In most instances, a uniquely lovely setting is an unqualified asset for a restaurant. In the case of Rat’s—Seward Johnson’s country-French fantasy located at Grounds for Sculpture—that setting has been both blessing and curse. Rat’s is nestled inside the stunning, beautifully landscaped 42-acre sculpture park, alongside a scaled-down reproduction of Claude Monet’s garden and pond at Giverny, in a warren of charming rooms on two levels. The park and gardens, in the Mercer County town of Hamilton, just get prettier, and the restaurant interior easily holds its own.
But this is a double-edged kitchen knife, because the food here has struggled to live up to the environs. I’m not convinced it does so even now, but it comes darn close. Noticeable improvement began when the Stephen Starr group took over management in 2009 and installed as chef Kevin Sbraga, who went on to win Bravo TV’s Top Chef in 2010—and then promptly departed.
By that time, though, several things had changed for the better, and those improvements remain. The menu became less overwrought, which also helped relax prices a bit. The fare is still tagged country French, but really it’s the epitome of a popular modern American menu: steak frites, short ribs, risotto, chicken, butter-poached lobster—you get the idea. The base ingredients are of excellent quality, the combinations are interesting and the execution impressive. The informal bistro menu that had been available only in the restaurant’s casbah-themed lounge (formerly called Kafe Kabul) has been subsumed into the main menu. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the previous snooty attitude has been banished.
The warm greeting we received on recent visits was followed in short order by a captivating amuse, which set a high standard that the remainder of the meal maintained. One time it was a spoon of lobster mac and cheese, full flavored yet light textured; another time it was a shot glass of smoky tomato and applewood-smoked bacon bisque.
The menu itself reflects a keen balance between clean, light dishes and lush, earthy ones. A salad of assorted small, feathery chicories in toasted caraway vinaigrette was downright bracing. On the lusher side, a generous disk of glistening steak tartare featured best-quality beef, classically appointed with capers, shallots, spears of toasted black bread—and a raw quail-egg yolk, which added inimitable richness. Speaking of which: plump, tender petit escargot got the royal treatment.
They arrived in a tiny hammered-copper pan, bathing in a fragrant emulsion of white wine and truffled prosciutto butter, resting atop pillows of ricotta tortellini. Only one starter promised more than it delivered: A salad of roasted yellow beets, frisée and shaved fennel tossed in champagne vinaigrette was stingy on the beets and flat on flavor.
The menu, which changes seasonally, is the brainchild of executive chef Shane Cash, 42, who took over last October. A member of the Starr organization since 2008, he was at one time Sbraga’s boss. A distant relative of the late Johnny Cash, he on occasion taught and trained the food-service staff at the White House under President George W. Bush. Before the current menu was put in place, Seward Johnson himself came for a tasting, Cash says. “Mr. Johnson comes to Rat’s almost daily when he’s in town,” he says of the sculptor and Johnson & Johnson heir. “He and I have a good relationship. He approves the menu, and I welcome that. He is an artist, and I welcome the artist’s point of view.”
Cash is looking to infuse the menu with more local and sustainable products. Griggstown chicken is represented in one of my favorite dishes—a generous, meaty leg is confited perfectly, and a breast is roasted to the ideal point of juicy doneness. But it just may be the polenta flavored with sage and gorgonzola that has etched this dish forever in my brain.
Two steak dishes also shine, including a filet mignon that avoids the usual blandness of the cut thanks to a classic peppercorn sauce and bold accompaniments: rosti potatoes with a creamy center, truffled Brussels sprouts and roasted baby cipollini onions. The other is New York steak frites, a generous portion of succulent five- to six-week wet-aged meat with a schmear of garlic-shallot confit, hearty skin-on Kennebec fries and a tangle of watercress tossed in horseradish dressing.
Seafood dishes also can be robust. Three big, meaty diver scallops, beautifully seared, could hold their own, but had as an insurance policy a cushion of molten-centered foie gras. Scottish salmon and halibut, two separate choices, have equally big and appealing flavors. And the aforementioned butter-poached lobster? Splendid, especially with its truffled polenta, chanterelles and leek fondue. If it sounds as though Cash is quick on the truffle trigger, he is. But his touch is so light, it never overwhelms the palate.
Not so with salt, which on occasion is heavy-handed, although never fatally so. Temperature issues, though, can be. An otherwise exemplary duck dish suffered because its bed of quinoa pilaf arrived chilled on one occasion and at room temperature on another. Cash confirms it should have been warm. Temperature affected other parts of our meals, too. One time, coffee was lukewarm. A dessert of brioche bread pudding with apple confit and cinnamon crème fraîche (a knockout) arrived cold one time and at room temp another. Because it is brûléed, it should have still been warm.
The entire dessert list, which Cash developed, makes friends and influences people. You’re unlikely to encounter tastier chocolate pot de crème and warm chocolate cake with dulce de leche than his, and a brûléed white chocolate cheesecake tart is simply ravishing.
Rat’s has always prided itself on its wine list and smartly offers a short list of about 20 by the glass, decanter or bottle. These will suit the majority of patrons in terms of variety and price, but there’s also a lengthy book of more esoteric choices.
The service we received on each visit was personable (finally!), responsive and competent—at least for three-quarters of the meal. Both times the restaurant was full, and on each occasion, otherwise good and prompt service slacked off after the entrées were delivered. Even worse, on the second visit our table did not get bread, popovers or a post-dessert tray of petit fours, all of which we enjoyed on our first.
Happily, these service and temperature issues are easy fixes. If they’re attended to, and if the kitchen maintains its current level, Rat’s may finally fully live up to its unparalleled surroundings.