Soon after taking our seats at a white-clothed table at the venerable Fromagerie in Rumson—with its signature curved bank of windows giving the dining room a rotunda effect both grand and intimate—we were greeted by a server offering a selection of warm rolls. Then another server delivered our perfectly fashioned Old Fashioneds, while yet another vividly described the night’s specials and the preparation of signature dishes. Were we in for a bevy of pleasures, or just a bevy of servers?
Three hours later, we pushed back our chairs feeling not just sated, but elated—an impression repeated at a second three-hour dinner a month later. It seemed clear, the storied Fromagerie—refurbished and redesigned after being closed nearly a year—is back.
Longtime fans will ask, which Fromagerie is back?
There were two, serially occupying the same circa-1900 Victorian mansion that houses the latest incarnation under its new owners, Rumson residents Paul and Enilda Sansone, owners of Sansone Auto Mall in Woodbridge.
The backstory in brief: In 1972, brothers Markus and Hubert Peter, German immigrants with restaurant experience, bought the mansion, which at some point had become a casual eatery called the Colony. They turned it into a bistro serving mainly fondues, crêpes and cheese boards, and called it, naturally enough, the Fromagerie. They soon added steaks, fish, French cuisine and a distinguished wine list.
The Fromagerie became a destination restaurant. One of its line cooks, a Hazlet teen named David Burke, adored the place and dreamed of one day owning it. In 2006, now a celebrity chef, Burke bought the Fromagerie and imbued it with his irreverent, haute-with-a-wink culinary style. For a short while it was great. But it faded and, drowning in business woes, Burke finally had to close in 2015.
In totally renovating the building, the Sansones kept the classic feel of the uniquely windowed main dining room and created a handsome, modern barroom beside it. For the first time, suit and tie are required in the main room on weekends, but they added a polished-yet-casual dining room and bar upstairs.
In food, the Sansones leapfrogged in reverse to revive the classy Huber brothers era. Lacking restaurant experience, the couple partnered with Steve Botta and Angelo Bongiovanni, lifelong friends from Brooklyn. Since 2011, they had opened two popular restaurants the Sansones admire: Brando’s Citi Cucina in Asbury Park and Osteria Cucina Rustica in Marlboro.
Botta, 48, is the new Fromagerie’s executive chef. He once was a mortgage and title-insurance broker. But having fallen in love with cooking at the side of his Italian-born mom, he finally abandoned suits and ties when he and Botta opened Brando’s in 2011. (“Cooking comes naturally to me,” he says. “I believe I was born with an innate ability.”) He and partner Bongiovanni won the Sansones’ approval, as Botta puts it, “to go back to the roots of being Continental, that classic French dining experience that was so common 35 years ago but has fallen by the wayside.”
The menu, well executed by chef de cuisine John Dougherty, isn’t strictly French. Steaks are back, all (except filet mignon) dry-aged 35 days. Botta limited himself to five pastas. But in every category, he says, “I don’t skimp on portion size. I guess that’s the Italian in me.”
Seared foie gras with poached pears in port-wine reduction was like meeting an old friend. Oysters Michael, a new acquaintance, instantly won us over. A recipe from Michael’s of Brooklyn, owned by Bongiovanni’s in-laws, it places plump, lightly battered fried oysters in their shells and bathes them in a memorable white wine, anchovy and butter sauce.
A bowl of old-school cheesy polenta came with a tureen of truffled mushroom fricassee. Whether I ate them singly or combined, they were so gratifying I could have walked away happy then and there.
But there was more to enjoy. The menu promised a classic Caesar prepared tableside. Ours was prepared across the room; it was the real deal nonetheless.
The only pasta we tried, potato-ricotta gnocchi, were as pillowy as could be and were served in a lovely tomato blush sauce mounded with lobster meat.
In entrées, tournedos Rossini was luxury incarnate—filet mignon topped with foie gras and black truffles in a rich Madeira sauce. Roasted Colorado rack of lamb was juicy and delicious, though the fingerling potatoes were undercooked and had to be returned to the kitchen. Crispy-skinned duck breast with cherry grappa sauce needed more grappa flavor to offset the sweetness of the fruit.
Fish dishes more than held their own, especially halibut oreganata, the moist fillet with breadcrumb crust enthroned on a complex stew of artichokes, clams, cherry tomatoes and potatoes. Whole bronzino stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat was equally striking to behold and rewarding to eat. Seared scallops came with an earthy risotto made with smoked bone marrow and topped with caviar and black-truffle shavings. At the new Fromagerie, truffles seem to turn up just about everywhere except dessert.
Pastry chef Andrea Petti makes a light yet sumptuous coconut layer cake. Bland sliced grapes and pears added nothing to an otherwise fine fruit tart featuring berries and Mandarin orange segments. For novel fun, it’s hard to top Botta’s Almond Frit, a variation on a treat he created at Brando’s. Here it’s a ball of vanilla ice cream coated with chopped almonds, deep-fried for a wicked crunch and served with honey-amaretto sauce.
The one thing that jostles the sophisticated sheen is the sentimental soundtrack piping in the Bee Gees, Barry Manilow and the like. The Fromagerie doesn’t need a throwback playlist to make classic fine dining relevant again.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $5-$19; salads, $12-$14; entrées and steaks, $34-$65; desserts, $12.
Ambience:Updated, upscale elegance.
Service:Informed, attentive, seamless.
Wine list:Full bar; about 500 wines by the bottle ($35-$450)