You don't usually expect the chefs cooking your meal in front of you to be history and fine arts majors, but Jim Miceli and Ron Norrell prove that to run an exceptional restaurant, you don't have to learn the ropes in a college course.
Norrell started his cooking career at 16 when he was a high school student in Teaneck, cooking in a diner for spending money. Despite his fine arts degree—or maybe because of it—he moved on to other cooking jobs, becoming the food and wine buyer for Macy's before taking over as manager of the Saddle River Market.
Miceli, a history major at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania who grew up in Upper Saddle River, trained in a French restaurant in Atlanta.
They opened Gazelle Cafe and Grill, a small restaurant across from the Ridgewood Whole Foods, nearly six years ago, putting the kitchen in the front.
Norrell said, "There are only two of us doing the cooking, why hide?"
They also point to the popularity of television food shows—"people like to watch what goes on in the kitchen"—and feel they provide a "window to the restaurant business."
On a recent visit, we started with a menu standard, the farm stand salad, and mussels. The salad came with asparagus, zucchini, mushrooms, red onion, carrots, broccoli and tomatoes dressed with a white balsamic vinegar, which we thought was good but had a little less depth than regular balsamic vinegar. The salad was large, leaving a lot to take home.
The mussels were very good.
For the main courses, we ordered the night's specials: salmon encrusted with apricots and sesame and a seafood platter with shrimp, scallops, and a crab cake.
The salmon was excellent, but I had some problems with the crab cake and scallops, though not the shrimp. The crab cake was pan seared black with a dry crust, which I thought overpowered the taste of the crab while the scallops were dry. Perhaps a bit more oil would have solved the problem.
However, Norrell assured me in a phone conversation the following week that he would be sure my next crab cake at Gazelle would be brown. "People like their food cooked different ways, and we get to know what they like," he said, explaining that 65 percent of their customers are regulars.
Both dishes came with sweet potato fries, which have been a house specialty since it opened. But diners are allowed to choose their own sides if they wish.
"It's a pain in the neck, but better to let people pick their own," Norrell said.
Gazelle's typical customers are into healthy eating, he said, and there are a number of vegetarians who seek it out. The two chefs don't fry anything and buy fresh everyday.
"There's no stocking up for the week and using everything up by the end of the week," Norrell says.
Gazelle is closed everyday between 3 and 5 p.m. That's when the two chefs break for their own lunches and visit other restaurants in the area to sample the fare. Except for that two-hour break, Gazelle is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. They will open Sunday for private parties and also do catering.
There is no children's menu, and there are no high chairs, but the chefs can do a version of chicken fingers to please the occasional child visitor.
Entrée Price Range: $18 to $28
Credit Cards: Accepted