I couldn’t agree more with Louis DeGouy, onetime chef at the old Waldorf-Astoria and apprentice to Escoffier, who wrote, "There is nothing like a bowl of hot soup, its wisp of aromatic steam teasing the nostrils into quivering anticipation. It breathes reassurance, it offers consolation; after a weary day it promotes sociability." This is true even of canned soups, like the Campbell’s tomato and chicken noodle we all grew up on, but it more particularly describes soups made from scratch, either at home or by an honest restaurant cook.
It is also a universal sentiment: think of all the ethnic versions of chicken soup, from Jewish penicillin to Greek avgolemono, Mexican tortilla soup, and Indian mulligatawny, not to mention the broth for floating all those wontons the world over. My own personal favorite is stracciatella, the Italian version of egg drop soup. Whenever I or my siblings had an upset tummy, my mother would whip up a batch, made with lots of pastina, the tiny pasta dots. To this day, I crave it when I am not feeling well.
Reasons for loving soup are many and varied. Few other foods are as versatile. Soups can be highbrow or lowbrow, clear or cream, hot or cold. They can serve as an entry into a meal, as the main event, or even as dessert (although I have to admit I am not partial to cold fruit soups). Many, like mulligatawny, have exotic names that are a delight just to utter: borscht, billi bi, cock-a-leekie, bouillabaisse, vichyssoise, and gazpacho, for example.
Over the course of the 10 years I have been reviewing restaurants, I find that soup is second only to bread in acting as a bellwether of a good chef and a good restaurant. Even Escoffier, the author of the classic book on French cuisine, said that, of all the items on the menu, soup "exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention." Herewith a few of the more memorable ones I’ve encountered.
At Quetzal, a lively Guatemalan restaurant in Trenton, caldo di gallina is modestly described on the menu as "hen soup," but what arrives at the table is a substantial and delicious meal in two parts. Part one is a big bowl of steaming chicken broth (hen broth?) that would give any Jewish mother a run for her money. Part two is fully half a chicken, roasted with bits of nicely charred skin, accompanied by beans and rice. All for $10, last time I looked.
Cocido, a hearty beef and vegetable soup, is also on the menu. My introduction to cocido (sometimes called caldo de res) came by way of another Trenton restaurant, Frankye’s, since closed. It was on a frigid day in February, and I was suffering from a bad cold. I stopped by Frankye’s on Perry Street because the sign read, "The Best of Hispanic Cuisine." The cocido proved a heaven-sent elixir, especially because of its deeply flavorful stock. This meal-in-a-bowl includes big pieces of boneless beef from the shin, along with hunks of white potato, carrot, squash, cabbage, and yucca, the starchy tuber so beloved in Central and South America.
I have a weakness for chowders of all stripes, preferring them over their richer, more buttery cousins, the bisques. When it’s high season for Jersey corn, I just can’t seem to get my fill of corn chowder. This past summer was a particularly good year for corn in the Garden State, and I encountered no fewer than three exemplary versions.
For years, Will Mooney of Brothers Moon in Hopewell has made me swoon with his light version that shouts freshness. At the Epicurean Palette, a gourmet event held this past September to benefit Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, chef LeClere English of the Lawrenceville Inn blew guests away with his sweet Jersey corn soup with grilled mushrooms and shellfish foam. The grilled portobellos added a smoky note that I apparently find irresistible, since I raved about the same quality in the sweet corn chowder at Matt’s Red Rooster Grill, a new spot in Flemington.
The corn chowders are gone from the menus at these three restaurants, but each place excels in soup making, so look for seasonal replacements. At Matt’s, the current choices are roasted butternut squash, three onion soup with gruyere cheese, and New England clam chowder. Best news for us soup lovers: we can order a tasting of all three.
I thought nothing could surpass a good New England clam chowder (I can’t abide Manhattan-style) until I dined at Lila’s, the restaurant inside the National Hotel in Frenchtown. There, owner-chef Bill Downes makes scallop chowder that is my idea of perfection: creamy but not thick, tasting of seafood and brine, with soft potatoes and chunks of tender scallop. Why anyone would make chowder with clams is beyond me as long as this dish exists.
While we’re on the subject of creamy, I must admit that pureed soups rank among my favorite starters. I’m not a big fan of cold soups, with the exception of gazpacho in summer. My sentiments about cold soup lie with Fran Lebowitz, who epitomized urban cool in her columns of the 1970s, and who once commented, "More often than not the dinner guest is left with the impression that had he only come a little earlier he could have gotten it while it was hot."
I am tepid about vichyssoise, the classic cold leek and potato soup, but offer me its warm cousin, potage Parmentier, especially if it tastes like that at La Bonne Auberge in New Hope, and I’m content. The more forthrightly named "cream of potato" is a highlight of dining at the Black Forest Restaurant in Allentown. This no-frills restaurant in a beautiful old mill was taken over a couple of years ago by a young chef, Keith Warner, who has kept the traditional Bavarian recipes of the previous owner. Actually, I have a hard time choosing between the cream of potato and a soup called "fleda," which is simply a wonderful chicken consomme with strips of light, tender crepes floating in it.
For the deepest, most soul-satisfying soups I know, though, I turn to Asia. Entire restaurants are rightfully devoted to Vietnam’s national dish, pho. We don’t have a lot of choices in central New Jersey, but I’ve enjoyed creditable versions of this hearty beef noodle soup at Pho Anh Dao on Route 27 in Somerset, which offers about a dozen variations.
For years I have been devoted to the Chinese-style braised beef noodle soup from Tiger Noodles in Princeton and its sister restaurant in Montgomery, Ya Ya Noodles. In both places, the take-out version features separate containers for the silky, thick white noodles; the chunks of tender, gelatinous boneless beef in dark, rich broth redolent of star anise; and the pickled mustard greens relish. For $7, I wind up with two meals’ worth. Recently, though, my loyalty was tested by Shanghai Park, the new restaurant that took over the spot in the Princeton Shopping Center that had been King’s Castle. Their broth may be even fuller-flavored, and the soup seems to be completely free of oil.
Perhaps the soup that perfectly captured for me the transporting olfactory powers of hot, steaming soup was one I had at Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank, which I consider to be among the state’s finest venues. A dish that showed up on the vegetarian tasting menu was called "fricassee of baby vegetables in an herbal broth." This sounded none too promising, but the reality was that the tarragon-scented broth had unimaginable depths of flavor. Like all soups here, this magic elixir was dramatically poured into my bowl at the table, so that I could take in its heady aroma. It was poured over four kinds of baby carrots and equally infantile turnips, kohlrabi, and fennel, all cooked to perfect toothsomeness in tomato water. Providing heft to the soup were Tarbais beans, imported from the Pyrenees, which came nestled in a tiny copper pan.
Sadly, I am still searching for the definitive chicken soup, especially chicken soup with matzo balls, either at a restaurant or to make at home. Many come close, but just miss the mark. The predecessor to the current Princetonian Diner on Route 1 offered an above-average version, if I remember correctly. But really, now that cold, wet nights are upon us, I long to be restored by any good, hot soup.
Pat Tanner’s restaurant reviews can be heard each Saturday morning on "Dining Today with Pat Tanner" on MoneyTalk AM 1350 and over www.moneytalk1350.com from 9 to 10 a.m.
Curried Carrot Scallion Soup
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, circa 1970s.
This simple pureed soup has been a favorite of my family and friends for the last 25 years. It was also the most requested soup during my years as a caterer. I make it all year round as part of weeknight dinners (minus the garnishes) because by slicing the carrots and scallions in the food processor it is quick and easy to throw together. Yet it’s elegant, too, so I’ve served it as a first course at Thanksgiving and Easter dinners. I’ve even served it cold, in summer, as part of a fancy buffet. Children and adults never seem to tire of it, perhaps because it is smooth and creamy-textured yet light, since it contains neither cream nor butter. P.T.
1 cup thinly sliced white part of scallion, plus thinly sliced scallion green for garnish
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon curry powder, or more to taste
4-1/2 cups thinly sliced peeled carrot, plus finely grated carrot for garnish
4-1/2 cups canned chicken broth
1. In a saucepan cook the white part of scallion in the oil over low heat, stirring, until it is softened. Add the curry powder and cook the mixture, stirring, for 1 minute.
2. Add the sliced carrot and the broth, bring the liquid to a boil, and simmer the mixture for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the carrot is very tender.
3. In a blender or food processor, or using an immersion blender, puree the mixture. Return it to the pan and heat the soup over moderate heat until it is hot. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish it with the scallion green and the grated carrot.
Makes 6 cups, serving 6.
These listings are taken from the www.princetoninfo.com dining database:
Black Forest Restaurant, 42 South Main Street, Allentown. 609-259-3197. German cuisine. BYOB. Keith Warner, owner-chef.
Open for lunch Tuesday to Sunday, for dinner Thursday to Sunday. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted.
Entrees, priced from $11-24, include sauerbraten $19 with potato dumplings and red cabbage. Soups, including cream of potato and ‘fleda,’ (chicken consomme with strips of crepe) are $3.95 for a cup and $4.95 for a bowl.
Along with the boutique shops in this historic mill in Allentown, here is a taste of the homeland at this very German restaurant, owned now by Keith Warner (formerly a chef at Good Time Charlie’s) and his sister-in-law, Eileen.
Come by just for coffee, some of that Black Forest cherry torte ($4.50) or homemade bread puddings ($3.75), and some gemutliche chatter. Or settle in for real trencherman’s food, Jaeger schnitzel (veal with sour cream mushroom gravy) at $24 for dinner, or wurst, $17 for the drei-Wurst platter, (the brat, the knock, and the weiss). Potato pancakes are $4 to 11 and can be a dinner appetizer.
The Brothers Moon, 7 West Broad Street, Hopewell. 609-333-1330. Country French cuisine. BYOB. Will Mooney, chef-owner. Chef de cuisine: Larry Brown.
Open for lunch and dinner daily except Monday, plus Sunday brunch, 10 to 2 p.m.
Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Checks accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Private rooms available for groups of up to 30 people. Outdoor dining. Take-out.
Entrees, priced from $14-$28, include beef hanger steak with spinach, Stilton, and roasted garlic gratin, with pommes frites and roasted garlic sauce, $25. Soups priced at $8 to $9 at dinner, or, for takeout, $2.75 for 12 ounces, $8.25 for a quart.
An 80-seat linen tablecloth restaurant, plus a patio and deli counter. The chef/owner, Bill Mooney, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has worked at the Hotel Pierre, Forsgate Country Club, Stage Left, the Stockton Inn, and the Peacock Inn. Vegetarian and vegan friendly. Local produce and meats. La Bonne Auberge, Village II off Mechanic Street, New Hope. 215-862-2462. Classical French cuisine. Liquor license. Rozanne Caronello, owner. Chef: Gerard Caronello.
Open for dinner Thursday through Sunday. Four-course fixed-price menu, $50, on Thursday nights.
Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx and personal checks accepted. Private rooms available for groups of up to 20 or Monday to Wednesday. Jackets required.
Entrees priced from $38, try the roasted rack of lamb with Provencal herbs, $39.
La Bonne Auberge presents classic French cuisine in a beautiful 200-year-old farmhouse surrounded by exquisite gardens. The atmosphere is formal, the service swift, the food serious. If you’re looking for an impressive venue for dinner, this is the place.
Lawrenceville Inn, 2691 Main Street, Lawrenceville. 609-219-1900. French American cuisine. BYOB. Elizabeth & Jonathan Hunt, owners. Chef: LeClere English.
Open daily except Tuesday for dinner, other weekdays for lunch. Brunch on Sunday, 10 to 2 p.m. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Private rooms available. Outdoor dining. Hopewell Valley Vineyard wines served.
Entrees from $28-32. Soups include French onion for $10 and mushroom bouillon for $8. American comfort food with French influence, situated in a renovated Victorian home.
Lila’s at the National Hotel/Rathskeller, 31 Race Street, Frenchtown. 908-996-4871. New American cuisine. Liquor license. Tisha Downes, co-owner. Chef: Bill Downes.
Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Private rooms available for groups of 20 to 50 people.
Entrees, priced from $16-$28, include Maryland crab cake appetizer, $13. Soups are $5 and include French onion, shrimp bisque, and yellow split pea.
Lila’s is in the National Hotel, a historic building. Also here is Rathskeller’s pub, which serves the same menu and is open until 1 or 2 a.m. on weekends. Outdoor tables, fireplace in the bar.
Matt’s Red Rooster Grill, 22 Bloomfield Avenue, Flemington. 908-788-7050. New American cuisine. BYOB. Matthew McPherson, chef-owner. Chef: Matthew Green.
Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Private rooms available for groups or 12 people. Outdoor tables.
Entrees, priced from $22-33. A specialty is the wood-fired grilled Romaine salad, $7. Soups include roasted butter nut squash, three-onion, and New England clam chowder, $6.50.
Two fellows named Matthew cook here – Matthew McPherson, the chef-owner, and
Matthew Green. They serve dinner Tuesday to Saturday, starting at 5:30 p.m. BYOB but Unionville wine is available. The wood-fired grill items are specialties.
Pho Anh Dao, 1483 Route 27 South, Somerset. 732-246-1788. Vietnamese cuisine. BYOB. James Dao, owner-chef.
Open for lunch and dinner daily. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Private rooms available. Entrees, priced from $6.50-$8, include noodle soup, $7.
Quetzal, 1122 Anderson Street, Trenton. 609-392-2040. Guatemalan cuisine. Cash only. English is not spoken here.
Restaurant Nicholas, 160 Route 36 South, Red Bank. 732-345-9977. New American cuisine. Liquor license. Melissa and Nicholas Harary, owners.
Open daily Tuesday through Sunday. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Private rooms for up to 110 people.
At this price-fixed restaurant, a two-course menu is $38, three courses is $55, and tasting menu with six small courses is $75. Vegetarian four course menu is $55, and other menus can be adapted for low-fat or gluten-free needs.
Shanghai Park, 301 North Harrison Street, Princeton. 609-924-8001. Shanghai and Szechuan cuisine, also sushi. BYOB. James Qin, owner. Chef: Guohui Zhu.
Open for lunch and dinner daily. Dim Sum brunch on weekends from 11 to 3 p.m. Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Private rooms for groups of up to 120.
Entrees, priced from $3-30. Soups include beef noodle, $7.95.
Shanghai Park is an offshoot of a parent restaurant in Highland Park. Owner James Qin recommends the crystal shrimp with pea shoots, $17; the house special steak, $16; and the rack of lamb in black bean sauce, $22.
Tiger Noodles, 260 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-252-0663. Chinese. BYOB. Huey Yang, owner.
Open for lunch on weekdays, dinner daily. Checks and cash accepted. Private rooms available.
Entrees from $9-10. This diminutive Chinese restaurant (with takeout) has expanded into the space next door, where it has more seating, plus tables outside.
YaYa Noodles, 1325 Route 206 North, Skillman. 609-921-8551. Chinese cuisine. BYOB. Huey Yang, owner.
Open daily for lunch and dinner
Reservations accepted; VISA/MC/AmEx accepted. Checks accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Private rooms available for groups of up to 70 people.
Entrees, priced from $6-$25, include duck, seafood, chicken.
Other Dining Venues
The following list includes advertising participants in this edition:
Ajihei, 11 Chambers Street, Princeton 08542. 609-252-1158. See ad, page 25.
Beijing Seafood & Grill, 2022 Nottingham Way, Hamilton 08619. 609-890-7600. See ad, page 23.
Cafe Rosario, 147-149 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington 08534. 609-737-1312. See ad, page 23. See advertising feature, page 19.
Hopewell Valley Vineyards, 46 Yard Road, Pennington 08534. 609-737-4465. See ad, page 19.
Ichiban, 66 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08542. 609-683-8323. See ad, page 26.
Independence Cafe and Catering, P.O. Box 587, Allenwood 08720. 609-419-9699. www.independencecafe.com. See ad, page 22.
Japanese Fuji, 485 Georges Road Suite 114, Dayton 08810. 732-274-8830. See ad, page 24.
Lambertville Station, 11 Bridge Street, Lambertville 08530. 609-397-4400. See ad, page 19. See advertising feature, page 20.
Main Street Fine Catering, PO Box 144, Rocky Hill 08553. 609-921-2777. www.mainstreetcatering.com. See ad, page 24.
Masti Indian Grill, 440 Route 130 South, East WIndsor 08520. 609-490-0100. See ad, page 25.
Mehek, 164 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542. 732-221-8846. See ad, page 18. See advertising feature, page 20.
Palace of Asia, 540 Lawrence Square Blvd. South, Lawrenceville 08648. 609-689-1500. See ad, page 22.
Piccolo Trattoria, 800 DeNow Road, Pennington 08534. 609-737-9050. See ad, page 24.
Savoir Fare, 65 Prospect Avenue, Princeton 08540. 609-258-0652. See ad, page 21.
Seafood Empire, 2205 US Highway 1, North Brunswick 08902. 732-398-9090. See ad, page 20.
Shanghai Park, North Harrison Street, Princeton 08540. 609-924-8001. See ad, page 26.
Sunny Garden, 15 Farber Road, Princeton 08540. 609-520-1881. See ad, page 25.
Taste Appeal Catering, 41 Bright Road, New Egypt 08533. 609-324-1705. See ad, page 26.
Teriyaki Boy – Forrestal Village, 15 Market Mall, Princeton 08540. 609-897-7979. See ad, page 26.
Teriyaki Boy – MarketFair, 3535 Route 1, Princeton 08540. 609-897-7979. See ad, page 24.
Tre Piani, 120 Rockingham Row, Forrestal Village, Princeton 08540. 609-452-1515. See ad, page 20. See advertising feature, page 20.
Whitlock Tavern, 375 Georges Road, Dayton 08810. 732-274-2200. See ad, page 21. See advertising feature, page 22.