Lunch at Del Posto

Del Posto. Sometimes You Just Want to be Pampered

That was one reason I chose this Italian fine-dining collaboration between Mario Batali and Joe and Lidia Bastianch for a recent weekday lunch in NYC. And Del Posto really delivers on that front, with its over-the-top sumptuous setting and formal but friendly service. The photo below, from the Del Posto website, doesn’t begin to do justice to the room:

Grand white marble staircases leading both upstairs & down are bracketed with sensual curved balusters that evoke the Belle Époque, as do a generously proportioned black marble bar and the intricate floor you see in the photo. Windows that soar to impressively high ceilings are swathed in luxurious drapery and a grand piano is expertly played even during lunchtime. So is it any wonder that my companion likened the feel of the room to a grand luxury liner from another age? That extends to the feature I luxuriated in most: sinking into soft dining chairs of supple white leather with low, curved, wraparound backs and arms.

Another reason I chose Del Posto was because it offers a 3-course prix fixe lunch for $49, which seems reasonable – if not an outright bargain – for a restaurant with one Michelin star and a four-star rating from the NY Times. In the end, the tab turned out to be $82 per person all-inclusive. That included a voluntary $10 supplement, but it should also be noted that it was for a meal without wine or cocktails.

Amuse Bouche, Del Posto

Amuse Bouche, Del Posto

The pampering starts in earnest with the arrival of gifts from the kitchen. (If you don’t count the stool that is brought for your purse.) Clockwise from the bottom, above: triple-strength capon broth with polenta ball (think fluffy matzo ball), arancini, and puff pastry with pecorino. The broth was tasty but, as would be the case with several dishes to follow, salty. But the one-bite rounds of cheesy, buttery puff pastry shattered and melted beautifully on the tongue, putting me in mind of old-fashioned cheese straws.

Baguettini, Del Posto

Baguettini, Del Posto

Our server accurately described the above as a cross between a baguette and grissini. Almost worth the price of admission all by itself.

Vitello Tonnato Antipasto, Del Posto

Vitello Tonnato Antipasto, Del Posto

Course 1: Vitello Tonnato with olive crostone (the black crumbly bits, above), caper shoots, lime cells (!), and lemon basil. This classic cold dish is a tour de force – slices of tender veal enveloped in decadent mayo-like sauce flavored with excellent quality preserved tuna. The hits of lime and lemon basil balance the richness beautifully.

Insalata Autunnale, Del Posto

Insalata Autunnale, Del Posto

My companion chose to start with salad of slow roasted tubers, which notably includes black salsify and foglie di noce (pecorino wrapped in walnut leaves) among its merits.

For the prix fixe lunch, diners choose among 5 antipasti, 5 secondi, and 6 dolci (some with supplemental charges). What isn’t included is primi, aka pasta dishes. Who could dine at a Batali-Bastianich restaurant without having pasta?

Sweet Potato Cappellacci, Del Posto

Sweet Potato Cappellacci, Del Posto

We split a $20 portion of the above “bishop’s hats,” which luxuriate in sage brown butter and a sprinkling of hazelnuts. I relished the slightly crunchy pasta wrappers but found the filling of pureed sweet potato mixed with crumbs from those almond-flavored cookies called brutti ma buoni too sweet. (That’s my fault for ordering it, not the kitchen’s, which is under the direction of Mark Ladner.)

Lamb Chop with Abruzzese Spices, Del Posto

Lamb Chop with Abruzzese Spices, Del Posto

Course 2 (officially, at least): The menu reads, “Slow Roasted Abruzzese-Spiced Grilled Lamb/Carciofi alla Romana & Umbrian Lentils” – and I was thrilled when the above dish was placed before me. (When was the last time you encountered those paper frills to cover the bones?) The chop was perfection. I’m assuming that the puree it rests upon is the form that the carciofi (artichokes) took, although this is not typical. The heritage lentils, while cooked perfectly, were so salty that I couldn’t finish them. But wait! (as they say in infomercials) – there’s more. My server also laid down this crescent-shaped dish next to the chop:

Lamb Neck, Del Posto

Lamb Neck, Del Posto

The menu failed to mention a wonderful bonus of boned lamb neck, which happens to be one of my favorite cuts. Soft, beautifully fatty and almost muttony, it sat on more of what I am speculating is artichoke puree.

Striped Bass, Del Posto

Striped Bass, Del Posto

My companion’s choice was wild striped bass (from South Carolina) with radicchio tartivo, chestnut spuma, & Valpolicella and truffle sauce on the side. Her verdict: good, but a bit tame.

Roasted Apple Hazelnut Cake, Del Posto

Roasted Apple Hazelnut Cake, Del Posto

Grappa Panna Cotta, Del Posto

Grappa Panna Cotta, Del Posto

The same, and nothing more, could be said for both our dessert choices. Both failed to deliver the promise of their menu descriptions. And coffee, at $5 a cup, was surprisingly weak and tepid.

Mignardises, Del Posto

Mignardises, Del Posto

But we ended on an up note: Delicious sweet treats from the kitchen. They included dark chocolate pops filled with olive oil gelato, chocolate bonbons, Averna-flavored caramels in edible clear wrappers (!), and candied melon. Whimsically presented, as you can see, on and in a wooden box grater.

In sum, I would have considered even $82 an acceptable splurge for all this – if only the food had been four stars.  Did I mention that as part of the pampering we were presented at the start with warm, moist, cloth finger towels, and that we were asked to relinquish our (thick, soft, linen) luncheon napkins after the main course so they could be replaced with fresh dessert napkins? The pampering here definitely rates four stars.

 

 

 

HomeFront’s Teaching Kitchen Helping Families Become Self-Sufficient;Yet More Restaurants Opening in Princeton; Making Perfect Porchetta

Long-time Princeton Caterer & Cooking Instructor Teaches Homeless Adults and Children in New State-of-the-Art Kitchen

Christina Crawford’s Wooden Spoon Catering Company was Princeton staple for 15 years. After that, she taught children and adults at the culinary center inside Princeton’s Whole Food. But now that she’s heading up HomeFront’s Teaching Kitchen in Ewing, she told me, “This job is a thousand times better than anything I could have thought about doing.” Find out why, here in my profile in the February issue of The Princeton Echo.

Christina Crawford & Students

Christina Crawford & Students

February Food for Thought: 3 More New Eateries Coming to Downtown Princeton; Dining Deal at the Peacock Inn; Mediterranean Farm-to-Table Dinners at Hopewell Valley Vineyards

Hopewell Valley Vineyards Chef Nikiforos Vaimakis, courtesy Infini-T Cafe Princeton

Hopewell Valley Vineyards Chef Nikiforos Vaimakis (courtesy Infini-T Cafe Princeton)

Gosh, how I love having the central part of our state as my base of operations. One prime example: this February Echo column that’s chock-full of exciting developments. Details on: Jules Thin Crust Pizza, Marhaba, Kung Fu Tea & Noodle House, a new Osteria Procaccini outpost, $49 to dine at the Peacock Inn, $70 for a 5-course meal with wines in Hopewell. My, oh my.

Picture Perfect Porchetta

For some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to attempt porchetta for Christmas this past year. It turned out to be a showstopper (my family took to calling it the Meat Log), and it would make an impressive centerpiece for any winter dinner party.

My porchetta

My porchetta

Now, I’m not going to tell you that forming a jelly roll out of thick slabs of meat and fat is easy, but it’s worth the effort. I followed this Martha Stewart recipe and video for Porchetta with Salsa Verde, using wonderful boneless pork loin and pork belly from Double Brook Farm (which I had pre-ordered from butcher Cole Dougherty at Brick Farm Market).

You know you're onto something when your canine guest plants himself outside the kitchen

You know you’re onto something when your canine guest plants himself outside the kitchen and won’t budge

The stuffing of fresh Mediterranean herbs and garlic featured exceptionally fragrant fennel pollen from Princeton’s Savory Spice Shop. And added bonus was that for days afterwards we enjoyed leftovers of porchetta sandwiches on Terra Momo Bread focaccia.

Montgomery Restaurant Going Strong at 30; New Restos Coming to Central NJ; Proven! Organic Wine Taste Better

Tiger’s Tale Owner Explains Why & How His Eatery Has Thrived Since 1985

I asked Cory Wingerter, who just ended his year-long term as president of the NJ Restaurant Association, how Tiger’s Tale, his casual bar and eatery, has prevailed over – among other developments – several economic recessions and the 2006 ban on smoking that sounded the death knell for similar burger-mainstream beer-TV establishments. His sometimes surprising answers, here in the January issue of The Princeton Echo.

Princeton Getting New Middle Eastern Restaurant & Montgomery a New Asian Fusion

Mystery boxIn my Food for Thought column of that same issue of The Echo I give the lowdown on how a popular Lambertville restaurant is expanding into Princeton and name the NJ restaurant veterans who are taking on the long defunct (and some might say cursed) Tusk space on Route 206 just up the road, coincidentally, from Tiger’s Tale.
1/31/16 UPDATE: The Middle Eastern restaurant coming to Princeton is Marhaba, which has been a mainstay in Lambertville for several years. In this column I make a connection between Marhaba and New Hope Gyro. A co-owner of New Hope Gyro assures me that New Hope Gyro is not a takeout place but a sit-down restaurant. Nor should it be considered an express version of Marhaba. New Hope Gyro is at 82 South Main Street, New Hope PA.

American Association of Wine Economists Crunched Data on Experts’ Ratings of 74,148 Wines. The Incontrovertible Conclusion on Organic vs. Conventional?

red-wine-grapes-bottle-glass-11836717And I quote: “Little consensus exists as to whether eco-certified products are actually better than their conventional counterparts. … We use data from three leading wine rating publications (Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator) to assess quality for 74,148 wines produced in California between 1998 and 2009. Our results indicate that eco-certification is associated with a statistically significant increase in wine quality ratings.” Geeks will want to read the full report here.

 

Breaking News: Sergeantsville Inn Reopens

Sergeantsville Inn

Sergeantsville Inn

The Sergeantsville Inn, which has been closed since a devastating fire last March, reopened about a week ago, says chef Joe Clyde, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Lisa. “There’s even more exposed stone than before,” Clyde says of the historic structure, “and the original dimensions are back.” The Clydes took advantage of the rebuilding process to expose a vaulted ceiling in the library dining room and converted what had been private office space on the second floor to a dining loft with balcony. (That new space and an outside dining area are awaiting final certificates of occupancy, which are expected by February.)

Holiday Edition: Lunch at the Ryland Inn, Coolest Gingerbread House Ever, Giving Back

Ryland Inn Now Offering Lunch – Including a Fixed-Price Bargain

When this legendary Whitehouse restaurant reopened in 2012 I praised the new incarnation for capturing the essence of what it had felt like to dine there – what I termed “a sense of easy grace” in a refined-rustic setting – while allowing the fare to move headlong into the 21st century under its talented opening chef, Anthony Bucco.

Ryland Inn Opening Event 2012

Ryland Inn Opening Event 2012

In mid-2014 Bucco moved on (he’s now at Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs) and the Ryland kitchen was turned over to his sous chef and longtime collaborator, Craig Polignano. I hadn’t been back, so I jumped at the restaurant’s offer to have me sample the recently added lunch menu.

Ryland Inn lunch PolignanoOne reason I was keen to do this is because the current menus – dinner, brunch, and now lunch – appeared, at least to me, to be less cutting-edge, less exciting than previously. Gone, for example, was the tuna crudo I had adored, an appetizer with pickled watermelon, Asian pear, miso vinaigrette, and truffle, garnished with black sesame seeds and sesame powder. The current dinner menu sports an entree of seared tuna with sweet potato, trumpet mushrooms, bok choy, and spiced granola. It sounds perfectly fine, but see what I mean?

Well, you shouldn’t! Because, as my lunch progressed I learned that mere descriptions on a menu can be misleading. I purposely chose what sounded like the most mundane offering: the 3-course prix fixe lunch for $36. Even within that, I made choices that sounded boring. I started with Roasted Pumpkin Soup (the other option was Mixed Market Greens) and followed up that with Grilled Organic Salmon (instead of Griggstown Chicken Paillard “Nicoise”). The prix-fixe mandated dessert is Peanut Butter Mousse. Well, it takes an awful lot to make me relish a peanut butter dessert.

Ryland Inn pumpkin soupOver the years I have eaten more than my share of boring squash and pumpkin soups. Chef Polignano’s resembles them in no way. For one thing, he uses kabocha squash (my favorite member of the family), whipped into the silkiest puree. Vaduvan spices provide a subtle hint of curry, mascarpone adds richness, and diced Granny Smith apple and toasted pumpkin seeds, crunch. A jolt of salinity comes courtesy of capers.

Ryland Inn Grilled Organic Salmon

Ryland Inn Grilled Organic Salmon

The interest level of the salmon dish – a portion generous enough to be dinner – is sparked by freekeh, which adds a smoky nuttiness, and by freekeh’s perfect foil: tart, snappy pomegranate seeds. Nicely executed beets and Brussels sprouts alongside the buttery, full-flavored fish make this an ideal cold-weather choice.

Ryland Inn Reuben

Ryland Inn Reuben

I soon learned that I was wrong about even the most plebian offerings on the menu, like the Reuben. Instead of using brisket, Polignano sous vides beef short ribs with signature corned beef spices. The result is as flavorful as the original but without the grease or fattiness. The tender meat gets piled on slices of excellent house-made dark rye that’s slathered with “Route 28” dressing (the Ryland’s own take on Thousand Island dressing, named for its location) and topped with sauerkraut and melted cheddar.

Ryland Inn Peanut Butter Mousse

Ryland Inn Peanut Butter Mousse

Modernist technique applied to modest-sounding dishes is, in fact, the calling card here. The Ryland burger features house-smoked bacon jam and the Wagyu beef tartare includes puffed beef tendon. And that peanut butter mousse that I had little hope for? Under its chocolate cloak is a fluffy, sophisticated mousse with a touch of tamarind. As you can see from the photo, it comes with bruleed bananas and banana ice cream. (What you can’t see that the ice cream is extraordinary.) Nestled under the quenelle is a bed of peanut powder – the direct descendant of that high-tech sesame powder I so enjoyed in the Ryland’s early days.

These dishes and more represent the refined-rustic style that Polignano says is his aim. In some ways, it is better suited to the setting than what came before. In addition, several of the more precious or pretentious aspects that the Ryland sported upon opening have been eliminated. Gone, for example, is the selection of 7 (!) French-press coffees. Instead, guests can simply enjoy the excellent house blend from Coffee Afficionado in Morganville.

Ryland Inn rose

Ryland Inn rose

I’m told that lunch is now a permanent offering, but that the 3-course fixed-price option may or may not be continued beyond the holiday season. My advice: get this $36 steal before its gone. If that’s not in the cards, be sure schedule a visit early in the new year to check out Polignano’s handiwork at what can be called the new, new Ryland Inn.

And Now for Your Moment of Christmas Zen

…I offer up this gingerbread version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, the creation of culinary artist Melodie Dearden.

Melodie Dearden's Falling Water Gingerbread House

Melodie Dearden’s Falling Water Gingerbread House

Tis the Season for Giving Back

Yes We CAN volunteers mercerspace.com

Yes We CAN volunteers
mercerspace.com

I believe in eating local and shopping local not only when it comes to food, but also in donating to charitable organizations. Which is why I was delighted to feature here in the December issue of the Princeton Echo the story behind Yes We CAN! which collects funds and food – both canned and, importantly, farm fresh – for clients of the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County.

If that’s too local for you, I have another suggestion. Uncharacteristically for me this Lawrenceville-based organization, the United Front Against Riverblindness, doesn’t have anything to do with food or combating hunger and yet I consider it one of the most effective and satisfying contributions I make.

A donation of $10 keeps 6 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo from going blind for one year. A $250 donation provides medication for an entire village! Here’s a previous post I wrote about their work.

First Report: Dining at Brick Farm Tavern’s Bar

By the time Brick Farm Tavern opened for business last Thursday (11/19/15), the reservation book at this long-awaited Hopewell restaurant, brought to you by the folks behind Double Brook Farm and Brick Farm Market, was already full for the next several weeks.

Chef's table at Brick Farm Tavern

Chef’s table at Brick Farm Tavern

But the bar there, which has its own menu, operates on a first-come, first-serve basis, and so two nights later I and my husband, Bill, headed over. I was careful to make it there at opening time – 5 p.m. – in order to be assured a perch at the 12-seat bar. By 5:20, every seat was taken, both at the bar and at the hi-tops in the adjoining lounge. Ten minutes after that, the barroom was SRO. Joshua, our server, told us that the restaurant’s been slammed like this from the start.

Brick Farm Tavern's executive chef, Greg Vassos

Brick Farm Tavern’s executive chef, Greg Vassos

I can see why. In October, when I interviewed Chef Greg Vassos and GM Mike Lykens for this preview in the Princeton Echo, they hoped to achieve a marriage of fine dining with “unpretentious, comfortable service.” Mission accomplished, at least in terms of Joshua (who, btw, is in the background below, and who also works at Agricola in Princeton). He was the personification of grace under pressure.

La Manzana cocktail, Brick Farm Tavern

La Manzana cocktail, Brick Farm Tavern

Vassos and Lykens also promised that the restaurant would put to use of every kind of meat, egg, fruit, vegetable, herb, etc. produced at Double Brook Farm, supplemented with that of nearby farms. So I went local with my cocktail, of which the bar features 5 house creations, each $12. I chose La Manzana, a refreshing, balanced blend of Espolon reposada tequila and Lillet with Terhune apple cider, lime, and house-made hay salt. When I inquired about that last, Joshua took the time to describe how it’s made and to give us a sample taste. (It is fleur de sel, smoked ’til black, over hay.)

The wood for the bar, btw, was reclaimed from the nearby estate of Charles Lindbergh, and newly crafted. (A fuller description of this American farm-to-table restaurant, including its owners and the handsome, circa-1812 farmhouse that is its home is included in the above link to my Echo story.)

Detail of bar beverage menu, Brick Farm Tavern

Detail of bar beverage menu, Brick Farm Tavern

I’m impressed with the wine-by-the-glass selections, which lead off with interesting and unexpected choices, including Arneis from Piemonte, Kerner (a cross between Trollinger & Riesling) from Alto Adige, Prieto Picudo from Castilla y Leon, and my husband’s choice, Giel Pinot Noir from Reinhessen.

Bar food menu, Brick Farm Tavern

Bar food menu, Brick Farm Tavern

The bar’s food menu is short, smart, and appealing, as you can see. As is the trend, it lists ingredients only – giving equal billing to each, with zero descriptors about preparation. Instead, servers are tasked with sharing helpful but painfully detailed explanations.

Tuscan fries, Brick Farm Tavern

Tuscan fries, Brick Farm Tavern

Word to the wise: Tuscan-fries-showered-with-pecorino. Cut thin and short, brined, fried in plenty of oil, salty, and addictive. If I had one wish, it would be that they were sprinkled with Pecorino throughout, not just on top. The smoky housemade ketchup is a match made in heaven.

Brick Farm Tavern burger

Brick Farm Tavern burger

It’s possible that just about every ingredient in the Double Brook burger – save the compte cheese and salt – is from the restaurant’s farm or, like the bun, made at Brick Farm Market. This helps explain its $18 price tag. But the burger’s so decadently good that it renders both provenance and price moot. Even though the menu says it’s accompanied by pomme frites, those Tuscan fries showed up. No complaint here.

Lamb Bolognese at Brick Farm Tavern

Lamb Bolognese at Brick Farm Tavern

When the Lamb Bolognese arrived, I thought the portion looked skimpy. But the dish is so rich and satisfying, and so loaded with thick coins of lamb merguez sausage, that it suffices. The short, thick, ribbed tubular pasta appeared to be fresh and housemade, and was cooked more al dente than customary. (I prefer it that way, but I suspect others may not.) I can’t say I detected distinct flavor from the strands of calendula (a type of marigold), and although the sausage itself suffered from too much salt, it wasn’t enough to deter me from finishing the dish with gusto.

Pumpkin dessert at Brick Farm Tavern

Pumpkin dessert at Brick Farm Tavern

Meanwhile, the folks next to me raved about their chicken wings and the Brick Farm charcuterie – a gorgeous, generous platter and a bargain at $14. For dessert Bill & I shared pumpkin mousse on praline shortbread. It’s topped with maple ice cream and hay salt foam and garnished with stewed and geleed cranberries. All the flavors were quite muted, though, so we wished we had opted instead for the only other choice: the pecan dessert, which Joshua had earlier informed us was the staff’s favorite. (Lesson: Always listen to a server you trust.)

One of Brick Farm Tavern's several small, cozy dining rooms

One of Brick Farm Tavern’s several small, cozy dining rooms

By the time I was sipping a perfect espresso, the crowd at our backs had grown even larger (and hungrier) and Bill & I fantasized about how much we could make if we auctioned off our seats to the highest bidder. That, alas, would run counter to the friendly, comfy-yet-refined vibe here.

View into the open kitchen from the chef's table, Brick Farm Tavern

View into the open kitchen from the chef’s table, Brick Farm Tavern

It’s something akin to magic when a restaurant is in total alignment with what the surrounding community craves and supports. Although it’s still early days, that seems to be exactly what I witnessed throughout the restaurant’s warren of charming dining rooms.  This, despite the many fine establishments right within tiny Hopewell (The Blue Bottle and Brothers Moon, to name just two) and in nearby Princeton (Agricola, Elements, Mistral, etc.) As I overheard one returning (returning!) customer remark to Joshua, “We are glad you’re here.”

Let’s Go Crazy! Chefs’ Crazy New Year’s Stories & ‘Crazy for Cookbooks’ Event

Midnight Madness: NJ Chefs Share Zany New Year’s Tales

Most of us get a little nutty when New Year’s Eve rolls around. But chefs – who have a loony job every day of the year – seem to go to extremes more than most. Here in the holiday 2015 issue of Edible Jersey (starting on page 71) I poll chefs around the state for their most memorable December 31st. They live up to their profession’s reputation in spades.

Edible Jersey cover holiday 2015

My thanks to Juan Mercado (One53), Ben Nerenhausen (Mistral), Christine Nunn (Picnic on the Square), Larry Robinson (Ceriello Marketplace, Medford), Marilyn Schlossbach (Langosta Lounge & others), & Chris Siversen (Maritime Parc & BURG).

‘Crazy for Cookbooks’ Panel Discussion at Princeton Public Library. Join Me & Other Food Writers, Chefs, Cookbook Authors, & Publishers

I jumped at the chance to participate in this fun evening, coming up on Wednesday, December 2, at 7 p.m at the Princeton Library:

Cookbook Panel Flyer RevisedThe event is free and will be followed by the participating authors’ book sale and signing. Attendees are encouraged to bring along their own personal favorite cookbook because there will be a photo booth set up where they can be photographed with it in tow. The resulting pics will be shared by the library on social media.

‘More’ Everything: More News about Agricola; More is the Name of a New Cafe; More Italian Food & Drink Than Ever at Tre Piani

Agricola Changes Chefs & May Spawn a New Restaurant or Two

Seems like just yesterday that I profiled Crawford Koeniger, the young chef who stepped into Josh Thomsen’s shoes when that opening chef departed the Witherspoon Street eatery for Florida. Now comes word from Agricola’s owner, Jim Nawn, that Koeniger, too, is gone. Nawn is searching for a new executive chef, whom he hopes to have in place by the new year. “Meantime,” he says, “Agricola is in the hands of my sous-chef team who have been with me from the outset.”

But wait! There’s, um, more. In the November issue of The Princeton Echo, my “Food for Thought” column included this tidbit regarding Nawn and his Fenwick Hospitality Group:

Agricola, university to develop ‘Dinky’ station eateries

Last January, Princeton University and the Terra Momo Restaurant Group disclosed that they had discontinued previously announced plans for that group, owned by brothers Carlo and Raoul Momo, to run a restaurant and café in the old “Dinky” train station buildings. Now word on the street is that an announcement is forthcoming detailing an agreement between the University and Jim Nawn, owner of Agricola on Witherspoon Street and Great Road Farm in Skillman. The two buildings involved are part of the University’s $330 million arts and transit project.

Meanwhile, Further Down Witherspoon Street…

…friends Mark Han & Sean Luan recently opened their bright, casual More Cafe. Just steps away from Small World Coffee, Holsome Tea, and Infini-T Cafe, you’d think there wouldn’t be room for one, um, more. But you’d be wrong, as I explain here in that same November “Food for Thought” column.

Benefit Gala at Tre Piani Features More Italian Food than You Can Shake a Stick at

I love that phrase “…shake a stick at” in part because its etymology is unknown. What the heck could have spawned it?

But I digress…only to digress further. Having lived in Princeton for decades, and the Princeton area for even more decades, I thought I was aware of all the wonderful service organizations in town.

Senior Care Ministry program 002So when I received an invitation to “A Taste of Italy,” a gala celebrating 30 years of community service by the Senior Care Ministry of Princeton I was taken aback. How could it be that this group – which pioneered the ‘aging in place’ movement and whose mission is to help people remain safely in the comfort of their own homes as long as possible – had escaped my attention up til now?

Turns out that the “Taste of Italy” gala/fundraiser was their first public event ever. Whew. As board member Catherine Vanderpool told the group of 90-plus people who had paid $125 to attend the gala, “the ministry depends on the kindness of volunteers. It’s a grassroots effort that was born out of a need perceived by a nun, Sister Mary Ancilla of the Sisters of Mercy, and assisted by the Princeton Knights of Columbus.” (Sister Mary, btw, wasn’t able to attend. This year she is celebrating the 75th anniversary (!) of entering into her commitment to the Church & Sisters of Mercy.)

Tre Piani owner/chef Jim Weaver went all out for the occasion, covering the entire Italian peninsula’s pantheon of food and drink. The evening began with antipasti and passed hors d’oeuvres, including this duck gallantine:

Courtesy of Jim Weaver, Tre Piani

Courtesy of Jim Weaver, Tre Piani

For the main meal, the Tre Piani staff had set up three stations of food and wine, each devoted to a region of Italy. Here are sample food & wine listings:

Northern Italy food selectionCentral & Southern WinesSince my grandparents hailed from Sicily I gravitated to the Central-South, and was introduced to Anthilia, a distinctive Sicilian white wine from Donnafugata.  To go with these wines, the Central/Southern menu comprised: mozzarella misto (Campania), mussels with blue cheese (Puglia), orrecchiette with brocoli rabe (Basilicata), involtini of swordfish stuffed with pignoli & raisins (Sicily), eggplant caponata (Sicily), and stromboli misti (Calabria).

If you’re interested in volunteering with the Senior Care Ministry, which provides supportive services such as transportation to health services, food shopping, and, as Vanderpool told the group “sometimes just a friendly visit to say hello,” free of charge to the homebound and elderly throughout the greater Princeton area. Better yet, if you’d like to establish a service like this in your town, contact them through their website.

Meet Brick Farm Tavern’s Chef & GM; Delectable Peruvian Dining in DC

Hopewell’s Brick Farm Tavern is Set to Debut on November 19. Here are Its Key Players

Greg Vassos, Mike Lykens, Jon McConaughy, & Robin McConaughy, Brick Farm Tavern

Greg Vassos, Mike Lykens, Jon McConaughy, & Robin McConaughy, Brick Farm Tavern (courtesy Princeton Echo)

The folks behind Double Brook Farm and Brick Farm Market, Robin & Jon McConaughy, have put their much anticipated farm-to-table restaurant, Brick Farm Tavern, into the hands of two alumni of The Broadmoor, the five-star luxury resort in Colorado Springs. Here in the November issue of the Princeton Echo I interview Executive Chef Greg Vassos and General Manager Mike Lykens about how they intend to carry out the McConaughys’ vision.

Brick Farm Tavern

Brick Farm Tavern

btw: Reservations are currently being accepted on OpenTable or by calling the restaurant at (609) 333-9200.

At China Chilcano, Jose Andres Takes on Peruvian Cuisine with Verve

I have yet to encounter a restaurant of DC-based chef Jose Andres that doesn’t bowl me over. It seems no matter what unlikely cuisine this Spanish-born master turns his hand to, he manages to honor and expand on it in a most delicious way. In the past I’ve raved about America Eats Tavern, for example, where he pays homage to historic American dishes while making them modern and desirable (e.g., Manhattan clam chowder, mutton with oysters, and America’s first mac ‘n’ cheese, which features vermicelli).

Andres works the same magic at China Chilcano, where the electric liveliness of the setting matches that of the vibrant food:

China Chilcano

China Chilcano

China Chilcano

China Chilcano

Below are highlights from wide-ranging dinner my table of 4 enjoyed, after cocktails from a list that includes 5 takes on pisco. The menu encompasses both indigenous Peruvian dishes like papas a la Huancaina (potatoes with spicy aji amarillo sauce) and the beloved hybrid rice and noodle dishes developed by the Chinese and Japanese immigrants who flocked to Peru during the late 19th century. (So did Italians, but they’re not represented here.) All photos by Chris Le.

Every gorgeous dish has the Andres touch – none more so than these 3 siu mai from the dim sum section of the menu.

Pork & jicama siu mai topped with gold-flecked egg. China Chilcano

Pork & shrimp siu mai topped with gold-flecked egg. China Chilcano

Scallop & pork siu mai with tobiko. China Chilcano

Scallop & pork siu mai with tobiko. China Chilcano

 

Chicken with aji amarillo siu mai. China Chilcano

Chicken with aji amarillo siu mai. China Chilcano

(Don’t know why that last photo insists on being upside down.) Another gold-flecked dim sum winner is this one of lamb pot stickers, hidden under crispy cumin-scented lace:

Pegao Norteno (lamb pot sticker). China Chilcano

Pegao Norteno (lamb pot stickers). China Chilcano

From the selection of ceviches and tiraditos (Peruvian crosses between sushi and ceviche), here’s the big eye tuna with soy-cured egg yolk, Nikkei leche de tigre (citrus marinade), puffed quinoa, avocado, mountain yam, red onion, and furikake seasoning:

Ceviche Nikkei. China Chilcano

Ceviche Nikkei. China Chilcano

Peru and Asia meet up perfectly in this lomo saltado of hanger steak, tomato, soy sauce, shishitos, ginger, shoestring potatoes, and rice:

Lomo Saltado with Egg. China Chilcano

Lomo Saltado with Egg. China Chilcano

While a classic aji de gallina is purely, and wonderfully, Peruvian:

Aji de gallina. China Chilcano

Aji de gallina. China Chilcano

I can’t decide which of these two desserts I enjoyed more, although the funky look of the suspiro Limena (“woman of Lima’s sigh”) still has me smiling:

Coconut "Birds Nest" Soup with Pink Grapefruit Sorbet. China Chilcano

Coconut “Birds Nest” Soup with Pink Grapefruit Sorbet. China Chilcano

Suspiro Limena: Sweetened Condensed Milk Custard with Meringue & Passion Fruit. China Chilcano

Suspiro Limena: Sweetened Condensed Milk Custard with Meringue & Passion Fruit. China Chilcano

China Chilcano is located on 7th St. NW in the Penn Quarter, very close to Andres’ signature restaurant, Jaleo.

First Report: Greene Hook in JC; Win 30 Weeks of Excellent Pizza; Jersey’s Own Cranberry Sauce

Chef David Drake Lands at 2 Spots in Jersey City

There are few NJ chefs whose food I relish more than that of David Drake. He first came to prominence at the Stage House and later earned my further respect at his eponymous Rahway fine-dining restaurant and then at the first iteration of Daryl Wine Bar in New Brunswick.

Chef David Drake

Chef David Drake (linkedin)

But when he moved up to Alice’s in  Lake Hopatcong, Drake fell outside the geographic bounds of my personal dining sphere. So it was welcome news last spring to learn that he had moved over to the Light Horse Tavern in the red-hot restaurant town that is Jersey City. And even better news is that he is also heading the kitchen at Greene Hook Bar + Kitchen, which opened in September. Both places are owned by Bill Gray (each with a different partner.)

Light Horse Tavern

Light Horse Tavern (courtesy lighthorsetavern.com)

So I and my husband scooped up an invitation from Gray and his team to host us and another foodie couple at Greene Hook. The evening actually commenced at Light Horse, where Drake presented us with a sampling of the menu’s elevated American fare.

Light Horse Mussels

Light Horse Mussels (courtesy Light Horse FB page)

Among the standouts: steamed mussels, a dish that’s always welcome, yet also ubiquitous and difficult to make distinctive. But Drake, who applies his precise, classical training to everything at both restaurants, manages to accomplish just that via a lively tomato-based broth that includes nubs of excellent chorizo and Brooklyn Lager. We couldn’t stop dipping the delicious toast into it.

Light Horse Parmesan Gnocchi

Light Horse Parmesan Gnocchi

Unlike steamed mussels, potato gnocchi is a dish I rarely enjoy. I’ve downed too many gluey plugs in my time. At Light Horse they’re airy and springy, their potato flavor rounded out with Parmesan, sussed out by pan-searing, and further accentuated with roasted chanterelles, cauliflower, and arugula in a mushroom broth to which Drake adds a few drops of soy sauce. Earthy and light at the same time.

Owner Bill Gray himself escorted us from the tavern to Greene Hook, a short walk away. We were tickled to see that Drake had, meantime, ensconced himself in that restaurant’s open kitchen. (He told us he has made the trip as many as 10 times in 1 day.) A recent addition to the kitchen team is Joe Beninato, who came over from another restaurant I held high regard for: the recently shuttered Ursino in Union.

Greene Hook Bucket of Fried Chicken (courtesy Greene Hook FB pag)

Greene Hook Bucket of Fried Chicken (courtesy Greene Hook FB page)

Greene Hook’s menu is more casual than its sibling (although at Light Horse you can get a burger, meatloaf, and fish & chips). Already, Greene Hook’s bucket of fried chicken with mac n’ cheese and jalapeno biscuits ($16 per serving for one; $26 for two) has accumulated a substantial following. The chicken is given the full David Drake treatment: soaked first in buttermilk then cooked sous vide for hours.

But I’ll have to go back to sample that offering, for Drake and company instead had us feast on the likes of fluke crudo with green papaya salad, flat iron steak with milk stout reduction, and the evening’s sea scallop special:

Greene Hook Scallops (courtesy Greene Hook's FB pag)

Greene Hook Scallops (courtesy Greene Hook’s FB page)

of four jumbo specimens, beautifully seared to intense sweetness. With seared maitake, baby golden beets, dried apricot, and salsify, it, too, shows Drake’s finesse. (Plea to chefs everywhere: please deploy salsify, my favorite root vegetable, more.) Textbook-perfect Marcona almond cream sauce makes the dish especially memorable.

Greene Hook Interior (courtesy Greene Hook FB page)

Greene Hook Interior (courtesy Greene Hook FB page)

I should note that both Light Horse Tavern and Greene Hook Bar + Kitchen have different but appealing cocktail, beer, and wine offerings and each has a different ambiance. Bill Gray, a former carpenter and civil engineer, personally designed and executed much of the decor. He sensitively and beautifully restored the historic building that houses Light Horse Tavern. Greene Hook is in a new space (with high-rise apartments above and all around) that combines hand-crafted rustic features – including much reclaimed wood – with modern industrial touches.

I suspect that the bar/kitchen’s younger clientele neither know nor care that there’s an expert fine-dining chef pumping out their bucket of fried chicken. As for me, I’m delighted to have Drake’s fare once again near at hand.

Lambertville’s Liberty Hall Pizza Giving Away 30 Weeks of Free Pizza to Customer who Purchases Their 30,000th Pizza

Chris Bryan, Liberty Hall Pizza. Photo by Guy Ambrosino

Chris Bryan, Liberty Hall Pizza. Photo by Guy Ambrosino

Nine-month old Liberty Hall Pizza figures it will be baking its 30,000th artisanal Neapolitan pizza sometime in the coming days (October 30th is their best guess, so you’ll have to hurry), and just like in those old movies and 195o’s sitcoms, the lucky patron who purchases it for dine-in or takeout will win 1 pizza per week for 30 weeks.

Chris Bryan, an alumnus of Nomad Pizza, is pizzaiolo and co-owner with Danny Popkin. The latter has rehabbed the cool old industrial building just outside of downtown that also houses Rojo’s Roastery. I recently profiled Liberty Hall, a byob, here in the Fall Dining Issue of US 1. The excellent pizzas are baked in a wood-fired Valoriani oven and the menu also boasts fresh salads and Victory draught root beer.

First Field Cranberry Sauce

First Field Cranberry Sauce

First Field Cranberry Sauce

This Thanksgiving if you’re not making your own cranberry sauce, why not buy one that’s made with whole dry-harvested cranberries from independent growers in New Jersey? It’s from the folks at First Field, who flavor it with orange and vanilla. You can find it at Whole Foods markets around the state, at some retailers in the Princeton area, and at www.first-field.com where it’s $8.99 for a 10-ounce jar.