In a renovated 1913 train station, chef/owner Michael Carrino hits his stride, gladly shifting from haute and formal to rustic and relaxed.
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Smashingly set in the restored waiting room of Montclair’s century-old Lackawanna railroad station, Pig & Prince oozes architectural character. From the steel girders in the vaulted brick ceiling to the patterns in the mosaic floor uncovered in the restoration, the old blends harmoniously with new elements like the burnt-orange banquettes in the lounge and the 27-foot-long bar with its mottled, acid-washed copper top.
From character we move to characters, namely the two in the full name, Pig & Prince Restaurant and Gastrolounge. “The prince,” chef/co-owner Michael Carrino explained, “is the diner. Our position is, we are here to take care of you.”
As for the porcine part, it represents the casual vibe he wants to project. And it might be his favorite animal. Just read the motto on the back of the kitchen staff’s collars: “In Pig We Trust.” Carrino regularly drives to Andover in Sussex County to check on the Berkshire pigs raised for him there by the L.L. Pittenger Farm, which eschews hormones, antibiotics and steroids. In the restaurant’s kitchen, Carrino breaks down the carcasses and does wonderful things with the meat.
“Charcuterie and meat curing are dying arts,” Carrino, a 2001 CIA graduate and 2009 winner of Chopped, told me over the phone after my visits. “They’re not really being taught in culinary schools. But I’m a lifelong student…. Some of my meats have been curing longer than some of my young chefs have been out of school.”
Pig & Prince’s charcuterie is made in house. On any given night, about half the tables start with the $15 platter: five types from a rotation including pancetta, lardo, sopressata, capicolla and beef braciola. Some are not aged as long as they might be for maximum depth of flavor, but the pork prosciutto (aged 18 months) and duck prosciutto are excellent. Carrino also cures salmon and makes his own sausages. “It’s a mix of old-school French and Italian styles,” he said. “I cure with nothing but kosher salt and time.”
A box on the menu lists the cured meats side by side with the craft cheeses (three for $14, five for $19). Take the hint and order both. The cheeses (served with seasonal fruit compote and Italian honey) come from Abruzzo in Southern Italy and from the pastured cows and goats of Poughkeepsie’s Sprout Creek Farm, started in 1982 by two ex-nuns. Add one of the 24 wines by the glass or 39 beers, and if you order nothing else, you could amble out quite content.
But there’s much more to savor. Start with the space, sensitively restored by Pig & Prince partner Serge Hunkins, a Montclair resident who builds sets for New York fashion shows. A side area once used for ticketing and baggage is now the cozy lounge and taproom, with high-top tables and a convivial bar. An adjacent nook (sans flat screens) is quieter and more romantic.
The station’s 1913 opening is linked to tragedy. After completing the design in 1912, architect William Hull Botsford set sail on the Titanic. He was 25. Botsford’s building served commuters until 1981, after which it was saddled with things like a video store and a Pizza Hut. Probably not in tribute to the fast-food pies, Pig & Prince offers what it calls (redundantly) a petite pizziette. These crisp, oval flatbreads—with good toppings that change regularly—are made in the gas-fired oven that also bakes Pig & Prince’s breads, like the excellent herbed focaccia.
Pasta is made in house, too. A delicious sauce for lobster tagliatelle was made from reduced lobster stock with white port and onions, tinged with fresh rosemary. Pumpkin gnocchi in a curried ginger emulsion were even more delectable. Crumbled Pig & Prince sausage elevated a simple risotto into a satisfying main course. Dried figs tilted a duck risotto, rich with egg yolk and crunchy with pistachios, too much to the sweet side. (Still, we polished it off.)
Carino, 34, supplements the seasonal menu with daily specials reflecting “what’s truly good-looking in the market that day.” On the menu of his first Montclair restaurant, Passionné (2006-2011) were printed the words, “Know Your Farmer.”
“At Passioné, I really worked my classical CIA training,” he said. “But in the end it was too French and formal for me. I’m more rustic and relaxed at Pig & Prince. But cooking for the well-traveled Montclair crowd keeps me on my toes.”
One perennial worth sampling is Prince Edward Island mussels in a classic mariniere white-wine sauce spiked with andouille sausage (not house made). A touch of coconut milk gentles the brew. Eloté, a Mexican casserole, is baked and served in a mini cast-iron crock. It bubbles with melted cotija, a cow’s-milk cheese from southern Mexico. Roasted corn kernels (Jersey in season), zingy red poblano peppers and slivers of andouille contribute to the success of this captivating dish. Foie gras paired with sugary French toast points, on the other hand, was too sweet.
Carrino may be a prince of pork, but his fish and game entrées display an equally sure hand. He roasts Pacific wild salmon fillet on a cedar plank, its aroma gently suffusing the fish, and glazes it with brown butter and maple syrup.
A deeply satisfying roast venison loin (“from New York or Pennsylvania when I can get it, from Australia when I can’t”) is marinated in olive oil and herbs and grilled to a caramelized char. Free-range pheasant from Griggstown is served as roasted breast and confited leg. Delicious as it was, it was upstaged by its side dish, crunchy toasted barley enriched with chanterelles and wine-soaked currants.
The only steak is a 13-ounce grass-fed ribeye from Oregon, a frequent special (at $42, as our server failed to mention and we neglected to ask). Ordered rare, it came medium rare but was lush and beefy. Carrino bills his burger as “single-steer” because Pittenger sends him ground beef made from one complete carcass. Served on a Balthazar potato bun, it was a burger to remember, despite its surprisingly limp duck-fat fries. Its companion in comfort food, curried chicken pot pie, was soothing and satisfying, though lacking curry flavor.
Pastry chef Amanda Hartigan, a 2008 CIA grad, has worked with the exacting Manhattan chef Pichet Ong. Her most interesting desserts, served in squat glasses with screw-on lids, are indelicately dubbed Take It In The Jar. Of the frequently changing four on the menu, you choose two for $11. (Early on, you got three.) We enjoyed a pumpkin pot de crème topped with two pieces of cinnamon shortbread that made handy scoops, and a salted dulce de leche pudding under chocolate ganache and pretzel crunch. The small servings left us feeling princely rather than piggy.