A Dining Mecca Evolves…and Evolves and Evolves
Among the constants are farm-to-table food and rustic, reclaimed decor
By Ilene Dube
A generation ago, those with a sophisticated palate in search of a place to dine in Princeton might have called it a food desert. There was French-ish Lahiere’s, serving the likes of Albert Einstein and the King of Jordan since 1919 (it closed in 2010); the Alchemist & Barrister offering up burgers and pub grub; and a handful of diners and Chinese and Greek restaurants. But about 20 years ago, all that started to change, and now Princeton and Hopewell draw fine dining enthusiasts from the greater metropolitan region. These days, all the moves and changes happen so quickly, they could be recited to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” At press time, the Fenwick Hospitality Group (Agricola) announced its acquisition of the Main Street Restaurant group. This includes Main Street Catering (Rocky Hill), Main Street Bistro & Bar (Princeton) and Main Street Café (Kingston).
At the forefront of Princeton’s dining revolution were the brothers Momo- Carlo and Raoul-opening, first, Teresa Caffe, Mediterra and, most recently, Eno Terra in nearby Kingston. These restaurants were among the first in the region to work with local farms, fishermen and grass-fed beef and poultry producers. At Eno Terra, where the philosophy is “Eat local, drink global,” a wine cellar is built from the original foundation and beams of an 1800s general store. With an inventory of 7,500 to 10,000 bottles, Eno Terra offers wines from Italy, California, France, Spain and beyond. Recent offerings included an antipasto of seared octopus with saffron and salsa verde in a squid ink emulsion, black spaghetti with Calabrian chili, and a seafood brodetto with monkfish, shrimp and calamari.
A MOVEMENT TAKES OFF
“This area as a whole seems to be very food savvy and willing to try new things,” says the Peacock Inn Executive Chef Jason Ramos. These days, “there are a lot of really good restaurants in the area, so it pushes everybody to step up their game.”
Stepping up its own game, the Peacock Inn-another Princeton institution-re-opened a few years ago, after a three-year renovation during which ownership changed hands. Diners enjoy contemporary American cuisine made of ingredients from local farms and purveyors served on elegant and luxurious cutleries (similar to Nella Cutlery). The Peacock Inn has garnered a listing among the “Best New Restaurants” in New Jersey Monthly Magazine.
“Our commitment to providing as close to a perfect experience for each guest as possible is what sets the Peacock Inn apart from other restaurants,” says Jersey-bred Ramos, a Culinary Institute of America grad who garnered recognition at the Harvest Moon Inn in Ringoes, Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi’s in New Brunswick, and a plate full of others. “We change menu items three to four times a month, which keeps it exciting.” Portuguese octopus with fingerling potatoes, shishito peppers, black garlic, arugula and Morcilla were among the temptations on the winter menu.
When asked what he predicts will follow the farm-to-table trend, Ramos says “I don’t think locally grown ingredients are being replaced. At the Peacock, we try to use local products as much as possible and I think people appreciate that. There are always trends coming and going in the food world, but I don’t think locally grown ingredients is one of them.”
Agricola, located in the century-old building Lahiere’s vacated, is founded on a farm-to-table philosophy-the very name is Latin for farmer. Agricola was founded in 2012 by Jim Nawn of the Fenwick Hospitality Group that operates Panera Bread franchises in New Jersey. Nawn also owns the 112-acre preserved Great Road Farm, which supplies Agricola with its kale, watermelon radishes, rutabagas and more than 100 kinds of produce. A year after Agricola opened, a New York Times reviewer proclaimed “its offerings are exactly what many diners prefer: simple dishes skillfully rendered.”
At press time, a search was on for Agricola’s third chef. “We are actively looking for a new chef and have had interviews as well as a few tastings,” said Nawn. “Fortunately, having a strong team in place allows us to proceed at a pace where we can look for the right talent and fit.
“We have stuck true to our menu concept of rustic food sourced locally that we have been known for since we opened,” Nawn continues. “We’ve increased our use of vegetables from Great Road Farm and for the first time, raised animals and used the pork, beef and lamb sourced there. We change the menu frequently during the growing season to ensure we’re using the best and most seasonal produce, while also giving us the opportunity to ferment, cure and pickle throughout the year, using these ingredients in the kitchen and bar, even during the winter months when little is coming out of the ground.”
The farm was able to provide ingredients for kimchi and fermented chili paste, Nawn reports, and has just started making polenta from a kind of corn that farmer Steve Tomlinson experimented with. “This spring should supply us with some amazing greens, spring garlic and onions, ramps, and for the first time, asparagus,” says Nawn. “We are always excited to find different ways to incorporate these classic signs of springtime onto our menus.”
NO SUCH THING AS… TOO MUCH PIZZA
The great American tomato pie comes in many forms these days, from the old standby at Conte’s on Witherspoon Street to flatbread served at upscale chain Seasons 52 in MarketFair, with toppings such as artichoke, goat cheese, arugula, cremini mushrooms and blackened steak. At press time, Jules Thin Crust, a Bucks County favorite in Doylestown and Newton, Pa., announced its plan to move into the former Subway shop on Witherspoon Street. Jules uses local ingredients for interesting toppings-the Mexican comes with chili-lime black bean spread, mozzarella, sweet corn, fresh chopped organic tomatoes, red onions, scallions, cilantro and spicy sour cream. Gluten-free crust makes it an option for those with food sensitivites. However, it cannot compare with homemade pizza. These days anyone can build your own pizza in the comfort of their home with the ingredients they like and do not have to compromise on the taste. Some places have services where that provide custom-made pizza options. But if you want a restaurant experience you might find a few who are willing to tailor-make them.
Osteria Procaccini announced that Terra Cotta Oven, presently serving artisanal pizza with organic ingredients and a thin crust in Kingston, will open on Nassau Street next to Porta Via, replacing the former Naked Pizza, but those who must avoid gluten are warned that even its gluten-free dough is cooked in the same terra cotta oven.
Nomad Pizza began out of a 1949 yellow REO Speedwagon truck belonging to founder Tom Grim (formerly one of the Toms behind Thomas Sweet ice cream and confections), catering parties, weddings and farmers markets. When it opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Hopewell-herb beds on the restaurant’s brick patio grow fresh arugula and basil in season-customers waited in line for hours to get a taste of the 850-degree-wood-oven fired Neopolitan pizza, made with, you guessed it, local and organic ingredients. And so the partners opened two locations in Philadelphia. In spring, they will launch a new restaurant in the Princeton Shopping Center.
“We hope to be open in May,” says Grim, “but with restaurant openings, you never know what delays might happen. In the beginning we will open six days a week for dinner only, then later for lunch on weekends and ultimately lunch on weekdays. Salads and desserts will be expanded and we will have a soft ice cream machine, draft root beer and coffee.” Grim’s vision includes herbs grown in pots around the former garage site.
Hopewell-based design group Groundswell is creating an industrial/rustic interior, using reclaimed and repurposed materials. Maybe they would incorporate signs for restaurants as well. Additionally, two garage doors will open to outdoor seating and the patio will have a retractable roof for weather protection. Inside, the kitchen will be open so customers can watch Grim’s business partner, Stalin Bedon, shape the dough and add toppings.
“We are considering selling one of our Philadelphia pizzerias so that we can better focus our energies in Princeton,” says Grim, who never imagined such success. He grew up in Appalachia, “dirt poor,” he says; his father’s dump truck was also the family car, and they would go to the drive-in cinema in the truck. “We loved it. We would climb up to the top for a great view of the movies.”
His love for cinema continued into adulthood, establishing the Thomas Sweet Outdoor Cinema series at the Princeton Shopping Center for a number of years, and one of the Philadelphia Nomad Pizzas offers a cinema night.
Ice cream, chocolate, pizza, root beer, movies-what Americans love best. Is that his formula for success? “I think we got lucky. I just do what appeals to me and it seems to translate well. I didn’t really choose pizza. I was making it at home for years and we just decided to turn it into a business.”
ON THE MOVE…
Grim is far from the only nomad to take his food business on the road. Some restaurants, such as The Taco Truck, started as roving vehicles and became brick and mortar. In the Princeton Shopping Center, The Taco Truck serves food purportedly authentic to the taquerias of Mexico. The “Pescado” includes catfish, red cabbage, pico de gallo and chipotle salsa. The Taco Truck, which seeks to expand brick-and-mortar locations, claims minimal impact on the planet and with only 44 seats, that is believable.
Owners Kathy Klockenbrink and Kim and Amin Rizk started their successful Jammin’ Crepes-also with seasonal ingredients from local farms and rustic chic décor from reclaimed materials; beverages are served in Mason jars and the flatware looks like what your grandmother passed down-as a stand at the Princeton and West Windsor farmers markets before establishing their popular brick-and-mortar business on Nassau Street. While demand says they should expand, Klockenbrink says they want to focus on doing everything right, but the partners do plan to add a food truck. Stay tuned.
Among other restaurants that move is elements, leaving its beautiful stone building on State Road (it always reminded me of the modernist Vandamn house in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) and arriving on Witherspoon Street, upstairs from Mistral, also owned by Stephen Distler and elements Executive Chef Scott Anderson. Using, of course, locally sourced ingredients, Anderson works to draw out the purest flavors to transform the classics into the new. With just nine tables, the focus is on prix fixe tasting menus.
The 41-year-old chef “falls on the madman side of the culinary divide, lanky haired and unshaven in his open kitchen, tweezering truffle-strewn langoustines and torching Shunkyo radishes to picture-perfection,” wrote Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LeBan. “…it’s easy to imagine elements evolving into one of the region’s most exciting dining destinations.”
As Distler and Anderson downsized elements, they grew Mistral-named one of the state’s 25 best by NJ Monthly-from 45 seats to 130, and brought along the liquor license with Elements, as well as the North-by-Northwest decor. The menu is divided into “small bites,” “from the fields,” “from the land” and “from the water” (and, of course, desserts).
New Jersey was known for its diners, modeled after dining cars on trains, and now Princeton is turning an historic train station into a restaurant. Coming in spring, Princeton’s beloved stone Dinky station will become another fine food outpost run by Agricola and Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group.
The university purchased a liquor license from restaurateur Jack Morrison, who owns Witherspoon Grill and Blue Point Grill. “The plans they have developed will offer attractive options for commuters, theatergoers, campus and community residents,” said Kristin Appelget, director of community and regional affairs and a member of the university committee that selected the group.
The bar, slated for a 2016 opening, will seat 60, and the restaurant will seat 125 inside and 50 outside when it opens in 2017. The restaurant will feature a French-influenced menu that, like Agricola, will emphasize locally sourced ingredients.
THAT OTHER DINING MECCA
Hopewell, formerly a sleepy Vermont-like town, has become a dining mecca of its own in recent years, with perhaps the crowning jewel opening at the end of 2015. With diners coming from New York and Philadelphia, getting a table at Brick Farm Tavern has been a challenge since day one. Under the direction of Executive Chef Greg Vassos and General Manager Mike Lykens, Brick offers drinks (even the cocktails are made from local ingredients), dinner and a view of the farm in a renovated 1800s farmhouse. The interior is warm wood and stone with original fireplaces in every room. Even the windows are set in wood that has witnessed the ages, and the bar has been crafted from wood repurposed from the Charles Lindbergh estate in Hopewell. The open kitchen is clad with spanking white subway tiles and stainless steel equipment and two wooden chef’s tables running down the middle.
Using the best ingredients from Double Brook Farm and other local growers and artisanal purveyors, owners Robin and Jon McConaughy say it all began with one cow. The former executive recruiter and hedge fund manager wanted to know where their food comes from, took up farming and opened Double Brook Farm Market on Hopewell’s Broad Street in 2013. Their precepts are humane and ethical animal treatment, energy sustainability and keeping it local. Hopewell’s hills are alive with animals grazing on pastures; the animals are never given hormones or antibiotics and are “harvested” at an on-site abattoir, with an attempt to use the whole animal. The tavern even offers options for vegetarians, and a casual menu at the bar.
“The Tavern is just one piece of a big puzzle,” says Jon McConaughy. “Our challenge now is to make sure all the pieces fit together. We always planned to have the farm, the market and the Tavern linked through classes and events. For example, we will have things like pasture poultry days where customers can help collect eggs, see how the birds are raised and ask questions and then take those eggs back to the Market or Tavern for a farm breakfast. Rather than just coming to get breakfast, they get to do something with the family, get out in the sunshine and truly understand from where their eggs originate.”
Behind the restaurant, Troon Brewing LLC will convert one of the existing barns into a brewery with a focus on local ingredients. Troon plans to produce uncommon and unique beers, beers that have been aged and beers that have been produced from ingredients that have been aged. The small size of the barn limits the amount of beer Troon can produce so it is anticipated that the beer will be consumed at the Tavern or purchased for off-site consumption.
Sourland Mountain Spirits will occupy another existing barn on the Tavern site. Production will begin with gin, apple brandy, bourbon and eau-de-vie. The by-products of the brewery and distillery will go back to the farm as a feed supplement or fertilizer. Troon is expected to be operational by June, and Sourland Mountain Spirits near the end of the year.
The Brick enterprises are far from a mom-and-pop operation. “We raise 1,000 egg layer chickens and 15,000 meat birds a year, 1,000 turkeys and 500 pigs,” says McConaughy. “We just started raising 30 goats and have 500 sheep a year and are starting ducks and rabbits. We own breeding cattle that are managed for us in Virginia at Lakota Ranch and the offspring are raised in Pennsylvania at Thistle Creek Farm. We own roughly 500 acres and lease about 250. We buy chicks, but the pigs, lambs and goats are born, raised and slaughtered on the farm by a farmer who has been with the animals throughout their pasture-raised lives.”
We knew from the start, adds McConaughy, “that it did not make sense to raise the animals right and then lose control at the time that mattered most. The ‘harvest’ of an animal is the unfortunate inevitability of being raised for consumption. Slaughter has very negative connotations-the term slaughterhouse does not generate positive thoughts-but the slaughter has to take place in order for us to get the nourishment for which the animals gave their lives. We think the French name ‘abattoir’ generates less of a negative image.”
The animals are raised on the farm with the abattoir in sight, and when it comes time for their necessary end, stress is minimized. There is no transport or unfamiliar handlers or pens which can cause stress and affect the quality of the meat. “Even though we raise a lot of animals, we strongly believe they are not commodities and we want that to be true throughout the whole process,” says McConaughy. “The Tavern becomes an important part of our farm vision that allows us to control the whole process and, therefore, produce food that is good for us, the environment, the animals and our taste buds.”
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING SPICY
After all that ethical food production and locally sourced ingredients, we might be craving something imported, ethnic and spicy. Mamoun’s Falafel, a favorite in New York’s Greenwich Village since the 1970s when the Village Voice wrote “Henry Kissinger can take a lesson in diplomacy-Mamoun has Arabs and Jews sitting at the same table,” opened on Witherspoon Street more than a year ago, offering kebobs, shawarma, spinach pie, and falafel. It will be joined in late winter by Marhaba, a favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in Lambertville. Moving to the former Cheeburger Cheeburger spot at 182 Nassau Street, Marhaba will offer a more extensive menu than in its original location, as well as brunch and belly dancing.
One of America’s favorite ethnic cuisines is Italian, and of course there’s much more to Italian food than pizza. Trattoria Procaccini, replacing North End Bistro on Nassau Street near the Whole Earth Center, will be an authentic trattoria: offering a wider selection than an osteria, but not as formal as a ristorante. The menu of Trattoria Procaccini will feature garden-fresh soups and salads, the owner’s Mamma’s meatballs, papardelle Bolognese and cacio e pepe.
Also new is Aurelio’s Cocina Latina on Leigh Avenue, in the former Café 44 space, serving cuisine from Mexico and Guatemala: pupusas, empanadas, tortas and tacos with your favorite fillings.
At dinner there’s ceviche and Mariscada a la Mexicana with shrimp and mussels (not on the menu; be sure to request it). Aurelio’s is where you can fill your belly without spending a whole lot, though you can also spend more money by ordering some of the dishes that promise to feed five: Botana Mi Pueblo or Boquitas Chapinas, dinners of spicy pork loin, grilled sausage, chicken and beef, along with guacamole, refried beans, mole sauce, chips and cheese. And the pupusas and corn tortillas are gluten free, according to a server.
Aurelio’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here you can have your huevos and eat it too-order the huevos “al gusto.” Go for the gusto!