I broke a self-imposed rule by arriving for my first dinner at Picnic on the Square in Ridgewood on its second night of operation, early last November. I reasoned that in 2011 I had, after all, awarded chef/co-owner Christine Nunn’s first restaurant, Picnic, in Fair Lawn, 3½ stars. So I well knew the quality of her exuberant American fare, which she executes with impeccable French technique.
Equally important, Nunn had reassembled virtually the same kitchen and dining-room teams (including sous chef John Keyser) that earned Picnic a spot on NJM’s Top 25 two years running, before it closed at the very end of December 2012—a victim, Nunn said, of a “rough economy.”
Still, is it fair to judge any restaurant on its second day? Had Picnic on the Square fallen short in any way, I would have disregarded the visit and tried again after a more customary settling-in period.
That turned out to be unnecessary. The restaurant, three-quarters full that first Saturday night, was firing on all cylinders. Okay, the breads in the basket were dry and bland, but in later visits they were replaced by little loaves of herbed and other breads. When Nunn has time to make them, there are even Picnic’s beloved cheese straws.
Nunn, 50, used to write feature stories and review restaurants for The Record in Bergen County while she was a student at the CIA. She earned her CIA degree in 2003 and left journalism in 2005 to found Picnic Catering. Picnic the restaurant debuted in July 2010. After she shut it down, Nunn took a job as opening chef of Grange in Westwood. When Alex Parlamis, co-owner of Axia Taverna in Tenafly, offered her the chance to call the shots again as a full partner, Nunn ultimately signed on. Together, they took over and remade the space that had been Ridgewood Fare on Wilsey Square, west of the railroad station.
Fans will welcome the return of many signature Picnic dishes, which manage to be elevated yet accessible, rooted in tradition yet contemporary. Her version of the iceberg-wedge salad with Thousand Island dressing will ruin you for all others. Same for her New England lobster roll, brimming with tender meat poached in tarragon butter and served with a terrific crunchy slaw made from fresh celeriac. Since my visits, Nunn has brought back Picnic’s peerless lobster fricassee and given its duck à l’orange a 21st-century spin with a clementine demi-glace.
Slow-roasted veal marrow bones, another Picnic 1.0 favorite, return as well, their molten sumptuousness balanced by beef-and-red-onion relish. Back, too, is the incomparably juicy and robust double-cut pork chop. This bad boy looks and eats like pork-flavored steak. It comes with the perfect retinue of sautéed apples, sweet potatoes (mashed with brandy and bacon butter) and sautéed chard. The chop is surpassed only by the veritable steakhouse-on-a-plate: beef tenderloin (like butta!) with crunchy-sweet Vidalia onion rings, creamed spinach, a Roquefort croquette and Bordelaise sauce.
But Picnic 2.0 does more than reiterate. “I spent two years dreaming about dishes I wished I had put on the menu at Picnic,” Nunn told me after my visits. Chief among these, for me, is a dish of Parisienne gnocchi (made with pâté à choux rather than potatoes). Nunn serves it with a wild mushroom melange in a gratifying sherry-cream sauce crowned with a dab of fresh buttermilk ricotta.
Another wish-list winner was her mâche salad with slices of salt-roasted pear and classic accompaniments of Stilton and candied pecans in a light port-wine vinaigrette. Roasting the pear buried in salt intensifies its pearness while taming its sweetness and eliminating its familiar graininess. Indeed, the pear impersonates foie gras in look as well as texture. Nunn even manages to make kale salad sexy, with crunchy pomegranate seeds, curried walnuts and little globes of roasted butternut squash with a Pommery mustard vinaigrette.
Under the innocuous title of roasted chicken, Nunn delivers a moist, luxurious roulade of white and dark meat rolled up and encased in skin. Served with pan juices, the slices come with crisp parsnip chips mixed with soft root-vegetable cubes; buttermilk mashed potatoes; a small stuffing soufflé and zingy chipotle-cranberry relish.
Equally memorable were seafood dishes such as pecan-crusted wild salmon; seared day-boat scallops with butternut squash risotto; and black-cod-and-shellfish chowder with prosciutto. Not that vegetarians need feel deprived. The playfully named Ménage à Squash—acorn, butternut and spaghetti squash with pecans, cranberries, currants and Manchego cheese—was zealously consumed by my normally carnivorous spouse.
On both visits, Nunn stopped by each table in the handsome 34-seat dining room. Seated next to us one night, it turned out, was the photographer whose work we were admiring on the brick wall: a photo of a meadow flanked on both sides by close-ups of lawns, one showing a corner of picnic blanket, the other part of a wicker basket. The theme is echoed wittily on each table, where lush plastic grass sprouts from a small wood box. Enshrined in a nook on the wall is a copy of The Preppy Cookbook, which Nunn wrote between the two Picnics.
Nunn and Keyser are making the desserts until Picnic’s former pastry chef can rejoin them. They will be a hard act to follow. We enjoyed every dessert: cherry-chocolate bread pudding with soft, sweet, winey cherries; classic lemon tart; and crème brûlée.
Nunn’s credo, posted on her Facebook page, is “Life is a picnic.” That sentiment is reflected in her restaurant’s name and decor and in the joie de vivre of her cooking. It’s a picnic not to be missed.