Notes on Restaurant Nicholas

by artfuldiner on October 1, 2009

in Culinary Criticism, New Jersey Event, Opinion

nicholas-croppedI first reviewed Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown, NJ (my hometown, by the way), in May of 2001. And in the context of that first review, I penned the following: “A scant five months into its hopefully long and prosperous existence, it is already one of the finest culinary establishments to be found in the grand and glorious Garden State.”


In the second review, published six years later in September of 2007, I freely confessed that, in my original critique, I had undoubtedly erred on the side of caution, as I had had absolutely no doubts that Nicholas was, even then, the most superlative dining experience New Jersey had to offer. And without being immodest, I think time has proved me correct. There is no question that Nicholas has taken its rightful place as New Jersey’s premier restaurant.


An interesting sidelight… My first visit to Nicholas came on the very heels of a sojourn to the late Ryland Inn. And the contrast was palpable. The Ryland Inn’s cuisine seemed heavy… tired… cumbersome; whereas Nicholas’s offerings were fresh and vibrant; they seemed to pulsate with a sensual gastronomic energy.


The longer one rides the restaurant trail as a professional “hired belly,” the more difficult it becomes for a restaurant to impress… but Nicholas does just that. What truly sets this restaurant apart is Nicholas and Melissa Harary’s commitment to excellence, their passion to provide their patrons with a lovingly orchestrated harmonious gestalt. Many of the presentations, for example, are consummated at table… yet without the all-too-frequent culinary bravado. The cuisine is pristinely fresh and alive with the symphonic interplay of exceptional flavors and tantalizing textures.


And yet there is simplicity here… a clarity, if you will. You find no egoistic enumeration of superfluous ingredients, no contrived architectural oddities assaulting the eye while leaving the palate wanting. The culinary artistry is readily apparent… but it is an artistry of subtle restraint… of purity of form and of substance… of intensity of flavor. And it is Chef de Cuisine David Santos, formerly of New York’s Bouley and Per Se, who brings Mr. Harary’s remarkable recipes to their glorious fruition.


Nicholas’s menu, of course, changes seasonally. And, as I pen these words, the late summer menu is in full bloom. Regardless of the season, however, there are certain items that remain sine qua nons.


Among the appetizers, when it is available, the Parisienne gnocchi is simply superlative. Made from pâte à choux, a versatile dough comprised of flour & water and eggs, the diminutive dumplings are golden brown, yielding to an ethereal epicenter. The variation that I sampled included sugar snap peas and braised artichokes, which added their own unique complementary flavors.


nicholas2Entrées include a plethora of piscatorial pleasures… all beautifully prepared and presented. The wild Copper River salmon, for example, is pan seared to perfection, set on a texturally contrasting cold bean salad, and consummated with an incomparable tomato vinaigrette. And a golden crusted halibut filet is accompanied by delicate clusters of honshimeji mushrooms, fava beans, and finished with a subtle but assertive lemon-caper sauce.


When it comes to carnivorous pursuits, my favorite remains the braised suckling pig. The current variation on the theme combines wilted arugula and a contrasting hint of sweet/tart, courtesy of an electrifying interplay between golden raisin purée and cinnamon jus.


And dedicated oenophilists should take note… Mr. Hararay has assembled a remarkable prospectus of rare and fine vintages. And the best way to experience its depth and breadth is by availing yourself of the six-course tasting menu ($79.00) and allowing Mr. Hararay to pair the wines for each course ($45.00 supplement). Needless to say, his selections are superb.


Interestingly enough, however, one of the things I greatly admire about Nicholas has absolutely nothing to do with the food… or the service… or the ambiance. It is the fact that their website is beautifully constructed, carefully maintained, and scrupulously up to date. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve put in an appearance at a given restaurant only to find that, contrary to the information on the website, hours had changed… and/or menu offerings altered significantly. The way in which a restaurant does/does not keep up its website says a great deal about its commitment to quality and to its customers.


Of course, like any restaurant, Nicholas is not immune from criticism… mostly from malcontents on the various food forums, members of the “grab n’ growl” contingent, who have become infamous for their grotesquely incessant grousing with regard to portions (which they consider too small) and prices (which they consider too large). However, when you consider the quality of the cuisine, this establishment is, in my opinion, a remarkable bargain.


nicholas5Every eatery, no matter how grand or how humble, has its own unique appeal. And it is quite obvious to me that Nicholas is not a restaurant that is likely to appeal to the meat n’ potatoes crowd. No, Nicholas Harary and his wife, Melissa, have unabashedly created a most civilized dining experience specifically designed to entice the adventurous and sophisticated of palate.


If you have a penchant for the pleasures of the table, you are certain to appreciate the epicurean delights that an evening at Nicholas will afford. Precious few restaurants in New Jersey – or in the United States as a whole – can measure up to the extraordinarily high standards that are set here. Indeed, this urbane, cosmopolitan dining at its finest.

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