Foliage, flowers, twinkling lights and wrought iron border the outdoor terrace dining area at Clean Plate Kitchen, a restaurant that sits hard on the South Branch of the Raritan in Clinton, a pace or five from an old grist mill known as the Red Mill Museum.
It is a place apart from scenes commonly representing our compact, often congested state. My dining companion, who has lived a peripatetic life (Upper Midwest, New Zealand, Europe, Boston), says it seems much more rural New England than New Jersey.
That’s what I most love about Hunterdon County: It’s an integral part of the historic and original New Jersey outsiders tend to overlook.
It’s the perfect setting for a restaurant that wants to set itself apart.
Clean Plate Kitchen, owned and operated by Nicole and Anthony Piazza, aims to do right by food and the environment. It sources from Zone 7, the farm-to-table match-maker that connects chefs and retailers to all things agricultural in the Garden State. It offers vegan, gluten-free and special-diet options, and it leans organic. While there are animal products on the menu, including eggs, seafood and meats, those looking for vegan and vegetarian dishes would be hard-pressed to feel stinted.
Overall, I found most of what we sampled to be shy on spice. There are two grinders on every table, one with peppercorns and another with Himalayan pink sea salt. I used both. While I admire the mission of Clean Plate Kitchen, I wish the Piazzas would feel more comfortable about teaching diners how to season and accent and enlighten with herbs and spices.
That said, the quinoa “bites,” which appear like giant brown meatballs on a colorful Fiesta ware-style plates, were brightened by a pretty red pepper coulis – a coulis that, yes, could’ve been jazzed up by a shot of red pepper flakes or potent chopped herbs. No rush of excitement here, but good food.
Fried tomatillos, crispy and clean, were drizzled with a yogurt sauce yielding a hint of chipotle and a crumble of bacon. Up the smoky quotient a notch, and the dish would sing.
If you’re looking for a slightly bigger kick, try the pickled vegetables from Locktown Farm that are served with a pickled Griggstown Farm egg for good measure. In a Garden Club Luncheon mood? Try the egg salad dressed with olive oil and lemon, plated with a chop of tomatoes and greens, and mounded atop quinoa. Then crown yourself the Protein Queen.
My favorite Clean Plate Kitchen dish is the goofily titled Yum, Yum, Gimme Some: It’s a chock-full bowl of chickpeas and collards, onions and chard, mushrooms and quinoa studded with raisins. Bound by a coconut curry sauce that warmed the legume-vegetable-grain combo, it showed how a judicious touch of seasoning can coax flavor from basic ingredients.
The almond-crusted cod fillet held promise, but it was overcooked and, again, needed a punch of spice. As did the accompanying garden of roasted produce, that included eggplant, peppers, yellow squash and onions. The side “salsa” of strawberries and blueberries failed to connect to the fish.
Desserts sampled had technical flaws. Double chocolate brownies are gluten-free and pasty, sweetened by dates and applesauce and purportedly given the lift of mint. I tasted something grassy, but not minty. Chia seed pudding with blueberries was flavorless, a sort of tapioca pocked by discordant crunchy elements.
Clean Plate Kitchen is providing fare that serves a purpose and a specific audience. Can the folks here up their flavor game and still serve both?
Clean Plate Kitchen, 49 Main Street in Clinton. BYO. Lunch and dinner daily, except Tuesdays. 908-200-7610. cleanplateclinton.com.Click here to leave a comment