Few restaurants last a quarter century. Fewer still navigate the shifting winds of public taste and the unforgiving shoals of the business to emerge—as the Frog and the Peach has—still on top and on course.
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Many restaurants of a certain age have menus mired in the past. The Frog and the Peach, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in July, has weathered the years with a remarkably fresh face. The reason is that owners Betsy Alger and Jim Black (see story, page 50) founded the restaurant on principles we would now call sustainable, though that word was not in vogue in 1983.
The couple were part of a new wave, inspired by the likes of Alice Waters, who believed in using local ingredients wherever possible for freshness and to support area farmers. From that followed menus that changed frequently based on what was actually in season. Over the years they have folded in global traditions and techniques, updating and enriching the simple American nouvelle cuisine on which the restaurant was founded. Today, the Frog and the Peach is right where it started—among the best in the state.
Credit Bruce Lefebvre, the latest in an honor roll of chefs over the years. He started as a line cook at the Frog and the Peach straight out of culinary school and, after a stint in Manhattan, became executive chef in 2001. He describes his menu in terms of “culinary common sense,” a phrase that belies the flair his food exhibits.
The appetizer list is loaded with baroque compositions like quail wrapped in prosciutto and basil, with watercress, orange, Israeli couscous, and spring-onion vinaigrette. But there also are wonderfully simple starters like bibb and red-leaf lettuce salad with slices of mild red-fleshed watermelon radish, dressed with Dijon mustard-citrus vinaigrette. Crisp asparagus spears paired with meaty white anchovies, shallot confit, and a lemon-poppy dressing made a hefty but balanced dish. A mound of cured tuna dusted with crunchy tobiko roe was seated in a lemongrass broth with cucumber—a lively multi-textured take on sashimi.
Unapologetic decadence was the theme of black truffle-flecked ricotta gnocchi with wood ear mushrooms in a sherry brown butter so rich it brought to mind good French toast. F&P Classic Smoked Salmon is part of the restaurant’s history but is the least interesting appetizer.
Entrées range from restrained to rococo. Seared scallops traveled light, decked with shaved asparagus, endive, earthy caramelized sunchokes, and an almond-buttermilk sauce, inspired by a South American chilled soup, that did not pander to the sweetness of the fish. The open-faced brown-butter-poached lobster agnoletti arrived in a truffle jus with wilted spinach, capers, and oven-dried tomatoes. This heady combination winningly countered the sweetness of the lobster meat in the fresh pasta. The dish was large enough to split. Portion sizes are unusually generous for an upper-tier restaurant, but quantity does not come at quality’s expense.
Service is as adept as you would expect from a 25-year-old landmark of fine dining, but where the waitstaff really shines is in their knowledge of the menu and the wine list. They know, for example, that a big, fruit-driven pinot noir will pair perfectly with the green peppercorn-cured duck breast, counterbalancing the creamy goat cheese polenta it comes with and bringing out the richness of the juicy Muscat grapes scattered on the plate. The duck breast itself was beyond reproach, encased in a gorgeous layer of fat after a slow, careful rendering. Herbed veal escalopes, however, seemed lost under herbed breading and the accompanying mix of artichokes, red onions, and white beans. But the worst to be said of the dish was that it tried to do too much.
You will want to linger over dessert, not just because molten Valrhona chocolate cake deserves your full attention, but because frozen crème fraîche parfait needs a minute to defrost. Once the disk of frozen crème is soft enough to attack with a spoon, it delivers a delicious triptych of texture, from the delicious raspberry-sorbet topping to the buttery shortbread cookie at the base. Pastry chef Jacqueline Mazza went back for a degree in dessert after a short stint at the Frog and the Peach, and she’s also responsible for the dinner rolls, a delicious and slightly chewy take on ciabatta.
Stop at the antique bar, where tubular fabric fixtures glow like golden air vents in tribute to the building’s industrial past. The lights smartly meld past and present, like the restaurant itself.
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29 Dennis St at Hiram Sq
NEW BRUNSWICK, 08901
American cuisine, featuring local sea scallops a la Plancha, crispy sunchoke, preserved lemon, carrot, fava beans, smoked French butter