Three Princeton Restaurants are Tops at NJ Monthly

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Congratulations to Agricola, Peacock Inn, and Mistral for their inclusion in this year’s New Jersey Monthy‘s annual list of the twenty-five best New Jersey restaurants.

From the article:

Agricola, Princeton
11 Witherspoon St., 609-921-2798

The products and produce of Great Road Farm—the handiwork of farmer Steve Tomlinson—fuel the imagination of executive chef Josh Thomsen and fulfill the furrow-to-fork vision of Jim Nawn, who owns the farm and the restaurant.

Depending on the season, Agricola, now a bustling one-year-old, might offer a beautifully deep orange-yellow egg salad. That color generally tells you the hens were free to peck around a pasture, eating an omnivorous diet. (Great Road supplements the birds’ foraging with corn, soy, oats and vitamins.) Equally seasonal would be a kale salad, its leaves glistening with the very popular toasted pumpkin-seed vinaigrette. A pork chop from Eden Farms in West Milford might come with braised Great Road collards and a chutney made from Terhune Orchards apples infused with beet juice and tossed with crushed, toasted pistachios, house-cured bacon and pomegranate syrup. The pickled and fermented vegetable plate is plucked from glass jars that decorate the bar. “They’re not just a pair of pretty legs,” deadpans Thomsen of the jars, packed with house-cured fiddlehead ferns, napa cabbage and the like.

There is a poignancy to seasonal menus. One ingredient comes on, another wanes. “Which one of your children do you love the most?” asks Thomsen. Earlier this summer he was making his own burrata, serving it with asparagus, English peas and local strawberries. Now it’s tomato prime time; thus his tomato menu. But a standard since day 1 has been the Shibumi Farm mushroom flatbread, a fresh-from-the-oven celebration of umami, with accents of oregano and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

In readying an Agricola cookbook, due this fall, Thomsen has been reading David Tanis, chef and author of A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, while simultaneously rolling out Agricola’s pickles, kimchi and kale salad dressing (with tasty toasted pumpkin seed) as products for sale.

Mistral, Princeton
66 Witherspoon St., 609-688-8808

Executive chef Ben Nerenhausen turns out beautiful, seasonal dishes multinational in concept and conversation stopping in deliciousness.

Nerenhausen, 31, is adept at juxtaposing flavors, colors and textures: a salad of cured beef carpaccio with marinated leeks and marrow; a fluke sashimi with tofu, asparagus and mint-like shiso leaves; roasted cauliflower on spicy house-made harissa dotted with house-made, sumac-flavored yogurt; and a unique, sweet buttermilk panna cotta with English peas, lemon curd and crumbled sablé (a French shortbread), all brightened by a pea-shell granita.

“We got whole pigs in, and we had some ears hanging around,” Nerenhausen relates. “So we did a crispy pig-ear salad with marinated tomatillos. We braise the ears, cut them in strips, toss them in Wondra flour and fry them. They get crispy outside and tender inside. I think they’re great, and it plays off Mexican flavors, so it makes sense in the whole spectrum of things.”

It went on the menu as a Crispy Pig Ear Salad, but the name must have been off-putting. When he changed it to Marinated Tomatillo Salad and, under the title, listed the components as jalapeños, crema and crispy pork, it took off. “We’ve had nothing but clean plates coming back to the kitchen,” Nerenhausen says. “When people ask what kind of pork, the servers are encouraged to describe it exactly. I would never hide things, but even though we’re in an area that wants new and different foods, you have to present things in a way people will accept.”

Mistral is the second culinary success of partners Stephen Distler and the talented chef Scott Anderson. Their more elegant (and equally delicious) Elements, about three-quarters of a mile away, will reopen in early 2015 in the same building as Mistral, enabling both to share the Elements liquor license.

Peacock Inn, Princeton
20 Bayard Lane, 609-924-1707

The cuisine of Manuel Perez and his wife, Cyndi Perez, matches the bird for which this restaurant and boutique hotel are named: exotic and extravagant, yet familiar. Think foie gras terrine with cured strawberries, rhubarb-ginger foam, reduced balsamic vinegar and pistachio shortbread; organic Scottish salmon with a white asparagus purée, pickled red onions and red wine reduction; roasted Maine lobster over pappardelle, chanterelles, zucchini and asparagus, sauced with truffled, sous-vide egg yolks; and warm sticky-toffee date cake with toffee sauce and vanilla-bean ice cream.

The two—he is executive chef, she is pastry chef—live and breathe food. When they’re not cooking at thePeacock, they are reading food magazines or food books. Or they’re taking culinary expeditions to Philadelphia and New York, exploring ethnic enclaves. More often than not, the trip home is productive. Recently they drove to Brooklyn, ate at four spots, and by the time they returned home, they had conceived a new dish inspired by the pillowy gnudi and the charcuterie they had shared.

“We’ve been working together four years now,” Manuel says. “She’s gotten very acclimated to my style. I can trust her completely; she knows my palate. Of course there’s some dissension—not every single detail works—but we have each other’s backs. We can be critical of a dish without it affecting us as a couple. It’s very good. It’s better than very good. If you could choose an ideal situation as a chef, and you’ve got your vision out there, and you’re cooking the food you want to cook and your personal life coincides, it’s as close to perfect as you can get.”

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