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New Jersey Restaurant Review

The Frenchtown Inn
7 Bridge Street
Frenchtown, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 996-3300

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Like many other river communities, Frenchtown was originally a ferry stop with service dating from the year 1741. Referred to by many names during those early years, its present appellation is the result of a rather interesting historical misunderstanding. In 1794, a foreign aristocrat purchased 893 acres along the river at what had then become known as Alexandria. Paul Henri Mallet-Provost, his Paris banking career having come to an abrupt halt during the French Revolution, had rather hastily departed France to avoid arrest. And although Mallet-Provost was a Swiss national, this seemed a relatively minor point to the local populace, all of whom assumed the newcomer to be French, Thus, the community that grew up around his home subsequently became known as Frenchtown.

Today, serenely sequestered on New Jersey's "Western Shore" just a stone's throw up the Delaware from New Hope and Lambertville, this quiet Hunterdon County hamlet has somehow managed to escape the aggressive onslaught of tourism that has all but inundated the surrounding area. Unlike Frenchtown's bustling neighbors to the south, you won't find buses clogging the streets or masses of humanity jostling for space on the picturesque sidewalks. What you will find is a bit of welcome bucolic bliss, a handful of charming shops, and several marvelous eateries.

And after a strenuous day of shopping or sightseeing, you and your spouse/significant other may wish to join couples young and old in the muted glow of one of The Frenchtown Inn's candlelit dining rooms. In point of fact, this venerable establishment has become one of the Garden State's premiere dining destinations for those in search of a quixotic and gastronomic tête à tête. Exposed brick walls, fireplaces, and accoutrements appropriately rustic complete the cozy scenario.

Begin your culinary journey in the equally idyllic bar/grill room where you may partake of several excellent wines available by the glass. The 1999 Sterling Merlot ($10.50) is highly recommended, as is the 2000 Vincent Pouilly-Fuisse ($11.00). Bottle-wise, the aforementioned Sterling will set you back $48.00, the 1999 René Muré Tokay Pinot Gris $31.00, and the 2000 Pascal Jolibet Sancerre $39.00. All are first-rate choices.

Once settled in at table, you discover that the menu is foundationally French with a sufficient number of international nuances -- most notably Italian -- to add a bit of spice to the proceedings. Executive chef/proprietor Andrew Tomko's presentations are just contemporary enough to quicken the culinary pulse, just traditional enough to assuage rather than intimidate both the eye and the palate.

Soups ($6.00) make wonderful preludes here and are perfectly indicative of the chef's prowess. The white bean and tomato is suitably robust, a comforting culinary companion on a cold winter's night; on the other hand, the purée of asparagus embellished with Asiago cheese exhibits a light and delicate touch that is a most appropriate match for more temperate seasons.

Among the other starters, I thoroughly enjoyed the thinly sliced spokes of Anjou pear emanating from a mini epicenter of rich shavings of Parma prosciutto ($9.00). Add a crown of fig (or apple) compote, sprinkling of Asiago cheese, touch of white truffle oil, dots and dashes of balsamic vinegar, and you have one of the most delicious appetizers that I've sampled in quite some time. Not that the ingredients are so terribly exotic, but seldom have I seen diverse constituents coalesce into such a marvelous gestalt of intriguing tastes and textures.

And the chef's charcuterie plate ($8.00) is of similar ilk... a marvelous synthesis of garlic sausage, dense country pâté, and pheasant terrine surrounding a lusciously creamy core of game mousse. An Alsatian choucroute and touch of grainy mustard provide delightfully tangy counterpoints, and the Cumberland sauce a zestful finishing touch.

If you would prefer to indulge in a bit of greenery, the salad of organic mesclun lettuces garnished with a generous portion of Coach Farm goat cheese and beguiling apple beignets ($9.00) is a splendid opening move. Roasted garlic and morsels of smoked bacon add immeasurably to the mix, as does the walnut balsamic vinaigrette.

Main courses are a touch less fulfilling than their antecessors but still quite impressive. The rare sesame-coated tuna ($24.00) is wonderfully rich and meaty, served on a seabed of horseradish whipped potatoes, and finished with a perfectly complementary ginger soy jus. Even better is the special onion-coated Chilean sea bass ($24.00). Lightly seasoned minced onions form a delightfully delicate crust that enhances rather than smothers the natural flavor of this noble denizen of the deep. The moist filet is then set on a pillow of lobster risotto, adorned with littleneck clams & New Zealand mussels, and gently caressed by roasted red pepper butter.

The only disappointment in the piscatorial realm was the sautéed red snapper ($24.00), whose incarnations proved to be less than satisfactory on two separate outings. In the first instance, the flesh was inordinately dark and, when set atop a spinach and chanterelle mushroom fricassee, the overall presentation struck one as positively gloomy... And the accompanying mushroom sauce, which the menu failed to mention, only added to the sensation of acute culinary melancholia. On the second occasion, the fish was woefully undercooked and not particularly well matched with an aggressive herb Dijon mustard vinaigrette.

Meat and game offerings, however, were right back on target. The seared filet of beef ($26.00) -- dressed with Yukon gold mashed potatoes, roasted shallots & pancetta, and finished with a heady red wine jus and just a touch of truffle butter -- had no trouble holding its own in the flavor department...

Ditto the pan-roasted breast of duck and the herb-coated pork tenderloin. And these latter two entrées also clearly demonstrate what knowledgeable diners have undoubtedly suspected all along: Mr. Tomko has a certain lust for layering... Fortunately, this preoccupation hasn't degenerated into an overly zealous "Edifice Complex." Two or three stories seem sufficient to meet his needs; and, in the great majority of cases, presentations are artistically as well as gastronomically engaging.

The duck, for example, is thinly sliced and fanned over a delectable Stilton-infused potato galette. Haricots verts provide a pleasant diversion for the eye; a dash of apricot chutney, a touch of excitement for the palate. The pork tenderloin is of similar architectural disposition. Slices are arranged on a rustic roasted pear and currant choucroute, crowned with potato ribbons, and consummated with a lusty red wine jus.

Desserts ($7.00) strike a homey, comforting chord: peach sabayon over fresh berries; a lighter than air white chocolate mousse interspersed with decadent dark chocolate cake and chaperoned by a raspberry purée; rum raisin and raspberry chocolate truffle ice creams. In lieu of assuaging your sweet tooth, you may also opt for an assortment of cheeses -- Stilton, Brie, Asiago, and creamy goat cheese -- served up with crackers and red grapes. Not a terribly exciting selection but still a most satisfying conclusion to your evening at table.

The servers here are quite experienced, sounding just the proper note between professionalism and sociability. Indeed, the only question mark in this regard lies not with the service itself but with the pace at which the kitchen sends forth its various offerings. It is, in most cases, quite leisurely... upon occasion, positively snaillike. Which is either extremely pleasurable or totally infuriating, depending upon your disposition... and distance to be traveled on a given evening.

The Frenchtown Inn is one of those special -- and extremely rare -- eateries with which you strike up a long-term love affair. It woos you back again and again. There may be an occasional heartache along the way, but, like a lovers' spat, making up is half the fun.

Like most lovers, however, the Inn can also be fickle. It suffers, as do many restaurants of its ilk, from a split personality. On quiet weekday evenings, it is irresistibly romantic. On a bustling Saturday night, on the other hand, it may exude about as much charm as a soirée at an Elks' convention... as my wife and I may clearly testify.

During our initial incursion, the first seven tables to be seated were all couples. Love, along with whispered sweet nothings, was in the air. One could sense hormonal levels purring into overdrive. The room was alive with a plethora of particularly pleasant erotic vibrations.

Several subsequent visits -- including a madcap Saturday night -- found us transported to a parallel universe. There were also several other couples present on these occasions, and we all appeared to be doing our best to recapture the romanticism of previous culinary encounters... But, alas, anarchy reigned supreme. A party of five engaged in a decidedly spirited version of "I Spy" just to keep their dear little Algernon happy. They were somewhat less than successful, however, as the darling child let out several blood-curdling war hoops during the evening and proceeded to make a series of enthusiastic excursions around the perimeter of the table in order to be as distracting as humanly possible.

A number of other large, rambunctious groups were also in residence, but none so heinous as the blatantly obnoxious assemblage of seven women, all of whom were downing creamy preprandial libations at an alarming rate. The cacophony of sound spewing forth from their table would have been almost bearable (almost) were it not for the fact that one particular member of the party, whose offending oral cavity just happened to be poised to inflict maximum damage upon the entire dining area, had taken it upon herself to monopolize the conversation.

The woman's voice reverberated throughout the room like a busted chain saw. Her companions, recognizing furtive, pleading glances from other patrons, did their best to silence her... but to no avail. Studiously ignoring gentle -- and not so gentle -- shushings, she rattled on, leaving a legacy of angry diners in her thunderous semantic wake.

It is often said that youth is wasted on the young and money on the rich... What a shame that an exceptionally pleasant restaurant like The Frenchtown Inn is, on more than a few occasions, wasted on those who apparently have so little respect for its fine cuisine and charming ambiance or their fellow diners.

If you are planning a special sojourn to this lovely establishment, do your best to make reservations on a quiet weekday evening, stake your claim to a cozy nook, and your chances of gastronomic and romantic success will be greatly enhanced.

Cuisine: French/Italian/International
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sat, 12:00 noon - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Fri, 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch, 12:00 noon - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner in the grill room, Tues - Fri, 5:00 p.m. 9:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major except Discover and Diners Club
Attire: Smart Casual; jeans not permitted in the dining room
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar/grill room only
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License and extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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