First Bite: Cargot

A hearty welcome to a delicious and promising new Princeton brasserie.

The torch is one tool in the trilogy employed at Cargot Brasserie to yield a depth of smoke in a vegetarian cassoulet—typically associated with meats that have done serious time over wood in a pit manned by a master. Here at Cargot, there’s not just torching, but toasting and the applewood smoking of a surprising ingredient that makes a dish, containing mostly beans, grains and vegetables, fit to compete on the barbecue circuit.

Before we talk more things French at this real-deal brasserie that opened mid-summer in Princeton, let’s figure out this cassoulet.

It starts innocently enough on the menu: Bean & Grain Cassoulet, billed to come with melted leeks, mushrooms and a Brie brulee. Tempting, right?

Bean & Grain Cassoulet

The grains are farro—that’s been toasted before cooking, giving the chewy wheat nibs smoky notes—and nutty quinoa. Beans are a tango of cannellini and black-eyed peas, which are inherently earthy. Mushrooms, including trumpet royals, oysters and shiitakes, have a sear on their edges that mimic the sear on barbecued meat. Leeks clearly are cooked low and slow; they do indeed melt into the mix. Slices of brie are torched, then stirred at the last minute into the stew, further layering the smokiness. But here’s the kicker: tofu—tofu that’s been smoked by applewood before being added to the mix. There’s a backdrop of a good vegetable stock as well as peppery olive oil and butter in this cassoulet, which makes it one of the best improvs of the classic from Southwestern France I’ve ever eaten.

The take-aways from it are many: Do smoke your tofu and don’t be shy about stuffing it into a dish that demands meat; toast those grains, toast those grains is both cheer and mantra; vary the cooking techniques (quick-sear, flame-torch and slow-cook each bring nuance); mix up the binders—stock, oil and butter—to add interest to the layering. The whole shebang left me believing there are deeply smart concepts and cooking by chef Alex Spitale and his sous chef Dennis Hong at play in this kitchen that are part of a big-picture plan to show what a French brasserie circa the 21st century can be.

Cargot is the baby in Jim Nawn’s Princeton-based Fenwick Hospitality family that includes Agricola and The Dinky; all are fed by Fenwick’s Great Road Farm in Skillman. The menu shifts seasonally, but you can count on signature offerings (escargot, charcuterie, an evolving raw bar) and a plat du jour that I hope is as sincere, and polished, and deeply delicious as the textbook bouillibaisse was on a recent Wednesday evening.

Bouillibaisse

The frisee and pork belly salad gave credence to the new dictum that if everything edible is better with bacon, it’s mind-bogglingly marvelous with the addition of a poached egg. And speaking of eggs: Why not a quail egg as sidekick to a rough-chop beef tartare that takes chances by pumping some heat into the normally mild mix and swiping very dark, grainy mustard on the wood board it’s served on—a departure from all that ho-hum, time-honored stuff, and a step into the realm of the what-if and the why-not?

Frisee and pork belly salad

Hence, the cassoulet, as well as skate treated not as tradition would have it by a subtle application of butter plus a squirt of lemon, but as a worthy partner for a rasher of early-fall kale, lots and lots of capers, and oodles of spaghetti squash amped up by pepper.

Skate

The only miss on this first date with Cargot was a sweet that had an oddly off-tasting sugariness to it, the strawberry bombe of a crème fraiche-based sorbet stuffed with a nugget of passionfruit and set on a meringue ringed by a fruit compote headlined by underripe blackberries. Much better was a seasons-bridging peach tart fortified by copious amounts of brown butter and topped with a scoop of honey ice cream, spiced almonds and a squiggle of caramel.

Peach tart

I want to return for what I saw of the raw bar that the mindful service crew carried to other tables, for the duck confit and the mushroom tartin, for the braised lamb and the already-famous chocolate souffle. I must come back on Fridays for the lobster thermidor and on Tuesdays for the moules frites. I crave a reprise of the Cuilleron viognier from the northern Rhone Valley in France, which is the perfect wine for Cargot’s food, as well as my long-beloved gamay noir from Chapelle de Bois in Beaujolais that we did not get to have. Cargot offers a super-intelligent wine list, with a brew selection at a similar level and a short-stack offering of cocktails that includes locally hatched drinks attuned to the menu.

Cargot, welcome to New Jersey. I cannot wait to get to know you better.

Cargot Brasserie, 98 University Place in Princeton. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 609-772-4934; cargotbrasserie.com.

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