Experience Europe at Le Salbuen!
The street outside Le Salbuen was packed. Couples looking for a bite to eat following their Saturday morning trip to the Farmer’s Market competed with groups of smartly dressed groups of teenagers and young adults, all hoping for the coveted remaining outdoor seating options. Those who are already brunching clinked cups and buttered toast. Dogs rested comfortably under the tables of their owners, looking hopeful for scraps.
Within moments of entering Le Salbuen, the senses are consumed. Vegetables sizzle in pans; information on local produce and meat is handwritten in white ink on a wall-mounted chalkboard. The scent of espresso and melting butter fills the small space from scuffed floorboards all the way up to the high ceiling. Deep green twists of plants crawl along the exposed brick wall (salvaged from Brooklyn,) repurposed Pennsylvania barnwood paneling and displays of photographs and kitchen products so precisely arranged that they appear to be pages of the Kinfolk catalogue come to life.
The coffee I desperately needed arrived at my table. I was shocked that my waitress even remembered I ordered it, considering how busy she was. But the drink was a perfectly syrupy shot of scorching liquid. I drank it quickly, burning my tongue just a bit along the way.
Boasting locally sourced dishes that cater to vegans and omnivores alike, Le Salbuen has successfully been in business since 2012. Owned by husband and wife team John and Christina (née Buenano) Salierno, the restaurant gets its name from a clever combination of the chefs’ respective surnames.
“I mostly do breakfast and lunch service, and my husband does dinner,” explained Christina Salierno, who managed to escape from her many projects for a few minutes to speak with me. Her tasks for that day included renovating her kitchen and doing some interior design consultation in town. After checking in at Le Salbuen, she went home to take care of her daughter before getting up for the next day’s breakfast service. Her husband cooks dinner at the restaurant; then they’ll switch and repeat the process again.
The Saliernos are both self-taught chefs. High school sweethearts, the couple traveled as much as they could, eating their way through France, Greece and Portugal. According to Christina Salierno, traveling expanded her palate and she was in the kitchen from an early age, helping her family peel potatoes and make Bacalhau (Portuguese-style salt cod) fritters.
“Our menu covers every base. We don’t only do organic; it’s all local from farmers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” said Christina Salierno. “Three and a half years ago [when Le Salbuen first opened] there wasn’t much of that, but I feel like there’s a great following now. [Other Montclair restauranteurs] have been a little worried about locally sourcing; it can sometimes be three times the price. We were scared in the beginning, but we knew that we’re next to the Farmer’s Market and we should just do it.”
This fearless attitude is apparent in every venture of the Saliernos. Last year they launched their clothing store, Le Willow 83, around the corner from Le Salbuen. “My husband and I love fashion; we were known as best dressed in school,” said Christina Salierno. “I wanted to open the boutique first, but we knew the restaurant would be harder so we started with that. Walnut Street doesn’t have any retail, so we went for it. People want to eat and shop.”
In fact, when there’s a long line for brunch, Salierno recommends that customers browse Le Willow 83 and have a coffee on the house while they wait.
And it is worth the wait. Breakfast at Le Salbuen is full of creamy decadence. Sweet options include roasted balsamic drizzle and goat cheese atop raisin bread, (Le Snack, $4) or quinoa porridge with currants and caramelized walnuts ($6.) If you’re looking for something savory, there are a variety of unique egg dishes: poached with cherry venison sausage and avocado, (The Forest plate, $11) a frittata with local gruyere cheese ($10) or an omelet with dill and sun-dried tomatoes ($10.) But there is also scrambled tofu ($11) and the particularly filling Portuguese French Toast, ($12) loaded with caramelized figs, sausage and honey.
A lunch of pulled duck mini-croissants ($12) is sweet and salty, overflowing with tiny carrots and tender duck. The fowl is also served in taco form, ($10) bursting with pickled cabbage and lime emulsion.
Avocado Hummus Mousse ($7) is just one of the small plate “Le Snack” options at Le Salbuen. Whipped to perfection, the mint-hued dip comes with an array of pita slices. But I’d recommend an order of sweet potato fries ($5) alongside for a more exciting pairing.
The vegetable croque appetizer ($9) is a mélange of quinoa, vegetables and black beans. A bit heavy, the flavor becomes more lively after a swim in the accompanying (vegan!) lemon garlic aioli. The fried rolls are balanced when followed by one of Le Salbuen’s salads.
Choosing to highlight underappreciated crunchy options like pine nuts and toasted pumpkin seeds, Le Salbuen’s salads are pleasantly surprising. The Local Organic Beet ($11) comes with greens, goat cheese and apple to balance out the earthy star of the dish. If you’re not a fan of leafy greens, the Raw Carrot Salad ($10) is sweet and fresh with mint and avocado dressing.
For hot, hearty meals, Le Salbuen makes an impressive Braised Short Rib (M/P). Bathed in Chianti and tomato compote, the rib is cooked supremely well and rests upon dreamy, garlicky mashed potatoes. Tofu or Chicken Makhani ($22) is a vibrant tomato-based curry with a cooling yogurt sauce over rice.
The Saliernos’ love for their customers shows; at every dinner service I’ve attended, the chefs have passed out a complimentary amuse-bouche or beverage sample. One meal was finished off with complimentary green tea shots, which was preferable to a dessert.
“We have a great following here, and our customers are basically family,” said Christina Salierno, describing the gifts people have brought in for her young daughter. It’s a mutual admiration society.
Recommended dishes: Quinoa porridge, house-made turkey sausage, pulled duck croissants, avocado hummus mousse, braised short rib; many vegan and gluten-free options, but the kitchen is not certified gluten-free.
Drinks and wine: BYOB
Price: at breakfast, small plates $4-7; eggs and sandwiches $9-11; at lunch, small plates $3-7; salads $9-13; sandwiches and large plates $10-15; for dinner, appetizers $8-12; burgers $15-18; entrées and pasta $22-M/P; juices and protein drinks $4-8.
Hours: breakfast, lunch served Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m to 3 p.m; dinner served Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Parking: There is on-street parking, metered and unmetered, nearby.
Reservations: Accepted, recommended for a party of 4 or more.
Credit card: All major cards accepted.
Wheelchair access: Café is on one level, but a somewhat tight squeeze. There is a small restroom.
Bonus Tip: Grab a sweater and take advantage of the outdoor seating before it’s too cold.