Euro-chic is alive and well in Princeton. Located on Hulfish Street, below the former location of the Corkscrew Wine Shop, the Underground Cafe offers visual as well as gustatory delights. As you step down into the airy space, you are greeted with swoops and swirls of glass and stone. The lines of the banquettes undulate, mimicked by the drape of the ceiling fabric. The clear crackle glass of the steps above lava rock gives the impression of height and openness that belies the below-ground area. The space is further expanded by the use of mirrors to draw you in.
When we first arrived we were immediately pulled to the intricate stone bar embedded with fiber optic filaments that brought to mind a buried mothership. Were we in Amsterdam and was it really 1973 again? Restaurateur Assen Tchongov, a young man who came to America to study and coach soccer but who comes from a restaurant family in Bulgaria, has made sure this is not your ordinary dining experience.
My friends and I were seated at one of the curved banquettes that cocoon an asymmetrical table amply sized for the four of us. Our wine was immediately tended to and we fell to devouring the extensive menu. Appetizers are more than ample; three were easily shared. The mushrooms in white wine with blue cheese were a huge hit ($9.50) and on a second visit the croquettes with yogurt sauce made with spinach and feta was the winner ($8.25). Prices for starters range from $8.25 to $12.50 for the grilled eggplant served cold and mixed with tomatoes, pecans, and fresh goat cheese.
Salads are equally ample and range from $9.50 to $11.50. We tried the mozzarella with grapes, teamed with fresh baby spinach and mint. The cheeses used in the mushrooms, the eggplant and salad were among the smoothest and freshest we’d had in ages. My friends, who hail from Europe, no mean place to appreciate fine cheese, commented on the creamy texture and tang of the blue cheese.
In addition, there are hearty soups; chicken noodle, seafood and vegetable from $5.75 to $7. You could make a meal from a mix of just the beginnings.
While the menu does not immediately suggest the restaurant’s continental flair, the potential for more eclectic offerings is there. Tchongov reportedly hired his chefs after holding a competition in Bulgaria. One show stopper on the current menu is an elaborate shish kebab served with the flair reminiscent of a Greek country taverna. We chose the bourbon chicken, the beef marsala, grilled octopus, and the beef Bernaise. Each was fresh and redolent with marinade.
Prices for the main dishes run from $14.50 to $27.25 and encompass pork and
seafood as well as the chicken and beef dishes we chose. On our second
visit, the salmon was the savory favorite.
For dessert we opted for the milk pie, the only authentic Bulgarian offering on the menu — so far. Similar to fresh bread pudding with a honey sauce, it is light and not cloying. The sweets are priced from $5.50 to $11.75 for a massive fruit sundae for two that looks like a work of art. Tchongov promises more Bulgarian dishes as he refines the menu, something well worth anticipating.
Don’t pass up the delicious coffees and non-alcoholic cocktails of fresh fruit. Having your cappucino served in a mug of swooping design with a crooked spoon balanced on one edge is worth coming down all by itself. Dress is eclectic: jeans and boots sat with full length mink coats the nights we were there. The crackle glass tables are well spaced and large enough to take the multitude of plates, visual treatsthemselves.
Our one minor quibble: the draft from the doors as patrons enter and exit. During these cold months a curtain at the entrance would help.
The Underground Cafe is open seven days a week until 11 p.m. and Tchongov has said even the later patrons are welcome for a full meal. This makes it perfect for after-theater dining or coffee and dessert.
The Underground Cafe, 4 Hulfish Street, Princeton. 609-924-0666.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. BYOB.