In the past, the dining scene in Princeton hadn’t exactly been moribund, but significant overhauls didn’t occur with regularity. Then in late 2008 Elements made its debut on Route 206 and Scott Anderson’s modernist take on “globally inspired” American cuisine was unlike anything the area had encountered, and met with immediate critical success. Just 18 months later, the completely re-imagined, multi-million dollar renovated Peacock Inn burst onto the scene. Since then, the pace of new openings — both major and minor — has only quickened. Herewith, my rundown of the newest eateries and the players behind them.

I can’t recall any restaurant’s debut that was more anticipated by Princetonians — nor more warmly received — than that of Agricola, which opened in the old Lahiere’s space on Witherspoon Street in March. My detailed profile of this farm-to-table restaurant, including its owner Jim Nawn and his Great Road Farm (which supplies the restaurant), and its executive chef, Josh Thomsen, appeared in the May 1 issue of U.S. 1. To give you some idea of Agricola’s popularity: on the weekend of April 20 the restaurant initiated — but did not announce — Saturday and Sunday brunch. Chef Thomsen reports that about 200 diners showed up each of those days. Lunch hours will commence later this summer, Nawn promises. Meantime, the Agricola team has been invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in Manhattan on August 6.

Then a mere two months later (May 23, to be exact), came the opening of Mistral, the second collaboration between the team behind the Elements: executive chef and co-owner Scott Anderson and co-owner Steve Distler, the founder and vice chairman of the Bank of Princeton. Mistral, more informal (and, unlike Elements, BYOB), may be named for the Provencal wind, but it serves contemporary versions of “globally inspired” small plates. It is installed in the space that for many years had been Ichiban, the Japanese restaurant.

The partners have purchased the entire building, which also includes a UPS store. Although its address is technically Witherspoon Street, the restaurant faces Hulfish. The space seats 45 indoors and another 45 on a covered patio. Many of the design elements are reminiscent of, well, Elements: a plethora of natural materials — predominately soft, natural, light-toned wood and stone, as well as gleaming stainless steel. Wood-trimmed French doors on two sides allow light to flood in.

Scott Anderson was a semi-finalist for this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in the Mid-Atlantic, but he has handed off Mistral’s day-to-day cooking duties to chef Ben Nerenhausen, who for the last three years was sous chef at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa. That restaurant holds three Michelin stars (the highest allotted). I asked Nerenhausen, who will turn 30 in June, what convinced him to make the move to the East Coast, and to Mistral.

“When I was up in Napa, I had already planned to leave Meadowood and was traveling around, thinking about what my next move would be. Scott had done a guest-chef stint at Meadowood — he was one of 12 chefs during the ‘12 Days of Christmas’ event. His cooking really stood out! When I saw on the message boards that he was looking for someone for Mistral, I responded.”

During a weeklong visit, Nerenhausen was impressed with how everyone at Elements went “the whole nine yards” for him. “And I like Mistral’s small-plate framework. Our dishes are not labeled ‘Italian’ or ‘Japanese. We can have fun and play with the ingredients, just let them shine.”

Nerenhausen was born in Wisconsin. When he was eight his parents, both teachers, moved the family to Pakistan, then three years later to Cairo, where he spent his middle-school and high-school years. “I was fortunate to be exposed to a lot of the world at a young age. I think it fueled my passion for cooking — the different ingredients, different techniques.”

But, he allows, “I never in a million years thought I would wind up in New Jersey!” In fact, one of the reasons he took the job at Mistral is because, when it comes to food — hold onto your hat — the Garden State reminds him of Northern California. “Both places enjoy the availability of such great product — it’s all around here.”

He mentions foraging for ramps in New Jersey woods, visiting local farms that raise pasture-fed animals and nurseries that grow plants specifically for Elements and Mistral, as well as Princeton’s own Shibumi Farms with its exotic mushrooms. “I had grown used to that in Napa. Think about it: New York restaurants are set so far from where everything comes from. Here things are growing all around, and you are so connected to the farms.”

Mistral’s seasonally-changing menu of small plates, intended to be shared, is divided into four sections: From the Fields, From the Water, From the Land, and Desserts. In the weeks before Mistral opened, Anderson and staff were “breaking down” two whole Duroc pigs, which were used in part to make two items on the Land menu: weisswurst (sausage) served with caraway-fennel mustard, wilted cabbage and marble potatoes; and pork belly salad with Chinese chili, scallion, and sesame oil. Representative of the Fields menu is fried sunchoke with parsley, lemon, red pepper, and roasted garlic, while the Water menu includes mackerel with white miso, tempura oyster mushrooms, and lime. Mistral is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Mistral, 66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808. www.mistralprinceton.com.

Agricola, 11 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-2798. www.agricolaeatery.com

DeSpana

The most concentrated change to the Princeton dining scene, though, is transpiring along the eastern end of Nassau Street, which has spawned four new eateries.

The space at the corner of Nassau and Olden, which had been Kalluri Corner and was vacant after its last tenant, Palace of India, vacated, will throw open its doors at the end of June as DeSpana, the first spin-off of a popular Spanish specialty foods shop and tapas cafe located in SoHo in Manhattan. DeSpana’s owners, Angelica and Marcos Intriago, have partnered with a local: Bruno Romero, who has lived in the Princeton area with his wife and young daughter for 16 years.

“We want customers to experience authentic Spain,” says Romero, co-owner and managing director of the Princeton DeSpana. “Princeton reminds me of my hometown of Salamanca [Spain]. They’re both university towns,” he notes, then adds, laughing, “although Salamanca has more bars than it does restaurants.”

Like the SoHo original, Princeton features both a retail market with groceries and grab-and-go prepared foods and a sit-down dining area with its own menu. A centerpiece of the Princeton market, located on the building’s ground floor, is a big case holding more than 50 varieties of Spanish cheese.

Behind it, hanging from a steel rack, is Spanish charcuterie — including the highly prized jamon pata negra bellota — hams from a breed of black-foot pigs indigenous to the Iberian peninsula that are fattened on acorns for the last months of their lives. The hams will be hand-sliced to order on adjacent white Carrara marble countertop. Soaring shelves of black wood hold artfully arranged bottles, cans, jars, and packages of Spanish olives, olive oils, cured and preserved seafood, rice for paella, jams and honeys, and spices such as saffron and smoked paprika.

The design esthetic, implemented by Joshua Zinder Architecture & Design (JZA&D) of Princeton, mimics the SoHo location with industrial-chic elements such as walls of gleaming white subway tile, red metal pendant lights with exposed filament bulbs, and dark wood plank floors made to look distressed. Romero and Angelica Intriago, who took me on a pre-opening tour, are particularly proud of the completely fitted-out stainless steel kitchen, open to the first floor, and the spacious prep kitchen in the basement.

“This is different than in New York, where we have far less space,” Intriago says. “Here we can expand our cooking, offering more tapas, rice dishes, sharable plates — using simple ingredients, but with style — that highlight Spain.” To accomplish this, the team is bringing in Sergio Perez, a chef from Spain who has, among other things, collaborated with Ferran Adria at the legendary El Bulli (in Catalonia). The plan is that dishes created in and for Princeton will eventually make their way to Manhattan. DeSpana also plans to offer offsite catering services.

Upstairs are two dining rooms, one on either side of a central staircase. One side, facing an open gallery, showcases a sizable coffee bar with a white Carrara marble countertop. At night, the counter will be dotted with big glass jars holding a variety of fruit mixes — a “sangria mix bar” containing everything except the wine.

DeSpana Princeton is BYOB, and customers are invited to bring their own. That same marble is featured on a long stretch of counter facing out and looking into the atrium below. The space offers free Wi-Fi, and there are also outlets under the counter so students (and others) can plug in. This room also has a large case filled with sit-and-eat charcuterie, cheeses, salads, and prepared foods. “At lunch, you order, pay, get your food, and sit,” Intriago says.

At night, the downstairs market space becomes the waiting area for the full-service restaurant upstairs. It seats 70 inside and out on the adjacent rooftop terrace, plus another 24 out on the sidewalk below. Notes Intriago, “We could have put in 90 seats upstairs, but we wanted extra space between tables.” The team even installed chairs (cool, modern, red metal) that are two inches wider than regulation. The dining room and terrace are equipped with wall-mounted large screen TVs, intended for showing soccer games (or Power Point presentations for business meetings.)

“From the outside, it looks pretty much the same as it always has,” Romero says of the building, which is owned by Elsie and Ray Pang. “But inside,” he says with pride, “we have put in totally new infrastructure, including electrical, heating, plumbing, and ventilation systems, the kitchen, and all new bathrooms. Every surface is new.”

In addition to cheese and charcuterie plates, the cafe menu features paella and other rice dishes, bocadillos (sandwiches with traditional ingredients such as Serrano ham, chorizo, and Manchego cheese), tapas (including Spanish egg-and-potato tortillas and boquerones — marinated white anchovies), pintxos (Basque-style bar “bites”), soups, salads, and desserts, including flan and churros with hot chocolate.

DeSpana, 235 Nassau Street. Expected to open Saturday, June 15. www.despanabrandfoods.com

EPS Corner

Just across Nassau Street from DeSpana is EPS Corner, the latest in a string of Chinese restaurants — including the long-running Ivy Garden — to inhabit that terraced space. The interior has been completely upgraded, renovated, and redecorated, and I’m told that the previous management has returned. (Although which set of previous managers, and their names, was not disclosed.)

EPS Corner, 238 Nassau Street, 609-921-2388.

North End Bistro

Even further east on Nassau, directly across the driveway from the Whole Earth Center, is the brand spanking new North End Bistro, which has risen from the ashes of a fire that in 2009 destroyed two previous restaurants on the site, Tom Yum Goong and Sultan Wok. This American comfort-food BYOB held its soft opening on May 28. It’s a project of the newly formed Gretalia Hospitality Group of Tino and John Procaccini and their partner Zissis (“Z”) Pappas.

North End is the sixth restaurant in their portfolio, which also includes two Osterias Procaccini — one in Kingston and the other in Pennington — plus the original PJ’s Pancake House on Nassau Street and a second one slated to open next month at Windsor Plaza shopping center in Princeton Junction. In March, the group also became managers of the food and beverage program at Hopewell Valley Golf Club, where the restaurant is open to the public. “One of the three of us — me, Tino, or Z — will be always be rotating in each one every day,” John Procaccini promises.

The property is owned by Martin Tuchman of Princeton International Properties, who is also the landlord for several of the other Gretalia restaurants. “We had a lot of people peeking in the windows, a lot of interest,” Procaccini told me, as he showed me around North End Bistro. “That’s why we are high on this location: we’re in a neighborhood, and one that has sidewalks, so people — families — can walk on over.” Not to mention that the space comes with a parking lot.

North End Bistro is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Among its more casual fare are five kinds of mac n’ cheese, soft tacos, sandwiches, and burgers, including a vegetarian one and one made with a blend of meats from the noted New Jersey purveyor Pat LaFrieda. More substantial offerings include pastas, entree salads, homestyle meatloaf, and buttermilk fried chicken. There’s also a children’s menu, and each day of the week has its own dinner special, such as chicken pot pie on Monday and pork osso buco on Saturday. “Like our other restaurants, we use all-natural and organic ingredients whenever possible,” says Procaccini.

Fans of Wimbledon tennis will recognize North End Bistro’s subdued purple and green color scheme. Walls of windows on two sides allow light in, and, opposite them, large translucent panels — inset with thin stylized twigs and backlit — add even more to the two dining rooms. All the furniture, which includes modern bistro tables and chairs sporting matte silver-tone frames, a sectional sofa, pendant drum lights, and tables and chairs out on the patio are imported from Italy and purchased from Tuscan Hills in Kingston. A sliding barn door inset with the same translucent panel encloses the front room so that it can be used for private dining for up to 30. In total, the 3,000 square foot space seats 104 — 24 of those out on the patio on Nassau Street.

Although North End Bistro is BYOB, it also is an outlet for Hopewell Valley Vineyards wines. John Procaccini proudly points out that the markup on these is modest. For example, Hopewell Valley sells its Barbera online for $17. At North End it’s $20. Among the 10 bottles the bistro carries is Spumante Secco. To go along with this sparkling wine, the bistro offers set-ups to make pitchers of Bellinis (peach puree) and mimosas (orange juice). Of course, customers are welcome to bring their own wines.

North End Bistro, 354 Nassau Street, 609-683-9700. www.northendprinceton.com.

Ivy Inn

In between DeSpana and North End is the Ivy Inn, which has been Princeton’s reigning dive bar for decades. (Its motto: Every Hour is Happy Hour.) In February of this year it began, for the first time, to serve food. Longtime owners Michelle (“Mickey”) Ryan and her son, Richey Ryan, had recently teamed up with Geoff Aton of Princeton.

This new team brought in chef Jackie Baldassari to develop a full menu of pub favorites and to train a staff of cooks. The menu of soup, salads, hot appetizers, pizza, sandwiches, and burgers is available not only inside the knotty-pine walls of the barroom (newly spruced up) but also out on an attractive new deck/patio in the rear. The enclosed, family-friendly patio is outfitted with umbrella-topped tables and window boxes bursting with colorful flowers and trailing plants are mounted high on the rear wall.

The owners take pride in the quality and freshness of the ingredients used to make crowd pleasers like the rib-eye sandwich, burger with ancho chili mayo, Jersey pork roll on a bun, and Caesar salad.

A recent lunch I enjoyed there attests to the quality and freshness — as well as the friendliness of the staff. The chicken sandwich, for example, is made with organic boneless breast of Bell & Evans chicken. There’s even a vegan crab cake on the menu (made with seitan, topped with lemon garlic sauce, and served on a roll). Bar favorites abound, including Buffalo chicken wings, mac ’n cheese, and tater tots (plain or “loaded” with melted cheese and bacon). Portions are generous and the most expensive item on the menu — the steak sandwich — is only $10. And New Jersey’s 7 percent sales tax is included in the price.

Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, 609-921-8555. www.ivyinnprinceton.com

Cafe 44 Fusion

On the other side of town, on Leigh Avenue, a new eatery has popped up inside an existing one. Early in 2012 Jennifer Jefferis, the longtime owner of Tortuga’s Mexican Village, moved her popular restaurant across the street from its original location. In its place she installed Cafe 44, a casual place open for breakfast and lunch. That meant that evenings, the place was shuttered.

The situation was corrected at the top of this year (January 2) by Peter “PJ” Young and his soul food/southern food: evenings-only Cafe 44 Fusion. PJ, as he is called, is well known to many Princetonians from his 20 years on the Princeton police force. But what Princetonians may not know is that PJ’s parents, PJ Young Sr. and Ricky Young, owned and ran a coffee shop/diner on the very spot — and he has the black-and-white photos to prove it. PJ doesn’t cook — for that he hired Gina Jackson-Beale, who, like Young, graduated from Princeton High School.

While I am too young to remember the elder Youngs’ Koffee Kup, I do recall when Leigh Avenue was home to another soul food restaurant, Downtown Deluxe. As Faith Bahadurian commented in the Princeton Packet, it’s good to have soul food back on Leigh Avenue.

Cafe 44 Fusion’s owner terms the fare “Southern soul with a modern twist,” and emblematic of that is the starter of jambalaya fritters. Created by chef Beale, they combine sausage, chicken, shrimp, peppers, and onions inside a fried batter. Also on the menu: sandwiches — including a shrimp po’ boy; fried chicken and waffles; fried pork chops and sweet potato waffle; traditional sides like collards, cornbread, and mac ‘n cheese; and desserts like sweet potato pie. Cafe 44 Fusion is open Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Cafe 44 & Cafe 44 Fusion, 44 Leigh Avenue, 609-924-3900. www.cafe44princeton.com, www.cafe44fusion.com.

So there you have it: a line-up of Princeton newcomers that’s impressive in its sheer number, yes, but also in its geographic range and in the diversity of its offerings, dining styles, and price points.

Add these to the existing list of your favorite in-town dining and watering holes and you may well ask, Was there ever a better time to dine in Princeton?

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