Hand-made pasta, comically large (but delicious) meatballs, crisp salads and steak au poivre can be expected at Laboratorio Kitchen in Montclair, NJ—an approachable neighborhood joint by Executive Chef James De Sisto and a talented team of front and back-of-house staff.
Nestled on a busy Bloomfield Avenue—surrounded by dozens of other restaurants—you might walk right past Laboratorio if you aren’t paying attention. However, night after night, the dining room is bustling with regulars and newcomers alike, all there for one thing: A damn tasty meal. This has become the standard at Laboratorio Kitchen, where I find that De Sisto’s approach to New American cuisine seems to make no apologies. It’s simple, straightforward and delicious.
I won’t lie to you; Laboratorio Kitchen was never much on my radar, but I felt a visit was long overdue and a meal there proved to me what I already knew to be true: Montclair is bursting at the seams with great eateries. I’m glad to say I can add another spot to my ever-growing list of places to eat in Montclair.
My meal began with a fall-themed salad. Crisp gem lettuce is dressed in a zingy, maple-dijon vinaigrette, tossed with toasted pepitas, bright orange fuyu persimmon, shaved fennel and a healthy showering of shaved Parmigiano. Fennel is my favorite vegetable and is always welcome in any salad of mine. The crisp texture and unique flavor profile are the perfect background singer to whatever the star of the show might be. In this case, the gem lettuce and persimmon were singing the praises of Autumnal cooking—two remarkable ingredients in their peak form. Fuyu persimmons, in particular, hit their stride at this time of year, boasting a rich, orange flesh and a sweet honey-like flavor.
A hint of nuttiness from both the pumpkin seeds and Parmigiano was just what the salad needed to be elevated to that next level. The vinaigrette was simple, yet impactful without overpowering the salad.
I am incredibly particular about salad. Most are overdressed or tossed in truly abysmal creamy dressings, but Laboratorio’s was fresh and light, even with the addition of cheese. This is a salad I would order again and again. If it wasn’t so hyper-seasonal, it would be on repeat all year long.
Along with the salads came what De Sisto has sort of become known for at Laboratorio: The meatball. Singular. That’s because it is large—at least half a pound—and sits on the plate glistening with vibrant tomato sauce and grated cheese. It’s sort of a show-stopper and a dish I saw go to every table in the dining room that evening. But, is it actually any good? Or, is it just another gimmick?
I’m pleased to say that the meatball was spectacular. Flavorful throughout with a tasteful blend of beef and veal. The biggest plus to me was how juicy and succulent the meatball was throughout. Not dry and overcooked, but definitely not underdone either. When you cut it, juices ooze from the interior and marry with the tomato sauce. Is it comically large? Perhaps. But, not without good reason.
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I got a taste for what De Sisto brings to the table by this point and as I nearly filled myself on appetizers alone, pastas began to hit the table.
First up, a seasonal offering—orecchiette with butternut squash, sausage and crispy sage. What’s not to like? The circular pasta, which translates to “little ears” in Italian, fills up with chunks of squash and sausage. Additional squash is blended smooth and emulsified with the rendered sausage fat. Each bite is consistent with the last—something incredibly important in dining that can often be overlooked.
A glug of extra virgin olive oil, a shaving of parmigiano and three pieces of crispy sage was all the dish needed to be complete. De Sisto hit the nail on the head with this pasta.
Shortly thereafter, another seasonal pasta—this time a pasta showing off the marriage of late season corn with its best companion, lump crab meat. Tomatoes are blistered and cooked along with corn and butter to make a rich and fresh sauce that is elevated by the addition of lump crab meat. What is so important here is that the crab is added just at the end, allowing it to hold its shape and sought-after sweet flavor. A squeeze of lemon for a burst of brightness and the sauce is ready to be combined with hand-made linguine.
It hits the table steaming—glossy from the pectin-rich tomato skin and studded with pieces of lump crab and corn like the gems that they are. It’s a great plate of pasta and one that is worth the trip to Laboratorio alone.
De Sisto then came over to the table with something very special. He placed a plate of day boat scallops in front of me—hard-seared to a deep brown exterior and atop a bed of silky smooth cauliflower purée. The dish was garnished rather simply with a vibrant green herb oil.
Scallops are one of my favorite pieces of seafood, but they are also one of the easiest ingredients to mess up. A second too long in the pan and they turn dry and stringy. In contrast, when done right, a seared scallop is a thing of beauty—tender and warm in the center, with a sweet flavor, touched by a hint of salinity. The exterior should be deeply-colored, offering an unctuous flavor and a textural contrast. The seasoning should be simple—just salt and maybe a pinch of cracked pepper is fine. A quick butter baste to finish and they’re usually good to go. A well-cooked scallop doesn’t need much more and De Sisto clearly gets that.
The cauliflower purée was simple and served as the perfect condiment for each scallop without overpowering the intricate delicacies that can easily fall behind when paired with something too forward. The oil was a visually-pleasing touch that also brought a punch of herbaceousness that I was more than happy to be greeted with.
One thing I was really excited about when heading to Laboratorio were the French fries after seeing buckets of hand-cut potatoes on their Instagram. If you think fries aren’t enough of a reason to go to a place, think again. They’re hand-cut, hot, crispy and liberally salted—all of the things that point to a great fry.
It also helped that the fries were paired with a perfectly-cooked steak au poivre. De Sisto sears a strip steak to medium-rare and finishes it with a sauce of butter, cognac, cracked peppercorns, cream and the steak’s drippings. It’s a bold sauce that shows off the utter deliciousness of French cooking. I believe this dish to be a valid indicator of a great chef—it’s something that every good cook should have in their back pocket. Red-veined sorrel—which is a tangy and herbaceous microgreen— and blistered cherry tomatoes topped the steak. De Sisto deliberately spoons the sauce on only half of the steak, so that he can show off his picture-perfect interior. But trust me, you’ll want to sop up every last bit of sauce. When the steak is gone, move to the fries.
Forget ketchup. You have the best dipping sauce in the world right here.
Soon after the last bites of our entrees, De Sisto was back with dessert: A caramel entremet—almost too perfect to eat—boasted vanilla cake with apple compote and fresh whipped cream. It was tangy and luscious, with layers of cream and compote spread between 7-8 layers of cake.
In stark juxtaposition was a flourless chocolate mousse cake, encased in a shattering shell of lacquered chocolate. It was incredibly rich and tasty. Chocolate desserts are a must if you ask me and this offering from Laboratorio was more than up to par.
Laboratorio Kitchen sits on a hectic Bloomfield Avenue, beckoning diners with tasty bites of food, done simply. Chef James De Sisto’s approach to New American cooking—utilizing fresh, local ingredients and expert technique—creates a menu that is loaded brim-to-brim with spectacular options. Whether it is the head-turning veal and beef meatball, handmade pastas or a simple seared scallop, Laboratorio Kitchen puts out approachable and tasty food. It is a good reminder that in cooking, above all, delicious food will always reign supreme.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.