Asbury Park’s hippest restaurant creators take you on an enchanting culinary ride.
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Count me among those charmed by the Oscar-winning French film The Red Balloon. Director Albert Lamorisse famously cast his own kids, Pascal and Sabine, to play the young protagonists, also named Pascal and Sabine, of this beloved 1956 short. Pascal finds a red balloon that follows him around his Paris neighborhood. After bullies destroy the balloon, all the balloons of Paris flock to Pascal and carry him on a joyride over the city.
I felt metaphorically lifted and transported by Pascal & Sabine, the modern-minded, retro-inspired brasserie opened by the Smith company in December. It’s Smith’s fourth Asbury Park restaurant, following the industrial-chic gastropub Brickwall Tavern, the Neapolitan pizza and small-plates shed Porta, and the hip vegan haunt Goldie’s.
Mark Hinchliffe, spokesperson and project manager for Smith, has said the goal was to create a classic brasserie that from day one feels “lived in.” That’s a tall order, but Pascal & Sabine, already attracting a broad cross section of Shore residents and visitors, exudes a bonhomie that seems years in the making.
Smith has been adept at giving each of its restaurants not only a distinctive menu, but a distinctive look. Here, the 18-seat bar features a row of vintage-style brass table lamps with red shades; the lounge, with its gleaming black grand piano and plush armchairs, shares its space with a massive belle epoque-style espresso and cappuccino maker; and the dining room’s curved black-leather banquettes and black ceiling envelop you in luxurious privacy.
The youthful staff mesh well. On one visit, our server offered to send over wine director Christian Hansen to help us choose a bottle. I was prepared to rattle off what we had ordered, but Hansen, a veteran of several fine New Jersey restaurants, including the Frog and the Peach, had already looked at our ticket and suggested an off-the-list Hungarian pinot noir—a $60 Nimrod, 2007—that burst with fruit-forward personality.
The menu’s updated French classics are executed with aplomb. A fine dish of pan-seared cod came with a modernist parsnip-thyme foam and all-but-scene-stealing beluga lentils simmered in dark chicken stock with mirepoix. A side of roasted asparagus in brown butter snapped to attention under piquant bits of preserved lemon.
Cheese and charcuterie can lead off a meal smartly here, but credit the kitchen for creations like the torchon of first-rate foie gras rolled in toasted almonds, seared and served on apricot coulis sprinkled with lavender salt and accompanied by buttered, toasted ciabatta. Sound like too much going on? As one companion noted, “Like good supporting players, they never upstage the star.” Another compared Pascal & Sabine’s fried baby artichokes favorably to those she recently enjoyed in Rome. These basked in a creamy lemon purée zinged with anchovy.
The menu nods to American tastes with two burgers (albeit served on brioche buns). One came with gribiche sauce, the other with Gorgonzola and slab bacon. The burger itself was very good, but the accompanying frites, fried in duck fat, were fantastic. The burger packed more robust beefiness than the indifferent steak au poivre, one of the few letdowns here.
Another classic, coq au vin, rivals the best I’ve had. This rustic stew is hard to get right. At Pascal & Sabine, lip-smacking, bacon-scented red-wine sauce seeps deep into tender, flavorful chicken with button mushrooms and remarkably sweet, small white onions. A small tureen of buttery pomme purée completes the seduction.
Equally praise-worthy, the Duck Duo with Swiss chard and fingerling potatoes pairs crisp-skinned confited legs with thick slices of succulent seared breast in a duck jus with flavor a mile deep. A bone-in Berkshire pork chop remarkably retained its flavor despite being ordered well done. Indeed, it remained so juicy that its Calvados sauce, while delectable, was superfluous.
The subtle modernizations continue through dessert. Excellent milk chocolate pot de crème came topped with a layer of salted caramel and flakes of Maldon sea salt. A dome of chocolate mousse on a disc of flourless chocolate cake was covered in chocolate ganache studded with pleasantly bitter cocoa nibs for a multi-dimensional treat. On one visit, the puff pastry in a Paris-Brest (filled with almond-flavored cream and sprinkled with toasted almonds and a drizzle of crème Anglaise) was pale and underbaked; on another, the pastry was tough. That same toughness marred an otherwise fine tarte Tatin.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t said a word about the chef yet, it’s because of the Smith company’s unique way of handling that position. Pascal & Sabine opened with co-executive chefs—Paul Holzheimer, from Porta, and Grace Crossman, from Goldie’s. Now the chef in charge is Neil West, 58. Most recently at Brickwall Tavern, West at one time worked for David Burke at the Fromagerie in Rumson.
In an email after my visits, Smith principal Hinchliffe explained that “our executive chefs…work on all of our restaurant projects, and we like to move them around…to keep them creative and passionate. Our chefs understand and enjoy this philosophy.”
Like the balloons at the end of the movie, Smith is on the move. It has a Porta spinoff (the Monk Room) in Newark and a second Porta opening in Jersey City. Restaurants in Burlington, part of a citywide rejuvenation, are in the planning stages. “We’re scouting the country for where to head next,” Hinchliffe says. “At its core, Smith is about transforming great American cities through hospitality.”