A key reason foodies flocked to D’Floret when Dennis Foy opened the 26-seat Lambertville restaurant last July was to catch up with this legendary chef, who crops up every so often with a new restaurant that may or may not prove short-lived.
A proponent of local, seasonal, farm-to-table food long before those became buzzwords, Foy almost single-handedly ushered New Jersey fine dining into the modern era when he opened the revered Tarragon Tree in Meyersville in 1976. By now he has trained two or three generations of chefs, including the likes of Craig Shelton at Tarragon Tree in the early ’80s and Tom Colicchio, who was sous chef at Foy’s Mondrian in New York in the late ’80s.
Over the years, Foy has had restaurants in Bay Head, Chatham and Point Pleasant Beach, but after heart surgery in 2007, he announced his retirement. Rejuvenated, he opened an eponymous restaurant in Lawrenceville in 2010, only to close it the next year when he couldn’t cement a deal to buy the building.
Now he’s back, in a tiny space filled, as ever, with his framed paintings. There’s a thrill to seeing him at work in the semi-open kitchen.
When not at the stoves, Foy likes to visit tables, chatting about his art (in contrast to his customary Shore landscapes, the new works at D’Floret are colorful abstracts) or about the artisanal Halo ice cream he was excited to discover in Trenton and serve at the restaurant. Toward the end of the evening, as things wind down, he and his wife, Estella Quinones Foy (“She is the owner, I am the cook”), sometimes settle in with a bottle of wine and a few appetizers at a table under the dining room’s mushroom-like pink chandelier. This happened on two of the three nights we ate there.
Relaxed about breaking the fourth wall of restaurant theater, Foy carves his own path in other ways as well. He is pursuing a master’s degree in organizational dynamics at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. At D’Floret, he has embraced what he described as a more eclectic and improvisational approach to cooking.
“I think I’ve earned the right to not be locked into a particular cuisine or style,” he said in a phone interview after my visits. “It’s a lot more fun.”
The results in my three visits were mixed. A slice of deliciously creamy goat cheese on a slightly crisped layer of tomato confit, drizzled with a delicate chive oil-balsamic dressing, made for a starter as memorable as it was simple. Two of the three soups we tried were winners: a velvety chanterelle and button-mushroom soup finished with a touch of truffle oil, and a crème d’homard, a lush soup rife with lobster flavor and a generous island of claw and tail meat in the middle of the bowl. Butternut squash soup, on the other hand, proved watery and bland.
Among entrées, a perfectly seared New York sirloin was juicy inside. So were lamb chops bathed in a honey-mustard reduction so compelling it had me sucking the bones. Cajun chicken breasts, moist and tender from being cooked sous vide, were coated in a sprightly spice mix and lightly sautéed for a fully pleasing dish.
On our first visit, we had a problem with sautéed scallops so undercooked they were cold inside (though their puréed parsnip sauce was elegant and seductive). We sent the scallops back for a stronger sear, but they returned virtually unchanged.
“I don’t necessarily cook them through,” Foy said on the phone. “I think scallops should taste like an earlobe—sexy.” A warm earlobe, preferably.
On our second visit, red snapper came out spongy and dull. We ordered it again on a subsequent visit and did a double take. Here was perfectly crisp skin over lush, flavorful flesh. (Wild Alaskan salmon that night displayed the same virtues.) Asked about the snapper, Foy said he had been experimenting with cooking it sous vide, didn’t like the results and switched to a simple sauté.
“I’m always in a constant state of experimentation, trying to achieve a certain taste result,” Foy said in a later conversation. “I may switch it up or decide on an earlier method. That’s the process of being a creative chef.”
Some of what we experienced seems less like experiment than inconsistent execution. A crab tian, a tian being originally a kind of Provençal vegetable casserole, turned out to be a sautéed crab cake without a breaded coating—which would have been fine had the crab meat tasted fresh, but it definitely did not. We ordered the tian on a later visit and hit the jackpot. It was cooked the same way as before, but this time was packed with big, sweet lumps of faultlessly fresh crab. Sautéed gnocchi in a mushroom-and-truffle sauce suffered the same problem in reverse. Pillowy the first time, the dumplings were dense, chewy and deeply over-browned the next time.
Desserts were consistently good, especially a refreshingly assertive lemon tart (love that pucker!) and two offerings that came with vanilla Halo ice cream: apple tart and profiteroles. Chocolate Royale, a rich chocolate mousse laden with firm bits of bittersweet chocolate on a crisp praline wafer, made those textural contrasts its welcome calling card.
Foy has been ironing out kinks. On our first visit, our server failed to greet us and had to double back to check our order, which she had neglected to write down. By the third visit, the air of frenzy was gone. Perhaps people are getting used to Foy being around. Wouldn’t that be nice?