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Restaurant David Drake

Restaurant Closed - The Rail House opened in this location.)
1449 Irving Street
Rahway, Union County, New Jersey
(732) 388-6677

By The Artful Diner
January 9, 2006

Printable Copy of this Review

Very few restaurant openings have been as eagerly anticipated as David Drake's eponymous eatery. And this was surely one premiere that was well worth waiting for, as the environs are as engaging to the eye as the cuisine is pleasurable to the palate.

The circa 1830 structure, which most recently domiciled an insurance agency, has been lovingly restored and refurbished by Mr. Drake and his partner, James Kennedy, the mayor of Rahway. The boutique 50-plus-seat establishment now boasts gleaming hardwood floors and rustic beams & exposed bricks artfully counterpoised by colorful modern paintings and soft, subdued lighting. There are three -- 1 up, 2 down -- delightfully diminutive dining areas, as well as a tiny bar on the second floor and a cozy, still-to-be-completed wine cellar that will be utilized to accommodate small parties. Rahway appears primed for a remarkable renaissance, and the proprietors are hopeful that Restaurant David Drake will be at the forefront of community rebirth in general and gastronomic gentrification in particular.

The charming ambiance notwithstanding, it is the extraordinary cuisine that is the main drawing card here. While Mr. Drake's culinary emphasis has shifted slightly from his illustrious tenure at the Stage House Inn in Scotch Plains -- notably from modern French to innovative American with French and other international accents -- his presentations remain stylish and sophisticated yet agreeably understated. And my initial critique of the chef's cookery, penned several years ago (4/28/03), still holds true: "There is a good deal of pizzazz here... but it is to be discovered in the perceptive combination of ingredients, the complementary commingling of tastes and textures, and the discriminating use of color and composition... The genius is, quite clearly, that Mr. Drake's presentations are artistic without being anachronistic."

Over the course of the past six months, since the restaurant's opening, Mr. Drake has gradually refined and expanded his repertoire. As of this writing, not only does the bill of fare consist of options from a three-course prix fixe ($49.00), but it also offers five-course tasting ($59.00), eight-course gourmand ($85.00), and four-course vegetarian ($49.00) menus, with appropriate wine pairings available at an additional charge.

And speaking of the fruit of the vine, the wine list is compendious but exceedingly focused. Majoring in Gallic selections, it also contains an intriguing smattering of international wines to tempt the enthusiastic oenophile. By the glass, both the Lamblin & Fils 2004 Bourgogne Blanc ($9.00) and Pierre Maigeon 2002 Bourgogne Rouge ($9.00) are highly recommended.

Bottle-wise, the choices are legion. A particular favorite is the 2004 Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia ($45.00), a sumptuous white wine from Greece. Aged in French oak, it exhibits a grapefruit-like quality at the outset, which gives way to subtle peach nuances at mid-palate. The 2000 Charles Schleret Riesling "Herrenweg" ($60.00) from Alsace is also worthy of consideration, as is the 2003 Grosset Chablis Premier Cru "Les Fourneaux" ($72.00). If red is more to your liking, be sure to try the supple and seductive 2002 Foris Pinot Noir "Siskiyou Terrace" from Oregon's Rogue Valley ($75.00) or the more robust 2003 Joseph Sabon Chateauneuf du Pape "Clos du Mont-Olivet ($75.00).

As noted above, there are a number of menu options from which to choose; so perhaps the most expedient course of action is to note a few of the many culinary highlights across the board. Among the appetizers, for example, the shellfish risotto awash with several whole Carolina white shrimp is absolutely supernal. The texture is just right, tender leeks and a sprinkling of Parmesan provide an exceedingly pleasurable plethora of flavors, and an ambrosial asparagus jus -- poured about the periphery by your server at table -- is a transcendent consummating touch.

The charlotte of Maine crab is another incomparable opening move. Pristine threads of sweet, succulent crabmeat are arranged on a foundation of curried celery root remoulade, crowned with a tiara of papaya and cucumber salad, and surrounded by an armada of diminutive squares of translucent tomato gelée.

The aforementioned scintillating starters represent Mr. Drake at his finest, imaginatively blending varieties of diverse ingredients into sumptuously satisfying harmonious gestalts that beguile both the eye and the palate. And this is true of his greenery as well. Consider his "Salad of Tender Bibb Lettuce": A bloom of buttery leaves is set on a waldorf-style foundation of walnuts, celery, grapes, and pears and embellished with dabs of walnut mayonnaise tinctured with black truffle. The presentation is as beautifully crafted as it is devastatingly delicious.

Entrées, let me hasten to add, are every bit as inventive and adroitly prepared as their predecessors. The sautéed skate wing is caressed by a fall spice crust that is just assertive enough to enhance rather than overwhelm its delicate disposition. It is then joined in concert by marvelously tender bouangére (baker's-style) potatoes and savory spaghetti squash enlivened with a hint of saffron. The crispy black sea bass is yet another piscatorial treasure. Set on a pillow of asparagus, fennel, French beans, artichokes, and tomatoes, it is finished with an exquisite verdant fresh herb ocean broth.

Meatier matters are no less impressive. The braised pork shoulder and tenderloin form an incomparable combo. The shoulder is so perfectly cooked that it falls off the bone, and the tenderloin is incredibly moist and succulent. And this winning duo finds most suitable companions in feathery potato gnocchi, tender young turnips, and a provocative plum purée.

But even more impressive, in my opinion, is the cumin-spiced loin of lamb. Once again, there is just a kiss of spice, just enough to gently engage the palate without assaulting its discriminating sensibilities; and the slices of meat -- companioned by a triptych of braised, puréed, and raw shaved artichoke -- is so remarkably tender that it literally melts in the mouth. A superlative presentation in every respect.

Among the dessert possibilities, I would highly recommend the banana mousse, which is served parfait-style and offers layers of brownie, coffee caramel, and milk chocolate cream; a marvelous chocolate peanut tart garnished with ganache, chocolate raisin sauce, and whole milk glacé; and the pan-seared fresh pineapple with carrot-lime cake, coconut tapioca, luscious basil ice cream, and touch of passion fruit sauce.

Make certain, however, that you do not overlook the utterly irresistible tasting of artisanal cheeses ($5.00 supplement with the prix fixe menu; $9.00 supplement with the five-course tasting and four-course vegetarian menus). Your five selections may include: a decadently creamy Brillat Savarin (cow's milk, France); Sainte Maure (goat's milk, France); Ibores (goat's milk, Spain); Istara (sheep's milk, Spain); Livarot (cow's milk, France); 4-year-aged Gouda (cow's milk, Holland); and earthy Gorgonzola (cow's milk, Italy) and Shropshire Blue (cow's milk, England). A most civilized and sensual conclusion to any evening at table!

Adjectives fail. I simply cannot find enough good things to say about Restaurant David Drake. The ambiance entices the eye, the service shines, and the glorious cuisine utterly seduces the palate. This is truly a transporting dining experience that is not to be missed.

Cuisine: American with global/eclectic accents
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended; essential on weekends
Parking: Street parking; parking garage just around the corner
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.daviddrakes.com

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