Posts Tagged ‘new jersey’

Chef’s Table at elements – Princeton, NJ

August 29th, 2010

Last week was the first anniversary of the launch of taetopia, as well as the night my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary by dining at the chef’s table at elements in Princeton, NJ. This was apropos since a dinner at elements one year ago was what inspired me to launch my blog. Sous Chef Joe Sparatta was in charge of this incredibly luxurious nine-course meal. Here’s a photo journal of our dinner. I recommend clicking on the photos to get the full view of these plates of art (once you view a photo, use your browser’s “back” button to return to the post). Many thanks to everyone at elements who made our anniversary so special, and for continuing to inspire me.

Rob’s Bistro – Madison, NJ

January 7th, 2010

Rob’s Bistro
75 Main Street
Madison, NJ
973-377-0067

http://robsbistro.com/

Rob’s Bistro opened in December of 2009. The restaurant is the brainchild of Chef Rob Ubhaus, chef and owner of the excellent Resto, which I wrote about in October. Chef Ubhaus seems to have a knack for knowing what Madison needs and filling the gap, or perhaps he is simply in the right place at the right time. Either way, Rob’s Bistro is a new concept for the area (if one disregards The Show Bistro that lived a very short life in Chatham a few years back), providing the neighborhood with a very fine traditional French bistro.

Decor and Ambiance:

Rob’s Bistro is in the space formerly occupied by the satisfactory but rather blah Terre Mare, and directly next door to Resto, the similar signage reflecting the relationship of the two restaurants. Chef Ubhaus has removed the imposing stucco frontage, replacing it with full glass windows. The interior is inviting in warm earth-tones, featuring wood tables and chairs, with unfussy table settings with stemless glassware.

On the walls are oil landscapes in pastel pallettes by the same artist whose paintings are featured in Resto; an artist I’m not over the moon about to begin with. They’re not distracting, just rather boring, especially having seen the same numerous times in the sister restaurant. I would have preferred photographs of French bistro life perhaps, or paintings by a different artist. This is truly a minor distraction however. When the menu arrives, pretty much all else is forgotten.

Our Menu (from various lunches and dinner):

Appetizers:
– Soupe à l’oignon gratinée
– Soupe du jour (cauliflower)
– Cheese & charcuterie platter
– Chèvre & caramelized onion tart

Entrees/Sides:
– Seared chicken breast salade – frisée, lardons, fines herbs, dijon vinaigrette
– Rob’s Bistro burger – bacon, caramelized onions, Les Freres cheese
– Croque monsieur
– Jambon & gruyère crêpe
– House roasted turkey and brie crêpe – granny smith apples
– Coucroute garnie – pork, bacon, and sauerkraut
– Entrecôte – rosemary potato gratin
– Buttered noodles

Desserts:
– Crème brûlée
– Chocolate mousse

Visit their website for the full menu.

Pictured left to right: soupe à l’oignon gratinée; chèvre and caramelized onion tart; coucroute garnie; entrecôte; crème brûlée.

Degustation:

Rob’s Bistro serves the best French onion soup I’ve had in a long time. Possibly ever. The broth itself is well-seasoned, meaty and a touch herbaceous, with a beautifully rich texture. The cheese is melted, not darkly browned, so that it is easier to eat than when one comes up with a clump of cheese that was broiled into one solid mass, as I’ve found is typical of most restaurants. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that this way you are able to enjoy separate bites of warm, soft cheese, and maintain a bit of decorum.

The cheese and charcuterie platter presented a very nice variety when we had it – three cheeses and a couple of dried sausage, with the typical garnish of country mustard and cornichons. I imagine the cheese and meats will change depending on what is available and at the chef’s discretion. I would have preferred that the toast that came with it be a bit thicker or the cheese softer. Spreading cheese on the thin pieces of toasted baguette was impossible, but that did not stop us from devouring every morsel.

The chèvre and carmelized onion tart is distinctly different than other cheese and onion tart I’ve tasted. The firm pastry crust is a sturdy container for sweet, thinly sliced, caramelized onions, which are then topped with a cool and incredibly creamy goat cheese. It comes atop a salad of chopped frisée, which is a nice peppery foil for the sweetness of the onions and cheese.

The highlights of the entrees we sampled go to the Bistro burger, a deliciously moist and distinctly home-made style hamburger; the fresh house-roasted turkey crêpe with caramelized onions and granny smith apple, which is perfectly sweet and savory; and the entrecôte, a beautifully tender, juicy cut of beef.

While the entrecôte and the pork of the choucroute were nicely seared, I found them a bit under-salted. However, this is personal preference. I tend to season meat with reckless abandon.

Even more delicious than the noted entrees were two of the sides. The rosemary potato gratin, which was served with the entrecôte, is hands down the best gratin I have ever been served. It is well scented with rosemary, with a creamy, tooth-giving texture enveloped by a parchment-crisp crust. The buttered noodles were plain buttered egg noodles, but so well seasoned with parsley and pepper that it could have been an entree (which, as it turns out, is indeed often served to children as a main course). Both sides may be ordered on their own from the sides selections of the dinner menu.

I will need to make a few more trips to get to some more of the desserts, as I tend to be a glutton for the savory stuff, but I highly recommend the crème brûlée. There’s just the right amount of custard, while the sugar is delightfully thin and breaks with a satisfying crack. I overheard that the tarte tatin is made-to-order, and is definitely on my wish list.

Service:

The host, while a perfectly nice gentlemen, seems a bit lost in his role. It’s as if he can do only one thing at a time, and is not entirely sure what that one thing should be. He is genuinely concerned that the customers are enjoying their experience, but that’s pretty much where his involvement ends. I have seen him bus a table or two on occasion (there is no busser, only the servers and the host), but not nearly lend his hand to the dining room as he could have, which I find mildly frustrating to observe.

The servers however, we have met four, are great (although one of them, as well as the host, make the cringe-inducing error of calling me and my guest “guys”). They are willing to take time to discuss the menu and customer preferences. There is one woman, Lisa, whose service impresses me greatly. During service she is always there, but never hovering, and seems to know what you need almost before you need it. In my opinion, servers like that are worth their weight in gold, and I hope she has a long and successful career with Chef Ubhaus.

End:

Rob’s Bistro gives a high-end impression in a comfortable atmosphere. It is not inexpensive, as dinner entrees hover in the $20 range, but the experience and food are worth it, and the fact that it’s a BYO makes it that much less expensive than it could be. Lunch prices are quite reasonable.

The downside is that there is no lunch service on Saturday, though beginning in a few weeks there will be a Sunday brunch. Reservations for dinner are strongly recommended, as my guest and I watched the place fill up on a Wednesday night to capacity. Children are welcome, but the crowd tends to lean toward the older set.

Rob’s Bistro is sure to become our personal choice for casual dining in Madison. It’s an absolute delight.

Resto – Madison, NJ

October 6th, 2009

Resto is a charming 26-seat BYO restaurant on Main Street in Madison that serves, per their website, contemporary French cuisine. I’d say that description could be stretched to include some southern and continental fusion. Whatever the description, dishes here are certainly creative, thoughtful and new. It is a particularly welcome establishment for an area that suffered from too many Italian restaurants, mourned the loss of the very fine Mama Tucci Ristorante (yes, Italian, but good) and then celebrated the loss of the mediocre Piccolo who each retired from the space Resto now occupies.

Decor and Ambiance:

While the decor by Mama Tucci was warmly Tuscan in hues of ochre, sunflower yellow, and rose red, Piccolo downgraded that to a finish that could only be described as “brown.” Both establishments offered customers a tiny restroom inconveniently located in the kitchen. Diners would have to go up four stairs through the kitchen, trying not to bump into anything (or anyone) at the chef’s station (me hoping they washed their hands), and the service station on the main level was mostly open to public view, a pet peeve of mine.

Resto has managed to brighten the place considerably in provincial white, green, and yellow, with tastefully appropriate oil paintings of the French countryside. It is quite a feat to have created a feeling of light and warmth using only wall color, paintings, and votives. I’m beginning to see a theme where less decoration may mean be better food.

The charming thing for me is that through these changes and renovations, the light fixtures the owners of Mama Tucci had purchased are still in place. It tickles me.

Oh, and the bathroom? Now it’s luxuriously big and on the main level; no longer in the kitchen.

The restaurant is small, so not appropriate for impatient children or very loud parties.

Menu (from various dinners and brunch):

Appetizers:
– Sweetbreads – porcini dusted with beet sauce
– Crisp Australian Filet Mignon “Wellington” – foie gras “au poivre” creme fraiche
– “Soup & Sandwich” – chilled green zebra virgin “bloody mary” & comté grilled cheese
– Lamb Pâté – pickled onion, truffle creme, glaciale

Entrees:
– Seared Flat Iron Steak – porcini mushroom bread pudding & truffled red wine reduction
– Grilled Pork Tenderloin – bacon-scallion corn bread & hazelnut romesco sauce
– Roasted Lemon-Thyme Quail – warm wild rice & farmer’s market ratatouille salad
– Barnegat Light Day Boat Scallops – fennel, asparagus, fingerling potato ragout & smoked tomato sauce

Brunch Dishes:
– Steak Frites
– Sea Bass – white bean, tomato, mitzuna & spring onion salad

Desserts:
– Funnel Cake – black mission fig jam
– Chocolate Mille-feuille – raspberry coulis
– Pumpkin Pie Mousse – gingerbread tuile

Pictured: Sea Bass, Steak Frites, Sweetbreads, Grilled Pork Tenderloin

Degustation:

There’s the old saying that one should not trust a skinny chef, but I’d give Chef Ubhaus an exception.

Sweetbreads are a touchy food, and downright nasty when they are over or under cooked. We were impressed that these were cooked slightly crisp outside and incredibly tender, very light inside. Though I have had plenty of beet purees, I don’t recall having a beet sauce. It enhanced the subtle earthiness of the dish. This was a special on the menu, which is too bad because I would love to order it again.

The Australian Filet Mignon “Wellington” is ridiculously rich and a bit oversize for an appetizer. This portion could easily serve two. Imagine instead of the mushroom duxelles being on top of the meat, it is rolled up inside the meat and the pastry crust and then deep fried into a sort of Wellington egg roll. It pretty much goes directly to the heart on many levels. One must have it, and probably should share it.

I loved the “Soup & Sandwich,” probably because it combines so many things I love, namely: Comté, melted cheese, cheese in general, tomatoes, chilled soup in the summer, anything reminiscent of tomato soup and grilled cheese, and dishes that have hot-and-cold elements. The soup itself has a very nice kick of heat, resembling a green gazpacho. The lovely little grilled cheese with is, well, grilled cheese, which hardly needs improving.

The lamb pâté was delicious enough to keep us from being completely distracted by the ficoïde glaciale, or “ice lettuce,” which had been written about in the New York Times in late September. A green reminiscent of arugula, but crispy and not so peppery, Chef had dressed this with a light vinaigrette, and added pickled onions and a truffled creme which served as perfect companions to the country-style pâté.

The steak and the pork tenderloin were both perfectly prepared, but it was their accompaniments that really stood out. The porcini bread pudding, aside from having a delicious autumnal flavor, was the perfect texture of creamy and crusty. And the pork nearly became a delivery system for the cornbread with smoky bacon and scallion, and the creamy hazelnut romesco sauce.

The quail had a lovely crisp skin and the meat was tender, but there was an awful lot of rice and sadly not much ratatouille to be seen.

The scallops were also nicely seared, and the asparagus/fennel/potato ragout is a great combination, but my companion felt the serving too large and thus too rich and felt it would be better as an appetizer. I felt that if the sauce had been a more vibrant sauce (wine or lemon) it would not have been quite so overwhelming. The smoked tomato sauce was delicious, but I thought it would have been better with pork perhaps.

Brunch is not being served at Resto at the moment. They purchased the restaurant space that is directly next door, formerly occupied by Terra Mare, and are working on a bistro to open in October or November that will serve brunch. This is good news because brunch at Resto is simply out of this world. See the steak frites and sea bass photos above. In addition to these savory entrées, Chef makes a fantastic scrambled egg with truffle, among omelettes, crêpes, and other lovely brunch dishes.

Desserts so far have been underwhelming. While the funnel cake was deliciously warm and crisp, the black mission fig jam that went with it was, while nicely figgy, cold and slightly gummy, so it couldn’t be spread. The chocolate mille-feuille was really disappointing, with what should have been a crisp pastry being too moist and the chocolate filling too cold, as if the entire thing had been kept in the refrigerator. The pumpkin mousse itself was incredibly good; it was heavenly light and not too sweet. However, the candied pumpkin seeds were chewy, and the ginger tuile was not at all crispy or gingery, a total distraction from how perfect the mousse was.

Service

Service here is genuinely warm. One is made to feel that they’re actually happy to see you. The host and servers work together to create a fairly seamless experience. Chef Ubhaus does come and visit when he has time, and he likes to talk about food and purveyors, and will eagerly answer any questions.

End

Although there are some downsides to the cuisine (in large part the dessert) the plusses far outweigh the cons. Resto is a great neighborhood restaurant, worth traveling to for a special occasion, a relaxed dinner with one’s partner, or a casual business dinner. I’m looking forward to its sister restaurant, and the return of brunch!

elements – Princeton, NJ

August 18th, 2009

For many years, my husband and I would celebrate our wedding anniversary with the gourmand tasting menu at Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, NJ. Among Ryland Inn’s many honors and accolades, Chef-Owner Craig Shelton had won four James Beard Awards, and the establishment earned two “Extraordinary” ratings from the New York Times. The Inn’s estate had its own beautiful, well-tended garden to provide ingredients to the restaurant. The tasting menu was a journey of familiar and new flavors, presented as little works of art. The wine parings were impeccable.

Don’t go looking for it now. It’s been closed since February 2007, when a crack was discovered in a load-bearing beam, and then a pipe burst in the basement. The historic farmhouse has been on the market several times. Chef Shelton is now working as the corporate chef of Doc’s of Sparta, a steakhouse, which boggles the mind. I haven’t been to Doc’s, so I guess I’ll just be boggled until I get there. (Last I heard, Doc’s will honor Ryland Inn gift certificates.) Needless to say, I miss Ryland Inn very much.

Enter elements.

In early 2009, I read this review [.pdf] of elements, opened in October of 2008. It was a good, though not stellar, review of the cuisine, and I was more than ready to go to a place that was being run by three former Ryland Inn employees. Clearly they listened to the reviews since they opened, further refined their work, and are answering by delivering a top-notch dining experience.

Decor and Ambiance:

elements’ exterior and interior are inviting and bright. Nothing to ooh or ah or catch your breath over. Elements are appropriately represented in the modern design – stone, wood, metal – that provide a clean canvas for the cuisine. The atmosphere is smart casual; dressed-up jeans would not be inappropriate. elements is more about comfort and pleasing the senses than being a place to Be Seen.

Bar:

We arrived early to try a cocktail at the bar. The bar is tiny, it has only four seats, meant specifically for having a brief cocktail before sitting for dinner, or waiting a moment if your table isn’t ready. It’s not a sit-and-hang bar, although I would be sure (in my wildest dreams) to have my name on a plaque on one of the stools if I lived anywhere nearby. The bartender, Mattias, is courteous, friendly, and passionate about spirits. I commented to my husband after our dinner that he really is more of a chef than a mixologist or bartender, and we found out later his title is indeed Bar Chef. Excellent.

Mattias works with his co-bar chef to create a cocktail menu that is as intriguing as the cuisine. In addition to classic cocktails like the Sazerac and the French 75, elements has some interesting offerings of their own. I settled on the “krahn lychee,” a mix of DH Krahn gin, lychee, grapefruit, ginger, and chili, served with, be-still my heart, two lychee. My husband had the “elder gin cooler,” Hendricks gin, elderflower, club soda, on the rocks. Yes, we are gin people. Both the cocktails are cool and refreshing, really perfect summer drinks. The spice in the Krahn Lychee has a pleasant kick, not at all burning.

After dinner we stopped by the bar to play with Mattias some more. He introduced us to an excellent 15 y.o. Irish Whiskey, and an Allspice Dram, and then the most fun thing of all, his very own lardo-infused Canadian Whiskey. Seriously, lardo infused. It was bacon Whiskey! I wish we had more time to spend with him; he’s incredibly knowledgeable and so enthusiastic that you can’t help but catch his excitement for good libations.

Menu (with wine pairing)

Amuse bouche: tomato sorbet / melon soup/ ham and egg salad

Appetizer (not on tasting menu): housemade Mangalista charcuterie
dom viux pressoir brut rose, saumur, france nv

Him: Kindai kanpachi – yogurt, nectarine, smoked trout roe
Me (menu substitution): Kindai tuna tartare – white soy, scallion, ginger
bernard defaix, petit chablis 2007crispy sweetbreads – ancho, smoked agave, zucchini, jalapeño
dom juillot, mercurey 2005

housemade cavatelli – fava beans, lamb bacon, grana padano
dom chartron, puligny montrachet 2006

local mushrooms – hen egg, veal reduction, summer truffle
dom arnoux, chorey les beaune 2005

Griggstown pheasant – jersey corn, tomatillo, avocado, potato
dom seguin manuel, lavieres 1er cru, savigny-les-beaune 2006

trio of Valley Shepherd cheeses
chateau vari, rsv du chateau, monbazillac, 2003

petit fours

Degustation

We came for the tasting menu. How could one possibly choose just ONE appetizer, entree, and dessert?

The amuse served its purpose as introduction to the tasting menu. The tomato sorbet was ice-crisp on the tongue, with an after-taste of salsa, which I enjoyed very much. The melon soup was a cold, refreshing cantaloupe soup, but the ham-and-egg salad was too tiny to discern much flavor. I got the flavor of ham, my husband got egg.
Unfortunately, we had to order an additional dish to the tasting menu (oh, ooh-ooh boo-hoo-hoo twist my arm), because the week before our dinner, elements hosted a special event featuring Mangalitsa pig from Mosefund Farm. We first heard about Manalitsa and Mosefund Farm in this NJ.com article. These “wooly pigs” are not only kind of adorable, we heard they were very tasty. We wanted some. We hoped there would be some left. We were in luck.

Not on the tasting menu, but on the regular appetizer menu, was the “housemade Mangalitsa charcuterie,” which we paired with the rose brut simply because we like kicking things off with a sparkling wine, and the rose brut is very pretty with a strong enough palate to hold up to pig.

The charcuterie was beautifully presented and included head cheese, pâté, two meats, and lardo. Magnificent lardo. Yes, it’s fat, spread on toast, and it is downright heavenly. I’m pretty sure I’m missing something from the plate, but I am still distracted by the lardo, a creamy spread that is more subtle than bacon, but has its own richness with a texture that, literally, melted in our mouths.
To say Mangalitsa tastes like steak, as they did in the NJ.com article, is misleading. I think what people mean is that it has a much richer mouth feel (more fat!) and a sweeter, stronger flavor than our lean, factory farmed, supermarket friend. It is definitely not gamey or overly porky. Every preparation was delicious, and the kitchen clearly had a great time working with this product. We enjoyed every bit of it.

And so the tasting menu began. I asked for a substitute for the kanpachi (which request was granted without the blink of an eye, by the way, nice touch). I’m not a big fan of very fishy flavors and thought the roe might be too much for me, but I do like tuna tartare. It was our first introduction to Kindai, which was elegantly presented. The fish has a bright clean flavor, and hardly needs much to accompany it. The wasabi was a pleasant spicy note that didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the fish.

Crispy sweetbreads were perfectly prepared, light and just slightly crispy, with a wonderful hot and sweet sauce, garnished with fried shallots.

I read that Chef Anderson sourced his cavatelli maker from eBay. Although we felt the cavatelli may have been a little *too* to-the-tooth, the beans were fresh, the housemade lamb bacon had a pleasant sweetness, and I was thrilled to have grana padano rather than parmesan. There’s nothing wrong with parmesan (or any cheese for that matter), but I’m a fan in particular of the flavor and texture of grana padano.

The local mushrooms with egg, veal reduction, and summer truffle, is just what you’d expect in upscale comfort food. The egg yolk thickens the veal reduction to make a delicious sauce, and the earthy fragrance of truffles…well, it’s truffles [insert swoon].

I have been a fan of Griggstown’s poultry (and their pot pie) since I found them at Morristown Farmers Market (more about Griggstown in a later post). The pheasant was prepared two ways, breast on a cream corn sauce [more swooning here], and a dark meat timbale atop tomatillo and avocado, much like a guacamole. I haven’t had a flavor combination like it. It was sweet and meaty, tangy and rich.

Lastly was a trio of Valley Shepherd cheeses. I love ending a meal with cheese, but it’s often so hard to understand what they’re serving (sometimes I think the server doesn’t know and just mutters a bunch of French-sounding stuff), and when you do understand, it’s cheeses that one can’t easily obtain. Alternatively, one will be served a cheese plate that is nothing more than a hard, a soft, and a medium-textured bland “bleh” with toast and grapes and browning pears. So it was a nice change to end with cheeses that I’m familiar with (more on Valley Shepherd in a later post too). We had not had the blue before, so that was a treat.

The wine accompaniment to the cheese course, the chateau vari, was not part of the tasting menu – we ordered that ourselves, letting them pick whatever they thought might pair well. They did an excellent job; the wine was a perfect dessert wine, not too sweet or flowery or viscous, a light mouth-feel with good fruit.

I won’t get into the other wines. Suffice to say they were very good accompaniments to the food. We were fortunate to be dining on a night they were featuring wines from Burgundy. My absolute favorite was the dom arnoux, a medium-bodied, ripe cherry wine, that demands something delicious to be eaten with it. Done!

Service

The service here is well orchestrated, efficient, friendly and warm without hovering. Not a detail was left out: Table cleared and new service for each plate, wine served on-time with each course (waiting for wine at a tasting is aggravating), good descriptions of both wine and food. Appropriate questions were asked. For instance, when we asked about a spice in the first course, our server (whose name, forgive me, escapes me at the moment) asked if we had any issues with spicy food as the next course featured heat – he knew the menu, and had the common sense to ask.

We easily recognized our sommelier (and elements general manager) from our times at Ryland Inn. It was lovely to hear someone explaining wines without resorting to too much obscure winespeak, and clearly describing the facts: where they come from, what flavors there are, and how is it going to go with the food.

But the thing that pleased me most was watching the teamwork. There is an obvious hierarchy on the floor; busser, server, sommelier, manager, host, etc. However, if someone saw something that needed doing, they did it. There is nothing more infuriating than watching a server or a host not clear or refill water because, “it’s the bus’ job,” or “it’s not my table.” There was none of that here.

Between the food and the service, the overall feeling of being in it together, at one point I burst out, “I want to work here!” OK, calm down, do I really want to work on the line? No, not really, but I can’t think of a better place to get a top-notch education in fine cuisine, how to run a restaurant, and how to work as a team.

After dinner our server took us on a tour of the Chef’s Table and introduced us to the chef and sous chef, both of whom were gracious with their time.

End

At one point I found myself wondering why this place was in Princeton, next to a gas station (in fact, elements resides in what used to be the service station for that gas station, really!), and not in New York City. And then I became so very very grateful that it’s not in New York because then we’d never get a table. It is also clearly important to them that they be able to procure local goods and work closely with their purveyors. I wouldn’t change a thing.

We are very much looking forward to a return visit for our anniversary. Next time it will be the Chef’s Table!

Oh, and if this post seems overly long, well, we were there for four-and-a-half hours. I would have been perfectly happy to stay another four.