I finally got the chance to eat at Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, the latest project of Jon Bon Jovi’s nonprofit Soul Foundation. The concept behind this “community restaurant” is that there are no prices on the menu: you pay the suggested minimum donation of $10 cash for a three course dinner or, if you can’t pay you volunteer your services in exchange for the meal.
The place opened on October 19 (with the NJ-native rocker and his wife on hand), and has been packing ‘em in ever since. We arrived only 15 minutes after the dinner hour began on a Thursday night, but by then there was a 45 minute wait for the 30 or so seats. We were happy to cool our heels, as were the other curious folks who had come from all over the state. And the wait proved worth it.
A team of paid chefs prepare seasonal American fare using organic ingredients from the raised beds in front of the place and products donated by the Whole Foods Market in Middletown (which also happens to be where the Bon Jovi family lives). The menu, the setting, and the service – mostly by young, energetic, squeaky clean community volunteers - are surprisingly stylish and more restaurant-like than soup kitchen-ish.
We started off with creamy butternut squash soup, beet salad with honey dressing, and Monmouth St. green salad from among 5 starters. Although main course choices include bbq salmon, cornmeal crusted catfish, and grilled chicken breast, four of the five of us couldn’t resist “Terrence Fall off the Bone Roasted Chicken with down home gravy,” mashed potatoes, and green beans. The chicken lived up to its name, and I would characterize this dish, and everything else, as good, nutritious home cooking. Our fifth wheel who didn’t get the chicken? He was more than pleased with the massive grilled pork chop.
Each evening’s single dessert appears to be donated by a different area bakery, and we were lucky to hit the mini-cannoli from La Rosa’s in Shrewsbury. The meal also includes iced tea, bread and butter, and coffee or tea. As I said, very well thought out.
To be honest I didn’t spot one person who looked like they couldn’t pay, although the folks at Soul Kitchen report that about 15% of patrons use vouchers. But the concept works nonethless, because it’s no stretch for those of us who can pay to leave more, to pay for those who can’t. $20 seems about right to me.
Soul Kitchen is not the first to implement the community restaurant concept in the state. Elijah’s Promise, the wonderful New Brunswick-based soup kitchen and culinary training school, opened their Better World Cafe in Highland Park two years ago. If you know of and have been to others in NJ, feel free to share the info here.
On a different note: I’d like to give a big, fat thank you to my colleague at the Princeton Packet, Faith Bahadurian, for spreading the news about my dinewithpat website on her excellent food blog, NJ Spice.