Corrections or additions?

Author: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 26,

2000. All rights

reserved.

Dining Out: Rat’s

Anyone who hears that there’s a new Mercer County

dining

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

"village"

adjacent to Grounds for Sculpture at 14 Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton,

Rat’s offers spacious, comfortable, and quiet surroundings. My

companion

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

central

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

visiting

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

latest

addition to his 22-acre Grounds for Sculpture. Johnson named the

establishment

after a character in Kenneth Grahame’s beloved children’s novel,

"The

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

me,"

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

restaurant’s

logo imitates Rat’s florid signature. Here the association with

children

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

springtime,

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.

Ceilings

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

atmosphere.

Two log-burning fireplaces add to the warmth. This is an ideal

destination

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

Stilton.

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

scallops,

each set on a tiny crepe, and individually layered with spinach and

seasonings.

A cheese course ($12), served after the entree in the French manner,

from a rolling cart, was a welcome palate surprise. From the

innovative

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

sourbets

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

climate-controlled

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

month.

In many dining seasons in New Jersey, Rat’s is one of the few meals

to rival it.

— Nicole Plett

Rat’s, Grounds for Sculpture, 14 Fairgrounds Road,

Hamilton,

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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