Timing might not be Francesco Palmieri’s strong suit. He opened his first restaurant, The Orange Squirrel, in his hometown of Bloomfield, N.J., in November 2008, when the economy was in shambles.
Positive reviews and loyal customers kept him going, though, and the restaurant has sustained itself with signature items such as whole roasted bronzini and lobster Cobb salad.
Before opening The Orange Squirrel — a name Palmieri won’t explain because he likes to keep his customers guessing — the chef spent most of his career cooking nearby in New York, most recently as a sous chef at Jeffrey Zakarian’s former restaurant, Town, at the Chambers Hotel.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Palmieri started his career cooking at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center and then helped his colleagues from there open an employee-owned restaurant, Colors. He also worked as a sous chef, and later acting executive chef, at Pino Luongo’s former landmark Italian restaurant, Coco Pazzo.
Palmieri discusses some of The Orange Squirrel’s popular seafood dishes.
What kind of seafood do your customers like?
You can’t go wrong with tuna, salmon, bass, red snapper, cod, halibut. When it comes to shellfish, lobsters, scallops, clams, things that are common on the East Coast is what they go for — anything that’s recognizable.
If we try to do something more island-y, like wahoo, that’s a little more difficult for them to approach. Some people who enjoy seafood will go for it, but most people like what they know.
But you have a few somewhat unusual fish on the menu, like bronzini.
That’s been on the menu since we opened, and we sell quite a few of that. It’s basically an American-style sea bass, and it’s been brought to the forefront by a lot of restaurants in the area. If we just tell them it’s a sea bass, that’s something they can relate to. And it’s easily sourced, originally from Italy, but more and more of it comes from the tip of Africa.
How do you prepare it?
We clean it and stuff it with rosemary, thyme and lemon. Then it’s quick-seared on the grill and then put in a cast-iron skillet with white wine, olive oil, crushed garlic, thyme, salt and white pepper. Then we put it in the wood oven. When it’s done we dress it with lemon sea salt, fennel pollen and orange powder. In the spring and summer we top it with Cerignola olive vinaigrette, and in the fall and winter it gets a blood orange beurre blanc.
You also use white marinated anchovies rather than the salted, preserved kind, in your Caesar salad. How do customers respond to that?
Anchovies can be a hard sell. It has a stigma of being salty and stinky. But I think when they know you’re doing something a little bit different, they’re willing to take the chance. Ours are harvested from Italy or Spain, and they’re much meatier and plumper, and their flesh is much sweeter.
Tell me about your lobster Cobb salad.
That’s another plate we’ve had since day one. It’s a nice way to have a salad with some protein, especially the royal protein of lobster.
We use the organic greens from my garden when they’re in season, some roasted corn and pancetta lardons. That’s all tossed with a Champagne and mustard vinaigrette, topped with an avocado mousse, some deviled quail eggs, lemon sea salt, and lobster meat that I poach for only about three-and-a-half or four minutes.
Why only four minutes for the lobster?
If you cook it more than that, it gives it a different texture. It’s a little more firm and rubbery, and I like to have people experience a flavor that’s almost ocean-like.
We cook it in a court-bouillon with thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, coriander, ginger, shallots, scallions and salt. We simmer that and then drop the lobster in.
Then to stop the cooking, we don’t drop it in ice water, because that dilutes the flavor. Instead we drop it into cold court-bouillon, with ice cubes also made of court-bouillon.
Have you had trouble sourcing any of your seafood lately?
There are so many fish that are hard to source. Even halibut will sometimes go on a critical list. But those fish that are hard to source shouldn’t be on the menu. It’s not good for the fish and it’s too expensive for the consumer.