Is sophisticated comfort food a trend? David Drake is making a good case—and making restaurateur Alice Szigethy and her Lake Hopatcong neighbors glad that this esteemed Garden State chef splashed down on their waterfront.
That Drake is slinging cheddar mac and cheese and pork-beef meatloaf with garlic mashies in Alice’s Restaurant, overlooking New Jersey’s largest lake, says a mouthful about the economy. Drake closed his eponymous Rahway institution, David Drake (formerly one of NJM’s Top 25), in January. He is no longer involved with his other high-profile project of recent years, Daryl Wine Bar in New Brunswick.
“Owning and running a restaurant is, let’s say, stressful, even in the best of times,” Drake admits. “Cooking at Alice’s seems right just now. Here, I can be simply the chef.”
Serendipity got Drake to the lake. Szigethy, who lives in Manhattan during the week, used to manage restaurants in the city when she was single. “Last summer I put the word out that I was opening a restaurant in my Jersey weekend town,” she says. “A chef I know called David, and he came to my house on Lake Hopatcong. I thought he was a really sweet person with good ideas, but I had no idea who he really was. When he invited me to check out Restaurant David Drake in Rahway, I realized this guy is Mr. Spectacular. He told me that David Drake at that point could pretty much run itself. So I gave him the keys to Alice’s and said, ‘It’s yours.’ He’s been here since August.”
The menu Drake created for Alice’s is perfectly suited to a chalet-like lakefront joint stylishly redone with sleek white booths and handsomely weathered planks that Alice calls “Canadian barn board.” (The main dining room’s 80 seats are augmented by 40 on the lakefront porch and 46 in a downstairs bar and lounge.)
“Fine dining has its place,” Drake says. “But most days, you want familiar, good food. That’s what I’m doing at Alice’s—no foie gras, no truffles, no caviar. Just honest, uncomplicated, tasty food you want to settle in with.”
Although Drake has been in charge now for a little more than eight months, significant kinks remain to be worked out. On my first visit, the food was shockingly mediocre. It turned out Mr. Spectacular was off that night. On my second visit, the food was terrific. Guess who was in the kitchen? Drake doesn’t take many days off, but diners shouldn’t have to call ahead to see whether they’re in for Top Chef or Survivor.
One thing you can count on is the bread basket piled with Drake’s jalapeño-laced, cheddar biscuits, which are as rich as muffins. Savor one, and ask your server to bag the rest; it’s the only way not to polish off the lot.
Alice’s menu is strong on casual starters, but Drake’s treatment transcends clichés. When was the last time you expected anything of chicken wings? Have faith. These plumpsters are at once crispy and tender. And Drake’s greaseless fried chicken—tenderized in buttermilk, its batter provocatively shot with Tabasco—is delectable.
Mac and cheese is served in miniature cast-iron pans. It’s alluringly salted with lardons of bacon and thickened with Vermont cheddar. (On Drake’s night off, the dish was disagreeably soupy.) Fish ‘n’ chips—an entrée easily shared as a starter—spotlights fresh flounder delivered daily. Drake dips the fish in a beer batter that fries up as light as tempura. His pan-fried crab cake, fashioned of sweet “peekytoe” rock crab from Maine, is equally impeccable. And his sea scallop main course showcases Jersey giants lightly pan-seared to perfection. Drake’s seasonal side dishes are locally sourced. Some vegetables and herbs hail from Alice’s own Lake Hopatcong garden.
Alice’s Big Burger is a must-order—a large, lean patty of house-ground brisket and chuck grilled to a charry tang, wedged into a homemade brioche bun, and served with steak fries as long as asparagus spears. Tender, sliced skirt steak marinated in garlic, Argentine-style, is arguably up to the level of the burger. But on Drake’s night off, the meatloaf had little flavor and was dry and overly dense, and a half-rack of barbecue-grilled pork ribs had more fat and gristle than meat.
Drake’s desserts are shipshape. (After all, he served years ago at the Ryland Inn as Craig Shelton’s pastry chef.) Happily for many of us, a third of his meal-enders here involve chocolate. My favorite was a ramekin of Belgian chocolate mousse, thick as a pot de crème. Colossal, if airy, scoops of traditional ice cream flavors made by Lake Hopatcong’s Jefferson Dairy are nostalgic fun. Drake is considering customizing his Jefferson Dairy order with herbs from Alice’s garden, paving the way for flavors such as lemon verbena and Thai basil.
Unlike the vintage Arlo Guthrie song, you can’t get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. But whatever you do get will taste good—if Drake is in the kitchen or gets his kitchen crew up to speed.