Sometimes, it is indeed possible to make a silk purse out of a sow�s ear. The once-seedy Turnpike Tavern, shuttered and vacant for several years, has been reborn as swanky Restaurant L. The completely revamped space boasts a small but comfortable dining room, cozy, wood-paneled bar and, in the kitchen, former Stony Hill Inn chef Joe Natoli.
Natoli�s menu is large and ambitious, encompassing continental classics and new American favorites from both land and sea. I found the hors d�oeuvres to be far more exciting than the entr�es � in fact, appetizer portions are generous enough that on my next visit, I may be tempted to skip the main courses altogether and make a meal of two starters. I particularly enjoyed the seafood selections, including perfect smoked trout, a rich and satisfying lobster quesadilla and a creative dish called oyster tapas � a half dozen of the briny bivalves, roasted with various toppings of cheeses and herbs.
The menu also includes a tartare section. We sampled tasty, traditionally prepared versions of tuna, salmon and steak � each presented similarly in a manner that is slightly gimmicky, but effective. The plate is brought to the table with the mound of chopped raw meat or fish covered with an upside-down martini glass. The server removes the glass to reveal the tartare, which is accompanied by crisply fried tortilla rounds, capers and chopped red onion.
Some of Natoli�s entr�es are offered steakhouse style � a simply grilled cut of meat or fish served on its own, with side dishes as add-ons. Others are served with tasty but uninteresting roasted potatoes, and what in the catering business is called a �bouqueti�re� of vegetables � a steamed m�lange of string beans, carrots and squash. In light of Natoli�s previous career as a banquet chef, this is not surprising, but given his obvious skills, I had expected his creativity would extend to even these details. In any case, those skills are evident in his spot-on preparation of domestic rack of lamb, soft and full-flavored beef shortribs and ethereal shrimp tempura. Veal Natoli, with hazelnuts and morel mushrooms, was both earthy and sophisticated, and worthy of the chef�s name.
Service at "L" is knowledgeable and friendly, the latter an apt description of the restaurant�s overall attitude. On both our visits, the horseshoe-shaped bar was packed with a genial group of suburban singles and couples, many of whom seemed to have become instant regulars. The bar serves up generous cocktails and oversized pours of wines-by-the-glass, but while the mood is fun-loving, the noise level can be high, carrying over into the adjacent dining room. I found the good spirits to be a large part of the appeal at a restaurant where a warm welcome and genuine eagerness to please is the order of the day.