A Fantasy Food Day in Lambertville

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This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the May 5, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Lambertville a la Mode: A Foodie’s Tour

Over the ten years I have been covering the dining scene in central New Jersey I have come to hold Lambertville in special regard. This tiny town – barely one square mile – contains a formidable number and range of estimable eateries, all in a vibrant river-town setting rich in history and culture. Even more remarkable, Lambertville has managed to maintain its small-town feel unlike, say, New Hope, its neighbor just across the river.

This small-town feel is more apparent on weekdays than weekends or during major tourist times like the last weekend in April, when the annual Shad Fest draws thousands. Spend a weekday walking around town and the locals will assume you’re one of them, giving a friendly nod or saying hello as you pass by. Shopkeepers are freed up for leisurely chats, which they seem to relish.

For such a visit I recommend picking up a copy of the self-guided walking tour of Lambertville that the local historical society publishes, even if you are already familiar with the town. These can be found at several shops, including Sojourner, Lambertville Trading Company, and Coryell Gallery. The circuit takes a leisurely 45 minutes – assuming you don’t stop at the many antique stores, art galleries, or craft shops – and provides a glimpse of the outstanding buildings and points of interest. Of course, you’ll get hungry at some point, and you’ll have to choose from among the 30 or so eateries in town. Below are just a few of the possibilities. (Lambertville happens to also have about 30 antique shops at any given time, and that’s counting a place like the Antique Center at the People’s Store on Union Street as one shop even though it’s a co-op of 40 sellers.)

Even the restaurants that cater to the tourist trade have appeal. Lambertville Station, the most visible restaurant in town due to its 19th century Railroad Gothic architecture and its location at the base of the bridge to New Hope, serves populist fare that works well, for example, for multi-generational outings. I recently recommended their Sunday brunch to my niece who was gathering a group that included six-years-olds and 60-year-olds. Afterwards, the kids coerced the adults into taking horse-drawn carriage rides through town. The carriages are stationed, cannily, at the side entrance of the restaurant on weekends. Although the parents at first balked at the price, they wound up enjoying the view they got of the town’s architectural gems. A full 80% of Lambertville’s buildings date to before 1900, with stellar examples of Federal row houses and every style of Victorian.

If food is the main focus, though, I recommend starting the tour in Kline’s Court, the rectangle off Bridge Street behind the First Union bank. After years of seeing restaurants come and go in this courtyard, the current three seem to have staying power. Ota-Ya, at the base of the courtyard at Ferry Street, has become popular for its mainstream sushi and Japanese fare, including hibachi cooking. It is located in the structure that was The Ferry House, before that restaurant moved to Princeton.

The newest restaurant on the court, now in its second year, is Andiamo, where owner/chef Jean Giunta serves up Italian food with the sensibility of her Sicilian and French grandmothers by way of the Culinary Institute of America. This encompasses such warhorses as veal Marsala, chicken Francaise, and vodka penne, and ratchets up to black linguine with prawns, bay scallops, and sun-dried tomatoes in saffron cream sauce. I find that Giunta’s starters outshine her main dishes. I am particularly fond of her warm wild mushroom and goat cheese strudel and the Andiamo salad, which sounds pedestrian – greens with roasted red peppers, shavings of provolone, artichokes and Gaeta olives in balsamic vinaigrette – but rises above the ordinary due to the quality of each ingredient and the brisk, clean-tasting dressing.

My favorite spot on Kline’s Court is No. 9, which, like Andiamo, is a small but cheery storefront. If I had to limit myself to just one Lambertville restaurant (heaven forbid), this would probably be it. The thirty-something owners, Colleen and Matthew Kane, spotlight produce from local farms in their New American bistro fare as much as is practical, and sometimes even decorate the place with the stuff. It is only fitting that any vegetable Kane puts his hand to is marvelous. Asparagus in vinaigrette, beet and goat cheese salad, and potatoes in any form are recommended. The menu changes with the seasons, so Matthew Kane originally envisioned offering short ribs in the winter. But the ribs have proved so popular that he is forced to keep them on in one guise or another, like the current braised version with horseradish cream.

All three Kline’s Court restaurants are b.y.o.b., which many diners consider a plus. But if you happen to show up sans bottle, Welsh’s Wines is located just across the courtyard. The folks there are not only knowledgeable, they are familiar with the fare at all of Lambertville’s dozen or so b.y.o. establishments and even have a handout listing them.

You could also opt for a pre-dinner drink at some pretty nifty spots. In good weather the wrought-iron porch of Lambertville House is an ideal perch for people watching right out on Bridge Street. The porch is the extension of the inn’s bar, Left Bank Libations, which is pleasant in winter for a scotch in front of the fireplace. Lambertville House has been a working inn since 1812, and the magnificent stone structure was fully restored in 1977. One of my favorite homewares shops is located within its walls: Flying French Hens offers Provencal pottery, linens, accessories, and even fine (albeit pricey) French linen pajamas.

The atmospheric Boat House bar is another option. Tucked away on Coryell Street, just across the courtyard from the perennially popular Hamilton’s Grill Room, its two stories are filled, floor to peaked ceiling, with old nautical prints and paraphernalia. Drinks are served amid comfy chairs and shabby chic furniture.

To mingle with the locals, you could go down to Inn of the Hawke, on South Union, which is popular with the young crowd. This 1860 structure has four dining rooms serving hearty pub-friendly food, but the bar is the liveliest spot. The surface of the bar top is a charming remnant of the recent past: set into it are small brass plaques that bear the names – and once reserved the favored spots – of regulars. On the north end of Union Street is Bell’s, an equally popular watering hole with a back room beloved for its Italian-American fare, although it makes a mean hamburger as well.

No matter where you choose to go for a drink, you should by rights have a beer from Lamberville’s own brewing company, River Horse. Its beers are sold in states up and down the East Coast, and if you stop by the brewery on a weekday, you just might be given a personal tour by one of the Bryan brothers who own it. You definitely will get a taste of their brews. River Horse is located in the former Original Trenton Cracker Factory on Lambert’s Lane.

The Mediterranean food at the aforementioned Hamilton’s Grill Room has been a Lambertville icon since it opened its doors over fifteen years ago, when the concept of an open kitchen and grilling over hardwood charcoal were quite new to the local dining scene. It was the vision of Jim Hamilton, a local boy and Yale grad who made a mark in Broadway set design and became instrumental in Lambertville’s renaissance starting about 20 years ago. The three dining rooms are as much art gallery as Mediterranean bistro, and diners can opt to sit at the bar in front of the grill to watch and converse with executive chef Mark Miller. Favorites include a starter of grilled shrimp with anchovy butter followed by rack of lamb in curry marmalade, but that’s only if, unlike me, you can pass up the oven-roasted brook trout with bacon. In season there’s dining al fresco in the courtyard. In that same courtyard – named The Porkyard – reside the Coryell Art Gallery and Blue Raccoon, a furniture shop specializing in what sounds like an oxymoron: contemporary country. I am always inspired by the store’s stylish vignettes, and I guess I’m not alone because a second location has opened in New Hope.

Even Hamilton’s Grill doesn’t have a lock on Mediterranean dining in this tiny town. Manon on North Union evinces so much Provencal charm, inside and out, that if it were a person I’d be inclined to kiss it on both cheeks. Every square inch is covered in the vibrant blues, yellows, and oranges of southern France, where is where owner/chef Jean Michel Dumas hails from. Even the ceiling gets into the act: it is painted to resemble van Gogh’s "Starry Night." I would happily come from afar for a taste of Dumas’s country pate and accoutrements, although some of the other bistro standards, such as Marseilles-style bouillabaisse and the "duck of the day," can be lackluster. (This restaurant’s numerous and passionate devotees surely beg to differ). Like many of Lambertville’s smaller restaurants, Manon does not accept credit cards, is not open for lunch, and opens for dinner only midweek or later. By the way, recently departed from Lambertville’s restaurant scene is Church Street Bistro, in which chef Patrick Given had served what he termed "new bistro" food for eight years.

Over at 49 North Main – the address and the name – another husband-and-wife duo, Lynn and Bob Wills, serve American bistro food. Both are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America, take turns cooking, and Lynn has over the last four years turned the small side and back courtyards into pleasant spots for al fresco dining. Warm weather offerings include Vietnamese spring rolls and crab quesadillas to start, and the dessert of the day just might be a seasonal strawberry rhubarb crisp. More substantial offerings include liver and onions (a personal favorite) and a grilled porterhouse pork chop with River Horse ale, braised bacon, and onion sauerkraut.

Even if I didn’t like the food at Anton’s at the Swan as much as I do, I would go there just to bask in the setting in this small erstwhile hotel. It is charming and romantic, yes, but its fittings and architectural features have been left intact and not "prettified." The dining room walls are virtually plastered with paintings of Lambertville, each individually lit. Some are painted by the current bartender – the bar at the Swan is another great watering hole, inside and out – and there is at least one painting by a former busboy who now owns an art gallery in town. Chef/owner Chis Connors took over the reins from longtime owner Anton Dodel in 2001 and his short but smart menu has been a hit ever since. Like the Kanes at No. 9, Connors uses local purveyors for his eclectic American menu, but he takes it to an extreme, virtually changing the market-driven menu daily. In season you’ll find asparagus from Wessex Hill Farm in Stockton, birds from Griggstown Quail Farm, and buffalo from Readington River Buffalo, to name just a few. Last spring I enjoyed the tenderloin of buffalo with garlic scalloped potatoes and sugar snap peas. With 16 wines by the glass, it is easy to come up with a good match for any of Connors’s six starters and six entrees. He even makes his own desserts, which if you are lucky will include the brioche bread pudding with fresh cherries and mango sauce.

It is almost inconceivable to me that tiny Lambertville could not only boast two restaurants that specialize in "homemade" Italian food – each equally popular and successful – but have them located virtually across from each other. De Anna’s and Rick’s happily coexist at South Main and Lilly Streets, along with a funky store, Mix Gallery, that specializes in mid-twentieth century furnishings and, of all things, handbags from the 1940s through the 1960s. Diana Menzel, the chef/owner of De Anna’s, prides herself on her homemade pastas, although she throws in handmade thin-crust pizza starters as well. I recently enjoyed one topped with sautéed onions, superb Kalamata olives, and marinara. Her pasta with Bolognese is renowned for its astounding quantity of meat – dominated by flavorful sausage – and her unique take on ricotta cheese cake is rightly legendary.

Just across the street, the partisans at Rick’s extol its ravioli sampler platter and fresh salads. But I wouldn’t know: even after years of dogged dining, I haven’t been able to hit every restaurant in Lambertville. Siam, a veteran known for its Thai food, is another example. But stay tuned, because I’ll happily keep trying.

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A Fantasy Food Day in Lambertville

Breakfast: A fresh veggie omelet and sticky buns at Full Moon on Bridge Street, a throwback to the ’70s with a multitude of hanging plants and laidback attitude. (Note to self: if it’s a full moon tonight, this restaurant will serve dinner, although monthly reservations go fast.) Then get in car and head over to Homestead Farm Market on North Main to check out the local produce. If it’s Wednesday or a weekend, wander among the tables at the Golden Nugget antique and flea market on Route 29.

Mid-morning snack & coffee: A muffin or other goodie from Baker’s Treat Bakery & Take-Out Café. This Flemington-based bakery has recently opened up an outpost on Church Street, and it’s sweet to know that all proceeds to go a women’s halfway house.

Lunch: The crab quesadilla or a hamburger in the courtyard at 49 North Main, if it’s a nice day and if it’s late in the week, which is when they serve lunch. Alternatively….

Picnic: Along the D & R Canal towpath, having purchased soup, sandwiches, and other goodies in the morning at either the farm market or Baker’s Treat. A cool River Horse lager would be a great accompaniment.

Mid-afternoon snack: Get a sugar fix s at The Chocolate Box on Union, while perusing its antiques and European ambiance, complete with crystal chandeliers. Get a caffeine fix via cappuccino at the Lambertville Trading Company on Bridge.

Cocktails: The Boat House if the weather’s iffy; the porch of Lambertville House if it’s glorious; Bell’s if I want to mingle with locals of all ages

Dinner: Beet salad with goat cheese from No. 9; country pate with cornichon, mustard, and baguette from Manon; oven-roasted brook trout with bacon from Hamilton’s Grill, cheesecake and espresso from De Anna’s.

Nightcap: At the Swan Hotel.

Pat Tanner’s restaurant reviews can be heard on "Dining Today with Pat Tanner" Saturday mornings from 9 to 10 a.m. on Moneytalk 1350 AM radio and over www.moneytalk1350.com

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