Many chefs dabble in charcuterie these days, but few really excel at it. So when I saw a foie gras torchon on the menu at Princeton’s celebrated Peacock Inn, I had to try it. A torchon tells you a lot about a chef’s technique and imagination—and the Peacock had recently hired a new executive chef, 35-year-old Jason Ramos, to succeed Manuel Perez, who opened the restaurant in 2010 and brought it acclaim, including three appearances on NJM’s annual Top 25.
To make a torchon, a chef carefully deveins a lobe of foie gras. This super-rich duck liver is then cured, wrapped in cloth, poached in a seasoned stock, molded into (in this case) a cylinder, chilled and cut into discs. Imagination kicks in as the chef creates accompaniments to raise the dish to ravishing.
The texture of Ramos’s torchon was perfect—densely creamy—its flavor subtly infused with spices and Sauternes. Gathering the components on my fork—torchon, a bit of the gingerbread brioche underneath, diced quince poached in vanilla and Riesling, and a crumble of crisped speck and Manchego cheese—I dragged the lot through a butternut-quince purée streaked across the plate. Each element was delicious. Together, they formed a perfect concert of textures and flavors.
Special meals have been the Peacock’s specialty since former hotel executive Barry Sussman bought the historic 17-room inn and reopened it after a 3½-year renovation. Sussman hired Perez, at the time a rising talent at Nicholas in Red Bank.
“Manuel decided to move on after our five-year contract, and we started the search for a new chef,” Sussman told me on the phone after my visits. “There were many applicants. We invited several to do tastings, and Jason surpassed everybody.”
Ramos, a Clifton native and CIA graduate, started in August. He has cooked around the state, including at the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster under chef Juan Jose Cuevas and his successor, Andrew Lattanzio. “Jason’s one of the hardest-working chefs I’ve ever worked with,” Lattanzio says. “He’s really creative; his technique is perfect. The guy can do anything. I’m really happy for him.”
I think diners will be more than happy, as I was with Ramos’s salmon en croute, in which both the fish and the pastry were cooked perfectly, a tricky thing to pull off.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or do things in the modernist style,” Ramos told me. “My goal is interesting but approachable. I’m very technique driven, and that has to be executed properly.”
Sussman’s Peacock has always been comfortable and elegant, enhanced in the rear dining room by tiny pinlights in the ceiling for a romantic, star-speckled effect. You feel there are oceans of space between tables—and oceans of quiet, too, a rare pleasure these days.
The five-course, $105 tasting menu requires the participation of the whole table, so to sample more things on my first visit, we went à la carte. The torchon was followed by a refreshing Alaskan king crab starter, the shelled meat combined with seaweed, sea beans, cucumber and black radish in an umami-laden dashi vinaigrette.
Potato-leek soup transcended its humble origins by being puréed and garnished with lobster, black truffles and Taleggio cheese. Even the salad charmed, with its pretty greens, bites of charred broccoli, cubes of butternut and kabocha squashes, dehydrated black currants and tangy Banyuls vinaigrette.
Entrée after entrée proved Ramos’s mastery of sous vide technique. From swordfish in curried coconut-carrot jus to chicken breast drizzled with Trebbiano grape must, each protein arrived moist and tender under a perfect post-sous vide sear.
I particularly liked Ramos’s way of pairing related proteins in a single dish. In beef, he contrasted firm rib eye with richly marbled deckel. Cranberry mostarda cut through the latter’s lushness. The lamb, robustly spiced with harissa, compared juicy sous vide loin, finished in the oven, with fatty belly, rolled, braised and roasted.
The venison presented a pleasantly gamy loin next to house-made sausage with sourdough spaetzle, meaty chestnuts, green peppercorns and huckleberry marmalade.
My second meal, in the chic, cozy bar, included an heirloom beet and carrot salad in a Gorgonzola dolce dressing that lacked the sharpness the sweet vegetables needed. But the bar is also where I ate that divine Scottish organic salmon en croute, as well as delicious sautéed ricotta gnocchi tossed with exotic mushrooms in a butter-and-Parmesan froth.
Meanwhile, new pastry chef Cynthia Lascelles, a veteran of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, aced a moist date cake in toffee caramel and also a feather-light cranberry clafoutis scented with cardamom, allspice and orange. Mixologist Josean Rosado creates elaborate cocktails. I enjoyed the Eva Peron, a blend of sweet vermouth and bitter Fernet-Branca brightened with lime juice, ginger beer, ginger liqueur and a ginger shrub.
Altogether, the Peacock Inn has not only survived the loss of a special chef, it has found a gifted new one and, against the odds, already gotten better.
- Cuisine Type:American
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $15-$34; entrées, $36-$54; desserts, $11; five-course tasting menu, $105 ($155-$185 with wine pairings).
- Ambience:Comfortable, elegant dining rooms; handsome, hip bar.
- Service:Polished and polite.
- Wine list:200 labels from around the world, with several enticing choices at the high end; 16 wines by the glass.