If any production ever deserved a sneak preview it would be Princeton University’s long planned and much discussed new arts center in the vicinity of McCarter Theater and the Princeton Dinky train station. While the official opening is now set for the first week in October, sneak previews are essentially being offered morning, noon, and night at Princeton’s newest dining venue: Cargot Brasserie at the site of the old baggage handling facility, a few yards away from the former train station, already transformed into the Dinky Bar.
Cargot is owned by Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group, which also operates the Dinky Bar, Agricola on Witherspoon Street, and Main Street at the Princeton Shopping Center (though Main Street will soon be closed down as Nawn transfers his attention to yet another new restaurant, Two Sevens, now under construction at 277 Witherspoon Street at the site of the old Princeton Medical Center). Nawn also owns the certified organic Great Road Farm in Princeton, and many of the items at all his restaurants feature food from this nearby farm.
If you’re struck by the word “brasserie” in the new restaurant’s name and think that Princeton has finally gained a replacement for the old Lahiere’s restaurant that operated for more than 90 years in the building now occupied by Agricola, you will probably not find it at Cargot. As the website states, “We serve a seasonally changing menu of French-inspired brasserie classics” with “contemporary interpretations.”
And if you are mining your very rusty French to figure out what “cargot” means, forget it. It’s a word play on cargo, the stuff that used to be stored in this 100-year-old stone building, and the classic escargot found at French restaurants.
The biggest surprise may be that Cargot is open for breakfast — every day starting at 7 a.m. For those looking to start the day at a quiet place with cloth napkins and waiter service, Cargot is a welcome alternative to the Nassau Inn’s Tap Room. The breakfast menu at Cargot includes some creatively prepared classics, such as yogurt and honey with dried fruit and quinoa granola, $7, and stone ground oatmeal, with wild mushrooms, asparagus, and pine nuts, $6.
In addition to the classic eggs Benedict, $14, and omelette (with organic eggs and vegetables straight from the Great Road Farm), $10, the breakfast menu had a few items that forced me to ask the server for help.
The torte Provencal, with egg, spinach, peppers, and mushrooms, $11, resembles a quiche. The jambon-beurre, with smoked ham and comte, $9, is basically a breakfast sandwich. Comte (with an accent aigu on that e) is a French cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk. If you ask, your omelette can be made with egg whites only. Coffee is $4, and the server will refill it as needed if you are lingering at your table.
The dinner menu also offers some items you may not find anywhere else in town. For example: The black seabream fish, served with potato gratin and truffle, $25, and a traditional French bean and grain cassoulet, or casserole, with melted leeks, mushrooms, and brie brulee, $23. Among the other dinner entrees: roasted duck with turnips, $29; veal au poivre with fingerling potatoes, kale, and zucchini, $32, and lamb navarin, with root vegetables and pearl onions, $30. Cocktails are in the $12 to $14 range. The wine list shows glasses priced from $9 to $17.
I’m no foodie and no food reviewer, for sure. But I’m allowed to write a “Let’s Try” since it is really more a venue and ambiance review than a critical assessment of the food creations that arrive at your table. But I do know about ambiance, and I especially know noisy, noisy venues. This does not appear to be one of them. On opening night, with all but two of the fifteen stools at the bar occupied, and with most of the tables opposite the bar also filled, I was nonetheless able to hear the jazzy tunes coming through the restaurant’s sound system. My ear caught some French lyrics, prompting me to issue some exclamation, in my limited French, to no one in particular. That little exclamation got an immediate rejoinder — in French — from one of the bartenders.
Of course the noise level could rise a little, especially as opening night draws near in what promises to be an exciting new neighborhood in Princeton.
Cargot Brasserie, 98 University Place, Princeton. 609-772-4934. www.cargotbrasserie.com.
Open for breakfast Monday-Friday: 7 to 11 a.m., Saturday and Sunday 7 to 10 a.m. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cafe and afternoon menu: every day from 3 to 5 p.m. Dinner: Sunday through Tuesday: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.