From the Train to the Dining Room | De Novo European Pub
Taking the train to New York, past Montclair State University is a stop in Upper Montclair. The train runs parallel to Valley Road, behind Williams Sonoma, Dai-Kichi, and Jackie’s Grillette.
One stop is near Bellevue Ave, which has an old train station converted into a restaurant called De Novo European Pub. The restaurant's wall of windows faces the train, giving riders a glimpse of the table tops and cutlery.
I tell myself every time the train stops that I should visit for dinner. This week, I finally did.
De Novo’s History
I don’t research a restaurant's history before trying its food.
Which is why when I entered De Novo on a busy Wednesday night, I didn’t know that that man I walked past, who was tall with a goatee, was the owner.
His name is Demetri Malki, and he has owned several restaurants in New Jersey. They range from his first restaurant D'Metri's to his most recent, De Novo.
De Novo’s Restaurant
De Novo’s European Pub is alongside the train tracks. It has a small parking lot which is for permit-holding commuters for the train. I looked and saw that there are four or so spots reserved for De Novo.
Guests who want to dine at De Novo would do best to cross over the train tracks and park in the paid parking lot behind the shops on Valley Road. Parking is $0.75/hour with a 3-hour limit. However, after 7 o’clock, I believe parking there is free.
It was 6:30 when I climbed De Novo's steps and entered into the foyer.
Against the left wall was a large, bar-top style table. The actual bar was to the right. I walked straight down the walk between the tables towards the back wall, where a young girl and server stood behind a podium.
“Hi, table for one.”
“Do you have a reservation?” I looked out across the room. Nearly all of the two-top tables facing the windows and train tracks were taken. All of the bar stools were filled.
“No.” (In hindsight, I should’ve reserved a table against the windows).
The server said something but I couldn’t hear him. I followed him into the dining room, where one long, community bar-top table was. “You can sit wherever.”
I sat in the middle of the giant, grey and white marble table, near the centerpiece. I perused the menu and observed the room.
Above me, was a decorative ceiling, wooded with beams, dangling industrial lights, and a wine cork pattern.
In front of me was the beautiful bar. It had light grey, wooden plank front with hooks for purses. The seating was the same stools that I sat on.
The bar shelves were arranged perfectly. Two large flat screen TVs were mounted to the left and right of the liquor, and played ESPN with captions.
To my left was the large dining room, which was sectioned into a square with low dividers. Square tables for 4-8+ with chairs filled the space.
Exposed wooden beams wrapped in white Christmas lights drew your attention to the antique chandelier made of cutlery. I loved it.
The De Novo Menu
The only item I researched beforehand was the menu. I wanted to have an idea about what to order.
Unfortunately, it was only at this moment that I realized I skimmed over this first page of specials (took a photo) and then flipped to the full-time menu I had read online.
In total, the menu was three pages slid into a thick, engraved cover. De Novo also has a full liquor license, so part of their menu is their list of drinks.
There was a good variety of appetizers to select. Since I had been looking at the everyday menu, I was debating between the dates, the beet salad, or the ribs.
Depending on what I ordered for a dinner, I didn’t want the appetizer to be too similar. So I picked my dinner first, and to do something different, I ordered the escargot.
Escargot | $11
For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s cooked snails.
I’ve ordered escargot once before at a well-known restaurant in Wildwood, NJ. There it was smothered in butter, served in its shell.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from De Novo’s escargot appetizer.
The escargot arrived in a giant white bowl (which I loved).
There was a pool of the parsley-garlic sauce, the small orbs of escargot, a thin layer of melted gruyere, and four triangles of bread. The presentation was well done.
I tried the escargot first, to give you an idea of the flavor and texture.
If you’ve never had it before, I would say the texture is almost like a mushroom. It has a meatiness to it. Naturally, it has its own juices, which adds a layer to the combination of sauces and seasonings. There were 10+ shell-less escargots in my bowl.
The bread was a pleasant surprise. I read that it is made in-house. Based on the bread's presentation, I expected that it would be crunchy and dry like a baguette. In reality, it was toasted on the outside and fluffy on the inside, which made it perfect for soaking up the sauce.
I was hesitant about the cheese (cause I’m lactose intolerant and couldn’t remember if I actually liked gruyere). But, the thin layer of melted gruyere added a creaminess to the rest of the textures in the dish.
I finished the whole bowl, without feeling overfilled.
For dinner, I was deciding between the squid ink spaghetti or one of the fish-based entrees. (Though if I had really dedicated time to the specials menu, I would've ordered one of those).
As you know from my other posts, I like to try unique dishes or items I couldn’t make at home. As I was making my choice, I happened to read about the short ribs with polenta at the bottom of the menu.
My dad raves about the polenta my grandfather used to make for holidays when they were growing up. I never had that polenta or made any myself.
Feeling nostalgic and to see what the hype was about, I decided to order the short ribs for my dinner.
Short Ribs | $23
Of course, I tried the polenta first and my thought was: holy hell.
Polenta is cornmeal that is (usually) boiled or cooked like risotto. Chefs can add cheese, truffle, herbs, and butter to give the polenta a unique flavor.
De Novo’s polenta, to me, seemed like it had some type of cheesiness to it. This cheese added a creamy, richness to it. It was hydrated and luscious, with a bit of the cornmeal texture.
Short Ribs for the Win
On top of the polenta was the chunk of short ribs. I was happy with the size of my dish because:
I eat a lot
Some of the other dinner portions around me were more upscale. I think if I had ordered one of those, I still would've been hungry.
The short ribs f-e-l-l apart. I could easily pull it apart with my fork. The meat was high-quality and fresh (because it was piping hot). There was a bit of fat which melted into the meat.
In all, the dish reminded me of a fall pot roast, as it had that cozy feeling.
Drizzled overtop the short rib and around the plate was the short rib “gravy” or reduction. It was a thicker sauce made, presumably, from the juices of the short rib.
On top of all of that, was the shaved Brussel sprouts, cooked al dente. At first, I thought they were a plain, refreshing element to the rich dish. But then I had a forkful with a chunk of soft, browned garlic clove and it was to die for.
Garlic in food is always a win for me.
Busy Wednesday Evening
I could’ve finished my short ribs, but I decided to wrap the other half with the bit of polenta for lunch the next day.
As I waited for the busboy, I observed the room.
To my right, sitting in a line at this tall table was a family of three. The mother ordered the shrimp salad with goat cheese, arugula, and a balsamic sauce. The shrimp were giant.
The daughter ordered the cheese flatbread, which was paper thin (and I wondered if made on site?). And the husband ordered one of the specials: a bean-based dish with chunks of pork.
The couple to my left each ordered a drink and filet mignon. I never order filet mignon (I’m more of a ribeye person). The portions were obviously, small (as filet mignon is). But this couple ate all of their food, so I’m sure it was good.
My Thoughts on Hospitality
You could tell from Demetri’s circulation throughout the room that he is known for his hospitality. He hugged most of the couples at the bar, talked with the tables at the foyer, greeted the couple to my left, and waited in the foyer as guests arrived.
A packed restaurant on a Wednesday night of back-to-school week is also a testament to this attention to detail.
However, as this was my first time dining at De Novo, I did feel overlooked, especially as a single guest.
One of the bartenders came to talk to the couple to my left. He told them that their drinks were on-the-house, just cause Demetri likes to buy a first-round for guests. I watched the other wait staff by the bar lean on the wall dividers to talk with the large parties in the dining room.
The most conversation I had all evening was with the busboy, a high school or college kid with curly hair. He asked to clear my plate or wrap my food. He was the only one who seemed to take the time to notice that I was there.
My waitress, of course, was polite and told me her name when I first sat down, but that was the extent of our dialogue. No "Is this your first time here?" or "Do you have any questions about the menu?" The restaurant was mobbed, so I don't blame her for focusing on the number of tables she had throughout the room.
One could argue that larger tables receive more attention because they'll have a larger bill (and give the waitress a higher tip). But it was just ironic that I ordered an appetizer, entree, and dessert, yet guests with only entrees or drinks (like the couple to my left) received the hospitality that makes De Novo so popular.
So, the point of this section is to share constructive criticism based on my experience. I think if I had been in a group (or at least a couple), I would've received equal attention as the other people around me.
I hope if De Novo or Demitri reads this, that they will take it in stride and spread their attention equally among their local clients and new, single-person diners visiting after a commute.
I will go back to De Novo, because when it comes to their food – they’re killing it. But instead of going alone, I will bring friends or family members with me.
Now, back to the food.
Despite what I detailed above, I went to De Novo to experience the food (and share with y’all a start-to-finish food review), and that meant dessert.
Their separate dessert menu matched the leather entrée menu. It was one page, front-and-back. The front had 11 desserts, while the back offered cordials and after-dinner liquor. I did not order any alcohol with my meal. I really wanted a cappuccino or espresso but I didn’t see any listed.
Last week, after making my own version of donuts, I decided to pick something other than the profiteroles.
My waitress came over, “Did you pick a dessert?”
I apparently talk very quietly and De Novo was a packed restaurant so you have to shout. “Is the pecan pie like a normal pie but with chocolate?” I didn’t know if they meant chocolate crust, chocolate drizzle on top, chocolate coated pecans or what.
The waitress nodded (lol).
I was unsure what I was getting. But I knew I liked pecan pie, so what would a little chocolate hurt? “Okay, I’ll have that.”
Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie | $10
My dessert arrived and I could tell from the plate that it was hot. It was presented beautifully, with one drizzle of caramel and two fresh mint leaves. Kudos to the chef for making the presentation a priority.
The couple to my left, as they finished their drinks, noticed my dessert. “Wow, for a skinny girl she could eat.” The older man shouted to his wife.
Yes, sir. I can.
The pecan pie was a traditional pie, but at the bottom between the crust and the filling was chocolate chips. The pie was hot, so the chocolate chips melted into the crust, which was flaky with a hint of salt.
The pie came, supposedly, with vanilla gelato. Except I’ve had gelato and there’s supposed to be an apparent difference between the taste of gelato and ice cream, and this tasted like ice cream.
I didn’t complain though, cause it melted into my pie to make a composed bite. That’s just an observation I had.
I finished my dessert because I couldn’t take home melted ice cream pie, could I?
In all, I can see why De Novo is a popular restaurant in Montclair. Not only is the interior design gorgeous, but the food (at least what I ordered), was everything I had hoped for.
I do think more attention going forward can be placed on individual guests (especially commuters literally stepping off of the train and popping into the restaurant for dinner).
From my observations, Demetri loves his community and has made a special location for guests in Montclair. I hope that the next time I visit I can also experience the full-world of De Novo.