Until recently, Princeton had virtually every kind of restaurant but one: the kind serving consistently excellent Latin American food. Mexican, in particular, is popular, and its absence was glaring. Then in December, Jim Nawn’s Fenwick Hospitality Group—which owns Agricola, Cargot Brasserie, and the Dinky Bar & Kitchen, all in Princeton—opened Two Sevens Eatery & Cantina. Problem solved.
Under executive chef Patrick Lacey, the kitchen produces excellent dishes that range from traditional Latin, like ceviche, to nuevo, like kale salad with slivers of kabocha squash.
Consider, for example, the ceviche. The dish often appears as a jumble of flaccid white fish in a too-citric acid. Two Sevens presents meaty sea bass or snapper with chunks of avocado and sections of grapefruit and orange in a lively marinade teased with honey and sparked with red Fresno chilies, hotter than jalapeños.
Lacey, who was raised outside Syracuse and graduated from the New England Culinary Institute, admits he has never set foot in Latin America. He says he consulted with his entirely Latino kitchen staff in conceiving the menu. “My prep ladies, who are from Mexico and Guatemala, have been instrumental in the success of our tortillas,” he says. Wanting to improve the masa filling for his tamales, he phoned Fito Belteton, the sous chef at Agricola. Belteton, an émigré from Guatemala, rummaged through his food memories and produced his grandmother’s recipe. “We try to tap our colleagues for inspiration from their traditions,” Lacey says.
Unusually experienced at 34, Lacey came to Two Sevens from adventurous Manhattan restaurants, including Del Posto, Craftbar and Eataly. You can sense that pedigree in many of Two Sevens’ contemporary items. For the excellent kale salad, he jazzes up pumpkin seeds with a clingy coat of black and cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, and sugar, then adds chunks of kabocha squash and a dressing of yogurt, avocado and lime. The salad’s only flaw is an excess of dressing. Halving the quantity would double the pleasure of the salad.
More trendy than traditional as well is the side of brussels sprouts, quartered, deep fried and, raising them above everyone else’s, tossed in a dressing of raw agave nectar, fish sauce, habañero chilies and cilantro.
“We asked ourselves ‘What kind of food would support a gathering place that would be fun and casual,’ and allow us to get beyond the more tweedy Princeton community?” says Nawn, who founded Fenwick and whose three other restaurants are part of that community. “We thought about barbecue and diner, but Latin helped us better achieve these goals.”
One advantage of Two Sevens’ location, about 10 blocks north of campus, is the relative availability of street parking. Equally pleasing are the moderate prices and quality of ingredients. Like Agricola, Cargot and the Dinky, Two Sevens gets many of its fruits and vegetables, in season, from Fenwick’s organic Great Road Farm in nearby Skillman.
On the downside, Two Sevens is a 100-seat, modernist space of hard, flat surfaces, including the strictly utilitarian chairs. There are obvious design-firm touches, like the welcoming HOLA, spelled out in a grid of industrial-size Mexican sauce cans embedded in one wall. Overall, however, the room reflects and amplifies noise rather than the warmth and charm of the cuisine.
Cocktails may soften your perspective. Pisco, a yellowish brandy produced in Chile and Peru, is the key ingredient in the Cinnamon Sour, a festive mix sweetened with cinnamon syrup and spiked with lime. Topped with egg white, it’s a deliciously South American kind of nog.
The drinks work well with the assertive flavors of the food. Bocaditos, or snacks, the first of several small-plate categories on the menu, features queso fundido—deliciously charred and smoky poblano peppers drowning in a molten mass of Oaxaca, Chihuahua and Monterey Jack cheeses. The housemade tortillas, grainy and great, prepared with masa from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens are perfect for scooping up the gooey cheese.
Pupusas, a Salvadoran staple, rarely appear on American menus. Here, they consist of a mild yet flavorful spread made from queso fresco, chopped black beans and oregano slathered between two fluffy corn tortillas. The cakes are then cooked on a plancha in just enough oil to crisp without turning greasy. A fermented slaw ladled on top adds a refreshing citrusy twang.
The tacos that are good are very good. These include pastor, pairing chunks of tender, marinated pork shoulder with bits of juicy charred pineapple, and a sautéed-shrimp version with ribbons of crunchy purple cabbage and a smear of avocado.
Less enchanting are the carne asada tacos, the skirt steak overpowered by a citrus vinaigrette on the accompanying shredded chayote. The fish in the pescado tacos is lost within its greasy cocoon of fried breading.
These flaws are minor on a menu filled with highlights, such as the deliciously pungent grilled Amish chicken. Miraculously, each of the six ingredients in the rub (coriander, garlic, turmeric, onion powder, black pepper and oregano) permeates every bit of the moist, juicy meat. The secret may be the imported Rotisol rotisserie, with its tiered horizontal skewers. The cooking juices drip and seep from the top skewer on down. In terms of sales, the chicken “is our biggest underperformer,” says Lacey. Perhaps “grilled half chicken” doesn’t conjure a Latin American dinner for most people. Here, it should.
Desserts likewise exceed expectations thanks to Liz Sale, twice named one of the 10 best pastry chefs in America by Pastry Art & Design and Chocolatier and, since February, dessert meister for all of Fenwick. Here, she offers a shimmering flan in a pool of buttery caramel. Her paletas (Mexican ice pops) are as delightful as they are novel. They come three to an order and recently included a café con leche pop dipped in chocolate; a horchata pop, its milky, cinnamon-flavored ice stippled with white and dark chocolates; and a pineapple-hibiscus, its chunks of fresh pineapple pressed into the ice and coated with white chocolate. They make a marvelous end to a marvelous meal.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Latin American
Price Details:Small plates, $8-$13; entrées, $23-$26; desserts, $6.
Ambience:Modern, loud, fun.
Service:Ranges from good to distracted.
Wine list:Fine Latin-inspired cocktails; decent selection of beer, wine and spirits, including flights of mescal, tequila and rum.