Still Peachy on its Silver Jubilee

The Frog and the Peach has been among the state’s best restaurants for 25 years. Meet the visionary couple behind this long-running hit.

Photos: Christopher Villano

Betsy Alger is no screaming tyrant, but for 25 years she has run the Frog and the Peach with a firm hand. Her onetime executive chef David Drake still remembers the day he arrived at the New Brunswick restaurant to discover the steel door to the walk-in refrigerator covered from top to bottom with a scolding—penned by Alger—for a sous-chef who had improperly replaced some stock. It was the sous- chef’s second day at the restaurant, and Drake had the dishwashers scrub off the felt-tip writing—earning him a reprimand from his boss.

Alger and her husband, Jim Black, are celebrating the silver anniversary of the Frog and the Peach this summer. For a restaurant to come this far is rare; for it to remain among the best in the state after a quarter of a century is almost unheard of. Some simply do not want to believe it. “People are always trying to discredit us,” Alger says. “They say, ‘It can’t possibly be any good, it’s been around too long.’”

The Frog and the Peach has survived civic battles, economic downturns, and an embezzling employee to serve an untold number of guests. It also has served as the spawning ground for many of the era’s most heralded chefs and was central to New Brunswick’s emergence as a dining haven.

The restaurant was Black’s idea, and he is the reason it is still physically standing. He is behind the look and feel of the Frog and the Peach, but Alger is responsible for everything else. She was the first executive chef, and although she stopped cooking in 1988, it would be difficult to overstate her influence. Her current titles—proprietor and director of operations—reflect the philosophy she has had from the start: It’s her restaurant, and she is in charge.

Alger has eaten lunch at the restaurant almost every day for the past 25 years and sits down for dinner in the dining room at least once a week, keeping a sharp eye on the food and the service. “The other day I had an overcooked frittata that I couldn’t believe came from our kitchen,” she says, noting that she is not afraid to send back her own food.

Black has horticulture and environmental science degrees and Alger has a degree in plant science, but it was a restaurant that brought them together. The scene was a New Brunswick tavern called Doll’s Place, where Alger was a server and Black was a regular. He was 32 when they met in 1977, commuting from New Brunswick to Princeton, where he worked as a landscape architect. Alger was six years younger and working in a plant store when she was not waiting tables or studying at Rutgers for her horticulture teaching certificate. They married in 1980. By then Black was tired of his job and talking about opening a restaurant.

Soon after, Alger enrolled in the New York Restaurant School. The program was designed to teach entrepreneurial skills as well as roasting and braising. The chefs who taught her were acolytes of Alice Waters and the movement out of California that emphasized fresh, local ingredients and flavor combinations that allowed them to shine. The future chef of the Frog and the Peach knew exactly what she wanted: “American food. Not continental cuisine, not French, not Italian. Fresh, clean, and innovative.”

Several years earlier, Black had been bought out of his first New Brunswick apartment building to make way for Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters. With the money from the sale, he purchased an old industrial complex facing Route 18. Black planned to open a restaurant there named for a Dudley Moore comedy routine about an eatery that served only peaches and frogs. This time New Brunswick bought him out, clearing the way for the Hyatt Hotel. Anxious to get started on a restaurant, Black sank the money from that sale into 29 Dennis Street, a small industrial building just a few blocks away in Hiram Square.

In the late 1970s, Johnson & Johnson was threatening to pack its bags unless New Brunswick cleaned up its act. Once again, New Brunswick wanted Black to move. What followed was an epic battle in which the city used every tactic imaginable, including having Hiram Square removed from the state historical register to clear the way for demolition. This time Black fought eviction—and prevailed. The rest of the neighborhood was eventually demolished; the Frog and the Peach stood with one other restaurant and a synagogue in a bulldozed wasteland. 

Today the restaurant looks very much a piece of its rejuvenated neighborhood, hemmed in by quaint brick townhouses, and just one block from the Highlands, a luxury condo complex where a one-bedroom goes for $1,650 a month. The building at 29 Dennis Street once housed the printing presses for New Brunswick’s local paper, the Home News, and later became a suitcase-handle factory. The space was key to Black. He began with a blank slate, gutting the interior and painting the exposed- brick walls a stark, marble white.
The interior has grown with its owners, from the original post-industrial chic to the lived-in, homey feel the restaurant has today. The walls—still the same exposed brick—are a muted beige. The restaurant looks meticulously cluttered, like a carefully curated collection of artifacts accumulated over the last 25 years. Which is exactly what it is. 

The first thing you notice as you walk in the door is the trio of light fixtures suspended from the second-story ceiling that hang down over the first-floor bar. Designed by one of the many architects that Black has hired over the years, they look like giant air ducts cast in translucent gold that simultaneously fill and magnify the open space above the bar. The framework is aluminum and the skin is made of spandex. Matching gold disks hang over the dining room behind the bar and the smaller wine room behind it, visual echoes that draw your eye back through the space. 

There are 90 seats in the original building spread across five dining spaces, each with its own texture and feel. The most requested spot in the restaurant is table 51, perched at the top of the stairs on the lower balcony where all the tables have a bird’s- eye view of the bar. Behind the balcony is an elevated banquet room that sits over the cozy wine room and the kitchen. The glassed-in garden room attached to the building holds approximately 40 seats. It was an open patio before Black added a trellis, then walls, and finally a full enclosure and a gleaming radiant-heated marble floor that allows it to stay open in all but the coldest months.  

One architect came up with a scheme to “casualize” the bar, which was often empty in the restaurant’s early days thanks to a lack of music and the proximity to the hushed atmosphere of the dining rooms. The idea—proof that you should be wary of anyone who uses “casual” as a verb—was to install a series of wooden frogs, approximately 2-feet high, at intervals along the bar, and fake reeds with illuminated blown-glass tops to make the space look busy and inviting. And it would have worked—if people went to bars for the company of giant wooden frogs. The first customer balked at the display as he came through the door. “What is this?” he asked. “Voodoo night?” The holes Black had drilled in his treasured bar have been plugged; the frogs and reeds have been relegated to his attic. 

The bar is somewhat noisier these days. Five years ago, the Frog and the Peach added a casual bistro menu that is served at the bar and throughout the restaurant during dinner. It includes paté, grilled venison sausage, and an excellent hanger steak with chimichurri sauce and a pile of bitter greens balanced by sweet red peppers. Bartender Christian Hanson, who draws a crowd of regulars, is another reason things are busy. 

When the Frog and the Peach opened on June 7, 1983, the menu—composed in Alger’s careful, even hand—described the kind of simple, green market-driven cuisine that was clearly ahead of its time. That was an era when reviewers had to explain that pancetta was salt pork and chanterelles were mushrooms.

The original menu had a heavy emphasis on domestic products—Hunterdon County goat cheese on an arugula salad, New Hampshire cob smoked ham with asparagus, and a California zinfandel sauce on beef tenderloin instead of the requisite French wine sauce. David Drake, who as a 24-year-old “dinner chef” helped open the restaurant, remembers the early preparations as simple to a fault. The fish on the opening menu was sautéed salmon with dill butter and a parsley garnish. The sides were the same on almost every dish: turned potatoes and a medley of seasonal vegetables, julienned and sautéed. Today there is rice flake-crusted arctic char with morels, corn, and squash blossoms in a pinot noir sauce.

For reviewers of the period, the biggest qualm was the price point. The Frog and the Peach has always been an expensive restaurant. In 1983, $15 was a hefty price for that beef tenderloin. Still, by the time the New York Times awarded the Frog and the Peach two stars in October of its first year, the restaurant had become a dining destination, attracting an increasingly far-flung crowd. There was an element of adventure to a trip there, thanks to what the Home News generously described as the “sociological contrast” between the restaurant and its surroundings. “I think it helped us,” Black insists. “There were people who felt very brave for coming here.”

In those pre-cell phone days, the pay phone in the restaurant’s vestibule served as the neighborhood phone line and the people living in the tenement across the street would prop open the outer door to hear “their” phone when it rang. Mild-mannered, soft-spoken Jim Black, who still insists that he misses the old neighborhood, has a scar on his palm from the night he ripped the handset out of the wall, slicing his hand open in the process. “Remember those vandal-proof metal cords?” he laughs, showing me his hand.

On opening night, some neighbors across the street decided to “move” and began throwing their furniture from the top story window into the street below. Black was standing by the restaurant’s door as a party of what he describes as “pinhead Princeton people” walked to their car. “Oh, look!” one woman exclaimed. “Street theater!” Residents of Dennis Street were less amused by the restaurant’s customers. “There was a lot of resentment from the people in the neighborhood because the restaurant was this polished jewel in a desolate area,” Drake recalls. 

Prices being what they are, the Frog and the Peach has always attracted an affluent crowd. On any given night you might find Johnson & Johnson executives entertaining clients, college professors congratulating a colleague on a published paper, a young couple celebrating an anniversary or a new job. Everyone is well dressed; most look over 50. Alger insists that they feed everyone from the drug reps to “the tattoo crowd.” There is no jacket requirement at the restaurant and  no ban on denim. The official dress code reads: “Come however you are most comfortable.” 

In 1988 Drake moved on, and Alger took the opportunity to step out of the kitchen. By then, she and Black had had a son, Dylan, born in 1985. (Two daughters, Hannah and Emily, would follow.) Alger promoted her sous chef, resulting in what she admits was a low point in the cuisine. Two years later Drake was hired back, this time as executive chef. “The food had lost its focus,” Drake says. He initiated a back-to-basics movement in the kitchen, brought in cooks from New York, and took up the slack that his former sous chef had left behind. He also persuaded Black to build larger tabletops in order to accommodate larger plates (the size the restaurant uses today). That gave the kitchen a broader canvas for more ambitious pairings and platings.

It paid off. In a rave New York Times review, which conferred an “excellent” on the restaurant (the equivalent of three stars), reviewer Valerie Sinclair described Drake as “one of the best chefs in New Jersey.” Today Drake’s eponymous restaurant in Rahway is one of the finest in the state, and he is co-owner and executive chef at Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant in New Brunswick, named best new restaurant in this issue’s “Readers’ Choice Restaurant Poll” (see page 55).

The Frog and the Peach has a reputation as New Jersey’s version of the River Café, the restaurant under the Brooklyn Bridge that turned out chefs like David Burke, Charlie Palmer, and Larry Forgione. Alger’s former chefs credit her with teaching them how to run not just a kitchen but a restaurant, and it is telling how many of them have gone on to do exactly that. Stanley Novack, who took over when Drake left for good in 1992, is now the chef/owner of the Harvest Moon Inn in Ringoes. Eric Hambrecht, who followed a few years later, is now executive chef and partner at the Stage House in Scotch Plains. Earlier this year Alger was elected chairwoman of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, the first time in its history that a woman has held that position. Her appointment made it official: She’s the grande dame of New Jersey fine dining.

In person, Alger is polite and reserved, soft-spoken, slightly self-conscious. But quote a bad review and there is a flash in her eyes that reminds you that this woman has kept a top-notch restaurant alive for a quarter of a century. At one point during our first conversation, her husband interrupted a story she was telling with a tangentially related anecdote about a recent trip he had taken. Sensing his wife’s icy stare, he cut himself short and apologized. Alger cleared her throat and continued.

She is a perfectionist and a tireless worker, and she holds her staff to high standards. In the early days, she often addressed workers’ mistakes by writing notes for all to see on the kitchen wall. “Betsy Alger,” says Hambrecht, “is not the easiest person to work for.”

Alger has overseen every menu the restaurant has ever offered, and although she religiously reads trade publications and dines out to stay on top of trends, the evolution of the food has had more to do with her tastes and inclinations than culinary fads.

Still, there have been certain concessions to an increasingly health-conscious clientele. In 1996, a circle next to a menu listing of steamed salmon in a lemongrass, coriander, and ginger broth signified that the dish was made without butter or cream. There was another symbol for vegetarian dishes, and during the low-carb craze, yet another designation was added for Atkins-friendly food. “It got to be overkill after a while,” Alger admits. The menu annotations are no longer with us, but the kitchen can change dishes on the fly to accommodate everything from celiac disease to veganism.

“I never would have imagined raw fish on our menu,” Alger says, which is ironic because the tuna sashimi is the longest-running item, offered as an appetizer since 1992. The compact mound of creamy fish is topped with crunchy, salty tobiko and a sprig of fresh mint, and served in a lemongrass broth with thinly sliced cucumber and red onion laid out like the petals of a flower. The dish outlasted its creator, Vincent Barcelona, who was briefly the executive chef in the mid-1990s. “He had some great items in his menu repertoire,” Alger says, “but he didn’t have a lot beyond that.” 

The executive chef today is Bruce Lefebvre, who started his career at the restaurant as a line cook fresh out of the Culinary Institute of America. He is mild mannered outside the kitchen, but when I mention that impression to Alger, she laughs. “Bruce has his moments,” she says. Recently, the chef petitioned her to add to the menu an octopus salad with celery, radicchio di Treviso, white beans, spicy red wine vinaigrette, and pimientos de Padrón. Alger was hesitant but it went on the menu on a Friday and was the biggest-selling appetizer over the weekend.

Alger seems happy to report her chef’s occasional willfulness, perhaps because running the kitchen of an iconic 25-year-old restaurant is no small task (for a full review, see page 102). Lefebvre has to keep things interesting enough to draw new business without straying too far. It is a fine line to walk.

Contemporary dining is moving inexorably toward small plates, but portions at the Frog and the Peach remain plus-sized to accommodate the regulars, some of whom have been coming from the start, and who still come in for just one course. Alger still has a hand in the menu, but her conversations with her chef are largely conceptual. Most of what she does is dovetailing—making sure that when duck breast with goat-cheese polenta and muscat grapes is on the dinner menu, a warm salad of duck confit is on the bistro menu to make use of the leg meat from the whole ducks they have to buy. Lefebvre’s personal influences can be seen in the way he updates the simple, classic dishes the restaurant has served from the start. His wife is from Mexico City, and there is cojita cheese sprinkled on a meltingly tender filet of beef instead of the de rigueur blue, and the sweet potato purée it is served with has the subtle kick and smoke of chipotle. 

The kitchen staff is made up entirely of recent culinary-school grads, most of whom have been there less than two years. Starting with her connections at the Art Institute of New York City, Alger has created a training ground for young talent coming out of area schools. “They show up at twelve even though we don’t start paying them until two,” Lefebvre says of the cooks working under him today. “They’re hungry, and they have a passion for what they’re doing that you don’t see in people who just work the line.” 

A quarter of a century has brought plenty of hard times for the Frog and the Peach. The previous recession did not help, and an embezzling employee nearly put the restaurant out of business in the early 1990s. The last five years have been the hardest. Alger cites the saturation of the New Brunswick fine-dining scene and New Jersey’s abysmal financial state. “Every time you turn around there’s a new tax disguised as a fee of some sort,” she says. Rising energy costs and the recent economic downturn have not helped. In the last six months, enough diners have opted for the bistro menu at dinner to lower the average check total.

In 2007 the owners installed solar panels, which produce 25% of the restaurant’s energy needs. But installation was more expensive than anticipated, and by the time the system was in place, the state-sponsored incentive had been drastically reduced. Ultimately, the decrease in the energy bill was negated by the cost of the system. “We just spent the money differently to show our politics,” Alger says.
Have they considered selling? “Every single day,” Alger and Black respond, almost in unison. But they both possess that strain of masochism unique to people in the restaurant business that has them thinking about opening another place even as they ponder selling the successful business they have built. Still, the difference in their ages is starting to show.

When I meet him for the first time, Black, now 60, has just returned from Mexico, where he was looking at homes in Mérida. He continues to meet with architects about the Frog and the Peach and tinkers with the design, but he is clearly not as involved. Alger, 53, says she has a few more years of work in her—and plenty of messages on her machine from developers. The right project has not come along yet, but she will not rule out anything.

So how about putting frogs and peaches on the menu? “We have put frog legs on the menu before,” says Alger, “but they just don’t taste that good. They need lots of garlic and butter, and even then they’re not worth the effort. And I don’t think garlic and peaches would sell.”

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Eat & Drink articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.

Required
Required not shown
Required not shown

Advertisement