Downtown Princeton

Princeton Shopping Center

Route 206 in Princeton

Route 1

Pennington

Hopewell

Lambertville/New Hope

Corrections or additions?

These articles by Pat Tanner were prepared for the July 3, 2007 issue

of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Cover Story: Alfresco Dining

I know of few people who do not enjoy the simple pleasure of dining in

the open air. Whether on a terrace, patio, or sidewalk or in a garden,

for me – and many other too, I’m sure – the whole al fresco experience

is made special by a fresh breeze, sunshine or moonshine, greenery,

the ambient sounds of birds, fountains, passersby – even a little car

traffic. All seem to increase my appetite and my pleasure, especially

when I’m dining on good food presented by genial servers.

We are fortunate to have many and varied eateries in and around

Princeton for dining out, out. Several that I featured in U.S. 1’s

spring dining issue (May 9) on the particular delights of dining at

the bar also happen to have noteworthy outdoor spots. In Princeton,

there is Mediterra, with a plaza and fountain that evoke its European

kin. Witherspoon Grill has sprouted tables on Princeton’s newest

plaza, soon to be named for the late Albert Hinds, next to Princeton

Public Library. One of the oldest outdoor spots downtown has to be the

Alchemist & Barrister’s sliver of a patio, which is tucked quietly and

picturesquely away in the pedestrian alley between Witherspoon Street

and Palmer Square.

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Downtown Princeton

The east end of Nassau Street – the stretch that leads towards

Kingston – has become a sort of mecca not only for casual dining but

also for casual dining al fresco. Especially from Chestnut to Maple

Street, with two liquor stores acting as bookends to the many BYO

spots, that part of town bustles with pedestrians even on weeknights,

including many who are looking for someplace to dine. This part of

Nassau Street can be heavy at times with car and truck traffic, but it

moves slowly, making more for background noise rather than intrusion.

One of this area’s most venerable spots – and the anchor as far as I’m

concerned – is Blue Point Grill, Jack Morrison’s ever-popular seafood

restaurant that is elder sibling to Witherspoon Grill and an outgrowth

of Nassau Street Seafood, the fish market next door. Its pristine

seafood is sourced, like that of the store, from the major New York

and Philadelphia fish markets, as well as directly off day boats at

Viking Village in Point Pleasant, the state’s premiere commercial

fishing port.

On an unseasonably cool spring evening my husband and I (and other

savvy diners) were able to sidestep a 45-minute wait for an indoor

table by agreeing to dine street-side in the grill’s stylish and

comfortable blue-and-white bistro chairs. Before long an acquaintance

ambled by and we enjoyed a pleasant chat while waiting for our first

course of excellent lobster bisque. Then the family of five at the

next table spotted their neighbors crossing Nassau Street and I

eavesdropped on their amiable exchange. "This," I commented to my

husband as I sprinkled malt vinegar over my traditional fish and

chips, "is small town living at its best." He nodded as he dug into

his pasta with shrimp scampi.

While dining at Blue Point Grill, I faced another of my favorite

outdoor venues in this part of town: Tiger Noodles. Its sidewalk

setting makes it casual in the extreme, but also very dog friendly for

those who like to take their pooch along. Over my years as a

restaurant reviewer, I have found that people’s opinions of what

constitutes good Chinese food and good pizza are the two most strongly

held personal preferences. I count myself among the many who consider

Tiger Noodles the best Chinese food in town. I can’t imagine life

without their homestyle braised beef noodle soup, which I must have

even in hottest throes of summer. I am particularly fussy about

dumplings, and find Tiger Noodles’ delicate steamed juicy pork and

crabmeat buns downright addictive. Since I enjoy drinking beer with

Chinese food, having Nassau Liquors Grape & Grain right next door is

the height of convenience.

Not far away, at the corner of Chestnut and Nassau, is a spot that has

been one Chinese restaurant or another over the years. Four years ago

it became Ivy Garden, and in my opinion it is an improvement over its

previous incarnations. The menu is predictable, and although some of

its sweet dishes such as lemon chicken and Mandarin baby ribs are a

bit sweet for my tastes, other dishes, such as scallion pancakes and

Mongolian beef, are competent. Ivy Garden is a very good value and has

convenient parking in the rear. I like that its outdoor dining spot,

while not exactly a garden, is a pleasant terrace edged with greenery

and Asian-style lanterns, and is perched a step or two above street

level. The restaurant’s secret weapon, though, is the sincerely

friendly atmosphere created by owner Steve Lin, who seems to always be

present, greeting all comers and checking in to make sure diners are

happy. On a recent visit the highlights of my meal were chatting with

Mr. Lin and downing a generous serving of salt-and-pepper soft shell

crabs.

Directly across Nassau Street are two other popular ethnic restaurants

with outdoor table service: Thai Village and Kalluri Corner, making

this intersection quite a hub. Like Ivy Garden, they are good values

for standard Thai and Indian dishes, respectively. I particularly like

dining out on Kalluri Corner’s rooftop on weekends, looking down onto

Nassau Street, when the truck traffic is lighter. Varsity Liquors is

just steps away from all these BYO spots.

I can’t leave this part of town without mentioning Hoagie Haven. There

is no table service, indoors or out, and the only seating is a bench

on the sidewalk. Yet Hoagie Haven is a Princeton institution, and

rightly so. Its classic Italian subs are indeed the area’s nonpareil.

(I give no quarter to calling them hoagies, heroes, or grinders: I

grew up in Newark, where they were never referred to as anything but

subs or submarine sandwiches.) With generous amounts of provolone,

capicola (sic), ham, and salami on properly soft, squishy torpedo

rolls, they are irresistible, if not exactly heart healthy. My

daughter refers to them as "the best bad sandwiches," and even the

likes of Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" sings their praises. Stewart,

who grew up in Lawrenceville, reportedly still comes down from

Manhattan for a fix every now and then.

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Princeton Shopping Center

Over at the Princeton Shopping Center on Harrison Street, Main Street

Euro-American Bistro & Bar has been offering well-prepared

contemporary takes on American, European, and Asian-style comfort food

for years. To the uninitiated, dining outdoors in the middle of a

shopping center might sound questionable at first blush but not to

those acquainted with this unique property. Main Street’s outdoor

patio, tastefully roped off under its blue Pellegrino umbrellas, sits

on the edge of a vast, green courtyard replete with clock tower,

fountains, pathways, split rail fencing, and, most importantly,

carefully maintained flowerbeds, making for a pretty, traffic-free (!)

setting for dining al fresco.

Adding to the already attractive setting are the annual summer

concerts in the courtyard on Thursday evenings. Portions of the menu

change monthly, and I especially like the rotating "best buys" in

wines by the bottle or glass, all at fair prices. Recommended summer

dishes include chilled gazpacho, soy-glazed salmon with spicy noodle

salad, and the half-pound Main Street Bistro burger, a steal at $7.

Another great option at Princeton Shopping Center is Camillo’s Cafe,

directly across from Main Street. It’s a cozy neighborhood trattoria

owned by executive chef Camillo Tortola. Entrees includelobster fra

diavolo over pappardelle with clams and mussels, and filet mignon with

gorgonzola.

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Route 206 in Princeton

Still in Princeton but out on Route 206 near the intersection of

Cherry Hill Road, is Gennaro’s, the latest restaurant in the space

that had been La Terraza and before that, Casabona. Owner Gennaro

Costabile, who also owns La Piazza further north on 206 in

Hillsborough, has kept the lace curtains and much of the menu from La

Terraza days but with a more noticeable traditional Italian accent.

Stylish new black aluminum patio tables and chairs add to the charm of

the courtyard next to the restaurant that already sported four square

beds filled with dogwoods, each anchored by a big stone planter

growing tomatoes and basil plants. On a recent visit our friendly

server told us these would eventually be put to good use in the

kitchen.

The courtyard is enclosed on three sides The noise from 206 during our

dinner was noticeable but we were able to converse without raising our

voices – which I cannot claim for many popular indoor venues – and the

classic Italian fare, from a generous antipasto that includes fried

calamari and grilled jumbo shrimp along with the typical Italian

salumi to a house-made Limoncello gelato, was delightful.

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Route 1

Moving out onto Route 1 outdoor dining options include Big Fish

Seafood Bistro at Marketfair and Tre Piani and Salt Creek Grille at

Forrestal Village. Big Fish Seafood Bistro is one of those rarities: a

chain restaurant that successfully negotiates the treacherous waters

of pleasing the masses while serving decent fare. From the raised

patio, which faces the parking lot, diners can peek into the

aquarium-like dining room, with its bubble-shaped light fixtures.

Big Fish has always been long on style – even its exterior stucco

walls alternate between deep blue and spicy orange. A few buzz-cut

evergreens soften the space, which overlooks the parking lot and can

get hot on sunny days. But I savored that sun on my back recently,

while indulging in my usual soup and salad combo of Big Fish Chowder

(which includes smoked fish and tasso ham – salty but savory) and the

Cape Codder, which tosses greens, pine nuts, red onion, and blue

cheese in a retro raspberry vinaigrette. Subtlety is not a Big Fish

strong point, but when I’m in the right mood, it delivers.

It is a testament to its quality that Tre Piani has survived, and

thrived, all these years at Forrestal Village, which is in the throes

yet another reincarnation. Chef/owner Jim Weaver’s ever-expanding

commitment to artisanal Italian base ingredients coupled with the

bounty of local farms and waters keeps this three-story restaurant

vibrant and fresh. Nowhere is this more apparent than out on the

raised patio that wraps around the curved brick facade of the

building, where tall planters sprout fig trees and the flowerbed is

planted with sunflowers and salvia. A fountain in the courtyard and

maroon umbrellas and awnings complete the setting, which Weaver

fancies so much he held his own wedding there last August.

On Friday, July 13, the patio will be the setting for Tre Piani’s

annual outdoor grilling class and tasting ($59, trepiani.com).

Participants learn to cook a complete eight-part dinner, with beer and

wine. Among the offerings are razor clams, soft-shell crabs, and

Florentine-style steak with grilled vegetables. In the coming weeks

Weaver will unveil Tre Bar, his wine and tapas bar. Its menu will also

be available to patrons who choose to dine out on the Tre Piani patio.

The newest addition to dining outdoors at Forrestal is Salt Creek

Grille. The brand new California-ranch style building, visible from

Route 1, is all about dark woods and fireplaces inside, but dining out

on the back porch offers a more airy environment, literally and

figuratively. The attractive porch is parallel to the highway but

kudos to the site designer who employs a long greensward and a high

berm to keep the noise at bay. In fact, diners spot only the tops of

cars whizzing by, with almost no noise – at least at dinnertime on a

Sunday, which is when I last dined there. Muslin drapes frame the

pillars on the only open side of the roofed porch. The lower half of

the porch holds dining tables and chairs, while the upper half

features stylish lounge chairs, a settee, and a cocktail table set

around an indoor-outdoor fireplace.

The Grille’s menu is a personable blend of contemporary American

grilled dishes and comfort foods. The salads – both sides and mains –

are especially well executed, from the mesquite-grilled Caesar to the

spicy grilled ahi tuna to the goat cheese wrapped in phyllo with a

light vinaigrette.

Just as I couldn’t leave Princeton without mentioning Hoagie Haven, I

must give a nod out on Route 1 in Monmouth Junction to Burrito Royale.

It’s not just that this small, pseudo-hacienda structure serves up

good, fresh Mexican restaurant fare at ridiculously low prices. It’s

that for the last 30 years it has held its own against national

fast-food chains while dishing out tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and

the like.

Service, by the second generation of owners, is fast and friendly and

the atmosphere is relaxed to the max. I like to order the California

burrito and pretend I’m a trucker having lunch.

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Pennington

Further afield, in Pennington, is Za. This restaurant’s patio wins my

sow’s-ear-into-silk-purse award. Brothers Mark and Chazz Valenza took

over a space in an aging tiny strip mall at the busy intersection of

Route 31 and Delaware Avenue (opposite Delaware Avenue from Pennington

Shopping Center) that has a patio mere feet from noisy traffic.

Transforming the patio – the only asset of which was a

wisteria-covered pergola – fell to Chazz, whose other business is

designing water gardens. He added a dramatic, sight-and-sound-muffling

collection of boulders, plants, and cascading water garden at one end.

One long side is lined with stone planters packed with fresh herbs and

flowers. Blue and white woven bistro chairs and boldly striped awnings

add more color, and a solid wood fence screens off the parking lot.

Traffic noise is by no means obliterated, but is tolerable.

Chef Mark, who was last at Triumph Brewing in Princeton, calls his

oeuvre "cross cultural comfort cuisine." I call it some of the most

likeable and personal food I’ve encountered in a time when many

restaurant menus look alarmingly alike. Ethereal Roman semolina

gnocchi, Korean beef kebobs, and the Maine lobster picnic are among my

favorite offerings at this BYO.

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Hopewell

Another favorite BYO that features al fresco dining is Brothers Moon

in Hopewell, where patrons can dine out on Broad Street (Route 518) in

this charming village. Chef/proprietor Will Mooney was among the first

in the state to spotlight local, sustainable foodstuffs, and with

top-notch ingredients even the most simple dishes shine, such as a

pasta special featuring olives, zucchini, asparagus, and oven-dried

tomatoes. Mooney has a way with soups, including lobster chowder and

corn chowder with grilled shrimp.

With a blue, silver, and gold celestial theme that is a play on the

chef’s name, Brothers Moon is pretty inside, but on a summer night,

why not bask in real moonshine and starlight? Five white wooden

trestle tables are covered in white linens, planters on pedestals

separate diners from pedestrians, and white sail-like awnings catch

summer breezes.

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Lambertville/New Hope

Continue down Route 518 into Lambertville to come across the secret

garden that is the Swan Hotel’s patio. Each time I visit Anton’s, the

dining room inside the erstwhile Swan Hotel, I enjoy the ambitious

modern American fare that owner/ chef Chris Connors offers.

But in fine weather I opt for the simpler grill menu he serves up

evenings in Jim Bolger’s Swan Bar and in the pretty, leafy courtyard

just outside. This small space is set just below street level,

overhung by tall, old trees, and enclosed on one side by an

ivy-covered brick wall. A fountain flanked by doggy statues and masses

of impatiens in stone planters complete the idyll.

With credentials stretching back to the groundbreaking New Jersey

restaurant, the Tarragon Tree, Conners is adept at plain fare that

employs excellent basic components. Crab soup in summer, Caesar salad,

and sirloin burgers year round, and seasonal crisp-crust personal

pizzas are among the winners here.

Stick to the wine list because the by-the-glass list is lackluster. I

recommend any of the area beers that are on tap; Dogfish Head "60

Minute" IPA and Victory Pilsner are among my favorites.

Few and far between are restaurants about which I like everything.

Zoubi, across the river in New Hope, PA, is decidedly one. If it has

all the charm, good looks, and enticing food of a small, well-run

Mediterranean restaurant that is because its team of owners and chefs

hail from France, Belgium, and Greece; the most notable is Andre Le

Noble of St. Tropez.

The rear patio boasts bentwood bistro chairs, ancient overhanging

trees, an arbor, clematis wrapping around a post – enveloped by walls

of stone and stucco inset with fancy wrought iron "windows" and hung

with lanterns and big, fat, dramatically dripping candles. Zoubi’s

French/Mediterranean menu includes touches of Asia and Latin America.

Escargots, for example, are served in an au gratin dish with ginger

and mango..

Duet of duck comprises a harmonious pairing of sliced grilled boneless

breast still rosy in the center and confit leg and thigh, whose

already prodigious flavor reaches new high notes by its crisp-sauteed

exterior. Lamb "lollipops" with cassoulet and crab cakes are other

signatures. Zoubi’s wine list has both both brevity and brains and

desserts are not to be missed.

These are just some of the myriad al fresco dining options we are

graced with in this area. Mediterranean oasis, secret garden, slice of

small town USA, truck stop – I happily devour them all.

Big Fish Seafood, MarketFair, 3535 Route 1 South, Princeton.

609-919-1179, muer.com

Blue Point Grill, 258 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-1211,

bluepointgrill.com

Brother Moon, 7 West Broad Street, Hopewell. 609-333-1330,

brothersmoon.com

Burrito Royale, 4049 Route 1, Monmouth Junction. 732-297-6148.

Camillo’s Cafe, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North Harrison Street,

Princeton. 609-252-0608, camilloscafe.net

Gennaro’s, 47B State Road (Route 206), Princeton. 609-497-2774.

Hoagie Haven, 242 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-7723.

Ivy Garden, 238 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-921-2388.

Main Street Euro-American Bistro, Princeton Shopping Center, 301 North

Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-921-2779, mainstreetprinceton.com

Salt Creek Grille Forrestal Village 1 Rockingham Row Plainsboro

609-419-4200 saltcreekgrille.com

Tiger Noodles, 260 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-252-0663.

The Swan Bar, 43 South Main Street, Lambertville. 609-397-1960,

antons-at-the-swan.com

Tre Piani, Forrestal Village, 120 Rockingham Row, Plainsboro.

609-452-1515, trepiani.com

Za, 147 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington. 609-737-4400,

zarestaurants.com

Zoubi: A Restaurant, a Bar, 5 West Mechanic Street, New Hope, PA.

215-862-5851, zoubinewhope.com


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