Le Salbuen has been an integral part of the Restaurant Renaissance on Walnut St. in Montclair. Owned by the husband and wife team of John and Christina Salierno, Le Salbuen is part bistro, part neighbor’s kitchen. The menu is a travelogue of international flavors and influences that have been passed along and shared like heirloom china at a family dinner table. And don’t get me started on the food because the editors will probably scold me for using too many exclamation points!
John’s passion for food started when he was a child. His grandmother was a housekeeper in England before coming to America. The experience of cooking for others started a family tradition of which Grandma would be proud.
At the age of nine, after mastering his grandmother’s pancakes, John began cooking breakfasts for himself daily. Over the years John explored the world of food, using travel, and the handy Zagat guide, as sources of inspiration to recreate dishes that could be considered culinary travelogues of places near and far.
Here’s a secret, that’s not much of a secret anymore: John is a triathlete and is hardcore into fitness. Combine that with being a foodie and suddenly it becomes apparent that decadence of his recipes comes from spices, fruit and vegetables, instead of the old standbys of salt and butter. Can it still be called comfort food if it’s actually good for you? We’ll have to think about that question and get back to you after we have another plate!
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Christina’s passion for food comes from her Portuguese heritage, but she’ll be the first to stop a food writer from calling LeSalbuen anything other than World Cuisine. Like many Portuguese households, women spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Tasks were handed down and in the process a heritage of flavors and techniques were shared with a new generation.
Having met John in High School, the two have travelled the world, exploring off the beaten path places to find the real culture of distant locales. Those journeys eventually led to the Café Market idea where Moroccan Merguez Lamb Sausage is found alongside Quinoa from South America. It’s where Italian Lasagna is given a French accent by using duck, Parisian carrots, and clove thyme béchamel. Let’s not forget the beignets. Hailing from New Orleans, a city inspired by Haitian, Native American, African American and French culture, they fit in perfectly here. Another N’orleans favorite is the gumbo, but at LeSalbuen it’s vegan. (Can I get a #whodat!)
First impressions of the space leave guests wondering what filled the space before. Classic black and white tiles, pressed tin ceiling tiles, and vintage fixtures feel as if they have been there forever. The space was an empty shell a few years ago, trips to salvage companies and vintage shops filled the space to tell its story. John and Christina wanted Le Salbuen to have a familiar feel presented in a new way, all the details in the café do just that. It’s easy to think that they inherited the place from their ancestors, and in many ways they did. Guests will find themselves caught in a culinary paradox of time and place that left a sense of complete fulfillment but yet yearning for more.
Just as the café contains old things presented in new ways, so does the menu. A stand out on the menu is the DBLT : the Duck Bacon Lettuce Tomato, a new take on the American classic.
Come morning, the omelet features local free range eggs, gruyere from right here in NJ, and shallots that were sautéed in wine – talk about taking the best of the world and making all local! (Isn’t that what we Americans do best, take the best of the world and make it our own?) If that doesn’t make you rise and shine, grab an espresso. No push button espresso here; the Elektra machine uses hand-pressed grounds to create the perfect shot.
The espresso machine is just one part of the story of authenticity. Peeking behind the counter it’s surprising to see the size, or lack of size, of the refrigerator and freezer, that’s because the emphasis is on fresh, organic, and local if it’s possible. Instead of restaurant supply stainless steel serving trays guests will notice that the braised duck is being served from LeCreuset, and the Penne is being served from Emile Henry – just like grandma’s kitchen.
But don’t let all the mention of tradition fool you into thinking everything is old school. Quinoa is somewhat trendy, and most of what is on restaurant menus taste like something from a commune at Berkely, not here. The quinoa is made with dried cranberry and eggplant was topped with yogurt avocado hummus mousse. The vegan patty is made at the restaurant and if they didn’t mention it’s vegan heritage, your carnivore friends would be the first to sing its praises.
Think empanadas are a Latin American favorite? You’re partly right, at LeSalbuen the empanadas change regularly. Curry chicken was the most recent incarnation, but the braised duck is the current featured variety. A favorite discovery: the cauliflower and radish salad. This isn’t any salad, or any ordinary radishes for that matter. White radishes, traditional radishes, and watermelon radishes dance atop cauliflower that’s been tossed in a vegan lemon aioli.
In the last few years LeSalbuen has added more gluten free options, more vegan menu choices, and uses almost entirely locally sourced organic ingredients. All of this without losing the original character that Montclair fell in love with when they opened in May 2012.
Le Salbuen is a place to discover, a place to get lost in the all of the flavors and fragrances, and a place to visit again and again. Upon each visit the guests are left wondering if they are in Lisbon or London, in Paris or Paso Robles, in the past or in the present. (hint: it all depends on your mood that day!) There are items on the menu that are available regularly, but some specials are limited to market availability, and that’s a part of what make this gem a treat: “what will chef’s passion bring us today?”
BREAKFAST • LUNCH • DINNER
MONDAY – SATURDAY
9AM – 3PM
TUESDAY – SATURDAY
5:30PM – 9PM
97 WALNUT STREET MONTCLAIR, NJ 07042
John Lee is Black Tie and Flip Flops’ Raconteur-In-Chief: the World of food is his playground ~ the whole world! Having a Navy Dad gave John the passion to discover the world. Whether in one of Mr. Boeing’s flying machines, as an armchair traveler with a great book, or a plate beaming with the exotic flavors and fragrances, his day is all about discovering the world and sharing the stories with everyone he meets.
John cut his teeth in commercial kitchens starting in high school and continued into his undergrad years, then the media bug bit. After University he spent time at the Washington Post Company before jumping on the first internet wave in the 1990’s at some of the major players of the era. John also established himself as a culinary instructor where his style of cooking was first called “Comfort Food Remixed.” Don’t get him started on Disney Dining, but yes, he tried “the grey stuff” and it is delicious. He is also the Chair of Taste of Montclair and Montclair Restaurant Week. John jokes that he’s staying in NJ because he didn’t have enough miles to trade in for a return ticket home to San Diego, but we think he likes it here.