After folding his highly praised place in (215), Brian Held moved here, ditched formality and is winning new fans.
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Brian Held says he serves classic rustic dishes of Provence and Northern Italy, but his skilled hands add nuance and refinement. He elevates earthy mushroom soup with a judicious trickle of truffle oil. Tender, handmade ravioli, stuffed with traditional spinach and ricotta, are topped not with tomato sauce but with silky lemon-sage brown butter and a shower of grated lemon zest, pine nuts and Parmigiano. Held will also update the occasional American classic, like fish sticks. He molds his from chopped fish, scallops and lump crabmeat, fries them crisp and serves them as an appetizer with a rich Provençale aioli and a fennel marmalade. His sticks are big in size and flavor, and a bargain at $10.
Held served versions of these dishes at his previous restaurant, the formal, decidedly un-rustic Rouget in Newtown, Pennsylvania. To my mind, what’s rustic about his Lambertville BYO is not so much the food as the elegantly simple decor and relaxed atmosphere—and, moreover, price points attuned to these times. One decorative holdover from Rouget is Held’s pantheon, a gallery consisting mostly of photographs that line the passageway to the restroom. These are portraits of titans of modern French cuisine: Fredy Girardet, Fernand Point, Pierre Gagnaire, Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse. One of Alice Waters greets visitors at the restaurant’s entrance.
“I had Rouget for five years,” says Held, who opened Brian’s in February in the space that had been No. 9. “For three of those years we did very well—business was booming. But when the economy changed, we still had our large rent.” He says diners began to consider Rouget a special-occasion restaurant, never a welcome designation. “I felt fortunate just to make it to the end of my lease.”
When Held learned that the Lambertville space was available, he scouted the town. “I saw the level of sophistication of the diners here. They’re open to cutting-edge, more sophisticated dining,” says the 43-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who worked this side of the river once before, at New Brunswick’s erstwhile River Club.
The makeover is the handiwork of Jim Hamilton, another Lambertville restaurateur (Hamilton’s Grill Room), who is also a designer and, in fact, had done Rouget. “He’s truly brilliant!” Held says. “He has a vision in his head. I can’t always see it, but somehow it all comes together. Plus he’s a great chef.” Changes include the addition of a narrow banquette along one long wall and a curved counter separating the now open kitchen from the dining room. Tables are decently spaced, but noise can be a problem when the 39-seat room is full.
Held has structured the menu so that diners can keep costs corralled. Choices include three-course fixed-price dinners ($30 weeknights, $36 weekends), tantalizing gourmet pizzas ($12-$16) and exquisite handmade pastas available in half or full portions ($12-$15, $24-$28). Sure, you can order à la carte and spend more—specials like veal cheeks or beef filet can run into the mid-30s—but you don’t have to.
Portions are always generous.
Classic and rustic don’t necessarily mean simple and unsophisticated. Perhaps no dish better exemplifies this than Held’s masterful head-cheese appetizer, a celebration of porky flavors and textures. Head cheese is, of course, not cheese, but a meat-and-aspic terrine. Although its origins are in frugal country cooking, head cheese also fits with the current nose-to-tail trend. Here it is made from scratch and served in the traditional manner with slabs of toasted country bread, cornichons, French mustard and a tangle of lightly dressed greens.
“I start with two pig heads and braise them for six hours with allspice, garlic, carrots and leeks,” Held relates. “I pick off all the meat. I like to mix in the crunchy pieces, like snout and ears. The cheek and tongue are the softer pieces. With a couple of pig’s feet in the mix, between that and the head, a firm, natural gelatin forms.” That gelatin is a treat.
Less adventurous diners also have plenty of options, like a big, fat boudin blanc. The moist, tender sausage, made in house from pork and chicken, bursts with flavor, as does its accompaniment, a crispy fried potato cake that’s the French version of hash browns.
The menu literally changes daily, so take the dishes described here as examples. It does include a few perennials, such as the mushroom soup and a simple salad (deemed “impeccable” by one tablemate) of mixed greens in sherry vinaigrette with herbed goat cheese.
Besides the aforementioned ravioli, I was impressed by pappardelle in a classic beef Bolognese and by fazzoletti (handkerchief pasta) in a superb saffron cream sauce that picks up flavor from the diminutive mussels in the shell that dot the dish.
Pizzas are baked in a wood-burning oven that Held installed as part of a redesign of the space. They include such intriguing combinations as shrimp, goat cheese, red peppers, leeks and roasted garlic. Unfortunately, the oven had developed a crack and was not in use during my visits.
One of my favorite dishes combined meat and seafood. Held braises veal cheeks for six hours, producing a rich, flavorful sauce and rendering the cheeks as soft as down pillows. He strews them with sautéed shrimp and rounds out the plate with excellent whipped potatoes and mixed ultra-seasonal veggies. Dishes like this and Held’s signature beef à la mode (a kind of French pot roast with wine, herbs and root vegetables) reflect his attraction to secondary cuts. But he’s also adept with primary cuts—seared lamb chops, for example—and with fish, like butterfish in citrus sauce. Fowl, too, is expertly handled, as exemplified by succulent squab in a rich black-currant sauce.
Desserts are classic yet freshly interpreted. Accompanied by house-made coconut ice cream, a thick slab of roasted pineapple comes to the table hot enough to melt a dollop of vanilla butter, which bathes the fruit in sumptuous vanilla flavor. Held’s molten-chocolate torte would be delicious on its own, but this warhorse gets a second wind from wonderfully full-bodied roasted-banana ice cream.
Many of the kitchen staff and about half the service staff came from Rouget. On one occasion, when one entrée was brought to the table ever so slightly later than the others, our server graciously apologized “on behalf of Brian.” Another time, a different server declined, despite our request, to discuss dessert before taking our coffee orders. When this restaurant is full (often), you may notice that service lags near the end. But as one companion said, “The food is so good I can easily forgive the small lapses.”
I agree. Eating Held’s timeless dishes, executed with a modern viewpoint, is like a reunion with long-lost friends. You instantly recall why you were so fond of them in the first place.