Precious, but not pretentious. This is the first thing that pops into my head this morning, after thoroughly enjoying our meal last night.
It was my husbands birthday, and I decided that he deserved a better than average dinner. We had been to Mr. Drake's prior restaurant, Stage House, a few times while he was chef and had wonderful meals there(interestingly, we haven't been back there since he left, so we have no recent comparison).
We had an early reservation, 6:30. Managed to snag one of the only 3 curbside parking spaces. There is a parking garage right around the corner, and this would be the only good choice otherwise, as downtown Rahway is not exactly a walking town, to put it mildly. The restaurant is located across the street from the train station, and this charming, small, historic building seems so strangly placed, however, it was there long before everything else that has been built around it.
We walked in, and felt like we'd walking into someone's chic home. We were shown to a room to our left, quite small, with only 3 tables. A table for 2 by the window, a table for 4 and a table for 6. We assumed this must have been the original dining room of the venue.
We were shown to the table by the window and I was a bit put off at first because the seating is VERY close together, so much so that either mine or my husband's rear end would have to brush right by the other table to get to the banquette seat on the wall. I'd had this misfortune at Windows on the World, and the sad fact is that I knocked over a bottle of water onto a diner while trying to get through! So, I was understandably hestitant about sitting there because I'm a bit of a klutz at times.
Plus, sitting that close to another table isn't good for conversations, I always feel I have to be somewhat careful about what I'm saying or worse, get annoyed by the loud, oblivous conversations of others. Let alone feeling like you're pretty much eating with the table at your side.
Unfortunately, that was our table, nothing could be done about it, but they apologized sufficiently (It was apparent the restaurant was full and way too small to ever make a table change possible).
But, as we happily discovered, for some reason voices didn't travel far, even tho we were so close. We got used to using our "indoor" voices, and the table of 4 next to us was the same. That combined with the murmur of great jazz music in the background helped muffle any ambient noises and I can say that we really didn't hear anything the table next to us said although the table of 6, were heard loudly talking about all manners of cooking magazines, and other foodie stuff in general in somewhat of a "know-it-all" way. But, this was the ONLY problem we encountered and was minor at that.
On to the food, all of which was served french style, with much pomp and circumstance when placed before you, proper cutlery (some of which I'd never seen before and I always thought myself to be fairly sophisticated about food and such). Also, I have to mention that the server was highly educated about everthing put before us, not just by memory but really was able to answer questions with details and was also educated about the wine list as well.
The menu is composed of 4 choices. A 3 course prix fixe for, a 5 or 8 course tasting and a 4 course vegetarian tasting. We opted for the 3 course, but added in a cheese tasting inbetween our entree and desert, as we'd heard marvelous comments about the cheese choices offered. Wine list is heavy on French wines, but has choices from all over. I was unfamilar with most of the list and requested help in making a choice.
So, here is what we ordered:
Me - Snail Stuffed Quail and Quinoa w/Brised Chanterelles and Parsley Garlic Confit Jus; Fall-Spiced Skate Wing w/Potatoes and Saffron Spiced Spagetti Squash; Carmelized Apples with Molasses Marshmallow and Creme Frache Ice Cream w/Rosemary Emulsion
Husband - Tender Bibb Lettuce Salad w/walnuts, grapes, celerey, pear, dijon garlic vinaigrette; Braided Pork Shoulder & Loin w/Plum Puree, Chestnuts, Potato Gnocchi & Young Turnips and Black Truffle; Chocolate Peanut Tart w/plantations ariba ganache, peanut caramel, chocolate raisin sauce, whole milk glace
And we shared 1 plate of the cheese tasting, which consisted of 8 (if I remember right) small tastes of artisan cheeses ranging from delicate goat cheeses up to Shopshire Blue, served with french bread, raw honey and an apricot confit.
We ordered wine by the glass only, as we are not big drinkers - a Cotes Du Rhone, Montueil la Levade Vieilles Vignes 2003. I was looking for a wine that was very food-friendly for different types of flavors, and we both prefer reds. This worked nicely with everything, even the fish, as it isn't a "big" wine, and since my fish was flavored with those fall spices, it paired well with it.
We were brought a basket of artisinal breads - one of which was sort of a country white with dried fruits and the other an herbed bread, which may have had some olives in it, according to my husband (I didn't try this one).
Amuse Bouche was brought out - Thyme Scented Mushroom. Too bad they don't have this as a complete appetizer - very delicate, we noticed a taste of beet and citrus in it too. Meant to ask if that were so, but got distracted. Very pleased that this was a vegetarian amuse, as my husband does not eat seafood at all and it would have been a shame to miss the amuse.
Out came the appetizers. My Quail looked like someone had taken a pot of green fingerpaints to it - the parsely jus was that vividly colored! The quail was served as a sliced roulades, stuffed with the snails which were perfectly cooked, very tender. Snails can often be somewhat chewy, but not these. The chanterelles was delish as expected and the quinoa nice and earthy. (I have to remember to cook this, I bought a box a couple of months back and still haven't made use of it).
My husbands salad was perfectly composed and made him remember how a salad with great ingredients can really make him happy.
My skate was perhaps the best I've had of this fish. I was concerned that the fall spices might overwhelm the fish, since it is so delicately flavored, however much restraint went into the seasoning of this, it certainly did not wind up tasting like a pumpkin pie, which was what I feared. It was just kissed with the flavor. The potatoes were nothing fancy, it was the sauce which kicked them up a level and the spagetti squash, like the fish, could have gotten overwhelmed with saffron in the wrong hands, but again, just the right amount to flavor and nothing more.
My husbands pork dish was the night's winner. The loin was unbelievably tender, the shoulder fell apart like a perfect pulled pork and the sauce would certainly fall under the category of a "BBQ" sauce and yet, wasn't. Everything else on the plate just went perfectly with everything else. Really outstanding dish.
The cheese course came out and we really took our time to eat this properly. It's funny, I've had cheese courses before but I guess we never had an actual "tasting" before. Not where they bring you a list of the cheeses, explain the order, the differences, etc. This was very enjoyable for us, because we are cheese lovers and don't eat it very much at all, due to health reasons. We only indulge at the holidays and other minor special occassions so, this was more special than the actual desert for us. All of the choices were good, some remarkable. We were familiar with most of them (for instance there was a goat cheese with ash, that reminded us of Humbolt Fog, but wasn't and a sheep's milk from Italy that had pecorino romano written all over it - but again, wasn't). I don't remember all the names, although I think I would if I saw them in a cheese case. Suffice it to say, none of this was ordinary cheese and it was a very well thought out tasting, and the honey for drizzling and the apricots to cleanse the palate between each was a nice touch. I even realized that all the honey I've been buying although high quality, was nothing compared to this raw honey. Guess I'm going to have to find me some of that!
Finally to desert. I'll start with his first because it was more straight-forward. Very dense chocolate tart, the peanuts really stood out, the glace was my idea of a perfect ice cream, it just tasted of sweet cream - yum. I'm all for basics when it comes to ice cream, none of those fancy mix-ins for me.
Mine was what I would term a "difficult" desert and not for everyone because of the undertone of rosemary in it. Cubed apples, with a toasted marshmallow puff on top, ice cream on the side. The flavor of the rosemary permeated the marshmallow and caramel sauce. It was extremely unusual, and at first I wasn't sure about it but suddenly realized I was very much enjoying this slight herbal undertone. It gave a sort of grassy, fresh taste which was unexpected. In the wrong hands this could have been really awful - but again, I think there is proper restraint in the use of strong flavors and it results in the food being barely scented with it instead of drowning in it.
When we were brought the check, I mentioned to the server (I even hesitate to call him a server or a waiter, as he was far too well-trained, there should be a better word for employees of restaurants who are that knowledgeable) that we'd been to the Stage House a few times while Mr. Drake was chef.
Apparently he told Chef, who told him to tell us to pop our head into the kitchen to say hello. Normally, I'd hesitate to do so but we'd so enjoyed out meal I wanted to let him know that he and his staff are doing a great job for such a young restaurant (they've only been open since June). So, we had a very quick chat (I didn't want to keep him from his cooking long, that would be rude) and he was very gracious and appreciative of our compliments.
So, two prix fixe meals, 3 glasses of wine and 1 extra desert (the cheese course) came out to $180 with tip and tax. Pricey for this part of NJ, yes, but I think you have to realize location has nothing to do with quality. There are plenty of amazing restaurants in big cities located in less than desireable areas and that doesn't stop anyone from going. I really think David Drake may soon be one of NJ's top restaurants, if it isn't already.