The iconic stone building on University Place across from McCarter Theatre, once the freight storage facility for the Dinky railroad line, has a new lease on life. Formerly known as Cargot, a French-themed bistro, the space has been completely renovated and is now Roots Ocean Prime. The focus is on aged prime cuts of beef and other robust entrees.
Earlier this year Jim Nawn of the Fenwick Hopsitality Group, which owned Cargot, the nearby Dinky Bar, and Agricola on Witherspoon Street, sold his catering business and restaurants to Harvest Restaurant Group. Owned by Chip and Cheryl Grabowski, this company has restaurants in Berkeley Heights, Summit, Basking Ridge, Morristown, and several other northern New Jersey locations. It had been considering Princeton for expansion.
Greeting diners as they enter is a long, elegant wooden bar, showcasing a wide variety of whiskeys brightly backlit for display. Lux leather, highbacked banquettes line the now-mullioned windows for couples dining in the bar area. These tables offer cozy privacy and the chance to have a quiet conversation. The night my friend and I were there the background music was subdued, classic Sinatra and oldies, pleasantly noticeable only during the infrequent lulls in the conversation. More importantly, at dinner there were no distracting TVs, flickering away. The diners at the bar were actually talking to each other. A joy to behold.
The smaller dining room is still there as is the larger main dining room with its inviting fireplace crowned by an impressive copper insert. The main dining room has curved banquette seating, lending an air of intimacy even to tables of six or more.
The decor throughout is decidedly masculine. The rich wood and leather are reminiscent of men’s clubs of the early 20th century and the tone is reinforced by framed pictures of men’s haberdashery advertisements of that period. The Homberg hats and plus four trousers look positively Edwardian. My friend and I both felt a cognac and cigar after our meal would only be natural.
This masculine tone carries though to the food and drinks menu. The display of whiskey and bourbons lured both of us to cocktails we remembered our fathers drinking: a shot of Whistlepig rye for her ($19.95) and a Sidecar for me ($13.95).
Service was courteous but a bit slow to start. Our cocktails did seem to take a noticeable while to arrive, odd because it was a Monday night and dining was light. A nice surprise was cheesy-peppery popovers in place of the usual bread or rolls.
The menu reflects steak houses of the mid-20th century. Come hungry or treat yourself to a next day meal. Spicy Barbeque Baby Back Pork Ribs ($14.95), Spicy Crispy Lobster in a tempura batter ($15.95), Seared Sesame Crusted Rare Tuna ($15.95), and Applewood Smoked Slab Bacon ($12.95) are some of the appetizer offerings. For the table there is also a Chilled Seafood and Shellfish Platter ($46.95) with lump crab, tuna tartare, shrimp cocktail, oysters, and lobster tail and claw, and for the pure lobster lover, the Lobster Cocktail ($23.95) featuring a whole 1 1/4 pound lobster. I was told the lobsters were from Maine.
Salads are generous and the choice varied. The retro iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing is $11.95, arugula or baby greens are both $10.95.
But the steaks and chops take center stage. The 48-ounce Prime Porthouse for two is $85.95 and the 16-ounce Prime NY Strip is $43.95. For smaller plates, if you can call it that, there is the 8-ounce petite filet mignon for $35.95 or three Kobe sliders for $19.95. Other cuts of beef are also available, all within the 14 to 20 ounce range. Frenched pork chops and chicken breast from Goffle Farms in Wyckoff, ($29.95 and $27.95 respectively) round out the meat selection.
Fish is also well represented on the menu, including red snapper ($28.95), Barnegat sea scallops ($30.95), and a 9-ounce South African lobster tail at market price. The vegetarian options looked very tempting. A creative shepherd’s pie with eggplant and truffled mashed potatoes, and the roasted cauliflower steak are both $21.95.
An array of side dishes ranges from $7.95 to $9.95 but one can always add lobster to their macaroni and cheese for $16.95. Who would not?
I ordered two appetizers, the French onion soup ($8.95) and the chopped salad ($14.95), a combination that was just right. My friend opted for the halibut ($30.95) served over mashed potatoes with greens. We did succumb to the pumpkin buttercake, a special addition to the menu ($14.95). It was rich enough to share and we each still took some home for later.
Roots Ocean Prime would be a good choice for a dinner party where everyone brings their appetite or for a business dinner. As a fine dining venue, it is an elegant date night venue. The bar does provide the option of a more casual bite. The overall tone is not child friendly, however. It appears that they will continue to cater to the pre-theatre crowd. Until the service settles into a smoother, more streamlined mode, I would suggest giving ample time before curtain. The maitre d’ indicated that they will maintain the outdoor dining in good weather, always a plus.
One word of advice if you wish to find the website. Remember to type in the full name, Roots Ocean Prime. “Ocean Prime” by itself takes you to another restaurant site entirely.
Roots Ocean Prime, 98 University Place, Princeton. Monday through Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. 609-772-4934 or www.rootssteakhouse.com.