So last night was Restaurant Nicholas' 11th Anniversary dinner. I have to say, I give Nicholas and his wife Melissa credit, 11 years in this industry, and to be ranked #1 in NJ for all 11 of those years... that's quite an accomplishment.
The dinner was held in the restaurant's front room with the faux-Chihuly chandelier. Really it's unfair to call it that. The artist is Robert Kuster from Hillsborough, a very talented gentleman, but of course everyone always ponders the art and ask if its a Chihuly when they first see it. I must have heard that very question uttered at least three times during the course of the evening. As if a restaurant in Middletown, New Jersey could afford a 600 piece Chihuly chandelier... Then again, what do you expect from a bunch of middle-aged self-proclaimed sophisticates from Rumson, which was what comprised 95% of the guests yesterday evening.
The festivities started with a thirty minute hors d'oeuvres reception where they passed around flutes of Cuvee Restaurant Nicholas Cramant produced by Diebolt-Valois along with items such as tempura shrimp skewers, duck breast with almond, escargot, ahi tuna sashimi with a wasabi creme, chicken confit with carrot puree, and what appeared to be lobster with some form of beurre blanc, but that plate never made it to me and my wife so I'm not quite certain.
Once seated the service ballet began as the Nicholas staff flitted around with the evening's amuse bouche, a sliver of fluke sashimi served with toasted rye croutons, a green olive puree and a shaving of red bell pepper. It was light and refreshing, a nice start, though the delicate fluke was slightly overwhelmed by the green olive and bell pepper.
Shortly thereafter the first course arrived along with its wine pairing. The dish was sepia (cuttlefish) served with a shrimp and lime ravioli, as well as cauliflower floret and a crab consomme. The wine was 2009 Faustini "Beach House 34" Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley. This course was, hands down, the failure of the evening. The cuttlefish was nicely prepared, however, the lime was so pronounced in the ravioli that it was obnoxious. I would never have known there was also shrimp in the ravioli if they hadn't told us. On top of that, the wine tasted like a typical, uninspiring, California Sauvignon Blanc. It could just as easily have been Benziger Family or Cakebread. Light to medium bodied, mild citrus and minerality, a slight smokiness... nothing to make the palate swoon. And frankly, the little bit of citrus in the wine couldn't even stand up to the lime in the ravioli.
The dining experience got back on track the second course, which was a delectable sous vide filet of halibut served with a frisee salad, pistachio puree and poached egg. The buttery quality of the slow cooked halibut paired with the decadence of the runny egg, all brought together with the sharp nutty and earthy notes of the pistachio... It was very well balanced. Paired with this course was a 2008 Puligny Montrachet produced by Château de Puligny Montrachet. This was not one of their 1'er Cru sites, but quite good none the less. In many vintages I find that southern white Burgundies tend to be big, with pronounced butter and oak, almost new world in nature, but the 2008 vintage really lends itself more towards bright acidity and crisp mineral notes, and that's exactly what made this a perfect pairing for the course. The dish itself was already so heady and full, you needed that acidity to cut through the richness. The plate might not have been my favorite for the evening, nor was the wine, but I did feel that this food and wine combination was the best pairing of the evening.
For me the third course was the highlight of the night, though my wife would disagree. It was a seared day boat sea scallop with a french onion puree, parmesan espuma and crisp bacon. The scallop was cooked to perfection, which is no easy feat when you are sending plates for 50 guests simultaneously, and the depth of flavor from the french onion puree and parmesan foam was surreal. The only thing I would say negatively, and I am a bacon lover so this is borderline blasphemous... the bacon was unnecessary. It acted almost as a garnish rather than a component of the dish, a bacon tuile so to speak. The wine for this course was 2007 Domaine Jacques Prieur "Clos de la Feguine", 1'er Cru Beaune. It was a very nicely balanced red Burgundy, with bright acidity harmonizing with very subtle dark fruit, fresh earthiness and a slight tannic backbone. While this course was my favorite dish, and also my favorite wine of the night, I found the pairing of food and wine to be good, but not great. The wine was slightly overwhelmed by the onion puree and espuma. Much like the second course, the acidity played as a nice counterpoint to the richness of the dish, but in this instance I would like to have had something fuller and darker to enhance the decadence, rather than try to diminish it, possibly a northern Willamette Valley, Carneros or Sonoma County Pinot ('02 Whitethorn "Hyde Vineyard" or '09 Sineann "Resonance Vineyard" come to mind).
Fourth course was the buzz of the evening, as it was the official unveiling of the new suckling pig preparation. For those of you not familiar, suckling pig has always been THE signature dish of Restaurant Nicholas. They had been running the previous preparation for approximately 18 months, so the staff was anxious to see the response to the new version. The new incarnation is bourbon glazed suckling pig, served with parisian apple, blanched brussel sprout leaves and mustard seed caviar. The pig was beyond reproach, melt-in-your-mouth tender and full of flavor, but to me the accoutrements were peripheral afterthoughts rather than necessary components. I understand the vision of the plate and the intended purpose of its parts. The acidity of the apple is meant to cut through the richness of the bourbon and the pig, the sprouts are intended to give vibrant earth notes, and the mustard seed to give an interesting twist of flavor... But it just didn't happen for me. By itself the pig was amazing, but when I put it all together for that "perfect bite" I found myself wishing that it was just the pig on my fork.
The wine paired with this momentous fourth course was anything but momentous, 2007 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Yes, Katherine Hall is a superb winemaker. Yes, the wine received some critical acclaim (90pt from Parker, etc.). Yes, the wine is moderately good. But let's face it, it's a second label wine that can be found in half of the liquor stores in the tri-state area, and on many wine lists of restaurants 2.5 stars or above. You would think for what was supposed to be the jaw dropping course of an anniversary dinner at the top rated restaurant in the entire state that something better than Hall Cab could have been offered. I understand that the price of admission was only $150 so the wines weren't going to be overly valuable... I get that. But there are hundreds of wines, including Napa Valley Cabs if that's specifically the direction they wanted to go in, that are smaller production and higher quality for roughly the same price as '07 Hall Cab.
The fifth and final course of the evening was the pièce de résistance for my wife, but she's also biased due to the fact that not only is dessert her favorite course, but cheesecake is one of her two favorite desserts! So the evening's finale was a peanut butter cheesecake topped with a fortified wine gelee, served with a semi-sweet chocolate gelato and almond crumble. The wine pairing was 2008 Mas Amiel from Maury, a fortified grenache from Southern France. It was also the same wine that was used to make the gelee. I must say, this dessert was impressive. I am not a cheesecake fan, at all, but as desserts go this was a knock your socks off plate and a great way to end the service.
Overall, this was a very good meal and a fun evening. In my opinion there were a couple of culinary hiccups, and what I believe to be some questionable choices in wine, but regardless of those few points I still give the dinner four stars out of five because everything else was superb. I have yet to have a bad meal at Nicholas... there are not too many restaurants I can say that about. Once again, congratulations to Nicholas for his decade plus of success and I wish him, his family and his staff another 11 successful years!
160 State Route 35, Red Bank, NJ 07701