Before 55 Main celebrated its five-year anniversary last September, chef/owner Jonas Gold decided to spruce things up at the Flemington restaurant. He called in his design consultant—his mom, Ruth Gold, who lives a few blocks away. She replaced the carpet with a darker one that goes better with the rainbow-striped banquette backrest that runs the length of the room. And she changed the walls from cool blue to warm wheat gold.
Color therapists consider blue to be calming but also an appetite suppressant. That might be why my generally favorable first impression bumped up a notch when I returned after the makeover. More likely, the combination of lively flavor combinations, large portions and personable service carried the day.
After cooking at the Harvest Moon Inn in Ringoes and the Fox and Hound Tavern in Lebanon, CIA graduate Gold, 41, decided to return to his hometown to open a place of his own.
“I have yet to advertise. It’s all word of mouth,” Gold told me in a phone interview after my visits. “I get my old teachers in here, my old coaches. It’s a small town where everyone knows you.”
Some might find that stifling, but it has worked out well for Gold, whose customers appreciate his eclectic creativity. The convivial dining room (which by coincidence has 55 seats) fills every weekend. The regularly changing menu features dishes with Thai, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, French and southern American influences.
“You go out to dinner with four different people, and they have four different tastes,” said the chef, who makes a point of chatting with diners every night. “I just try to make people happy.”
All the appetizers we sampled were winners. An udon noodle salad with micro-greens, mango, cumin-coated cashews and coriander exemplified Gold’s mix-and-match sensibility. In his lemon-lime shrimp, Asia met Mexico as four plump shrimp sautéed in garlic and ginger were paired happily with avocado salsa and blue corn chips. Tender shreds of pulled beef (available as appetizer or entrée) had me hankering for a second serving—not least for the crispy onion rings on top. We made short work of chicken pot stickers stuffed with a mixture of ground chicken, garlic and coconut milk, and topped with pulverized peanut brittle.
Ravioli fillings change with the season: we tried butternut squash on one visit; shiitake, cremini and portobello mushroom on another. The squash was very good, the mixed mushroom even better. Salads were huge and fresh, a meal in themselves. We enjoyed the B.L.T. salad, with tangy chipotle dressing; and a salad of three juicy pan-fried oysters over romaine, with creamy lemon peppercorn dressing.
Most entrées were successful as well. A tender, meaty Kurobato pork osso bucco drew raves. Braised about six hours, it was served with pecan and sweet potato risotto and a red wine demi-glace touched with maple syrup.
On its own, the same demi-glace showed up on a chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, spinach and mozzarella, for a kind of saltimbocca effect. Lean, tender and crisp-skinned roast duck breast came with an indulgently good hash of crisp potatoes, zucchini, peppers and diced foie gras, all pan-fried in duck fat. Seared yellow fin tuna came properly rare under a crunchy panko breadcrumb and wasabi crust, with gingered sticky rice and cabbage.
During our visits, only two of Gold’s experiments failed—an overcooked pork-loin special with too much truffle oil in the stuffing; and a seared-scallop entrée with not much sear, a cloying dried-cherry sauce and, as if it weren’t already one-dimensional, a sweet potato gratin. Lack of balance also plagued a nicely cooked pan-seared halibut special with a barely peppery red-pepper sauce.
Given the kitchen’s fondness for cloying sauces, we braced ourselves for dessert. But a perky lemon tart in flaky pastry and a balanced Key lime cheesecake with spicy ginger-snap crust proved pleasant surprises. Peanut butter mousse had a likable saltiness. Sitting on a brownie, covered with chocolate ganache and drizzled with caramel sauce, it fairly screamed, “Sugar rush!” But for once we were happy to succumb.