Editor’s Note: Ursino closed in September, 2015
When I heard that a serious restaurant opened last October on the campus of my alma mater, Kean University, you could have blown me over. As if that weren’t unlikely enough—after all, I have memories of cement-block buildings—it’s situated inside a gleaming, state-of-the-art science building with LEED certification, and much of its produce comes from its own 4-acre farm. This I had to see.
After enjoying outstanding meals ensconced in its high-style Mad Men banquettes (with retro cocktails), I have concluded that the idea is an inspired one. The impetus, I was later told by the restaurant’s two key players, general manager Richard Spaulding and executive chef Peter Turso, both of the late lamented Restaurant David Drake, originated with university president Dawood Farahi. “He wanted to use the building to showcase something that no school in the state has: a first-rate restaurant,” Spaulding says.
It’s named for Polish Count Julian Ursin Niemcewicz, who married into the Kean family in 1800. The two-story space, by Glen Coben, who also designed New York’s Del Posto, is full of striking and disparate features. The upper floor includes a swanky, 30-seat bar/lounge with a window wall and a gallery overlooking the dining room. The bar top is a slab of golden quartz lit from beneath. Overhead is a huge, sparkly, fringed LED light fixture that any flapper would be proud to flaunt.
A spiral staircase in stainless steel and wood leads down to the dining room (an elevator is also available), passing by the open kitchen. Where to begin describing all the elements of the 72-seat dining room? Besides the blueprint wall, there are curved walls encrusted with small blue and green tiles. Drum pendants hang above those Mad Men banquettes, which are covered in muted rainbow-striped upholstery and which nestle against another wall of windows that overlook a green, park-like space. At night, headlights from traffic twinkle prettily in the distance. At the rear is a glassed-in private room for 10, its interior lined with wine racks.
Accompanying a basket of decent breads is the first inkling that the kitchen of 32-year-old Turso, who is also an alum of Restaurant Nicholas and Stage House, and who recently completed a stint at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, has more than the usual to offer. This comes in the form of a small bowl of creamy whipped chickpea spread topped with excellent olive oil and smoked paprika. We scarfed it up along with interesting cocktails, including that week’s special, the Aviation, a surprisingly appealing concoction of gin, crème de violette, maraschino liqueur and lemon juice dating to the 1920s. It is well balanced, as is the Fig Fusion, a mix of fig-infused vodka, blood-orange tea, agave nectar and cardamom.
The often-overstated “green restaurant” and “farm-to-table” designations are valid here. Besides the building’s features, which include geothermal heating and cooling and windows that capture heat, the restaurant filters its own water and has an ambitious composting program. Even in the dead of winter, the farm, complete with bee boxes and apple orchard, was still producing amazing vegetables under the careful guidance of farmer Henry Dryer of Cranford.
We found ourselves extolling their virtues over and over. One example: flavorful Tuscan kale in the Duality of Lamb (the only pretentiously named dish; others are straightforward, like bistro steak or cider-braised pork belly). This comprises a diminutive, well seasoned, seared loin medallion and succulent braised shoulder with Barolo sauce, accompanied by earthy stewed white beans and kale.
Swiss chard is the featured green in a perfectly executed herb-roasted chicken. Cold-weather accompaniments start with warm farro salad, into which tender chard and preserved sour cherries are folded. The plate is smeared with purée of toasted walnuts (like an exceptionally rich tahini), and finished with crème fraîche and the farm’s tasty chives. Of this preparation Turso says, “I wanted to get away from the stigma of chicken with mashed potatoes. I wanted something a little more thought provoking.” I can’t say if my tablemate who ordered it cogitated much, but he did comment that he could have made a meal of the farro alone, although “all the parts together make the dish fantastic.”
Almost every dish elicited similar, reactions—all the more impressive with entrée prices under $30. “This dish took me to another world” was the response to superb housemade tortellini filled with toothy nubbins of dry primo sale mozzarella over which an herbal mushroom brodo is poured at table. It is one of several pasta dishes that excel. Tender young beets shine in a version of this overexposed salad that here breaks from the pack with candied walnuts (a bit burnt, sadly), shavings of sheep’s-milk cheese, house-made crab-apple fruit paper and a dark green shmear of mache. And who would think that broccoli—even unusually dark and deeply flavorful broccoli—would hold its own alongside the fantastic glazed short ribs? This dish promised an interesting counterpoint, thanks to a horseradish popover. Unfortunately, the big puff lacked horseradish moxie.
Sweet Barnegat scallops are surrounded by an array of interesting veggies, among them sunchokes, frisee and true baby carrots. I could hardly believe my eyes when I spotted what looked like tan, tightly spiraled seashells—not even an inch long and only a couple of millimeters wide, yet packed with flavor. Could these be micro-mini crosnes (aka Chinese artichokes)? Turso later confirmed that they were. The dish is completed with creamy, buttery carrot sauce.
Even dishes without a prominent veggie component shine. Two pristine fish appetizers in particular stand out. One, of paper-thin slabs of smoked swordfish and fennel drizzled with fruity olive oil and strewn with pea tendrils, is simple but oh-so refreshing. Fire and Ice local oysters is a two-tier winner. The fire component has three big, creamy, wood-roasted oysters atop a wooden board, charred and still smoking on one end. They are nestled on a dune of ultra-white salt strewn with whole star anise, cardamom pods and juniper berries. I’m not convinced this imparts much flavor, but the small dollop of subtle black garlic on each sure does. Below these are three cold, briny compatriots on the half shell, untouched but for an ingenious mignonette granité in the form of ruby-colored ice crystals.
There are some bumps. Wood-fired mussels in fennel are bland despite the tasty mollusks. A crunchy-coated fish dish, now off the menu, reminded us of mediocre fish sticks, and an entrée of local organic polenta with vegetables, while tasty, still evokes breakfast cereal.
Desserts were spectacular under original pastry chef Michael Corcoran, but we did not have the opportunity to taste the work of his replacement. Ursino could develop into one of the best restaurants in the state as long as other major personnel stay in place, the commitment to true farm-to-table fare at reasonable prices remains, and service hits its sweet spot.