Restaurant Review


Lounge restaurants have become increasingly popular, particularly in areas with a university or a preponderance of young people. Verdigre, one of the newest, located where the North Star Restaurant and Tapas Bar used to be, fits perfectly into this niche. Here, you can eat indoors or out during good weather and order a full meal or a snack until relatively late. You might opt to hang out with friends or go dancing in the comfortable, attractive lounge until the wee hours.

A full bar beckons, but the wine list is deceptive: On recent visits the restaurant was out of many selections. The menu is intriguing, and several dishes can be served in small portions, tapas-style, either at the bar or in the lounge.

A dish of mixed olives in oil gives diners something to nibble on while perusing the menu. Verdigre makes the best Caesar salad around, with homemade croutons, marinated white anchovies, and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. Many of the dishes are a twist on a standard, and most are very good indeed. The carpaccio, for instance, consists of paper-thin slices of raw beef served with arugula, red onions, and Parmesan cheese, while cured salmon arrives with sliced fennel and apple in a citrus-flavored yuzu cream. Fried calamari in a paper-lined metal cone get their kick from a spicy smoked paprika aioli. Clams and mussels piperade are served in a deep bowl with slices of different-colored peppers, chorizo, and onions. Lightly fried zucchini flowers stuffed with crab and goat cheese are drizzled to piquant effect with a mango chili sauce. The lone clinkers among appetizers are the inedibly salty escargots in garlic butter topped with crisp crumbs.

Main courses are another matter. While the dry-aged strip steak is perfectly cooked and beefy, the mashed potatoes and asparagus served with it are too salty, as are the five overcooked scallops wrapped in Serrano ham with a butter bean purée and a rosemary-and-blood-orange reduction. Aromatic braised short ribs are difficult to cut and lack the soft, braised texture one would expect.

The duck breast with a black currant-port glaze and a sweet corn flan is good; the brick-pressed chicken breast has a crunchy exterior but a moist and well-flavored inside, and is served with crisp polenta fries and spinach with raisins and pine nuts. Also rewarding is the pomegranate rack of lamb cut into four chops with merguez (a red spicy sausage from North Africa and Spain), broccoli rabe, and cucumber yogurt flavored with harissa (a Tunisian hot red sauce made from chile peppers and garlic). The red snapper comes with a zarzuela—Spanish shellfish stew. The flavor and the ingredients are pleasing—mussels, squid, and shrimps over couscous with the snapper arranged on top.

Desserts are a mix of good and bad. Buttermilk panna cotta is leaden, as is the milk chocolate cheesecake; the pistachio-cardamom cake with roasted pear is hard and flavorless. The molten flourless chocolate cake is fine, but the apple crostata—a rustic apple tart topped with raisins, cinnamon streusel, and gelato—is divine, as is the white-and-dark chocolate tower semifreddo.

Dining at Verdigre is a perplexing experience. It’s almost as though there are two different chefs in the kitchen, one very good and one awful.

— Valerie Sinclair

25 Liberty Street, New Brunswick (732-247-2250). Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 pm. Lounge small-plate menu: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 11 pm. All major credit cards are accepted. Wheelchair access difficult.

A first visit to Circa on a Saturday night just after a favorable review had appeared in another publication revealed a scene that was, to say the least, chaotic. Among the dishes ordered by a party of five was a coq au vin that tasted like stewed chicken that had never seen a drop of wine and was so overcooked that the meat fell apart in shreds. Pan-seared monkfish looked fine but was almost impossible to cut because it was completely raw inside. Escargots served on a flat plate came with only a few toothpicks to extract the little gastropods from their shells, and one of the four varieties of mussels on the menu was prepared with mustard, crème fraîche, and so much saffron that the taste was medicinal.

Still, I found some bright spots: a scallop seviche appetizer intensified with lemon, truffle vinaigrette, and chives; and crisp, fried calamari with both tartar and spicy harissa sauces. A few weeks later, a second visit suggested that Circa had righted the ship.

Owned by Chef Michael Coury, whose credentials include stints as chef at Nodo in Princeton, the Jefferson in Hoboken, the Frenchtown Inn, and the Bernard’s Inn, Circa is a small-town country tavern with a spacious bar and a dining room featuring a tin ceiling, dark wood molding, and decorative mirrors above the banquettes.

That second evening at Circa was busy yet calm as diners munched on hummus and flatbread while deciding what to order. Enjoyable appetizers included chunky smoked salmon with all the trimmings, and the charcuterie plate of sopressata, sliced garlic sausage, and salami along with hard-boiled eggs and whole-grain mustard. Also worth trying were the sweet and savory roasted figs halved, topped with blue cheese and served with Serrano ham, walnuts, and mâche. The burnished-orange butternut squash got extra punch from spiced mascarpone, and the combination of shrimp sautéed with fiery merguez sausage is without par.

Apart from the two unfortunate entrées previously mentioned, most other main courses are at least edible. The branzino, which is served whole (avoid ordering this if you don’t like your dinner staring you in the face), is perfectly fresh and delicious, paired with roasted fennel, onion, tomato, and herb-crusted potatoes. But extricating the flesh from the bones is far too much work. The braised short ribs are tender and flavorful, but they lack the deep color, rich flavor, and silken texture of braised meat at its best. By far the most reliable dishes are the beefy, tender strip steak with Madeira sauce and the hanger steak with garlic-parsley butter and French fries, closely followed by the crisp-skinned, delicately flavored sea trout with a fennel-black olive salad and vegetables.

Good news! The lemon pound cake that was hard and dry the first time was merely dry the second. (The apple-and-walnut bread pudding and the pumpkin custard were run-of-the-mill.) Most interesting dessert? Tres leches—a mouthwatering yellow cake soaked with three different creams.

It is surprising, given the chef’s background, that the food is not more attractively presented.

— Valerie Sinclair

37 Main Street, High Bridge (908-638-5560). Lunch: 11:30 am to 5 pm. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 pm; Sunday, noon to 9 pm. Bar remains open until 2 am. All major credit cards are accepted. Wheelchair access easy.

It’s surprising how many people have never heard of Rat’s—not the rodent, but the restaurant at the Grounds for Sculpture. Created by sculptor J. Seward Johnson, Rat’s gets its name from a character in his favorite book, The Wind in the Willows. Each room in the restaurant boasts a unique decor, with diners entering through a facsimile of a brightly colored Gypsy caravan. Must-see sculptures in bronze, steel, stone, wood, and concrete are artfully arranged around the 22-acre garden. (Thirteen more acres are being added to the park, which will eventually offer a library/resource center and additional exhibition space.)

The Grounds for Sculpture are open to visitors for an entrance fee, but anyone dining at Rat’s can wander through at no cost. Other food options include the Gazebo, which serves snack food during warm weather; the Café in the Domestic Arts Building, which is open year-round for casual dining; and Kafe Kabul, which is actually attached to the bar at Rat’s and serves a limited, less costly, casual menu in an attractive Middle Eastern setting. A live blues band performs in the space on Tuesday evenings.

This is the third time Rat’s has been reviewed in these pages and the first time the food has disappointed. The extraordinary setting has always been the prime draw, but in the past the food was very good and had moments of brilliance. In the course of four visits in as many months this year—lunch, dinner, brunch, and dinner—the food sounded much better than it tasted. Many dishes were bland and poorly seasoned. Service was offhand—apart from an amazing bartender, Dennis Austin, who never forgets a drink or a face. But the dining experience was truly a letdown, since Rat’s has always been a favorite place to bring out-of-town guests. One hopes the food and service improve enough to inspire a return visit.

Of the four meals, brunch at Rat’s was best, followed by dinner at Kafe Kabul, lunch at Rat’s, and in last place, dinner at Rat’s, which is not an inexpensive matter. At Kafe Kabul diners can order from the regular menu, but the small, casual, café menu is reasonable, with appetizers such as soup, pâté, or smoked salmon at $6 to $8, and main courses such as flatiron steak frites, hamburger, salmon, or Cuban sandwiches at $12 to $18. Brunch is a fixed-price $49 per person for an appetizer and dessert buffet, main course chosen from a menu, plus a glass of champagne.

Dinner at Rat’s, however, is pricey for the quality, but there are some decent options. Corn soup with lobster and leeks is hearty but served lukewarm; three fried clam cakes flavored with bacon are tiny but tasty; also enjoyable is paper-thin tuna carpaccio with sesame yogurt, marinated cucumbers, and peppercress. Sub-par grilled calamari arrives cold, served with watermelon and feta cheese, an unappealing combination; short-ribs terrine is dry and overpowered with mint; a triangle of terrine of foie gras with cherry coulis is too small to warrant the $21 tariff. The warm popovers served with the meal are outstanding.

Among the main courses, striped bass with saffron is bland and likewise the vegetables served with the fish. But halibut with roasted-tomato vinaigrette is delicious. Antelope chops are overpowered by a strong clove flavor that makes the gravy bitter; scallops are prepared well but served with a gummy risotto; suckling pig has very little flavor. Lasagna à la minute is a strange dish—a few rounds of gummy pasta layered with soggy grilled vegetables and Manchego cheese, which at $26 is truly a crime.

On the positive side, the well-stocked cheese trolley is definitely worth sampling. For dessert, peach strudel with caramel ice cream and spun sugar is very good, and so is the beggar’s purse with blueberry and lemon and a dark chocolate pot de crème.

There are real problems with the service. After ordering a bottle of wine, only the first glass was poured by the server, and then diners had to help themselves; servers removed plates before everyone at the table has finished; and the check was brought while dessert was still being eaten.