Thomas Drake III, a self-described “fanatic about French onion soup,” says he rarely orders it because “a lot of times I end up disappointed.” I know the feeling. Too often you get a Pandora’s Bowl of over-salted broth, bitter onions, and rubbery cheese.
I had forgotten how fabulous this peasant potage can be until I tasted Drake’s version at Christopher’s, the upscale restaurant in the 10-month-old Heldrich Hotel. He does tweak tradition, though for the better—melting bleu cheese and a little mozzarella on top along with the more customary Swiss. The striking bleu, from Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, keeps the crown soft and runny and offsets the sweetness of the deeply caramelized onions. “I let the onions cook slowly, for hours,” Drake says. “The key is not to try to brown them too quick.”
There should be a better word than broth for the cosseting blend of veal and chicken stocks and port wine that gives the soup its backbone. All this would be enough, but Drake adds “my own little twist”—mad-tender bits of braised short rib.
Drake’s attention to detail gives his best creations a memorable depth of flavor. Another terrific soup is seafood chowder, which has Goldilocks texture (not too thick, not too thin), and moist cubes of fresh fish lurking beneath the macro delights of mussels, potatoes, and bacon lardons.The Heldrich, a high-profile project with a separate condo tower, is bucking to be the sleek and swank centerpiece of downtown New Brunswick’s resurgence. Drake, a Philadelphia-trained chef (unrelated to David Drake, whose new wine bar, Daryl, recently opened in the same building as the Heldrich), was plucked from semi-obscurity to run the kitchen at Christopher’s. The talented 31-year-old helped make the Dining Room in the Short Hills Hilton a place for serious food. (It closed after he left, but not on account of his leaving.) A big-name chef might not have agreed to come aboard, as Drake did, after the kitchen was already designed and built. (We’re a long way from mom-and-pop here: the Heldrich is a partnership of Benchmark Hospitality, based in Houston, and Devco, the New Brunswick Development Corporation. A Chicago design firm was hired to propose names and logos. “Christopher’s” won mainly because “it just sounded good,” says Heldrich general manager Mike Taylor.) The attraction for Drake was the opportunity to create his own menus from his own recipes for the first time in his career.
Speaking of names, the menu on my first visit featured pan-seared corvina, a saltwater fish of the croaker or drum family, which makes corvina sound positively lyrical. It was delicious (a little like snapper). The filet sat on a cake of paella rice with an irresistible browned crust, surrounded by chunks of sauteed chorizo in a smoked-paprika broth (there’s that inadequate word again) made with fish stock and finished with a little butter. An exciting and perfectly composed dish. Regrettably, it fell off the menu in the transition to a different structure a few days later.
That new menu structure is both simpler and more complicated. Simpler in that the fish and meat are listed in a straightforward way, with simpler accompaniments. A grilled filet mignon served on the bone was exemplary in flavor and tenderness. Salmon poached at low temperature in lemon-infused olive oil was velvety, and gained a seductive sweetness from strips of lemon peel confit in simple syrup. Braised pork shoulder was rich, tender, and redolent of fresh sage.
But the new menu is complicated by its long list of à la carte sauces and sides. You need a Rutgers math prof to figure all the permutations of various entrees with ten different sauces ($3 each, served in a little pitcher), eight potato or rice dishes ($7), and eight veggie sides ($8), the latter two handsomely presented in oval black iron cocottes.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern