The first sign that Agricola is not Lahiere’s is the bar. The two 20-somethings behind the sleek bar are definitely not Chris, the 28-year Lahiere’s veteran who now mixes martinis at the Peacock Inn.
Different, however, isn’t bad. And Agricola, the “community eatery” that since March 10 has occupied the heavily renovated space at 11 Witherspoon Street that for 91 years was Lahiere’s, is very much a good thing.
The restaurant’s emphasis is on natural, organic, locally sourced ingredients, a theme that is reflected in the earth-toned decor and drawings of vegetables that decorate the walls.
The 8,000-square-foot space invites you in with its large, unadorned windows that allow passers-by a clear view of diners at the bar and chefs in the kitchen. The five distinct seating sections — the kitchen, the family room, the parlor, the courtyard, and the root cellar — each offer a different ambience. My fiance and I entered through the bustling bar area at around 8 p.m. on a Monday night and were promptly seated in the parlor, which was quiet and about half full of working-age couples and groups.
The rustic wooden tables and old-fashioned checkered napkins were complemented by the simple menu, which is presented on a single board with a colorful vegetable-themed border. The offerings — eight appetizers and nine entrees — are dwarfed by an impressive collection of specialty cocktails as well as an extensive wine list and and pages of liquors and liqueurs.
Teetotalers need not worry, either. Agricola makes its own sodas, available in lemon-lime, orange, and cherry. My fiance opted for the lemon-lime soda ($3) while I gave in to the temptation of “the Chancellor” — a potent, burgundy-colored concoction of rye whisky, ruby port, vermouth, and orange bitters ($12).
Though the drinks captured our attention early on, the food did not disappoint. A number of menu items are crafted based on what foods are in-season on any given day. Appetizers ($8-$15) included a kale-based salad, a parsnip soup, and our choice, the Valley Shepard artisan cheese plate. The assortment of three cheeses, zucchini bread, pear chutney, and honey comb is sourced from a farm in north Jersey.
Main courses ($14-$29) feature a variety of meat-based and vegetarian options — from veal shank and short ribs to arctic char and mushroom stew — all accompanied by intriguing mixes of vegetables, whose origins and flavors the knowledgeable staff were readily willing to explain.
My fiance’s roasted chicken was served on top of white beans, braised escarole, and sweet carrots, and my strozzapreti pasta came with cauliflower, celery root, and dried tomatoes. “Strozzapreti,” for the linguistically curious, means “priest strangler” in Italian, and one legend says the name originates from priests who ate the delicious pasta so fast they choked to death. I can vouch for its good flavor, if not its propensity to choke its consumers.
Even if our appetites were fully satisfied, our night would not have been complete without dessert, which our friendly and attentive server had been enthusiastically endorsing all night long. Devil’s food cake, Meyer lemon cheesecake, and mixed berry cobbler skillet cake — all $9 — were equally inviting, but ultimately the cheesecake topped with huckleberries won our affection, along with two generous cups of coffee to wash it down.
At the end of the night, though, Agricola was the real winner. It entered the Princeton dining scene with high expectations and big shoes to fill, and judging by the crowd of happy diners still there when we left at around 9:30, it is succeeding.
Agricola, 11 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Open for dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Mondays through Sundays. Bar open late. Lunch available beginning in April. 609-921-2798. www.agricolaeatery.com.