Corrections or additions?
Miles to Go Before We Eat, Miles to Go. . .
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.
Here’s a true story from the annals of central New
Jersey dining: A determined couple set out the other night to find
a quiet place for a sit-down dinner. Money was no object; they were
dressed suitably for either a casual or elegant venue; and they were
not fussy about food type or dietary considerations. So far, so good.
They drove into downtown Princeton — the Restaurant Row that U.S.
1 featured in last year’s spring dining guide. Unable to find any
easy parking, the trio headed out to Route 1, and pulled into the
first of the big box, shopping center restaurants. Plenty of parking
here, but no seats. Along the southbound lane of Route 1 our trio
encountered one long line after another, a reality they would have
expected had they recently visited the dining section of U.S. 1’s
website, princetoninfo.com, where a steady stream of comments have
been registered with respect to the shortage of tables on weekend
In a few more months they would have been able to entertain even more
choices — three new seafood places are now close to opening (see
separate story, page 30). And who knows what other entrepreneurs are
ready to rush in to meet the seemingly insatiable appetites of central
New Jersey diners.
But for now all our couple could do was to head back north on Route
1. They were famished — and used the cell phone to order pizza.
What else could they have done?
For one thing, in the time they spent driving into and out of Princeton
they could have been well on their way to New Brunswick. Since U.S.
1 last visited, two years ago, the city has gained three new eateries
that deserved our attention. Varied in look, cuisine, and location,
these three places are "in" right now, and for an array of
Scoping them out in the afternoon, when the town seems to be at capacity
in people, vehicles, and one-way streets, you might wonder about coming
back for dinner. Be prepared for takeout pizza? Engage a limo? Flag
a cab? Or, as one restaurateur laughingly put it, "park in Piscataway
and walk over"? By supper time, though, the parking decks are
emptier, on-street parking is possible, and surface lots here and
there have disgorged the 9 to 5 crowd. While reservations are suggested,
particularly for weekends, you should at least be able to park and
walk a short distance to your destination.
It’s named after those mythic windmills but there is
not a single windmill in sight at this restaurant until you get inside
and see the mural, complete with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, on
one long wall. On other walls around this attractively designed restaurant
are a mix of paintings and gifts from cousins and other relatives,
according to Jim Villarino, 27-year-old son of the restaurant’s owners
and full-time general manager.
Let’s make it clear from the outset: this is a family business, congenially
and proudly so. And the Spanish cuisine, presided over by chef Victorio
Gonzalez, another relative, who owned a restaurant in Spain, is a
family heritage. But from the look of the menu and the aromas in the
air, diners can adopt and treasure it too.
Conveniently situated on a triangular corner at Georges Road and Jones
and Sandford streets, Los Molinos ("the windmills") has been
open only a little more than a year, but its appearance and overall
accomplished air would argue longer. In its last incarnation, the
building was a nightclub, Villarino recalls. Once his family settled
on this site, instead of moving to Long Island from their Union County
home base, they gutted the building, which was then redesigned by
his mother, Mercedes. Her conception: a pleasantly angular dining
room next to a bar room, with creamy walls and lots of honey-toned
mahogany wainscoting and trim. Blue napkins accent white tablecloths,
and the floor is speckled terrazzo tile. Villarino firmly supports
this floor choice, which is mopped daily. It is a nice alternative
to a stain and odor-retaining carpet.
On the balmy spring day we visited, breezes blew through open doors
throughout the restaurant. Villarino says even in winter, they air
the building for an hour or so each day, dissipating yesterday’s cooking
smells and starting fresh. (His mama didn’t raise a slouch at house-cleaning!)
Since the spacious kitchen and food storage areas are downstairs,
Los Molinos also serves as fitness center to the wait staff, now accomplished
"Nothing is pre-made," Villarino says, and "everything’s
simple." Patrons can request, and get, salt-free cooking, and
extra virgin olive oil is the oil of choice in the kitchen. But "simple"
is relative: Los Molinos’ dinner menu offers items not commonly made
at home, and, judging by the myriad glowing reviews on display in
the entrance area, apparently UN-commonly made here. The unanimous
tie for most popular entrees, according to Villarino, his mother,
and Chef Gonzalez, is either the "Pechuga Los Molinos" —
chicken breast with mozzarella, asparagus, and wine sauce, or "Ternera
Los Molinos" — medallions of veal stuffed with spinach and
prosciutto sauteed with extra virgin olive oil, mushrooms, sweet red
peppers and brandy (both $16.95). And this in the face of the house’s
"Paella (Marinera O Valenciana)," described as "an exquisite
variety of shellfish served in our Spanish rice" ($18.95), and
served, to the chef’s delight, in a classic shallow metal pan —
the only way to go, as he sees it.
Los Molinos’ "Mariscada en Salsa Roja," or shellfish in tomato
sauce with Spanish rice, is "different from other places I’ve
had it," notes Mercedes Villarino, and for "different"
read "much better." At $18.95, this is the priciest entree
except for the musical-sounding "Mar y Tierra," or surf and
turf ($24.95), and, presumably, two "market price" lobster
dishes. Entrees — fish and shellfish, meat and poultry — start
at $14.95. Daily specials, offered with wine suggestions, are priced
within these parameters. Also unique to the restaurant are white asparagus,
octopus dishes, and cream of carrot soup, called "the best we
Appetizers, all in the $7 range, run from grilled sausage
in Spanish cider through shrimp in garlic sauce ("our specialty")
to stuffed mushrooms — "light, the best." And desserts
include five homemade dishes, all $5 or less, including crema catalana
(the house version of creme brulee), flan, cheese cake, tiramisu,
and chocolate cake. Tartufo and sorbets imported from Spain are alternatives,
as are specialty coffees and after-dinner drinks.
Except for one California and two French wines, it’s all Spanish,
including sangria. And without exception, the music is also Spanish,
though not always the predictable flamenco. Explaining how there’s
stereotypical Spanish and other Spanish, Villarino cites film heart
throb Antonio Banderas as southern Spanish. In contrast, the Villarino
family are northern, Celtic Spanish, or "cabbage and potatoes
and bagpipes," often accompanied by "red hair, pale skin,
and freckles," he says, pointing out his sister, Sylvie, visiting
from college: "See how pale she is?"
The family pride extends to a paternal grandmother, who, Villarino
says, was a mogul in her little town in Spain, where she owned the
slaughter house, butcher shop, restaurant, and hotel. His father,
Jesus, is a crane operator, while his mother, Mercedes, is "the
boss." Villarino speaks Spanish and a dialect, as well as English,
and all serve him well during the long days he puts in at the family
business, doing a variety of jobs from greeting to waiting to food-running.
Los Molinos will soon try out a guitar player, he mentions, stressing
the musician will be stationary, not the roving kind. The restaurant
seats 115, and except for Saturday night, the busiest evening, offers
a small, well-ventilated smoking area, besides the bar. Drawn from
as far away as Princeton and West New York, the clientele includes
"judges, chiropractors, law enforcement reps, pharmaceutical company
employees" — it’s safe to say a cross section of the populace
enjoys "The Essence of Spain," as one menu has it. And they
do so in "casual dining" comfort; neither jackets nor ties
lunch until 3 p.m. and dinner from then until around 10. Reservations
are strongly suggested for Saturday night; phone 732-545-5955.
Younger than Los Molinos — it opened last October
— Soho on George is a different kind of New Brunswick hot spot.
It’s bright, colorful, window-full, and very possibly wonderful —
but definitely a different breed of cat. Positioned on the corner
of George and Bayard streets, in the center of New Brunswick’s downtown,
it’s eminently visible and accessible, conveying an air of with-it-ness.
Overall angular — picture a floor area that approximates two triangles,
back to back — and employing a triangle motif in its side plates,
ashtrays, and napkin folding, Soho is done up in a plum and mustard
color scheme, with handsome cherry wood tables, chairs, bar, and other
design elements. Where it’s not hard-edge, it’s curvy: the wavy awning
outside presages corrugated-patterned ceiling panels sprinkled with
glittering recessed lights, and a dark wavy carpet pattern too.
Besides the poster art that otherwise prevails, a floor-to-ceiling
mural near the open kitchen punches hot colors into the atmosphere:
vibrant pinks, purples and greens. White-clad dining tables are tucked
into every available multi-level niche. Like the tables, the central
bar is topped with an attractive copper inlay leaf design. (Together
with a few tables nearby, this constitutes the restaurant’s smoking
area, with reportedly effective "smoke eaters" on duty.) Soho
on George is not intended to be a quiet, restful place.
Chef Bruce Courtwright calls Soho’s cuisine "modern American with
French overtones," and another staffer calls it "upscale new
American." Take your pick. The menu, which changes seasonally,
includes his current signature dish: "grilled filet mignon with
omegang braised short ribs, mashed yukon gold potatoes, wilted bib
lettuce and crispy bacon" ($24), and he mentions "new lamb
with artichokes" as a coming attraction, and salmon and tuna as
staples of every menu.
"Pan seared diver scallops" (meaning those that were hand-harvested,
and not damaged by trawlers or injected with a chemical to open) come
with a portabello mushroom pillow, cipollini onion coulis, and American
sturgeon caviar for $19, and vegetarians might look with favor on
"wild mushroom and fresh pea risotto, with rosemary skewered vegetables
and a light parmesan broth" for $16. At $25, the grilled sirloin
dish is Soho’s most pricey main course.
First courses that the chef describes as both "popular and good"
include warm lobster and artichoke salad with lobster vinaigrette
($13), and "wild mushroom and duck confit croustade with goat
cheese fondant, a truffled herb salad and preserved lemon" ($8).
Probably only tasting it could explain "roasted fennel, scallop
and orange soup" ($7). Four salads, from $6-9, round out Soho
offerings; the wordiest is also the costliest: "marinated goat
cheese crottin de chavignol with a salad of parsley, mint and watercress,
with citrus vinaigrette and marinated anchovies." Phew. Though
otherwise verbose, the Soho menu deserves credit for streamlining
prices to simple two-digit figures — no 95-cent suffixes cluttering
things up. Easier to tally, too.
Asked about plate painting and presentation in general, Courtwright
holds with "balance," mentioning that some plates are handled
in a clean, straightforward way. Others, according to a daily manager,
are "unusual" — for instance, the monkfish entree is trussed
up to resemble osso bucco, and the apple tart comes with pillars of
pastry topped by spun sugar balls.
Courtwright, who has cooked for years in such diverse places as Napa
Valley, California, France, and "small French places in New York,"
favors fish, citing suppliers from Maine to Florida, besides "locals
with boats." He extols Soho’s wine list and cognac choices. More
important, perhaps, is that the patrons represent all ages and range
from pre and post-theater diners to college students.
through Friday only. The kitchen closes from 3 to 5 p.m., and dinner
starts at 5 (4 on Sunday); closing is 11 p.m. most nights; 10 on Sunday.
Reservations are recommended at least a week ahead for weekend evenings,
and dress is "nice casual" — jackets and ties not required.
For a dramatic change of venue — an apropos concept
in a neighborhood dominated by the courthouse — and for unusual
entree options that a demand existed for or that created a demand,
move on to Clyde’s for a martini or (gulp) a black bear steak.
From upscale and uptown Soho, move downstairs to Clyde’s, across from
the courthouse at 55 Paterson Street, and marked by a green awning
with metal supports that are hung with curling dried vines and hydrangeas.
Descend five or six steps, through scattered red rose petals, and
into a long bar that has the power of suggestion: Suddenly, you crave
a martini. Could that be so because the place serves at least 40 different
kinds of "martini," some of which might appall purists but
seem to please the patrons on hand.
Think greens at Clyde’s: the place is replete with green tones, making
it dark, cool, and woodsy, lighted by Victorian wall sconces or hanging,
glass-shaded fixtures. Ceiling fans move lazily. The bar area gains
extra illumination from sizable fish tanks among the bottles, and
it boasts two elevated fireplaces on the facing brick wall, where
additional bar stools cozy up to a narrow counter — the better
to accommodate martini drinkers.
Behind the bar, and accessible from either end, are four small booths
in a long narrow room — probably perfect for plea-bargaining or
other privacy-requiring quarters. And for smoking during the week.
At the end of the bar, five steps lead up to the dining room and more
greens, from carpet to painted rough-wood walls, accented with a big
vase of tall stems. In this room, true to the theme, framed prints
show vignettes of martini life. Crisp white napery and "Clyde’s"
on the plates — mind you, the "Y" in that word is a stylized
martini glass — invite power lunches and tete-a-tetes. Reportedly,
Clyde’s attracts "the courthouse crowd" at lunchtime, so the
question becomes one of, which came first — the game on the menu,
or a carnivorous clientele.
"I sat here 12 years ago," says co-owner Michael Parla, "and
I thought, wow, this place is a mess. I could make things happen here."
Clyde’s opened in September of 1997, with an "upscale menu at
affordable prices." Offering "creative food and drink"
in a bistro-like setting, Clyde’s dinner menu includes comparatively
traditional menu items — steaks, veal, chicken, seafood, all with
the de rigueur demi glazes, wonton-wrapped veggies, and yukon gold
mashed potatoes infused with this or that — at prices ranging
from vegetarian entrees for $12 or $13, to the house specialty veal
chop at $19.95, or the breast of duck for $21.95.
Game dishes dot the menu, and demand the highest tariffs: venison
london broil ($16.95), grilled ostrich, tenderloin of wild boar, or
grilled fillet of kangaroo (all $24.95). At other times, the menu
might include antelope ("very tender and meaty," according
to a young waiter), black bear, zebra, and "even lion," evidently
for novelty-seeking patrons, or those with seriously jaded palates.
Parla says the more conventional food sells most at both meals, and
notes the emphasis on serving meats that are lower in fat.
Citing "a different generation of drinkers," Parla says vodka
is more popular "by far" than gin in Clyde’s martinis. For
starters, the place offers a martini menu with about 40 choices, complete
with a blushing (and perhaps politically incorrect) Dorothy Parker
quotation on the subject:
I like to drink martinis
two at the very most
three, I’m under the table
four, I’m under the host.
be served shaken to your desired dryness," noting that for extra,
extra dry ones, "the bartender will glance at the vermouth bottle."
What’ll it be? How about the most popular martini, the "Cosmopolitan":
absolut citron, cointreau, cranberry and lime juice? Too serious?
Make it a "cajun," with tabasco and old bay seasoning, or
maybe a "neopolitan," boasting goldenbarr chocolate vodka,
stoli vanilla and stoli strawberry, or an "almond joy," with
vodka, malibu rum and amaretto, or — the trainer martini —
a "watermelon martini": midori, berentzen’s appel, stili raspberry
and lime juice. A twist on What’s in a name?: Does calling it a martini
make it one?
Clyde’s martini menu — all in lower case letters — offers
a panoply of gins and vodkas, and charges $5 ("gibson" —
gin or vodka with onion garnish), $6 ("bloody martini," with
absolut peppar and a splash of tomato juice), or $7 ("creamsickle,"
with stoli ohranj and vanil with a splash of liquor 43 and oj). Parla
says while the essence of Clyde’s drinks is 70 percent gin or vodka,
some of the martinis are "softened" with juices; breaking
down the ice, the shaking softens them further.
Friday only. Dinner runs from 4:30 to 10 p.m., or 11 on weekends,
and dress is "casual." Parking at night is "fantastic,"
Parla says. As for reservations, his answer is a firm yes, especially
for more than a few people on weekend nights. Phone: 732-846-6521.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.