Despite the shaky economy, this past year has seen the debut of several area restaurants. Not surprisingly, they are family-friendly, mostly modest endeavors featuring approachable menus — often ethnic in flavor — at moderate, if not downright bargain, prices. Here’s an introduction to the new kids on the block, and the interesting, hardworking owners and chefs behind them.
Taste of Mexico
Felipe Cruz’s tiny Taste of Mexico in the Princeton Shopping Center on Harrison Street has been serving user-friendly guacamole, tacos, burritos, quesadillas, enchiladas, and the like since 1995, so this eatery is by no means a newcomer. But what is new is that Cruz has opened a second Taste of Mexico in the Nassau Street space that had been Calico Grill. The cheerfully repainted room, which opened earlier this month and seats 30, is tucked down the alley behind Cox’s Market.
Cruz bought both businesses from Alan and Marguerite Heap and Carlos Espichan, who had taken over the market in 2004 and then opened Calico Grill in 2007. While Cruz’s popular original restaurant will continue to operate as always, he confesses, “To be honest, I always wanted to be on Nassau Street. I was not crazy about the shopping center at the time, especially when seven businesses went bankrupt, and I was assistant manager there.”
But owning a restaurant had always been a dream, says Cruz, who is also the proprietor of El Oaxaqueno 2 in New Brunswick. He has been cooking since he was 15, shortly after he moved to the U.S. from Mesones Hidalgo, a small town in Oaxaca. “I have worked two or three jobs at a time ever since,” he says proudly. By the time he was 19, he was running a Perkins Pancake House on Staten Island. “I know my way around American cooking, because while I was there Perkins expanded the menu well beyond pancakes.”
That Cruz, now 42, settled in Princeton was, by his own account, accidental. He was living in California when he got a distress call from his mother in Mexico. The family had lost contact with his brother in Manhattan, and she asked Felipe to try to find him. “My mom thought that California was next door to Manhattan, so it would be no big deal,” he says. It took almost 10 months, but this dutiful son tracked down his brother in Princeton, living among the sizeable Oaxaqueno population here. Felipe decided to stay on.
In 2001 he was quoted in a New York Times story about why so many Oaxaquenos had immigrated to suburban Princeton as saying, “People follow the crowd. You don’t want to go somewhere by yourself. People come here directly from Mexico because they have people they know here, and they have relatives. Half of my hometown now lives here.”
The original Taste of Mexico’s extensive menu and BYOB status are replicated at the new space, with some additional features. “We have the kitchen space, so we’re adding one or two new items, like hard-shell tacos,” Cruz says. Dinner entrees range from $6.99 to $10.99. Plus, it will also feature breakfast on Saturday and Sunday, which the Harrison Street restaurant does not. He promises, “a full breakfast menu, including hand-squeezed orange juice and Spanish and Mexican dishes like huevos rancheros.”
In addition, some Taste of Mexico offerings will be added to Cox’s Market’s existing catering options. Cruz isn’t worried about spreading himself too thin. “In each of the stores we have key people managing, and we are trying to keep the same kitchen and wait staff that the Heaps had at both the market and the restaurant. It was a package deal.”
A Taste of Mexico, 180 Nassau Street, down the alley behind Cox’s Market. 609-924-0500.
Bell & Whistle
Jeffrey Bartlett spent 30 years in the restaurant business as a chef and consultant before opening his first place, Bell & Whistle, in Hopewell this past July. Bartlett, 50, is a Johnson & Wales graduate who in his salad days worked at the Nassau Inn and Colligan’s Stockton Inn. More recently, he was with the Catering Company in Blawenburg and before that the erstwhile Dakota Steakhouse — one of several restaurants to occupy the site that is now Tusk on Route 206.
Bartlett says that the restaurant was seven years in the making between him and his business partner Jason Machinga, an area developer and businessman whose construction firm oversaw the building of their unique 1,300 square foot space. “Jason and I met eight years ago and began conceptualizing this shortly after that,” Bartlett says. The restaurant is an equal partnership between the two, both of whom live in town — Bartlett just two blocks from the restaurant.
Although Bell & Whistle’s official address is East Broad Street, its newly constructed contemporary building sits directly behind Boro Bean coffee house. Its most striking feature is a high, vaulted, half-barrel shaped roof, the interior of which is covered in natural maple slats interspersed with skylights. The light-filled building has several green aspects, including low-flow water fixtures, high efficiency kitchen equipment, and some recycled construction materials.
The partners made a point of employing as many area artisans in the execution as possible. The restaurant’s soaring back wall, for example, which is covered in locally sourced stone, took the craftsmen of Buena Vista Landscaping in Hopewell eight months to erect. “We also used a local copper worker, our uniforms are from Fancy Threads here in town, and our web designer is based in Pennington,” Bartlett says. The building was designed by Russell DiNardo of HACBM in Lawrence.
The menu comprises what Bartlett terms “favorite American comfort foods with a contemporary twist.” Many of these have a New Orleans, Low Country, or American South bent, such as gumbo, Cajun-spiced pork chops, crispy fried oysters with Creole mayonnaise, and Southern fried chicken breast with a buttermilk biscuit. These are rounded out with modern American favorites, including fish tacos, cedar plank Alaska wild salmon, and a vegetarian dish of four kinds of mushrooms in a garlic-cognac cream sauce between layers of puff pastry. Dinner entree price run from $18 to $24
Bartlett extends the “think local” philosophy into the kitchen as much as possible. He makes two of the menu’s desserts, but the rest come from Bakers Treat, the Flemington-based organization whose profits support women in recovery from abuse. He features Cherry Grove cheeses, Griggstown poultry, and coffee from La Sierra Roasters near Clinton.
Running Bell & Whistle, which takes its name from the church bell of the nearby Baptist church and the town’s fire department whistle, is a family affair. Jeffrey Bartlett’s wife of 22 years, Donna, is manager. “I was a banker for 25 years,” she says. “Jeffrey and I are working together for the first time, but he had been training me unofficially, and the timing was right.” The couple’s 12-year-old son, Jeffrey Jr., can often been seen doing homework at the restaurant, and helps out as, his mother says, a server-in-training. “We call him the future owner of Bell & Whistle, and he actually takes that quite seriously.”
The biggest surprise for the Bartletts has been the response of the community. “When we opened, we didn’t advertise or anything, and yet folks just came, right from the start. It was amazing,” Jeffrey says. “We thought we were doing a soft opening, and that we would be ready to announce our presence by September, but people have been filling the seats since day one.” The dining room holds 46; next spring patio seating will be added.
Bell & Whistle, 9B East Broad Street, Hopewell. 609-466-7800. www.bell-whistle.com.
and Spice Souk
Infini-T Cafe and Spice Souk has risen from the figurative ashes of a former enterprise, Underground Cafe, and had its grand opening earlier this month (after weeks of a soft opening) in the space that had been the Underground Cafe. Owners Mary Fritschie and Mike Carnevale (no relation to the Princeton restaurant family of that name) describe their Hulfish Street emporium as a teahouse and cafe with Eastern ambiance. The couple, who live in Princeton and raised a brood of children from earlier marriages between them, are devoted to selling only fair trade and organic teas and coffees (both brewed and packaged), and they travel frequently to the Near and Middle East to source them.
They completely redesigned the space themselves, creating a laidback, shabby chic multicultural interior featuring furniture and handcrafted goods — almost all of which are for sale — from India, Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco. In addition to an impressive selection of teas and coffees, Infini-T offers a small, diverse, delightfully quirky all-vegetarian menu (and some vegan dishes) of small plates, soups, panini, salads, and baked goods, everything made on the premises or locally. These range from Chinese tea eggs and Indian beans and toast to baklava, and Greek yogurt with berries.
One of Fritschie’s personal favorite teas is First Flush Indian Darjeeling, served in a clear glass on top of which she floats two or three dried rosebuds (for their aroma). The two most popular drinks with customers, so far, are masala chai and Turkish coffee.
Those and all drinks — whether Japanese macha, Moroccan mint, Italian chamomile or espresso — are prepared in the authentic manner using traditional equipment. “We hand-grind the Turkish coffee,” she says. “That my fingers hurt from preparing it is a testament to how much we sell. It’s hard to keep in stock. Mike and I stood on a line that wrapped around the block in Istanbul to get this coffee. It was the long line that convinced us we wanted to serve it. Then we received instructions on how to make it.” At the shop, it is served in a tiny, ornate porcelain cup and saucer, which arrives on an authentic long-handled brass tray, $4.
This past February Fritschie and Carnevale embarked on a trip to India that included a stay at the Glenburn Tea Estates in Assam. The company is part of the Ethical Trade Partnership. “It’s in a remote and interesting part of India,” Fritschie says. “The host family lives on site with their 1,000 employees. They have their own schools, a hospital, and three houses of worship, and they encourage university study. Each family has their own small but comfortable concrete house with running water, which is by no means common. It was nice for us to see firsthand that fair trade does make a difference in people’s lives. I feel confident and comfortable selling these teas.”
One of Fritschie’s favorite memories is playing with the young children there. A large, stunning photo she took of four women carrying baskets on their heads are among Infini-T’s many decorative elements, which also include a painting by a female artist in Hyderabad; a Turkish hookah and brass lamp; a low, painted Afghani table and chair set; and ornately carved wooden cabinets.
In Calcutta the couple encountered a family selling scarves on the street. “They were nice people. We bought up their supply and now students here in Princeton are purchasing them,” says Fritschie. “We don’t mark them up much because we just want to help this and other families. That’s also how we started accumulating our hand-sewn Turkish handbags — not from the grand bazaar in Istanbul, but from a family I found by getting lost.”
This sensibility jives well with Fritschie’s long-held aesthetic and a passion for travel, which Carnevale shares. Fritschie, 47, backpacked across Europe for three years in her teens, staying at youth hostels and with families she met along the way who would invite her in. “That way I really got to know each culture,” she says.
After that, she married young (just before her 20th birthday), worked in New York City in venture capital, and eventually became a stay-at-home mom in Pennington, where she raised her two children. Her son, Nick, based in Burlington, Vermont, works for Howard Dean’s Democracy for America. Daughter Ellie is a sophomore at Swarthmore who often takes the train to Princeton to relax and spend extended time in quiet study at Infini-T — as do many area university, high school, and even middle school students, including Carnevale’s daughters, Bianca and Mickey (short for Michaela), who attend Princeton High.
One of the couple’s most pleasant surprises is that they have become so busy in such a short period of time that they have had to post a help wanted ad on their Facebook page. (Service is personal and never rushed, which has caused some regulars to volunteer to wait until more impatient newcomers get served first.)
Fritschie grew up in Bergenfield, part of a family known to the entire town because her father owned four or five mom-and-pop stores ranging from sporting goods to stationery. “So taking on the cafe represents a passion I’ve always had,” she says.
Carnevale introduced her to the concept of a souk (a market in a Middle Eastern commercial center). She says he also brings attention to detail to the operation. “He has traveled extensively to parts of the world I have not, and he has an accounting background, which helps. This endeavor is like having another child. Thankfully, our children love it, and we’ve made so many new friends so quickly.”
Carnevale, 52, grew up in Detroit. He is both a CPA and an attorney, and a former partner at Deloitte. Fifteen years ago he relocated to Princeton with his then-wife and their children and has lived here ever since.
It was one of Infini-T’s first regular customers, Andy Akiho, a PhD candidate in music composition at Princeton University, who first suggested that the cafe feature live music on some Friday and Saturday nights. “I knew only that Andy was a Princeton grad student,” Fritschie says. “He and a friend would settle in here with headsets on. Turns out he’s a composer.” In fact, he is an award-winning composer from Yale. Since his initial suggestion, the cafe has hosted Akiho, who has even brought in musicians from New York City, as well as other professional and university musicians performing on steel pans, percussions, tabla, double bass, and other instruments.
Likewise, the cafe’s baklava, which at first had been brought in from an outside source, is now made in-house thanks to another customer, a university student from Turkey. He offered to demonstrate making his grandmother’s recipe (“It’s in my blood,” he told them) to taste-test alongside their original offering. His recipe won hands down. Then there are the university students who present gifts from their homelands to Fritschie and Carnevale, and during this fall parents’ weekend, the couple were astonished by how many students brought their parents into the cafe just to meet them.
Infini-T Cafe and Spice Souk, 4 Hulfish Street. 609-712-3921.
An interesting ethnic mix in an attractive setting also presides at Chinese Mirch, an Indo-Chinese restaurant that opened this past June along the stretch of Route 27 between New Brunswick and South Brunswick that for a long time now has been home to an ever-expanding mix of South Asian storefront BYOBs. This restaurant, in North Brunswick just north of Finnegan’s Lane, is unrelated to the similarly named Mirch on Route 1 in the same town. The Route 27 Chinese Mirch is a franchised location — the fourth with more on the way — of a popular restaurant in Manhattan’s Curry Hill district that features a novel form of Asian fusion: Chinese wok meets Indian spices. Its name translates loosely as “spicy Chinese,” but the firepower can be fine-tuned to order.
One of its signature dishes is crisp-fried whole okra pods sprinkled with smoky chile seasoning and presented in a paper cone set in one of those stylish spiral stainless steel wire cones. Representative dishes from the extensive menu include chile paneer (the pressed Indian cheese), chicken or tiger prawns in a soy-chile pepper sauce; cumin lamb, a stir-fry with xiao-shing wine and dried red chile flakes; Singapore rice noodles, and starters of shrimp shumai and chatpata chicken bao (steamed buns with barbecue chicken and crispy onion). Everything is prepared without artificial additives or MSG, and even the chile pastes are made in-house daily.
Sienam Lulla is vice president for the Chinese Mirch organization, while her husband, Vik, serves as executive chef, overseeing all the restaurants and training the experienced Chinese cooks they bring in. “We work with the franchisees to scout prospective locations, and we develop the properties together,” Lulla says. “The key to the North Brunswick restaurant is that it has a diverse demographic. There is an Indian concentration, sure, but also Chinese people who live nearby. And Princeton is just down the road with the eclectic population it brings in from all over the world. It seemed a good fit.”
So far, she reports, the response has been excellent on weekends and is picking up on weekdays. “We’re doing what has worked for us in the long run,” she says. The original Chinese Mirch opened in 2003; the first franchise in 2008. “For too long the perception of Indian food has been just curry, naan, and hot spices. But we do Chinese spice with Indian herbs. Customers can’t believe our interpretations of lamb, and Americans raised in the South say our crispy okra is as good as what they grew up with.”
Vik (short for Vikram) Lulla represents the third generation of his family in the restaurant business, which started in Bangalore, India. When he was only 16, he began training alongside the chefs at his father’s restaurants in California. Eventually, his father relocated the family back to India, and there Vik continued training with the Sheraton Group.
Sienam Lulla comes not from a restaurant background, but from the fashion industry. A graduate of India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, she has worked in fashion marketing and franchising. She started her career working for Levi’s and moved on to other brands such as DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger. “My family is in banking,” she says, “so dinner table conversation gave me a strong foundation in math and accounting — skills needed to survive in the tough restaurant industry.
“When we opened the first Chinese Mirch in New York,” she continues, “Vik knew he wanted to go down a new road, not do straight Indian. Chinese food would be the base, but with Indian flavors. When it became apparent that the concept was taking off, I made the decision to leave fashion and join him. Vik heads the back of the house operations; I am the front, doing public relations, marketing, training, and critiquing the food from the consumer’s point of view.”
The pair works closely with the franchisees, giving them the expertise to operate independently. The Lullas, who live in New York, still visit the North Brunswick location weekly, even doing blind tastings of the food.
Chinese Mirch is unlike many of its neighboring restaurants in its modern, high-end design aesthetic, for which Sienam Lulla is responsible. She says, “most people who open Chinese or Indian restaurants tend to focus on the menu, and slap on the decor as an afterthought or they go with trite restaurant motifs. We wanted a new look that incorporated the symbols of Chinese and Indian culture into a fresh, contemporary, vibrant setting.”
The North Brunswick restaurant features ebony-colored wood walls, a lipstick-red accent wall with modern graphic design, and comfortable red banquettes. Sleek contemporary dinnerware and cutlery add to the modern vibe.
The menu is changed twice a year, with new specials every month. In September (the ninth month), there were nine dishes under $9. In January, they are planning to launch a dim sum menu. “It will consist of Indian and Chinese riffs on traditional dim sum and small plate dishes,” Sienam Lulla says.
Chinese Mirch, 2800 Route 27, North Brunswick 732-951-8424. www.chinesemirch.com
Just as a prime location was key to the Lullas, so it was for the Cheng family, who built and operate Tusk on Route 206 in Montgomery, which opened over Memorial Day weekend. “We felt that stretch was an untapped area,” says Chris Cheng, the general manager and partner with his father, John. “It’s a beautiful site, and we wanted to give Montgomery something different.” They wanted to do this so badly that when the building burned down during construction in 2009, the Chengs never considered giving up on the project. “We knew we were going to rebuild; we believed in the project,” Cheng says.
That ambitious project is now a sprawling 18,000-plus square foot restaurant with a dining room that seats 240, a patio that seats 75 in warm weather, a newly opened lounge that seats 100, and banquet room that can accommodate parties of up to 175. Also ambitious is an extensive menu that encompasses both modern American favorites (New York strip, short rib pappardelle, jambalaya) and global fusion (crab pad Thai, chicken with chorizo and shiitake mushrooms, prawns with teriyaki sauce). Dinner entree prices range from $13 to $26.
The restaurant has changed chefs a couple of times since opening, and for the past two months the lead guy has been Christian Flores. Their most popular dishes, according to Cheng, are wagyu meat loaf, lobster spring rolls, and crispy calamari. “Our calamari is different than most: it has a sweet-spicy sauce of jalapenos, banana peppers, and citrus honey.”
Cheng is the third generation of his family to take up the restaurant business. “My grandfather, who recently retired, owned one of the largest restaurants in Chinatown for almost 20 years,” he says with pride. (This was Jing Fong, which still serves Hong Kong style dim sum in a big, bustling banquet hall.) Cheng’s father, John, 56, previously owned the Rain Forest Cafe and Nite Club in East Brunswick and Ashes Cigar Club in Red Bank.
Cheng, 31, was not directly involved in the family business growing up in East Brunswick. After earning a degree in economics from Rutgers in 2002, he worked for almost 10 years in finance, mostly in mortgages. Before joining his father in the Tusk project, he had been a senior mortgage consultant for 1st Constitution, PNC Bank, and Bank of America.
Cheng reports that the surrounding community has responded positively since the beginning. “When we first opened, we got a lot of families. Now, as the night goes on, we’re getting a younger crowd.” Tusk Lounge, on the main floor opposite the dining room, had its grand opening on Saturday, October 1. “We get a nice late crowd there, mainly those in their 30s to mid-40s,” Cheng says. “Our DJs play top 40, except on Thursday night, which is Latin night. Those who come early, at eight, get a free salsa lesson. And once a month we’re going to have Zumba classes.”
Tusk, 1736 Route 206, Montgomery, 908-829-3417. www.tuskrestaurant.com
About a year ago the very casual Orchard Cafe took over the space in the Princeton YMCA on Paul Robeson Place that had been Da’s Thai. But this time of year, inside is the place for chef/owner Hashim Bulbulia’s warming homestyle soups, chili, and curries. These comprise just a fraction of the astonishingly comprehensive and globe-trotting menus he offers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at his small, no-frills eatery.
Each day he presents made-from-scratch salads, fried rice and noodle dishes, handmade pizzas, sandwiches, hamburgers, desserts, and even formal entrees like pasta with a choice of three homemade sauces and salmon in white-wine cream sauce with rice and a choice of vegetables. Even so, Bulbulia doesn’t hesitate to, as he puts it, “go off menu” to fulfill a customer’s special request. “Basically, it’s all about the patrons,” he says, “so if a person wants something modified in a particular way, we accommodate that. The important thing is that everyone should get what they want.”
When a certain customer (this reporter, who was completely unknown to him) requested the soup du jour, chicken matzo, Bulbulia apologized, explaining that it was sold out and offered to improvise a replacement soup then and there. He did so, despite many protestations not to bother, and after a salad was happily ordered instead. Undaunted, this low-key, personable chef went ahead and minutes later presented a steaming bowl of root vegetable and tomato soup in a broth fragrant with fresh dill and lime. And he refused to accept payment for it.
As he cooks, Bulbulia chats softly and amiably with anyone who wanders in, whether patrons of the Y (and their children) or staff members and administrators, including facility manager Ed Hendershot, a regular. These comprise his base clientele, but the cafe has begun to draw in townies like attorney David Lewis, a clique of elderly ladies who convene there on a regular basis, and a group from the Lewis School.
With its long hours and ambitious menu, running the cafe is a grueling task. “It is a labor of love,” Bulbulia says. “But I enjoy both the physical act of cooking and interacting with people. I like when everything goes smoothly, and I’m making food that tastes good and looks beautiful.”
Hashim Bulbulia first started cooking at the YMCA when it was still Da’s. When Da’s vacated, it was Bulbulia’s mother-in-law, Josefina Trinidad, who took over ownership and changed it to the Orchard Cafe. Last March her son-in-law assumed full ownership, and he continues to offer her Caribbean-inspired menu items. Bulbulia, who will turn 39 in November, has worked in restaurants since he was a teenager, including Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Benihana, and Cheesecake Factory, not to mention restaurants from New York to South Africa that specialized in Portuguese, Cajun-Creole, Korean, Cuban, and Asian fusion.
He grew up in South Africa. “My father was involved in the hotel business in Johannesburg, so as a child I often found myself in restaurant kitchens,” he says, explaining what drew him to the culinary world. “Plus, I have fond memories of spending time in my grandmother’s kitchen.” He left South Africa in 1996 and earned a B.A. in English literature from Rowan University. For a time he worked in sales for Ecolab (headquartered in Minnesota) as a specialist in chemical sanitation supplies for restaurants and institutions. “But I always supplemented my income with restaurant work,” he says.
Bulbulia lives in Highland Park with his wife and three children. This fall, his mother is visiting from South Africa. “She is of Indian ancestry, so she has been teaching me to cook her specialties, like red bean curry,” he says. Soon, it will become just one more option on his global menu.
Orchard Cafe, YWCA Princeton, Paul Robeson Place, 609-924-5702.
Other Fall Dining Venues
Dragonfly Farms, 966 Kuser Road, Hamilton, 609-588-0013. www.dragonflyfarmsnj.com.
Elements, 163 Bayard Lane, Princeton, 609-924-0078. www.elementsprinceton.com.
Eno Terra, 4484 Route 27, Kingston, 609-497-1777. www.enoterra.com.
Rocky Hill Inn, 137 Washington Street, Rocky Hill, 609-683-8930. www.rockyhilltavern.com.
Teriyaki Boy, MarketFair, Route 1 South, West Windsor, 609-397-7979.
The Taste of Mexico, 180 Nassau Street, down the alley behind Cox’s Market, 609-924-0500.
These dining destinations are sponsors of the Fall Dining Issue.