Corrections or additions?
This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the May 5, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Global Warming: Dining Out in the "New" New Hope
"New Hope is growing up," says Stephen Pieretti, general manager and director of operations at Marsha Brown, 15 South Main Street (215-862-7044), considered to be the restaurant that has turned around the dining scene in this one square mile slice of gastronomic and artistic pie. Pieretti says that many post-9/11 urban emigres have chosen to leave the city for the New Hope area where for the price of a one-bedroom in Soho you can get a 5-bedroom on two acres or a luxury townhome like the soon-to-be-completed Waterview right on the river.
"New Hope is not just a tourist town anymore," says Pieretti, who himself came out of New York. A graduate of the prestigious Cornell School of Hotel Administration (he formerly worked for the Donald at the Plaza), he recently built a home on an 11-acre tract just outside of New Hope. "Can’t get that in New York," he quips, adding that much of the credit to New Hope’s restaurant renaissance goes to Solebury Township, which he calls "a pioneer in land preservation. They’re buying up 600 acre tracts of land, allowing 100 acres to be developed into beautiful residential housing with two to three acre lots, then giving over 50 percent back to farmland and the rest to green acres preservation. It keeps the small town feel."
Toss in the allure of the waterfront and the higher standards of what Pieretti calls the new "higher-end locals" who demand better customer service and great dining out, and you’ve got a recipe for success. "New Hope on a Friday or Saturday night is the place to be," says Pieretti. "You don’t have to stress and drive into New York. This town is all about going out and having fun." He acknowledges that the bikers and tattoo types from the New Hope we all knew 10, even 20 years ago, are still present but "they’re at the other end of the street."
Like the suave, assured casino owner Andy Garcia played in the movie "Ocean’s Eleven," impeccably dressed and handsome to boot, Pieretti presides over Marsha Brown – a smooth, well-oiled culinary machine built in a former church at 15 South Main Street, renovated to the tune of $2 million. He surveys the bar, filling with well-dressed couples, on a recent Friday night and says to his visitor, "Look at that. It’s like the Copacabana. That’s not a bunch of guys sitting around drinking beer. Look at those bartenders. They’re not chewing gum and talking to their girlfriends on the phone. They’re taking care of you."
And indeed they are. Michael, one of the bartenders, whips up his own invention, a lemon meringue pie martini – equal parts limoncello liquer, Licor 43, and pineapple juice. Hits the spot. "It’s the pie without the fork," he says. No vodka or gin, so where’s the martini part? "The latest craze is cocktails in a martini glass," he answers smoothly.
At 7 p.m. the place hums with that electrical undercurrent you feel when you arrive at a party you know is going to be great. "Look at those two couples that just walked in," says Pieretti, pointing a well-trained eye on one gentleman’s jacket. "That’s Nordstrom’s. Look at the two women, They’re dressed in black, but not too dressy. And look at those shoes. Those are their best black heels."
In yet another example of how Marsha Brown is raising the bar (no pun intended), Pieretti speaks of "position control," a checklist of characteristics drawn from the Disney business book, "Be My Guest." "When you enter a restaurant," says Pieretti, "the first thing you see are the steps. Are they clean? Then you see the floor. Is it clean? Then you see the person behind the desk? Are they smiling at you and welcoming you? Are they in control of the situation?" Most people run through this checklist unconsciously, says Pieretti, but these are the things that keep you coming back to a restaurant – or not. Marsha Brown rates its position control once a month.
‘It’s not the food that makes the restaurant; it’s the people," says John Connelly, head of Marsha Brown’s kitchen, which churns out over 300 dinners on a Saturday night. One of those people "smiling at you and welcoming you" at Marsha Brown is hostess Joanna Shields, a perpetually chic woman with great bone structure and expertly-cut, closely cropped white hair, who has three grown children and six grandchildren, but can still pull off wearing a leather jacket tied around her waist. The daughter of a barber and a factory worker, Shields grew up in the no-man’s-land coal mining town of New Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and eventually landed an advertising job in New York at the Plaza Hotel and a flat on the upper East side.
"I was Eloise," she says of those charmed years in her 20s, referring to the little girl who lived at the Plaza in those famous children’s books. "I walked to work with Johnny Mathis, who lived in my neighborhood." After 30 years as a Navy wife, she ran a pizza shop in Newtown, then sold it, ironically, on 9/11. She knows everybody in New Hope, having lived in the area for 21 years. One day she walked into Marsha Brown. And just kind of stayed. "People always ask me, ‘Are you Marsha Brown?’ she says. "Marsha and I decided I’ll just say, ‘I’m her sister.’"
"It’s all about having a good time," says Connelly, who also oversees the kitchens at the three Ruth’s Chris Steakhouses restaurateur Marsha Brown owns in Center City, King of Prussia, and Long Island. Together, the four properties carry significant buying power and access to the best three percent of beef in the country — witness the melt-in-your-mouth "lollipop lamb chops" and a petit filet mignon that goes down your gullet like beef-flavored butter.
The gigantic mural in the upstairs dining room (which still has the first and last rows of original pews now used for seating), features two lions in combat. "That mural’s called ‘Redemption,’" says Connelly. "There’s a reason for that. Isn’t the world all about acceptance now? It’s ‘Get along with everybody.’ We need a place to get away from the bomb in the basement, the prank phone call. What more fitting place than a church?"
More signs of new life in New Hope: Valet parking. You can get it at Marsha Brown and 90 Main (its name is its address; 215-862-3030, www.ninetymain.com), the "it" bar of the moment in New Hope, which just opened in March. "We’re like the Skybar at the Mondrian in L.A.," says executive chef Brian Goldstein. With a two-story glass atrium, mod red velvet chairs, and a circular bar made completely of cement, 90 Main just opened on March 17. At 10 p.m. on a weekend night, the bar is three to four deep in singles and couples ogling one another to the tunes of the DJ and showing a lot of midriff while they nibble on shrimp and lobster spring rolls or a tapas plate of grilled shrimp, scallops, chicken, lamb, and vegetables, with aged swiss and provolone and hummus, created by Goldstein "to allow a sampling of our whole menu."
The bar/restaurant is owned by a trio of dashing, high-energy 30-somethings who all went to high school together in nearby Richboro, two of whom have kept their day job: Jeff Izes, a lawyer who has his own consulting firm, Izes Consulting Solutions in Warwick, Pennsylvania; John Whitehead, a financial advisor for Wachovia Securities but more interestingly the number two choice for the second iteration of "The Bachelor" on ABC in 2002 ("Yeah," he says. "It was between me and Aaron, and they picked Aaron. Go figure."); and Paul Blancato, who’s on site as manager. In the midst of prepping for the summer crowds, 90 Main is still undergoing design work in the interior and will unveil new chic white ottoman outdoor seating, fresh landscaping, and a permanent black slate outdoor bar on Thursday, May 20.
"When we were growing up, we would come to New Hope and have a miserable time," says Izes. "We’d go to New York instead. (With 90 Main), we’re going for a New York feel inside and a South Beach feel outside, bringing something new to this area. We want to make it a destination." Just as Stephen Pieretti moved here from New York, Izes has moved here from Center City. Izes says his gold standard for a bar is Tao in New York -the post-modern, three-floor Asian wonder at 42 East 58th featuring a 16-foot Buddha and frequented by celebs like Nicole Kidman – and the famed Delano in South Beach.
The menu offers upscale bar food like Asian BBQ pork tenderloin, lobster crepes with shitake mushrooms and cognac curry cream sauce. For hummus lovers, there’s a trio of sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic, and spinach. Izes says that in addition to the spring rolls, the most popular items on the menu are the grilled baby lamb chops, served with lemon braised artichoke hearts, and the pan seared diver scallops with grilled pineapple, three bell pepper puree; and lobster mashed potatoes.
If you’re dining at another New Hope restaurant and just want to come to 90 Main for dessert and a drink later in the evening, pastry chef Lexan Koenig whips up sweet tooth soothers like 90 Main Napoleon – crisp won tons dusted with five spice powder, filled with sauteed bananas and vanilla pastry cream, served with hazelnut sauce; devil’s food triple layer cake, filled and frosted with milk chocolate mousseline buttercream; mango mousse parfait, and the requisite creme brulee – but here served as a sampler with the chef’s choice of flavors.
Up the street, at Blue Tortilla, 18-20 Main Street (215-862-5859), owner Enrique Patino starts squeezing limes at 4 p.m. It’s BYOT, bring your own tequila and Patino and his staff will whip up homemade margaritas for $2.50 each or $7.50 for half a pitcher. Patino and his father hail from Mazatlan, and when it comes to authentic Mexican food, they knew where to go – "We flew in the chef from Mexico City," says Patino. The tortillas are homemade ("right before serving"); everything’s homemade, from the roasted chicken pibil – boneless chicken breast marinated in achiote, cloves, garlic, and cumin and served with pickled red onions, black beans and rice; asado, a sirloin and potato dish prepared "with our grandmother’s tomato, garlic and oregano sauce;" and flan Napolitano with roasted coconut for dessert.
The unpretentious and relaxed decor of primary colors makes you feel like you’re on vacation, with pesos burning a hole in your pocket. Patino also owns Milagros Gallery at 13 West Mechanic Street (215-862-3575) and has been representing Mexican artists and woodcarvers for years – the walls of Blue Tortilla are adorned with the large, colorful, highly intricate etchings of Fernando Olivera. Its outdoor cafe is great for people watching.
Marsha Brown nails the Southern thing. Blue Tortilla lobs a mean Mexican tennis ball. And 90 Main’s got the martini set under control. But the Mansion Inn, at 9 South Main Street (215-862-1231, www.themansioninn.com), is all about romance. Blushing bride, crisp cotton sheets romance. A yellow and white gingerbread manifesto tucked in behind a wrought iron grape cluster fence forged in 1867, the Mansion Inn is a masterful example of Baroque Victorian architecture of the Second French Empire. A country-perfect front porch welcomes guests into a maze of dining rooms flanked by original etched glass doors and lace-curtained floor-to-ceiling windows. The floors are Washington red pine.
With its charming rooms and suites upstairs for overnight guests, the Inn has been featured in Country Inns Magazine and on the Learning Channel’s Great Country Inns series. The bar is intimate and cozy, the surroundings hushed and soft and sweet like baby’s breath. Outside the garden patio has wedding written all over it and inside the Champagne Room features a champagne cocktail from the owner’s 18th century family.
On a nice day, grab a tiny round table for two on the porch and watch the people go by as you nibble a Parma fig and Stilton salad with warm bacon dressing or pan-seared scallops with sherry reduction. At night, the dining rooms are candlelit and filled with the seductive aromas of dishes like foie gras de canard with apple leek apricot compote, squid ink lobster ravioli with Pernod cream sauce and polpetta di granchio gigante (jumbo lump crab cake).
The only thing New Hope lacks is a great coffee shop. Funny how Princeton’s crawling with them (no doubt the university stokes the caffeine demand) but the only place you can go just for coffee in New Hope is Starbucks. The place is screaming for a Greenwich Village hole-in-the-wall with tiny marble tables, a window seat with worn cushions strewn with old copies of Harper’s Bazaar and the Economist, half caf-half decaf vanilla latte, and killer ‚clairs.
You can, however, get a great Bloody Mary in New Hope. For the best – along with a view of the water – any restaurateur you ask will say the Landing, 22 North Main Street (215-862-5711). This old standby doesn’t disappoint in the horseradish and celery department. Plunk down $7.50 and you’ll get a very tall Bloody Mary garnished with the requisite celery stick but jumping in for a swim are also a big fat shrimp, super-sized wedge of lime, and a green pepperoncini.
What’s next on the grazing tour? Europe. Turn onto Mechanic Street and two doors up on the left, at the duo-number 5-7 (only there’s no number), you come upon a tall iron gate, the kind that novelists write about. You’ve found Zoubi’s (215-862-5851, www.zoubinewhope.com). You peek in and see a kind of alleyway and beyond, a patio with crubmling brick walls, climbing vines, and stone. Suddenly, you’re not in Kansas anymore. You could be in Barcelona. Or Lisbon or Bergamo or, hell, any city with an O in it.
You walk through a cozy outdoor lounge featuring a field of sunflowers painted by local artist Billy Selznick into a quaint, open air patio, a picture perfect Mediterranean melange of lush flowering plants, and antiques partly covered by exposed roof beams. Inside, the newly-restyled dining room features a brick fireplace and walls in muted yellow and pastel tangerine.
"We’re a fusion of French, Latin, American, and Asian cuisine," says Andre LeNoble, a charming older Frenchman who was born and raised in St. Tropez. Weaned on seafood caught fresh off the Cote D’Or, his gastronomic sensibilities took on a Mediterranean influence in his early adult years when he went to work in his parent’s restaurant in the Moroccan city of Midelt. Later, he trained with the legendary Jacques Maniere, then pioneering nouvelle cuisine in Paris. Then the globe-hopping Le Noble worked his way through the Caribbean, managing a restaurant for singer Jimmy Buffet, then on to Spain, then across the Atlantic to Philadelphia.
Together with co-owner Louis Zanias, who hails from Greece, and chef Francois Morvan from New Hope’s award-winning Le Bonne Auberge, the three created a menu, newly revamped for spring 2004. Specialties include prawn and lemongrass soup; grilled shrimp with anchovy butter; lobster and shrimp mojo cocktail; pave de brandade de Morue, pure European comfort food – a "cake" made with mashed potatoes, garlic, hot fish, and olive oil; and marinated Chilean sea bass.
Cross the street, go down a narrow stairwell to your left, take five paces along the canal, and you can get your South American fix at Esca, at 18 West Mechanic (215-862-7099). "We’re American with a Latin flair, with Caribbean to Spanish flavors," says Marli Franco, co-owner with Lorrie Giddio. Brazilian is definitely a "hot" cuisine right now (Franco’s husband is Brazilian), which, in short, translates to grilled meat. Esca offers diners a choice of lamb, chicken, or pork served with rice and beans, collard greens, and fried yucca. If meat’s not your thing, try the yucca-dusted salmon filet served with creamy coconut tomato sauce and fried leeks, among other flavorful entrees. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, you can get a three-course "locals" menu for $17.
Even though the dining room is striking, with a large round stone fireplace in the center, and there’s also a large outdoor dining area, we loved the bar because it has a fireplace (we love any place with a fireplace) and upholstered banquettes and ottomans. You could just crash here and nibble on black bean cake served with a jerk sour cream and frizzled leeks; pulled pork empanada with a grilled pineapple relish and guava paste; or saut‚ed crab cake topped with a toasted corn salsa and drizzled with a roasted banana aoli.
If 90 Main is the "it" bar in New Hope, then Tastebuds, at 49 West Ferry Street, is the "it" cafe. A dash of modern country where the smartness of white tablecloths is tempered by a painted, worn wooden floor, Tastebuds has the kind of simple, understated look and feel that makes it equally appropriate for a girlfriend’s lunch or a romantic date. Owner John Barbacane has created a menu that could be plucked from any of New York’s casual bistros where locals go when they don’t feel like cooking on weeknights: bruschetta with olive tapenade and artichoke parmesan pesto; neighborhood salad of fresh greens, gorgonzola cheese, sliced apples, toasted pecans with cranberry vinaigrette; grilled duck breast in a fig and port wine reduction; braised short ribs of beef osso bucco style; shrimp, lobster, crabmeat, mussels and roasted potatoes in a fennel, saffron, and tomato broth.
New Hope’s a walking town, so here’s our one-paragraph guide to shopping, or spots to check out in between Bloody Marys and lemon meringue pie martinis. Guys, unless you have uncontrollable metrosexual tendencies, go park yourself at Triumph Brewery in Union Square, much bigger and dramatic in scale than the Triumph on Nassau Street, and have a beer – better yet, make it two or three. If you need something to munch on, try the chef’s spin on the tater tots of your youth – crab tots. We’ve got shopping to do.
OK, here goes. We hit them all in an afternoon; you can too. For perfume, lotion, make-up, lingerie, and all things girlie, A Beautiful Life, 9 West Bridge Street (215-215-862-8838) – don’t miss the British line of perfumes, Creed; Princess Diana wore their Royal Water; for very nice and amazingly not-overpriced gifts and home accessories, Tesori, 220 Union Square Drive (215-862-7172); for evening wear and urban sophisticate separates, Sterling’s, 210 Union Square Drive (215-862-3444) – save yourself time and go straight to the 50-75 percent off rack; for good "unusual" (as opposed to bad "unusual") women’s and children’s clothing, the kind of place where you will fixate on one thing, and say over and over, "I have to have that, the electric company can wait" and perfect little girl dresses for grandmothers to buy their granddaughters, Chester Springs Clothing, 19 North Main Street (215-862-6154); for gourmet food and kitchen ware, Variete, 34 West Ferry Street (215-862-4886); for soap, jewelry, CDs to play while you’re in the tub or otherwise engaged, journals, cards, and a whole lot of stuff that smells really good, Strawberry Jam, 44C South Main Street (215-862-9251); for more stuff girls can’t get enough of, Bucks Country Bath & Body, 48 West Ferry Street (215-862-7605); for a good old-fashioned bookstore, Farley’s Bookshop at 44 South Main Street (215-862-2452), next to Strawberry Jam.
All in all, you’d have to be a very picky eater not to find something in the "new" New Hope. But a night out is not a night out without a nightcap – and ours, believe it or not, is non-alcoholic: Back at Marsha Brown at 10 p.m. the dining room is buzzing, the conversation hearty, the Southern-style creamed spinach, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, and plates (heated to 500 degrees to keep those wicked steaks warm) are cleared from the table by the impeccable wait staff, and all we have to say is three words: apple pot pie.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.