CLAYTON — A sophisticated little café and bakery on Riverside Drive in Clayton is now serving dinners — very impressive dinners.
Since opening in 2006, Bella's has been a café and bakery, serving healthy, creative and trendy fare for breakfast and lunch. Owner Melissa Ringer-Hardy has hired an experienced evening kitchen crew that has taken her already impressive menu to new heights.
Chef Gabe Aubertine is out to push the limits of food preparation. His watermelon salad with cucumber "spaghetti" drew us into the place. His "vegan nightmare" dessert made us want to return the next day to see what kind of wacky stuff he would come up with next.
From the moment we entered the bistro, with its beautiful pastries and the aroma of freshly baked bread, we were hooked. Vibrant walls with original paintings and colorful, varied-patterned napkins on wooden tables lent a coziness to the small dining area, along with chairs that gave a vintage feel to the room. Freighters quietly churning by on the St. Lawrence only enhanced the view through the glass wall facing the river.
The menu is appropriate for the size of the restaurant and the vibrancy of Clayton in summertime. There are five starters and five mains, each flawlessly prepared and presented. Descriptions made us want to sample every dish on the menu. And since there were four of us, we were almost able to do just that.
First, from a relatively small but thoughtful wine list, a bottle of tasty, oaky Lake Sonoma Chardonnay — served in those hip new stemless wine glasses.
Then Jessica, our chirpy waitress, got the food part of the evening under way with homemade bread, nice and crusty on the outside, served with lemony olive oil for dipping. Next, she took our appetizer and entrée orders without writing a thing down. We thought for sure we were in for the food auction routine.
Cucumber canapés ($8) were crisp and refreshing, perfect for a warm summer night. Oval-shaped cucumber slices became the "crostini" without the carbs, topped with a zesty lemon-dill crème fraiche, smoked salmon and a confetti-like brunoise of tri-colored peppers.
The four canapés were arranged like flower petals with julienned roasted red peppers in the center, all presented on a square white plate. This appetizer was worthy of a front cover feature on one of those fancy food magazines.
Maryland-style crab cakes ($10) were true to description, "handmade beauties" made with bluefin crabmeat, sweet peppers, celery and scallions, served over microgreens with a Dijon-horseradish sauce that we could have used more of.
There's not much to bacon-wrapped scallops ($9) other than bacon and scallops, but these one-bite favorites were kicked up with a fresh pineapple-mango salsa that really made this dish a standout.
I saved the best for last — the watermelon salad ($8). Two slabs of seedless watermelon soaked in fresh lime juice were piled on top of each other, then crowned with a nest of spaghetti-like strands of cucumber dotted with poppy seeds and garnished with mint leaves. The plate was completed with dollops of tasty tzatziki, the Greek yogurt sauce.
So far, Jessica had somehow remembered who'd ordered what, and she continued to put the correct food in front of the proper person for the entrée course.
Presentations were truly impressive on each and every plate.
Filet Oscar ($22) was the classic preparation of filet mignon, a 6-ounce-plus portion of beautifully grilled tenderloin topped with real claw crabmeat, fresh asparagus spears and a tarragon béarnaise sauce kicked up with a few dashes of white truffle oil. It was served on top of a crab cake identical to the one we enjoyed as an appetizer.
Far from classic was the strawberry Chardonnay haddock ($19). A good-sized piece of haddock was poached in Chardonnay, served over wild rice and draped in a strawberry "sauce" that was surprisingly light and mild and did not overpower the fish. Finely chopped cucumber salsa topped off the dish. Small puddles of sage-infused olive oil added great color and flavor.
Ratatouille ($17) was mouth-watering. Eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, onion and garlic were roasted, then arranged in layers and baked. There was a suggestion of Parmesan in there, too. This was a foodie's vegetarian "lasagna" with just-right marinara on the side.
Finally, a nice pasta sauté, chicken Salonika ($18). Tender strips of seasoned chicken were tossed with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, baby spinach and feta along with al dente penne. The sauce was a very light wine reduction which allowed the natural flavors of the veggies to take center stage.
For dessert, we were encouraged to walk back to the pastry counter toward the front of the restaurant and choose our own.
My guests did, getting a homemade brownie a la mode ($2.25) — a little dry, so the ice cream saved the day. A coconut macaroon ($1.25) with one end dipped in chocolate was yummy. Mango guava cheesecake ($7), round rather than wedge-shaped, was true to its name: cheesecake firmness on the bottom, mousse-like on top, supported with a lovely graham cracker crust.
But here's the killer: vegan nightmare ($8), which I ordered. The folks in the kitchen have a warped sense of humor, and I can identify with that.
They started with a homemade waffle bowl, filled it with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, then jammed four crispy pieces of chocolate-covered bacon into the sweet stuff with fresh mint leaves for garnish.
It was fantastic! The sweet and salty thing worked just great. And the name "vegan nightmare" couldn't have been better. I think we chuckled with every bite.
A great summertime dinner for four cost $141.86. Add $30 for the bottle of wine.
Be aware that the menu will change often, so you may not be able to enjoy exactly what we had — but you can be sure it will be great.
One more thing. We sat right by the windows facing the river in full sunshine. It was so hot, we had to open the door to the deck to cool things down. Hopefully they'll have some window shades installed that will block the sun and the heat, but not the terrific view.
Other than that, Bella's is a place that we plan to visit again soon. We think you should, too.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
602 Riverside Dr.
A sophisticated little café and bakery in Clayton is now serving dinners-very impressive dinners
HOURS: Breakfast 8 a.m. to noon daily, lunch until 5 p.m. Dinner from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
APPETIZER PICKS: Watermelon salad, cucumber canapés
ENTRÉE PICKS: Filet Oscar, ratatouille, strawberry Chardonnay haddock
DESSERT PICKS: Vegan nightmare, mango guava cheesecake