In a courtyard at the end of a narrow, brick-and-pebble alley in quaint Lambertville stands a 23-year-old restaurant with fresh buzz. Jim Hamilton, the owner of Hamilton’s Grill Room, is also the father of New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton, whose culinary memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, was a recent bestseller and literary tour de force. Earlier this year, by the front door, across from an enticing iced display of the day’s seafood and marbled meats, were stacked copies of Blood, Bones and Butter and some of the acclaimed Canal House cookbooks created by Gabrielle’s sister, Melissa Hamilton, and collaborator Christopher Hirsheimer. For awhile, the sign at the restaurant entrance had appended to it a tongue-in-cheek note identifying the Hamilton of Hamilton’s Grill Room as “Gabrielle’s dad.”
In other hands, this sort of filial promotion might seem tacky, but at the Grill Room, proud papa’s plugs go down as smoothly as the oysters, so charming is the atmosphere, so welcoming the staff. Sitting on a banquette, with a view to your left of the Delaware River canal and a view dead ahead of the open kitchen and executive chef Mark Miller manning the charcoal grill, you wouldn’t have to be aware that Jim Hamilton has designed a number of restaurants (including the Boathouse just across the courtyard) to know that this one had been put together by a pro.
Hamilton, previously a theatrical set designer, says he decided to try the restaurant business because “restaurants just seemed like the closest thing: They’re romantic spaces; there’s a lot of performance.” It’s no accident that the dining area of the Grill Room, enclosed by bucolic murals, feels like a stage set; in 1990 Hamilton designed a set in Washington for Arthur Miller’s play The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and afterward hired the artist who had painted the onstage murals to reproduce them in the Lambertville restaurant he had bought in 1988.
Looking back, Hamilton admits that, when he took over what had been Gerard’s, “I didn’t know anything about restaurants, but I knew I could make it look good, and I knew that if the food was good people would come.” Working with Melissa, Hamilton decided the ideal was the kind of simple, homey cooking the French call bonne femme, but with American and international flavors.
Today’s grilled shrimp in anchovy butter, the Grill Room’s signature dish, is a case in point. Simple as can be, it would be boring if any of its elements lagged. But night after night you get sweetness from the shrimp, smoke from the grill and satisfying salt from the anchovies. Because the shrimp haven’t been peeled, you also get your hands pleasantly messy.
“Diamonds and burlap” is how Hamilton describes the restaurant’s cuisine. Grilled cowboy steak with bordelaise sauce and crisp onions comes medium-rare, as ordered, with a supremely satisfying sauce made from simmering oxtail in veal stock. In the spring, generous slices of black truffle are slipped under the skin of chickens from Griggstown Quail Farm. The resulting aroma of the dish (just $25, despite the famous fungus) is as strong as truffle oil, but the flavor is infinitely better. On one visit we saw an older gentleman sitting alone at the counter, which faces the grill. He was patiently consuming half a truffled chicken and a side of pommes frites while watching Miller work. Dining alone never looked so appealing.
Grilled sweetbreads with guanciale (cured pork jowl, an Italian specialty similar to bacon) came on a skewer. The grilling highlighted the sweetbreads’ silky texture and added a welcome hit of smoke. Creamed leeks served over seared salmon had a brilliant dollop of brie, meaning more creaminess, more salt, a hint of cheese funk. Rack of lamb has been on the menu for years, but, though it was always good, the new touch of delectable garlic jus turned it into one of our favorite dishes, worth the $36 price tag.
Our favorite special was porkbelly pizza with mild Chinese barbeque sauce. We watched it sizzle in an adobe oven Hamilton himself built some 20 years ago at his mill in New Hope.
Miller credits new manager Reed Apaghian, hired in January 2010, for the front-of-the-house smoothness that’s enabled him to spend more time in the kitchen. Grilled whole branzino, a longtime staple, now comes with a sweet soy glaze inspired, Miller says, by eel sushi. The glaze is subtle, enhancing rather than overpowering the deliciously fatty fish. Served atop a crispy cucumber salad with diced red peppers to echo the sweetness, this may be the tastiest thing on the menu, although at $39 it is also one of the most expensive.
Desserts, though hardly cutting edge, are very good. Flourless chocolate espresso cake is dense, intense. Brioche-custard bread pudding, another standout, is creamy and comforting, flecked with sun-dried cherries steeped in Grand Marnier. For those with less of a sweet tooth, grappa torte with grapes makes an excellent scone-like nibble with the restaurant’s rich coffee.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Greek/Mediterranean