Rarely has a restaurant met its goals as fast as Agricola, which opened in March in the space that for 91 years housed Princeton’s hallowed Lahiere’s. Owner Jim Nawn has kept the vintage, vertical Lahiere’s sign on the facade, but no one will mistake the convivial farm-to-table “community eatery,” in Nawn’s words, for the landmark French restaurant. That Agricola’s 200 seats—in six handsome, rustically hip spaces—have been filled virtually since day one tells you how well Nawn and executive chef Josh Thomsen have hit their marks right out of the gate.
You can sense that without even stepping inside. In the gutting and redesign, the kitchen was moved, at Thomsen’s request, from the back to the very front. A picture window now separates it from the sidewalk, where a gaggle of gawkers usually watches the chefs and crew turn seasonal ingredients—many from Nawn’s farm four miles down the road—into food reflecting the same refined yet rustic sensibility as the decor.
Nawn, 47, knows restaurants well, but not this kind. From 1999 to 2010, his Fenwick Hospitality Group built and ran 37 Panera Bread franchises in North and Central New Jersey. His journey beyond fast-casual began in 2007, when he and his wife, Ann, an equestrian therapist, bought 112 acres of dormant, preserved farmland on Great Road in Skillman and built a barn and riding arenas to further her work. He planted a garden.
In 2010, having fulfilled “our build commitment” to Panera, Nawn sold the eateries and let his imagination roam. Wanting to understand fine dining, he enrolled in an eight-month cooking and management program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. It culminated with an externship at the Michelin-starred Veritas in New York. The first tool he was handed was a mop. “I spent three days just peeling Brussels sprouts,” he told me in an interview after my visits. Bottom line? “Cooking is not my passion.” But his vision of an upscale yet down-to-earth, farm-to-table restaurant began to take form.
Nawn, who grew up outside Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a plastics entrepreneur, needed a chef, and he found a fine one who just happens to be a Jersey native. Thomsen, 42, grew up in Woodcliff Lake, graduated from the CIA and spent most of his career in the West Coast kitchens of luminaries like Michael Mina, Joachim Splichal and Thomas Keller. In 2005, he opened Tao at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. During his two-year stint, it became the highest grossing restaurant in the country.
Agricola marks a change for Thomsen as well. Tao and his next stop, the Claremont Resort in Berkeley (where starchefs.com named him a 2010 Rising Star Hotel Chef), were huge operations. At Agricola, by contrast, “we start from scratch every day,” he told me. “The only freezer we have is for the ice cream we make here.”
Thomsen didn’t come east alone. He brought with him Manlee Siu, his chef de cuisine the last four years, to take that crucial post at Agricola. "She truly is my right hand," he attests, "my best ingredient in every dish!"
Their menu is refreshing in its simplicity and focus: roughly eight starters and a like number of mains and desserts. Thomsen’s cod fritters (he called them “my ode” to New Englander Nawn) look like three golden golf balls. The light crunch of barely-there beer batter yields to a soufflé-like filling of salt cod poached in milk and puréed to creaminess with white potatoes. Shaved raw fennel adds a bracing cleanness and more crunch. Oven-dried plum tomatoes contribute intensity and a crimson contrast to this brilliant opener.
Strozzapreti pasta with spring onions, English peas and wild arugula was one of my favorite entrées. The dried tomatoes also worked their magic here, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano, the sweet, firm peas and the gentle astringency of the arugula. The vegetables and even the pasta shape will change as summer ushers in the bounty from the five acres of Great Road Farm under cultivation. (Tip of the hat to farm manager Steve Tomlinson.) But this debut pasta bodes well.
Another fine entrée, a vegetarian mushroom and farro stew with kale, small turnips and mild but flavorful harissa, came chock full of exotic, unparalleled fungi from Princeton’s Shibumi Farms, notably its lemon oyster mushrooms. (Lemon refers to this firm mushroom’s color, not its flavor, which is richly earthy, a perfect match for the nutty farro.) The farro, like most of Agricola’s grains and beans, is cooked in vegetable stock. The dish was a triumph of nuanced flavors and textures. So were three big, beautifully caramelized Cape May dayboat scallops on cauliflower purée, each capped with a salty-sweet, golden raisin-caper relish.
Another option sure to evolve with the seasons is the $43 three-course Farmhouse Menu. The night I ordered it, the starter was a lovely salad of Little Gem lettuce (think baby romaine) in a deftly assertive blue cheese dressing. Next came a grilled flatiron steak, served rare, as ordered. The cut’s characteristic tenderness and full beefy flavor came through undimmed, with a schmear of green garlic gremolata providing complexity. Nicely roasted fingerlings and buttery sautéed spinach and escarole completed the dish.
The prix-fixe finale—a big, dense, fudge brownie with vanilla ice cream, festooned with candied walnuts and freshly popped corn, drizzled with chocolate and caramel—had my companions abandoning their own desserts. These, from pastry chef Sarah Hecksteden, recruited from the highly regarded Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, tended to be mild-mannered to a fault.
I love eggs, yet those from the Great Road Farm hens were unaccountably bland—for example, in a starter of poached egg with boiled red potatoes over a thick mushroom flatbread from Agricola’s wood-burning oven. The unpleasantly chewy flatbread tasted underbaked, and not even the truffle vinaigrette could effect a rescue. A few dishes, including that flatbread, were under-seasoned. An Eden Farms pork chop, cooked sous vide and finished on the grill, was a tad dry and wan until you got close to the bone.
Agricola’s wobbles are the kind that can be smoothed out as a new venture takes flight. The concept and the conviction behind it, while not groundbreaking, are strong. Service improved notably over my visits.
Thomsen’s creamy yet dairy-free parsnip soup streaked with cashew purée can win you back in a heartbeat. In spring, Hecksteden’s roasted apricot teff cake was another winning surprise. Teff, from North Africa, is one of several gluten-free grains the kitchen deploys quietly and effectively.
It’s gratifying to see this historic space spring so vividly back to life in an incarnation that resonates with its past even as it plants its feet firmly in the 21st century.Click here to leave a comment
Agricola11 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, NJ 08540
Hours:Closed Mondays in August & Labor Day;
5:00-11:00pm Friday & Saturday;
Opening until late