Chef’s have been fiddling with mac and cheese for years, but perhaps no one has come as close to reinventing it as a fun finger food as executive chef Ryan Anderson of INC in New Brunswick.
Anderson’s $9 mac-and-cheese bites come to the table as a row of four crunchy, deep-fried cubes. Dip one into the perfect running mate of smoked tomato aioli and, under the happy crunch, revel in the melty flow of aged-cheddar sauce amid toothsome macaroni.
Shrimp and grits, a Low Country classic that chefs love to monkey with, comes in for some thoughtful attention. Anderson stirs smoked cheddar into the hot grits, serves a tomato-herb broth on the side and paints the plump shrimp with a zesty creation he calls Kentuckyaki glaze, made from hoisin sauce, honey, jalapeños, spices and bourbon, mixed, then aged.
Another apt twist is applied to skate wing. Lightly battered, INC’s “country-fried” skate had the texture and subtle sweetness of scallop or crab. Roasted peppers and caramelized squash enhanced the sweetness, while the slight bitterness of creamed arugula and kale balanced the scale, and shrimp-chorizo gravy added a welcome touch of spice.
By our second visit, that dish had been replaced by country-fried cod. (Anderson changes the menu at least quarterly.) Served with health salad, corn fritters, truffle honey and remoulade sauce, it, too, was excellent, if more a spin on English fish and chips.
INC, which opened just over a year ago, may have broken the string of bad luck and trouble associated with this big-windowed space adjacent to the Heldrich Hotel. When the restaurant was called Daryl, two eminent Jersey chefs, first David Drake, then Zod Arifai, made terrific food here. But for various reasons, each ultimately shut down.
Anderson, 29, and owner Mark Farro, 31, who also owns Uproot in Warren, appear to have figured out a few things. One is reasonable portion sizes and prices, which make the hoary small-plates concept actually fulfill its promise of shareability. Another is a menu loaded with certified crowd pleasers made freshly appealing by a chef as imaginative as he is proficient.
Fundamentally, Farro, a 2005 CIA grad, and Anderson, who earned a 2007 degree in culinary arts from Middlesex County Community College, understand that there’s nothing odd about putting Vietnamese steamed buns, parsley cavatelli with venison ragout, a beet carpaccio (among many other gluten-free and vegetarian items) and jalapeño guacamole alongside crab cakes and a two-fisted signature burger on a menu labeled New American.
“Our country is made up of many diverse regions, cultures and cuisines, and we wanted our menu to reflect that,” says Farro. “In the end, it’s all just American food.”
The space, while recognizable from its Daryl days, now emphasizes merrymaking. On the ruby-red walls hang poster-sized photographs of, for example, a 1920 California “Bathing Girl Parade” and a packed bar of hatted patrons raising beer bottles to celebrate the end of Prohibition. The cheerful servers, for their part, wear black T-shirts with the words “Whiskey Is My Spirit Animal” emblazoned on the back.
Those are not empty words. INC calls itself “New Brunswick’s Whiskey Bar” for good reason. The menu offers 150-plus different whiskeys, mostly American, and about 20 more on a “manager’s list” of limited editions.
As for signature cocktails, the three our waitress recommended—Who Killed Roger Rabbit (bourbon, carrot juice, ginger beer, thyme simple syrup, lemon juice), Fallen Angel (bourbon, pear juice, pumpkin-spiced syrup, lime juice) and Saint Snoop (gin, St. Germain, lemon juice, sage) were as distinctive, balanced and delicious as claimed.
The only scandal for such a forward-thinking bar program is that not one of the 40-plus beers are from Jersey’s dynamic craft-brewing scene. Hello?
Attention to detail—creating what Anderson calls little “pops of flavor”—marks INC’s best dishes. These include the steamed Vietnamese buns, in which succulent pork belly is garnished with cucumber, cilantro and daikon radish slices pickled in a liquid steeped with hibiscus flowers. The generously filled pork tacos, perhaps our favorite dish, came with pickled carrot, cucumber slaw, cilantro, mint and spicy mayo.
The signature INC burger, made from chuck, was a smoky sensation. It contained smoked bacon, smoked onion aioli, smoked maple cheddar and house-made pickle spears. (The hand-cut fries, however, were a bit soggy.)
Anderson’s most original creation is pork and cornbread sausage, in which creamy cornbread fills the center of the tubular sausage. This winning two-in-one comes sliced, with baked black beans, truffle honey and warm bacon-potato salad. His equally rewarding (and humorous) General Tso’s cauliflower rescues the trendy veg and the takeout warhorse from cliché.
For dessert, cinnamon-sugar zeppoles, piping hot from the fryer, came with mocha-fudge sauce. Best was a plate simply called cranberries and pears. It’s a smear of Greek yogurt topped with granola, cranberry-lavender ice cream, cranberry-lavender compote, pear sorbet, sliced fresh pears, lemon juice and a flurry of shaved white chocolate. It reads like a shopping list, but refreshes like a sunshower in spring.
- Cuisine Type:American
- Price Range:Moderate
- Ambience:Edison bulbs, vintage photos set merry tone.
- Service:Informed, enthusiastic.
- Wine list:About 170 whiskies; fine signature cocktails; 40+ beers (but not one from NJ!); minimal wine list.