Fernando's [American] Grille opened last night for a shakedown period before its "Grand Opening" on the site of the old Bistro Soleil in Hightstown. Fernando's had gotten some good word-of-mouth in its former location on Rt 130 in Robbinsville, and the move to a much bigger, more restaurant-like setting from its former tiny-diner quarters should have been a time for cheers.
Unfortunately, there is much to correct before the Grand Opening. Service was worse than spotty. Although the staff was pleasant, with a max of 10 tables filled at a time and a staff of 5 wait-persons plus a seater plus a front-of-house, there should have been no lag in service, no bread-without-butter, no gaffs of any kind. That, I guess is what the shake-down period is for and hopefully that will improve. What may not improve, however, is the food. While the chef's claim-to-fame is his handling of steaks, much of the menu is seafood and pasta combos and my companion and I decided to try that side of the menu.
Crabcake appetizer was the "smooth" crabcake style; not my favorite, but when done nicely it can be great. This was underdone, bland, too salty and had no texture at all. No crisp from vegetables, no crunch from crust; it had been pan seared, but the crust (what there was of it) was soggy and the dish was served luke-warm. My companion suggested it would have been better served with crackers as a warm crab dip.
House Caesar was uninspired without enough garlic and no taste of anchovy (or worcesterchire sauce, the usual substitute) - a "safe" Caesar.
My companion's chicken pesto pasta dish was tasty, but the chicken was chewy. The pesto itself was fresh-tasting and the only nicely-seasoned thing in the whole meal. My linguini and clams were disappointing: two of the clams hadn't opened and should never have been served; the rest of the clams were sandy (no excuse possible) and the sauce was thin and oily. There was enough garlic, but no spices or herbs were present in enough quantity to make themselves known.
This is "safe" cooking and with enough exciting places out there, unless the chef changes his focus or his menu, this won't last. The service may improve during the shake-out, but a chef's choices rarely do. We'll try it one more time, to try the steaks, but with pasta & whatever entrees in the $16-$20 range and the steak in the $23-$28 range, we should have been more excited. Say what you like about the old Bistro Soleil ("inconsistant" is the word that comes most quickly to mind) but at least they took chances. Fernando's - so far, it might as well be the restaurant at a mid-sized Holiday Inn catering to seniors from Omaha.
NOTE: The Google Map and links that showed up on this page point to the OLD locations of both restaurants - Fernando's is now where Bistro Soleil shows on the map.
1124 US Highway 130, Trenton, NJ 08691
173 Mercer St, Hightstown, NJ 08520