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Chambers Walk Café and Catering
2667 Main Street
Lawrencevile, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 896-5995

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
August 13, 2007

Although it has been around for two decades, Chambers Walk still remains, in the minds of many, Lawrenceville's "best kept secret." In 1986, Mario and Laura Mangone, both graduates of the CIA, opened a small gourmet take-out establishment on Princeton's Palmer Square, which became an immediate hit with the Ivy League crowd. In 1990, they moved to larger facilities in Trenton where the catering aspect of the business became prominent. In August 2001, Chambers Walk relocated to the Village of Lawrenceville.

With its plank floors, low irregular ceiling, and exposed brick walls, the restaurant's current domicile gives off not-so-subtle subterranean vibes -- but these are nicely offset by colorful works of art (which are also for sale), a funky black-topped counter, and the culinary magic generated in the open kitchen.

Executive chef David Ercolano and sous chef Katherine Ward's innovative American fare enhanced with international subtitles offers diners eye-catching combinations of the freshest possible ingredients. Presentations are beautifully integrated and structurally satisfying without degenerating into architectural absurdities. There's just enough creativity floating around to hold your attention without turning you off.

If you want to begin on an exotic note, the ancho chili chicken taquito ($9.00) might be just the ticket. Three crispy, deep-fried segments -- think of them as Mexican spring rolls -- are set on a bed of greens & caramelized onions and crowned with an evocative avocado-lime aïoli. Equally attractive and delicious is the presentation of gargantuan shrimp ($12.00). Two perfectly grilled crustaceans are arranged head to tail in a beautiful circle embellished with a colorful splash of salsa verde.

A special baby arugula salad ($11.00) may at first appear rather straightforward, but it also exhibits a number of exciting gastronomic twists and turns. The peppery leaves are tossed with slices of sweet local strawberries, which, in turn, find a perfect counterpoint in shavings of ricotta salata, a dry sheep's milk cheese from Sicily that displays a delightfully salty, tangy flavor similar to an Italian feta. The consummating gestalt is a light balsamic vinaigrette.

Two pasta dishes are available, either as appetizers (half orders) or entrées. The orecchiette ($10.00/$19.00) is a perfect al dente and combined with asparagus, chunks of tangy turkey sausage, Grana Padano cheese, and sprinkling of pistachios. Excellent on all counts. The recipe for house-made gnocchi ($12.00/$21.00) is a familiar one, and all the ingredients -- wild mushrooms, spring peas, and a fabulous brown butter sauce -- are present and accounted for. But the diminutive dumplings are slightly on the mushy side, almost the consistency of mashed potatoes. They are not quite as firm to the bite as I would prefer -- although, in all fairness, my wife found them utterly irresistible.

A number of entrées put in appearances without benefit of a starch... but they are so superbly prepared and presented that an inclusion of potato or rice or couscous would seem entirely superfluous. The pan-seared striped bass ($22.00), for example, arrives at table on a seabed of roasted cauliflower florets, golden raisins, and capers. A rather odd combo, but the tastes and textures work beautifully together and the fish itself is delightfully moist and flaky.

And speaking of moist... that word is certainly descriptive of the incredible Moroccan-spiced pork loin ($26.00). The "other white meat" can dry out at the mere drop of a fork, but the representative here is altogether luscious and packed with flavor. Consummating touches include a mouthwatering pillow of chickpea purée, tiara of lemon gremolata, and sprinkling of pine nuts.

The Black Angus flat iron steak ($24.00), a nightly special, is another sure winner. Five thick, marvelously tender slices are artfully arranged on a bed of vegetable ratatouille. A comparatively simple dish, but the steak is just the proper compromise between medium and medium rare, and it proves a feast for the eye as well as the palate. When it is available, confirmed carnivores will find it impossible to resist.

Other main course possibilities from the regular menu include: blue cheese-crusted filet of sirloin over a cranberry bean hash with chipotle-lime aïoli ($29.00); pecan- and lime-crusted organic King salmon over collard greens with mashed sweet potatoes ($23.00); and oven-roasted Griggstown Farm chicken over sautéed spinach and tiara of artichoke confit.

Desserts ($7.00), courtesy of pastry chef Melissa Conklin, have their own delicious rewards. The individual maple-cinnamon cheesecake is embraced by a marvelous amaretto crust and companioned by a provocative quince compote; and, in a similar vein, the tropical cheesecake boasts a coconut cookie crust and pineapple compote. Both are highly recommended.

Two other definites include the chocolate mint torte with pistachio mint pesto and delicious blood orange tart with pignoli brittle. The chocolate-banana-peanut butter mousse cake, however, is just in the "OK" category. I freely confess that I am an avid fan of chocolate and peanut butter in any conceivable combination, but this particular offering seemed rather short in the flavor department and entirely too dense.

Chambers Walk Café has been catering to the lunchtime crowd a good deal longer than it has been serving dinner. So if you've only managed to stop by at noonday from time to time, the deliciously innovative possibilities available at dinner will be a delightful and satisfying surprise.

Cuisine: Creative American with International Subtitles
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.chamberswalk.com

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