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Author: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 26,
2000. All rights
Dining Out: Rat’s
Anyone who hears that there’s a new Mercer County
destination called "Rat’s" is unlikely to forget the name
in a hurry. But anyone who has the good fortune to spend an evening
lingering over Rat’s superb five-course dinner will be in absolutely
no danger of forgetting it. Subtle, flavorful, beautiful — and
memorable — are just some of the superlatives that come to mind.
Open for just two weeks in part of a newly-built slate-roofed
adjacent to Grounds for Sculpture at 14 Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton,
Rat’s offers spacious, comfortable, and quiet surroundings. My
and I were served by an attentive, but refreshingly down-to-earth,
staff with only an occasional case of jitters.
This elegant dining destination is the brainchild of sculptor and
pharmaceutical heir J. Seward Johnson Jr. And how fortunate for
New Jersey that the same month that one J&J heir, Robert Wood Johnson
IV, spent $635 million to purchase the New York Jets football team,
his cousin persevered with his decade-long plan to create the nation’s
premiere outdoor sculpture park, museum, and ancillary facilities
on the former State Fairgrounds. These support facilities include
the not-for-profit restaurant and office complex, tailored for
artists, clients, and the general public, that is home to the Atlantic
Foundation and the International Sculpture Center.
Aptly described as Johnson’s "pet project," Rat’s is the
addition to his 22-acre Grounds for Sculpture. Johnson named the
after a character in Kenneth Grahame’s beloved children’s novel,
Wind in the Willows." This good-natured fellow is a water rat
who lives in a cozy hole on the river bank where he is known for his
kind hospitality and well-stocked picnic hampers. "Believe
Rat tells a young friend, as they load a sumptuous picnic into his
boat, "there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so
much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." The
logo imitates Rat’s florid signature. Here the association with
ends; this is not a children’s dining destination.
Johnson’s "old world" village is actually a succession of
connected buildings with half-timbered, peach-colored stucco walls
set off by rustic stonework and slate roofs. The restaurant’s four
main dining rooms and outdoor terraces overlook his emerging replica
of the French Impressionist artist Claude Monet’s lily pond and garden
— complete with Japanese footbridge — at Giverny. Come
this decorative water garden is sure to become a premiere attraction.
Inside Rat’s, the choice of off-white stucco walls, huge rough-hewn
timbers, stone, and woodwork is designed to imitate a French country
inn. The architects have succeeded, where so many others fail, in
creating an elegant ambience that is also eminently comfortable.
of varying heights, walls that are generously hung with paintings
and tapestries, Oriental rugs on wood floors, upholstered seating,
and wooden chairs festooned with cushions create a relaxing
Two log-burning fireplaces add to the warmth. This is an ideal
for conversation enlivened by excellent food, whether with a special
partner or a group seated around one of the signature round tables.
Chef Eric Martin has created a menu that will change with the seasons
in a culinary style he describes as "the well-traveled French
kitchen." After selecting our appetizers, we discovered that our
meal began with a complimentary buse, a taste tantalizer in
the form of a single spherical salmon croquette, in a crisp coating,
served on a bed of shredded daikon with a luscious beet vinaigrette.
My smoked-salmon terrine appetizer ($11), a cross-section triangle
of smoked salmon, with garnishes set within like gems, was almost
too attractive to eat, resembling perhaps an abstraction by Motherwell
or Larry Poons. Surrounding the terrine was a delicate necklace-like
ring of caviar and roe. My partner was equally pleased by a salad
($9) of crisp pears poached in mulled wine, accompanied by abundant
greens, the flavors set off by a judicious sprinkling of crumbled
Choosing among the featured meat, seafood, and vegetarian entrees
was a challenge, but once again we both were delighted by our choices.
My leg of lamb ($26) had a delicate hint of mint and was served with
glazed shallots and rosemary potatoes, with terrific, herb-seasoned
shredded Brussels sprouts. My partner’s dinner of scallops ($27),
as beautiful as it was tasty, consisted of six large Maine diver
each set on a tiny crepe, and individually layered with spinach and
A cheese course ($12), served after the entree in the French manner,
from a rolling cart, was a welcome palate surprise. From the
dessert menu my partner chose a traditional, and ample creme brulee
($8), topped with fresh berries. I succumbed to the temptation of
a hot chocolate cake ($10) — a pleasingly delicate chocolate dome
filled with a rich hot fudge sauce, surrounded by three homemade
that included a hazelnut marvel.
Rat’s wine list focuses on the output of small growers. Among its
more than 500 wines is an extensive selection of French Bordeaux and
Burgundys. A wine-tasting room, its walls lined with
glass-faced wine cabinets, is featured on the ground floor.
It was my doubly good fortune to enjoy an elegant winter lunch in
Paris, at the Bouillon Racine off the Boulevard St. Michel, last
In many dining seasons in New Jersey, Rat’s is one of the few meals
to rival it.
— Nicole Plett
609-584-7800. Lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Friday; on weekends,
dinner only. Entrees from $20 to $32; appetizers $9 to $14. Lunch
served from noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 to 9 p.m. Liquor license;
reservations; credit cards.
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