Dining fads come and go — remember grazing? — but I hope the current tapas trend is here to stay. In its original form, in Spain, tapas are small plates of boldly flavored foods meant to accompany sherry, wine, or other alcohol. Spaniards love to roam from tapas bar to tapas bar during the course of an evening, often as a prelude to a dinner that commences no earlier than 10 p.m. and often as late as midnight.
The Americanized version of tapas bars — of which there are ample worthy versions along the Route 1 corridor — usually doesn’t involve roaming and more often than not acts as dinner, not prelude. I’m all for this. Years ago when I traveled extensively on business I came to prefer an evening meal composed of a couple of appetizers and perhaps a salad. I was a tapeador without realizing it.
In our area, New Brunswick has become somewhat of a tapas/small plates hub, with at least three restaurants that tap into the unique appeals of the genre, which by custom include a fairly extensive choice of both hot and cold dishes — preferably an international selection not limited to the Spanish originals — artfully presented and meant to be shared. Because the tapas experience should be a highly social one, the dining space should be lively, not stuffy, and with a relaxed vibe. If the menu suggests wine pairings, that’s a plus. If the space is stylish, hip, and lounge-like, even better.
I have just described one my favorite places: Daryl, which is in the same building as the Heldrich Hotel (but not associated with the hotel). The force behind this striking spot is David Drake, whose eponymous Rahway restaurant is among my favorites in the state. Juan Carlo Fernadez, a native Sevillano, is chef de cuisine. Every dish on the menu beckons, from two-bite mini-burgers with house ketchup, applewood bacon, and aged cheddar, to slow-cooked duck egg du jour, which I cannot imagine gets any better than the version with wilted spinach, crispy prosciutto, and mushroom sauce that I sampled.
I visited Daryl with friends who are regulars and who commandeer the best perch in the room: a four-top at the end of the gorgeous crystal quartz bar. Manager Warren Zinn tells us that many patrons demur at being seated there, preferring either a table with high-back white leather chairs or one of the couches against the back wall, but I enjoyed the sweeping view of the restaurant and its chic patrons.
We guiltlessly shared nine dishes, including two from the “chef’s signatures” section of the menu, which in any other restaurant would be labeled entrees. But how could we pass up beer-braised short ribs with Moroccan flavors? Even this full-size dish is cut and arranged for sharing. Another standout is the hot, crunchy croquettes filled with creamy salt cod puree and perked up with piquillo pepper sauce. On the other hand, we found both the spiced venison carpaccio and tuna tartare lackluster.
Daryl has its own wine shop on the opposite end of the restaurant. The menu thoughtfully offers wine suggestions for each tapa — in two, four, or six-ounce options in addition to by the bottle. The selection is knowledgeable, extensive, interesting, and well priced. By keeping to the smaller size sips we were able to indulge in an albarino, sylvaner, red burgundy, and a California cab, in addition to a well made pisco sour. Desserts are not a mandatory part of the tapas experience, but here the devil’s food cake napoleon with passion fruit coulis should not be missed.
Nova Terra, the pan-Latino restaurant that opened in New Brunswick in 2001, has always had its mojo working when it comes to style — attractive decor, cool cocktail lounge, hot music. What I have always thought it lacked, though, was fare that mirrored these qualities. Nothing was wrong with the food; it just wasn’t as exciting as the space. No longer. A few months ago owners Carlo and Raoul Momo, whose Terra Momo Restaurant Group also owns Mediterra and Teresa Caffe in Princeton, wooed Luis Bollo, a high-profile Spanish chef who made a name for himself at his Meigas restaurants in Connecticut and New York. Bollo, now executive chef, has been quietly upping the quality and interest levels of the food here.
Bollo’s special baby is a tapas and ceviche bar. It seats up to twelve and — like the cutting-edge minibar (yes, no caps), a restaurant in Washington, D.C. that has received acclaim for pioneering high-end, chef’s choice small plates dining and takes reservations two months in advance — diners can reserve a space at the bar. For guests with reservations the tapas chef at Nova Terra will make whatever he chooses right in front of them, and guests can interact with him the whole time. The tapas/ceviche bar also has its own selection of wines from Spain, Portugal, and South America, although diners can order any wine (or any food for that matter) from the restaurant’s full list.
This San Sebastian-born chef’s ceviche (a cold marinated raw seafood appetizer) and tapas rival anything I’ve eaten in New York, Philadelphia, Spain, and Chile. They utilize traditional ingredients — marinated fresh white anchovies (bocherones), chorizo, Chilean empanadas from a recipe of the Momo brothers’ mother — with Bollo’s ultramodern sensibility and flawless technique. For a recent meal there, Bollo whipped me up a spur-of-the-moment tuna ceviche that featured a colorful, deeply complex ancho puree. I didn’t leave room for dessert but they sound fabulous, too. (By the way: the Momos plan to open their long-awaited wine bar and tapas restaurant, Eno Terra, in Kingston, at the site of the former Winepress, sometime this summer.)
Over on Liberty Street, the space that had been Northstar Cafe is now Verdigre, a restaurant and tapas lounge with a bit of an identity crisis. The globetrotting tapas served up by Scott Masciulli, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, are both authentic and accomplished, including tender lambchop “lollipops” with a glaze of hoisin barbecue sauce. But the space is lounge-like in the extreme, done up mostly in stark black and whites with sparkly, glitzy touches that bespeak its weekend alter ego as a hip hop lounge with DJs. It’s no surprise that the place looks a bit worn.
We sat at the bar and enjoyed interacting with bartender Chris Dziuban, an amiable fellow, who told us the place comes alive starting around 10:30 p.m. We also struck up a conversation with a food-loving fellow at the end of the bar who turned out to be a prominent former state representative, as well as big fan of the restaurant. Among his favorites are the gazpacho and the lamb lollipops.
Meantime, well ahead of the late night crowd, we enjoyed sugarcane skewers of fat, grilled scallops and juicy shrimp that had been mopped with guajillo chile sauce and Moroccan spring rolls filled with pulled duck, short rib, and chickpea puree. The chef’s ceviche of the day was merely standard, and the grilled Spanish chorizo, although tasty, was oily. Verdigre’s lounge pedigree is most evident in the long list of cocktails classified as “creamy” and “sweet.” But the wine list, while holding few surprises, is solid, and I was more than pleased with a glass of Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone.
Moving south towards Princeton, Tre Bar is the latest project of Jim Weaver, owner/chef of Tre Piani in Forrestal Village in Plainsboro. Weaver has always looked to Europe and to Italy in particular for inspiration. Tre Bar opened late in 2007 in a sleek new 1,600-square-foot space adjacent to Tre Piani. The two eateries share the same kitchen and chefs and are connected by an interior staircase. Weaver’s long-time sous chef, Rich Huarte, runs Tre Bar.
It features wines from all over the world, with a carefully selected variety available by the glass, in three-ounce and six-ounce pours. Wine flights are also on tap. A recent one, of white wines, comprised albarino, gruner veltliner, and a dry rose. Another focused on interesting Italian reds, including dolcetto, negroamaro (an Apulian grape), and a cabernet-Sangiovese blend from Castello Banfi.
Like any wine bar worthy of the name, Tre Bar focuses on small-plate fare, both cold and hot, although Tre Piani’s full menu is also available. A selection of premium salumi, served on beautiful ceramic platters by potter John Shedd of Rocky Hill, includes paper-thin prosciutto, Iberico ham, salami, capicola, and sopressata. A cheese selection, complete with membrillo (quince paste) and specialty honey, spotlights New Jersey cheeses from Valley Shepherd Creamery.
The bar’s sophisticated decor is primarily the handiwork of Kim Clearwater, Jim Weaver’s wife. who looked to local artisans, such as Belle Mead Hot Glass for a Chihuly-like chandelier and also to Italy, employing natural stone, dark wood, and fabrics in shades of gray, black, and silver. High-style stools, chairs, and bistro tables were imported from Italy by Princeton’s Tuscan Hills shop.
The tapa-esque selections rotate seasonally, but along with the cheese and meat boards, constants include mini-panini (fontina and truffle is one), Tuscan-style meatballs, and a daily sampler of three miniature soups, which on a recent visit included lobster bisque, lentil and prosciutto, and tomato asparagus.
Tapastre in Somerville, just a half-hour drive tops from Princeton, leaves no doubt as to the concept of its menu. Located downstairs from Il Pomodoro restaurant, it specializes in small plates from around the Mediterranean. The menu is divided by country or region: Spain; France; Italy; the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece; and North Africa. Chef Hany Elmokadem often puts a New World twist on classics. Hence, Alexandria (Egypt) cold and angry shrimp with Israeli couscous are drizzled with curry cilantro oil and sprinkled with fried basil leaves. They are also deliciously complex, and a good buy at $9. A salad featuring a honey-roasted pear and Stilton-walnut vinaigrette is perhaps the best version of this classic I have encountered. Other winners include cauliflower fritters with braised cabbage and tomato vinaigrette and rabbit ravioli with chestnut and brown bacon sage sauce.
Two desserts I sampled were top notch and ridiculously underpriced. I won’t give away the fun surprise of Italian zeppole “Carnival Style,” but will share that they were hot, fresh from the fryer, and irresistible.
Unfortunately, Tapastre has not managed to overcome the basement feel of this below-stairs space. A long bar dominates much of the room, and a television set dominates the bar. To be fair, TVs can be found at many of the tapas restaurants described here (but not Tre Bar), but at Tapastre it compounds the feel of old-time bar.
As I had discovered on my corporate travels of years ago, the small plates experience can be recreated at just about any restaurant where there’s a decent selection of starters, a good by-the-glass list, and an an attractive and relaxed setting. I enjoyed three such places on my tapas quest.
As anyone who has dined at Kafe Kabul, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Rat’s, which itself is located within Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, can attest, this is a magical space, with jewel-toned textiles and tableware, strands of glimmering beads, gleaming brass and copper accents, and plethora of Oriental carpets and pillows, many strewn on the floor in front of the limestone fireplace. Its bistro fare of mainly French and American favorites includes a plate of tapas, which usually comprises olives, preserved lemon, marinated mushrooms, spicy merguez sausage, and grilled fresh anchovies. The cafe is rightly renowned for its organic burger and good fries, which, at $13 is a good bargain, and a far cry from Rat’s formal and pricey fare. A decent Cuban sandwich, a smoked salmon plate, and reliably fresh salads are worthy alternatives.
A perq of dining at Kafe Kabul is that patrons have access to Rat’s highly regarded wine list. Among the featured by-the-glass choices are Rat’s private label “Artist Series” Sonoma Chardonnay and Opus One, the coveted California meritage, at $32 for a half-pour and $55 a glass (check for availability).
I was pleased to discover that the venerable Lahiere’s in downtown Princeton can provide a most satisfying small plates dinner. I accomplished this by (a) requesting to be seated at a table in restaurant’s cozy, brick-walled barroom and (b) composing a meal strictly from the appetizers section. Next year the restaurant will celebrate its 90th anniversary — an amazing feat. Heading up the kitchen these days is Paul Robinson, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who had been Lahiere’s sous chef for more than 12 years. His wife, Jennifer, is pastry chef.
Robinson has dotted the list of classic appetizers such as oysters mignonette and Caesar salad with contemporary American fusion choices, and does a darn good job. His sliced, seared yellowfin tuna with wakame (seaweed) salad and smears of wasabi was among the best dishes of my entire tapas quest. Not far behind was a generous serving of risotto with roasted duck, sun-dried cranberries, toasted goat cheese, and cremini mushrooms, a bargain at $14. Seared Hudson Valley foie gras with a liberal coating of cracked peppercorns was superb, although I found the pool of apple-leek puree it rested on too reminiscent of baby food applesauce.
Lahiere’s has always been known for its wine cellar, which leans heavily toward Europe and which contains bottles priced up into the stratosphere. But here’s a best kept secret: its by-the-glass pours are a full seven ounces, which makes the 10 good choices therein exceptional bargains. Among my favorites are Charles de Fere reserve non-vintage bubbly at $6.75; Joseph Drouhin white burgundy, $7.50; and Estancia cab from Paso Robles, $9.
The Yardley Inn
The ambiance at Lahiere’s is, of course, more Brooks Brothers than lounge lizard. So it is, too, at the historic Yardley Inn in Bucks County, just across the Delaware River from Trenton. In fact, two major floods from that river necessitated some major renovations, so the inn’s collection of pretty rooms has received a welcome updating that bring them stylishly into the 21st century while respecting the inn’s heritage. I particularly like the roomy, comfortable armchairs and the tabletops of inlaid mosaics in shades of brown. The river views from the sunny porch remain a powerful draw.
And now so does the contemporary American menu by chef Eban Cobble. For tapas lovers there’s the Tiers of Taste option: three small plates from a choice of 10 for only $16. “Small” is a relative term here, because we found the plates to be more than generous. Mini-crab cakes — you get three — are larger than ping-pong balls. Crisp golden exteriors hold a loosely formed mixture of big pieces of crab and a fair amount of filling. Although purists disagree, I actually prefer crab cakes to have noticeable filling. Hummus with pita points was fresh, dense, and not overwhelmed by garlic. My favorite tier was the Swedish meatballs, a retro dish I welcome back with open arms. Six spheres the size of golf balls in a creamy brown sauce, they could easily have made an entree on their own.
A cheese plate of either three or five cheeses is another option. The selection changes frequently, and is worth investigating for the accompaniments of fig jam, mostarda, candied walnuts, apple, and truffle honey. The inn has a well-deserved reputation for cocktails (the newly renovated bar is stunning) and a somewhat pricey wine list, but here I prefer the featured beers from local craft brewer Dogfish Head.
I forayed across the Delaware again on my tapas travels to dine at 90 Main in New Hope. Like Verdigre, its zeitgeist is loungy in the extreme, belying a new focus on serious cuisine. The owners recently committed to using products from Bucks County farms, including grassfed beef, free-range chicken, and organic produce.
In addition to a dozen tapas offerings, the menu boasts a wide variety of 10-inch pizzas. “Boasts” is the correct term, because the menu confidently exclaims they are “simply the best pizza you will ever taste.” Not one to let such a claim go unchallenged, I ordered the 90 Main Pie, described as Trenton-style tomato pie. As a diehard fan of De Lorenzo’s on Hudson Street, I did not have high hopes. I was wrong. 90 Main’s is every bit as good and, I have to admit, the crispy crust is better than De Lorenzo’s, which can sometimes be too thin and cracker-like. The chef is Christopher Beall, a local boy all of 27 years old.
The tapas choices were merely OK by comparison. The mini-tacos filled with spicy salmon tartare and the phyllo triangles filled alternately with crab and spinach seemed like so much cocktail party food. Ditto for the Philly cheesesteak spring rolls, although these were witty and, like the pizza, hit all the authentic touchstones. Because of the conscientious ingredients, though, none of this comes cheap. Individual tapas and pizzas range from $12 to $16.50. The wine list is extremely limited, and the by-the-glass prices unnecessarily high, although bottle prices are not.
I wish I could report that small plates dining is more economical, or perhaps carries a lighter caloric load than the typical American three-course meal. Unfortunately, neither the case. But neither is the point, which is really to indulge in a plethora of exquisite tastes in a relaxed, highly sociable setting. By the way: all the restaurants mentioned offer “regular” first courses, entrees, and desserts.
So, will the tapafication of America last, or will we revert to our beloved appetizer-main-dessert paradigm? I suspect the latter, but meantime, I continue to hone my tapeador chops at every opportunity.
Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant, 302 George Street, New Brunswick, 732-253-7780 www.darylwinebar.com
Kafe Kabul @ Rat’s Restaurant, Grounds For Sculpture, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-584-7800 www.ratsrestaurant.org
Lahiere’s, 11 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, 609-921-2798, www.lahieres.com
90 Main, 90 South Main Street, New Hope, PA, 215-862-3030, www.90mainlounge.com
Nova Terra, 78 Albany Street, New Brunswick, 732-296-1600, www.terramomo.com/restaurant/novaterra
Tapastre, 1 West High Street, Somerville, 908-526-0505, www.tapastre.com
Tre Bar, 120 Rockingham Row, Forrestal Village, Plainsboro, 609-452-1515, www.trepiani.com/trebar.
Verdigre Dining Room & Tapas Lounge, 25 Liberty Street, New Brunswick, 732-247-2250 (website under construction at www.verdigrenb.com)
The Yardley Inn, 82 East Afton Avenue, Yardley, PA, 215-493-3800, www.yardleyinn.com