When Princeton restaurateur Jack Morrison snapped up a piece of prime real estate on Princeton Library Plaza in 2004 and dropped a substantial sum for the last available liquor license in town, it seemed he had a plan. Turns out, he didn’t. “It took months just to come up with a concept,” he says, laughing. “I like to pick a goal, then figure out the hardest route to get there.”
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In retrospect, it seems logical that the Witherspoon, which finally opened in 2006, turned out to be a steakhouse—a theme as perennially popular as the seafood specialty of Morrison’s other restaurant, Blue Point Grill. As owner of an excellent retail seafood operation, he was also well equipped to supply that necessary steakhouse amenity, a raw bar.
Morrison has wound up with one of the better-looking dining rooms in Princeton, by Riscala Design (Nicholas in Red Bank, Daryl in New Brunswick), the ceiling ringed with naked Edison lightbulb reproductions. The bar, by far the best-looking in town, resembles walnut but is sleek, oxidized rolled steel.
Some of the most satisfying dishes involve seafood that has never touched a grill. I can still taste a Kumamoto oyster I had there—dense and creamy, with a milky-sweet finish underneath the gentle brine. And Witherspoon’s crab cake is better than the very good version offered at Blue Point Grill just down the road. It tastes like it’s made from pure jumbo lump meat, although the chef swears there are bread crumbs mixed in with the Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, horseradish, and lemon juice that bind the meat.
Morrison, who started his career stalking the stalls of the Fulton Street Fish Market before sunrise, hired chef Christian Graciano from Big Fish on Route 1 in Princeton to run Witherspoon’s kitchen. Graciano’s time at Big Fish served him well, judging from the deft chili beurre blanc he serves over a delectably flakey hunk of panko-crusted halibut. Don’t let the diminutive size of the sea scallops fool you—they pack plenty of flavor, though the kitchen needs to dial back the thick bacon vinaigrette they are doused in.
Graciano also has chops, so to speak, when it come to meat, thanks to a stint at Hamilton’s Grill Room in Lambertville. Silky filet mignon needed the side of serviceable béarnaise for flavor, but a veal T-bone was thick as a romance novel and just as juicy. They are not big on dry-aging at Witherspoon, which I was glad to see in this economy. The single dry-aged cut at Witherspoon is an unremarkable 14-ounce Delmonico, which, for $37, under-delivered on its promise of funky dry-aged flavor. A better bet is the un-aged Tajima Kobe sirloin from Australia. At $32 for 9 ounces, it’s buttery and beautifully marbled, with a perfect sear.
Witherspoon nails steakhouse staples such as onion soup, iceberg wedge with smoky bacon and pungent blue cheese, and shrimp cocktail, which makes the restaurant’s shortcomings all the more frustrating. Add cheese and bacon to the Witherspoon burger, and suddenly you’re paying $16 for a patty of unremarkable 80 percent lean/20 percent fat chuck. Mine was cooked through when ordered rare. And then there’s the gluey, cloying crab-and-cheese dip, which seems out of sync with everything but the sports on the TV above the bar.
It took gentle prodding on three occasions for servers to bring out everything we ordered. There were forgotten cocktails, espressos, and desserts. When we finally got them, desserts ranged from a tart and creamy Key lime pie to a watery mess of bananas Foster.
Witherspoon has adopted Blue Point’s annoying policy of refusing Friday and Saturday reservations in favor of a call-ahead system, whereby you phone to find out how long the wait will be. At least they’ll make you a mean martini behind that handsome bar while you wait for your table, and they’ve compiled an ancillary wine list of twenty bottles—including a light, fruity Tempranillo, and a very drinkable Sauvignon Blanc—for under $30 each. It’s hard to stay mad at any restaurant that does that.