, a week night might be a better test (and don't forget to request a table away from the staircase...the floor really shook with the passing of each staff member from the dining area to the kitchen).

                            1. re: Foody4life

                              Are you saying that it is better because of Scott Anderson? I know he used to be at Mediterra and I think his ego is definitely bigger than his talent! What is this new Elements Restaurant?

                              1. re: tplayer

                                One53's food has been consistantly very good since opening 11/06.

                                A bit off topic, but I believe Elements is the new restaurant being built on the corner of Leigh Ave and Route 206 on the old service station/Avis lot. Here's a link to a recent Princeton event - scroll down to auction item ED-2 to see Scott's listing: