Second graders in Mr. Pinner’s class at the Wicoff School in West Windsor write restaurant reviews. Hilarity and perspicacity ensue. My report here.
For the US 1 2015 Spring Dining Issue I asked owners of independent eateries across the Princeton area why they chose to go the fast-casual route.
This just in from Agricola Eatery in Princeton:
Jim Nawn, Proprietor of Agricola eatery in Princeton, announced that he and Josh Thomsen, Executive Chef of Agricola, have decided to mutually part ways. “Over two years ago, Chef Josh and I partnered in opening a very successful restaurant for Princeton. I learned and benefitted a great deal from him over that time, and while I am sorry to see him go, exciting new opportunities lie ahead for both of us. We are proud of what we have created and are grateful to have collaborated on Agricola,” said Nawn.
Chef Thomsen will be taking on a new challenge as Executive Chef at Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Florida. Replacing Chef Thomsen will be Crawford Koeniger, formerly Executive Chef at Washington House in Basking Ridge. Chef Koeniger joined the Agricola team in January. He has worked in Princeton before with Chris Albrecht, then moving to open Washington House.
“Koeniger is a talented young chef and an excellent fit for Agricola and our team. Agricola is a strong brand and we will endeavor to improve every day going forward, continuing to build on what Chef Thomsen has started,” added Nawn.
Eno Terra Post-Albrecht
After the departure last year of Chris Albrecht, this Kingston restaurant’s high-profile opening chef, the owners brought in Mike Metzner, who had once worked at Nicholas in Red Bank. Naturally, I checked in to see how things were going under Metzner. Here is my review from the April issue of New Jersey Monthly. But you’ll also want to read this postscript, because the chef situation has changed again!
“Eat Your Weedies” Foraging Workshop
Debbie Naha, a naturalist with an MS degree in Food & Nutrition from NYU will host a foraging workshop at the Mapleton Preserve (D&R Canal State Park) in Kingston from 2 to 4 pm on Saturday, April 25. After an indoor slide talk, the group of up to 25 attendees will be led on a foraging walk and taste testing. Registration is required. Phone 609.683.0483 or visit the Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands website.
Tales of Cooking & Coping (including sweet treats!)
I was sorry to have missed award-winning writer Laura Zinn Fromm’s appearances in Princeton a while back, when she discussed and read from “Sweet Survival,” her memoir-with-recipes about coping with a family fraught with mental illness. By all accounts, she is a great speaker: funny, frank, honest, and sensitive. Fromm will be at Bloomingdale’s at the Mall at Short Hills on Thursday, April 23, from 6 to 8. The store’s culinary coordinator will prepare some of the recipes from her book. The cost is $30 and includes a $25 Bloomingdale’s gift card as well as a copy of “SWEET SURVIVAL.” Registration is required. Email Sajal.Hamilton@bloomingdales.com or call 973-548-2263.
Ootsav Music Festival at Mary Jacobs Library
I can’t be accused of promoting the same old, same old. This unique springtime celebration of classical Indian culture – classical music, dance, crafts, and food – was established last year by students of Montgomery High as a fundraiser for the preservation of the library in the tiny borough of Rocky Hill, which serves both. This year’s event is on Saturday, April 25, from 5 to 9 pm at the library. Tickets ($15) and information here.
My Newest Gig: Say Hello to the Princeton Echo
Princeton doesn’t lack for free newspapers, but this latest player in town, a monthly, aims to set itself apart by the stories it chooses to cover and its slant. I’m happy to announce that I will be part of that. Each month I contribute both a restaurant feature – an in-depth profile, not a review – and a newsy/gossipy column that’s a collection of happenings and interesting developments on the food and dining scene. (If you have tips, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!)
Here are my entries for April:
The Taco Truck: Meet Jason Scott, who with partner Chris Viola, founded what started out as an actual truck in Hoboken and which recently opened its 4th brick-and-mortar location in NJ in the Princeton Shopping Center. How have Princetonians responded to this city slicker? And how has Princeton changed the way The Taco Truck is doing business? Find out here.
“Food for Thought.” This is the name of my new monthly column, a compilation of interesting developments on the Princeton area food, drinks, & dining scene. In the April issue these include:
Meatball mania: Kingston residents have gone bonkers for the meatballs, of all things, at Osteria Procaccini, an artisan pizza spot. Insiders know to scoop them up each week before they run out. What makes them so special?
Lactoman to the rescue! If you live within a 10 mile radius of Princeton, there’s a new, easy, and inexpensive service that delivers milk, cheese, and other products from local farms and food artisans directly to your door. Check it out!
Farmers market season is fast approaching, and the first batch of changes/additions concerns the Princeton Forrestal Village Market. Think more dairy, cheese, fermented goodies, and grab-and-go lunches from the likes of Bobolink Bubbly Jen’s, and Brick Farm Market.
Thanks for the Memories, Princeton Packet!
Twenty years ago I wrote my first journalistic piece ever: a modest recipe column for the Princeton Packet. As you’ll read, this propelled me on a career and lifestyle I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. But I believe that two decades is long enough for any one voice in any one place, so in the March 20 issue I said sayonara – and thanks for the memories. Here’s the transcript:
“Hard for me to believe, but I’ve been contributing food stories to this space for two decades now. My first column appeared in the Packet on April 11, 1995. It focused on recipes for Passover desserts, and I used as my source the folks behind what was then the Princeton Bakery in the Princeton Shopping Center. At least, that’s what memory tells me was the bakery’s name. A clipping of the story is lodged somewhere in the deepest recesses of my attic, to be unearthed the day I move out or they take me out feet first, so I can’t say for sure if that was the bakery’s official name. Nor can I recall the names of the owners, but I do have a clear memory of blithely showing up there to ask if they would share their best family recipes for Easter desserts. They summarily informed this so-called journalist that they were (and are, I imagine) Jewish. Oops.
That the Packet would give me – a good cook and erstwhile caterer, but not a journalist – the chance to try my hand at food writing is something I will always be grateful for. It changed the arc of my career path, eventually leading the way to full-time freelance food writing, restaurant critiquing, and even talk-radio hosting. Early on, I discovered that what the great Julia Child once said is a universal truth, to whit: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Over the years, I’ve been privileged to profile hundreds of wonderful home cooks, restaurant chefs, caterers, farmers, food artisans, shopkeepers, and cookbook writers from around the Princeton area.
Speaking of the inimitable Julia Child, it was because of my Packet work that I actually got to meet her. Around 1999 or 2000 I was trying to figure out if I should give up my then day job and, to help me decide, I signed up for a well-regarded food writers workshop. Ms. Child was one of the speakers, and she graciously talked to and posed for photos with the many attendees. (One of the main regrets of my life is that I was too insecure at the time to ask her to pose with me.) But because Princeton is a cultural locus, I did eventually get to interview national and international stars of the culinary scene, among them Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Tom Colicchio, Marcella Hazan, Pierre Herme, Rick Bayless, Mark Bittman, legendary New Jersey chef Craig Shelton, and two governors of our fair state.
Two celebrity encounters in particular stand out in my memory: Emeril Lagasse and Alice Waters. When Emeril came to MarketFair in 2003 for a book signing at Barnes & Noble, he agreed to sit down for a live, hour-long interview from the middle of the mall for my radio show, Dining Today with Pat Tanner. I was floored, first to think that he would be so generous and then, during our time together, to find that, contrary to his blustery “bam!” television persona, he is a thoughtful, kind, soft-spoken gentleman (a side of him that viewers of Top Chef have come to see as well).
As for Alice Waters, I marvel for two reasons when I think back on her visit to Princeton in 1997. She was in town to speak at an event of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), and as part of that made a visit to the Waldorf School of Princeton, which even back then had (and still has) a biodynamic garden tended by students. Local and statewide press was invited to tag along. Only I showed up! That’s because, eighteen years ago, Ms. Waters was known primarily to foodies, for her groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, CA. Her then-nascent Edible Schoolyard program had yet to attract national attention, and school gardens in general were on nobody’s radar. The other reason I shake my head when I look back on that day, is that I was given sole and unlimited access to this national treasure and, rookie journalist that I was, I ran out of questions early on. What I wouldn’t give for a do-over!
Another story I wrote around that time provides perspective on how the national and local food scenes have changed for the better. In 1999 I had to virtually beg George Rude of Griggstown Quail Farm for an interview. That was because his quail, pheasant, and other game birds were sold wholesale, to restaurants and meat purveyors like D’Artagnan. The thought of publicity that would bring locals trampling all over his farm trying to buy a bird or two was not a welcome idea. These days, his farm not only has its own full-scale retail market, but its own chef and kitchen as well. And hardly a seasonal farmers market in the state doesn’t boast Griggstown as a vendor.
Without doubt, though, my very favorite stories turned the spotlight not on celebrities or food professionals, but on our area’s talented home cooks. My second column, after the debacle that was the Easter-make-that-Passover desserts, focused on Orthodox Lenten foods. For that, two women – now dear friends – laid out a virtual feast for me, including a recipe for fish with tahini sauce that I make to this day. That column set me on an unending search for Princeton cooks with interesting or little-known heritage cuisines. To name just a few: Moroccan Sephardic Seders, Persian New Year’s feasts, Ethiopian Passover, Filipino street food, Colombian arepas, and, just last month, Mauritian fish curry.
These stories reflect the reason I accepted the offer to write a recipe column in the first place. It wasn’t to meet celebrities (which I didn’t even fathom would be part of it), but rather to research and become familiar with foods and cuisines that I knew virtually nothing about. To quote another American food legend, James Beard: “When you cook, you never stop learning. That’s the fascination of it.” This column gave me a legitimate way to indulge, expand on, and share my fascination with cooking.
I discovered early on that, as others have noted, every food story is really a people story. Chronicling the lives behind the recipes – the stories of regular folk as well as chefs and food professionals – has been my honor and privilege. Many have become fast friends as well, including Faith Bahadurian, who shares this space with me. Jim Weaver, chef/owner of Tre Piani, rolls his eyes whenever I retell the story of, after profiling him shortly after he opened his Forrestal Village restaurant, I told friends that, while he seemed nice enough, he and I just didn’t seem to connect. A month after that interview, Jim called me to ask if I would be interested in helping form a local food group dedicated to espousing “the pleasures of the table.” We, and others, went on to form the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food in 1999, one of the very first in the U.S. Back then so few people had heard of this Italian-based movement that the most common question we got asked was about slow cookers. As with Alice Waters, few publications were interested in the movement. In no time, I had published more stories on Slow Food, and in more places, than any other U.S. journalist, for which I was invited as a guest to Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto in 2000 in Torino, Italy. It all started with this column!
In 1999 I was still researching and producing stories the old-fashioned way. If I needed to find out about, say, persimmons, I would have to go to my local library, riffle through the card catalog, and check out a book or two. (Or worse, I’d have to page through microfiche.) Then I’d type up my notes on my home computer, save them to a 5-1/4-inch floppy disk, and drop that disk on my editor’s desk at Packet headquarters on Witherspoon Street. And finding persimmons in Princeton back then? Fuggedaboudit.
It took me longer than it should have to realize that the columns readers responded to most were my most personal. It’s fair to say my friends would agree that I am a very private person, and for a long time I kept myself out of my columns. But three in particular that received the most feedback were personal reminiscences. One had as its opening sentence, “It’s a wonder I like blue crabs at all,” and went on to tell of scary (but funny) childhood episodes of crabbing with my father at the Jersey shore. Another recounted how I scrimped and saved up my childhood allowance and the requisite box tops so I could send away for my first ever cookbook: The Joys of Jell-O. And I foolishly put myself at the center of a report on the work being done at Rutgers University by Dr. Beverly Tepper of Rocky Hill about the science behind “super tasters.” Only after I agreed to publish the results of my taking her test which would determine if I was a super taster, a regular taster, or (heaven forbid!) a non-taster did I realize how bad the outcome could look. Happily, I turn out to be a super taster. (Not that there’s anything wrong with tasters or non-tasters).”
I ended the piece with gratitude to all my loyal readers. I hope they will follow my food-writing exploits as cataloged in this space – just as you are doing now!
Why did it take a publisher in Maine to recognize the potential of NJ’s favorite porcine foodstuff? I can’t say, but thank goodness there’s now Pork Roll The Cookbook – and Pork Roll The Festival. Check them out – and more – here in my post on NJMonthly.com. (Including, btw, a dip recipe for your next party.)
Frankies Spuntino @ Whole Foods Princeton for a Good Cause
So how often do I make it to Brooklyn to dine? Try almost never. So when I heard that The Franks – Frank Falcinelli & Frank Castronovo – from Frankies Spuntino were cooking a meal at my local Whole Foods to raise funds for the Whole Planet Foundation, I jumped at the chance. I knew I was in for a great meal, and that happened. But the evening came with several unexpected bonuses.
Among the surprises? That the evening’s 5-course menu was Sicilian from top to bottom, that assisting The Franks was their director of operations who turned out to be a longtime chef at Princeton’s Nassau Inn (and an old friend), and that the 24 guests included luminaries from the current Princeton-area restaurant scene AND a 13-year-old whom I predict will someday be a noted restaurant critic.
The Franks led off with these two light courses: fluke crudo with Sicilian sette anni peppers & pistachio, and blood orange segments with 1 sunburst of a golden beet topped with shards of caciocavallo. The unbilled star of both dishes was the zingy, deep green Sicilian extra virgin olive oil (made from nocellara del belice olives) that Frankies imports and which Whole Foods carries. The can made for a gorgeous centerpiece:
These dishes were followed by a pasta course. Not just any pasta: fettuccine with jumbo lump crabmeat in ricci de mare sauce. For the uninitiated, that’s sea urchin. This dish had the evening’s 24 guests unabashedly going back for seconds.
Among those who named it as their favorite of the night was Shaun Orssaud, age 13, who came from Moorestown with his mother, Lisa.
Perhaps Mr. Orssaud owes his sophisticated palate to the fact that he was born in France and lived there until he was 6.
The centerpiece of the meal was this amazing slow-roasted ribeye. It was served with Ca’ Di Ponti Barbera, 1 of 3 wines poured.
Seated in this photo are Josh Thomsen, executive chef at Agricola in Princeton, and its owner Jim Nawn. (Sitting across from them, not pictured, were Lambertville’s famed Canal House duo, Christopher Hersheimer & Melissa Hamilton. As I said, even the guest list was star-studded!) Serving the 2 men is Chris Harkness, who I knew years ago when he was chef at the Nassau Inn, and who has been working with The Franks for years now. The photo below shows those 3 plus Scott Allshouse, president of Whole Foods’ Mid-Atlantic region.
Proceeds from the dinner went to the Whole Planet Foundation. Maybe I’ve been under a rock, but up until now I’ve been oblivious to the good work this organization is doing. Through its mission to alleviate poverty by providing micro-loans, it has assisted 875,158 women entrepreneurs in 61 countries (89% go to women) with $62 million in credit. To talk about Whole Foods’ charity work was an unexpected star of the evening – Michelle Mac Arthur:
Ms. Mac Arthur has been a part-time cashier at the Princeton store for only six months, but during the last holiday season she single-handedly brought in $8,000 for another Whole Foods initiative, Feed4More. By asking customers to donate $10 (or any amount) at checkout, she alone beat out 13 other Whole Foods stores in the region! She’s standing in front of an end display featuring, among other things, Frankies olive oil and the Frankies Spuntino cookbook.
New Jersey Monthly Features Best Coffee Houses from High Point to Cape May
See if your favorites made the cut in this April 2015 cover story. I contributed these 6 from Central NJ that the powers-that-be deemed among the best:
Clearly it was a tough assignment, drinking all those wonderful brews. But two in particular linger in my memory: the sidecar at Rojo’s espresso bar in Princeton, which are tandem, half-size espresso and cappuccino ($4) and a small pour-over of Crispy Hippie Dark Roast at Small World ($3.25).
Meet the Culinary Legends of Cape May and the Barrister behind the Alchemist & Barrister’s 4 Decades
The First Ladies of the Chalfonte
It is with a tinge of sadness that I share the link to my latest work. Recently, for the spring 2015 issue of Edible Jersey I interviewed sisters Dorothy Burton & Lucille Thompson, both in their late eighties. They have been in charge of the kitchen at Cape May’s venerable Chalfonte Hotel for decades, having followed their mother and grandmother before them.
The sisters, who arrived at the hotel at the tender ages of 9 and 7, became famous for their skillet-fried chicken and crab croquettes. Interviewing these warm and indomitable women and recording their story was my honor and privilege.
Just as the magazine hit newsstands, I learned that Dorothy (“Dot”) Burton died on February 24th. The latest word from the Chalfonte is that “Lucille will be back this summer,” as will Dot’s daughter, Tina Bowser, who has worked alongside her mother and aunt for several years.
My story begins on page 46.
Meet Frank Armenante of Princeton’s Perennially Popular Alchemist & Barrister
When I was assigned to interview the lawyer who in 1974 bought the old King’s Court bar-restaurant with his cousin-chemist (aka alchemist), I expected a buttoned-up, old-school Princeton type. What I encountered, to my delight, was a bit different. Read his take on the A&B’s past, present, and future here, in the March 11 issue of U.S. 1.
No Food Involved! Where to Clean or Fix Almost Anything
This is one you’ll want to print out and keep handy. For the March 2015 cover story the folks at New Jersey Monthly scoured the state for top-notch pros who can fix everything from slate roofs to antique dolls. I was thrilled to contribute these Central NJ artiste-specialists, but there are many more categories & entries in the full story:
Princeton Violins, Kingston: Violin repair & restoration
New Jersey Barn Company, Ringoes: Historical barn restoration & design
Bregenzer Bros., Hopewell: Slate & copper roof restoration & design & chimney restoration
Cane and Able, Belford: Chair caning repair (732-462-3589)
Doll Dr. Kathleen & Michael’s Clocks, Marlboro: Doll & clock repair
Olek Lejbzon Co., Newark: Astonishing range of antique and modern home furnishings repair, conservation, and refinishing
Artisans of the Valley, Pennington: Master wood-crafting design & repair
A Rare Photo Essay
I freely admit that I don’t excel at photography. But I can’t help crowing about these time-lapse-style photos I took of the (zoomed) view of the lower Manhattan skyline at sunset during a recent dinner at Battello in Jersey City. I’ll report on the excellent meal at a later date, but for now feast on these beauties:
Finally! A Food Item: Slow Food Central Jersey Farmers Market, Sunday March 1st
As I write this, more snow and a wintry mix are expected later in the day on Sunday, so take advantage of the 10 am to 2 pm time frame to stock up on locally grown and produced foods from these 15 premium vendors convening at Tre Piani restaurant in Forrestal Village:
Beechtree Farm, Birds & Bees Farm, Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, Cherry Grove Farm, Chickadee Creek Farm, Davidson Exotic Mushrooms, Frank’s Pickled Peppers, Fulper Family Farmstead, Happy Wanderer Bakery, Jams by Kim, O Made Granola, Shibumi Farm, The Artisan Tree, Valley Shepherd Creamery, WoodsEdge Wools Farm.
For my personal shopping list I’m hoping to snag: Medieval levain bread & Jonathan’s cultured butter from Bobolink; Davidson’s portobello mushrooms; Fulper’s nigella seed mozzarella string cheese (I freely admit it: I am addicted); lion’s mane or any other exotic mushrooms from Shibumi; Valley Shepherd’s Nettlesome cheese; & eggs, fresh greens, and root veggies from Chickadee Creek or any farm that offers them. Wish me luck!