Reviews: 3 Casual Eateries in Central Jersey & Adara in Montclair

I’ve been dining around again, both on my own and for NJ Monthly. For the latter, read my take on Adara, the state’s first all-molecular-all-the-time restaurant here. Below are reports on new ethnic places in Hightstown, Princeton, and Hopewell – plus an update on the Blue Rooster in Cranbury, which I featured in a previous post.

First up, though: this photo that made me laugh when I came across it on Michael Redmond’s Facebook page:

Mercer Street Charcoal Grill & Deli, Hightstown

Mercer Street Charcoal Grill & Deli on Urbanspoon

The first house my husband and I owned was on Mercer Street in Hightstown and oh how I wish Carlos Guerrrero’s cheerful spot existed back then! His Latin and Latin American grilled dishes are standouts – provided you like red meats cooked the traditional way: marinated and then grilled to at least medium (often a bit beyond) and slightly chewy. No pink or bloody steaks here! Just incredible smoky, char-grilled flavor. Which I enjoyed in the trio combo, a ridiculously generous portion of pork rib, beef “rib” (seemed more like a small steak to me), and a quarter of a chicken. The chicken, by the way, is the exception: it’s moist and silky as well as deeply flavorful. The dish comes with a choice of two sides for the grand sum of $15. I chose fried sweet plantains and beans. Both were abundant and delicious but the smoky, moist, tender beans were exceptional. Also good is the Cuban sandwich ($6), made fresh to order and featuring the proper soft roll. Only the homemade potato chips fell short. I’m a big fan of flan (try saying fan of flan three times fast) and the version here has a satiny (not rubbery) texture and a deep, almost boozy caramel (for a mere $3.25). Even the espresso is outstanding. Mercer Street Grill also serves breakfast all day and offers a full roster of American deli sandwiches and burgers.

Efe’s Mediterranean Grill Comes to Princeton

Efes on Urbanspoon

You may know Efe’s, the Middle Eastern restaurant with a Turkish slant, from its original location on Easton Ave. in New Brunswick. Efe’s recently expanded, taking over the space that had been Kaliente! on Nassau Street next to Thai Village. I asked my friend Anne to join me there for a ‘test’ dinner. I chose her because she is the pickiest person I know when it comes to Middle Eastern. The space is casual in the extreme – it has always been set up mainly for takeout – and we were expecting nothing more than OK quality. (Which would still have been fine because downtown Princeton isn’t overrun with good Middle Eastern spots.) Instead it exceeded my – and more importantly, Anne’s – expectations. Among the test dishes that passed with flying colors  are hummus, spinach in labne, and zucchini pancakes, which here are crunchy, golden brown fritters, not oily and with a creamy, almost ethereal center. We went so far as to try the shepherd salad, and even in March in NJ its tomatoes and cukes were uncommonly tasty. For $2 extra we got it generously showered with grated dry feta.  The pita that came to the table was creditable, and the entire food tab came to $21.65. Next time we’ll try the doner kebab or one one of the other Turkish kebabs.

Da’s Kitchen, Hopewell

Da's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Da’s is the little Thai restaurant that could. First it scored a review in the NY Times when it opened inside the Princeton YWCA, a spot it later vacated under unhappy circumstances. Once that happened a Hopewell customer and fan offered to set up Da DeToro and her restaurant on Hopewell’s main drag. That has come to pass and Da’s is now ensconced in attractive, casual digs that include tasteful Thai artifacts and sidewalk dining. Lunch dishes at $10 (and $12) offer a bargain-basement way to sample the wares. Thai Drunken Noodles, which our attractive server recommended, are quite good. At this point I feel compelled to make a shocking admission: I am lukewarm when it comes to Thai food. As a reviewer I’m often asked if there is any cuisine I don’t like. I truthfully answer no, that when well and properly prepared by a knowing hand, all ethnic fare is good. But somehow Thai food has never grabbed me; has never gone beyond merely pleasant. So I wound up ordering pho – the quintessential dish of Vietnam. It was OK – the broth needed good-sized dollops of hot sauce to come alive – but that’s what I deserve for ordering Vietnamese in a Thai place. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the wonderfully sweet Thai iced coffee. If, unlike me, you’re a fan of Thai, give Da’s a try.

Update on The Blue Rooster in Cranbury

In a previous post I wrote about a terrific dinner I had there at the hands of Chef Richard Lipshanic. Blue Rooster’s owner, Karen Finigan, reports that he has moved on, but not before thoroughly training his second-in-command. She feels confident that the quality will remain the same.

One response to “Reviews: 3 Casual Eateries in Central Jersey & Adara in Montclair

  1. Faith Bahadurian

    Oh my, that book graphic is priceless!

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