The Frog and The Peach
29 Dennis Street at Hiram Square
New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey
By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
March 11, 2002
When Jim Black and Betsy Alger launched their upscale eatery nearly two decades ago, they did so on a stormy sea, indeed. The surrounding neighborhood resembled a burned out battle zone, and "New American" cuisine drew a series of blank stares from most New Jersey diners. Today, gentrification has turned once lowly Dennis Street into "Hiram Square," a haven of attractive townhouses, and The Frog and The Peach has taken its rightful place as the distinguished elder statesman of innovative American cookery in the Garden State.
But this fine establishment would never be accused of resting on its laurels. With former sous chef Bruce Lefebvre now at the helm, the food remains gastronomically challenging without becoming idiosyncratic. Indeed, this fare is as comfortable as it is creative...
Ditto the post-industrial chic surroundings, an interesting amalgam of bustling yet decidedly romantic nooks and crannies. If at all possible, prevail upon your hostess to seat you on the second floor. It's a bit more subdued here, and also gives you ample opportunity to observe the goings-on at the beautifully appointed oak bar below... which, coincidentally, provides a most suitable starting point for your evening's festivities.
Along with some splendid libations, there are also a number of excellent wines available by the glass. The 2000 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($9.00) is subtle and refreshing; the 1998 Stags Leap "Reserve" Chardonnay ($18.00), on the other hand, is infinitely more forward, bold and buttery. In the red wine department, the 1998 Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.00) is an excellent choice, as is the 1997 Silver Oak Cabernet ($20.00). You may also choose a bottle from the award-winning wine list. Tariffs are a bit on the pricey side, but there are some wonderful enological treasures to be had.
The cuisine, as noted above, continues on a solidly creative path... but with some decidedly homey touches. The butternut squash/apple soup ($8.50), for example, is a hearty purée, the perfect culinary companion on a cold winter's night; but it is elegantly embellished with a touch of cinnamon and an artistic drizzle of crème fraîche.
The grilled chicken terrine ($12.50), a menu regular, is also quite robust in nature... yet the chef strikes a most sophisticated chord with the addition of a red onion & pistachio compote and a colorful mix of greenery lightly tossed with an ebullient sherry vinaigrette. A delightful point/counterpoint of both flavors and textures.
The open-faced Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli ($11.00) is a velvety revelation... although it struck me as a trifle on the bland side. The walnut basil pesto and baby fennel greens contribute an additional mellifluent note, but the dish still lacks the proper punch for the palate. This is certainly not the case, however, with a top-notch spinach salad ($12.00), which reaps the benefits of roasted sweet bell peppers, herb-cured black olives, Coach Farms goat cheese, and a zippy sherry vinaigrette.
Entrées are cleverly complex, but the various ingredients complement rather than contradict; they manage to coalesce into a seamless gastronomic gestalt without losing their individual identities. And the special baby pheasant ($29.00) is a delicious case in point. It is pan roasted, and the succulent flesh is endowed with a soy/molasses glaze. Baby carrots, fingerling potatoes, and shiitake mushrooms are added, and then the presentation is finished with a beguiling honey soy broth. This recipe might easily go awry, but Mr. Lefebvre maintains a discreet balance between sweetness and acidity.
Displaying equal finesse is the chef's exquisite grilled breast of Long Island duckling ($29.50). It is served off the bone, with delicate slices arranged on a pillow of basmati and wild rice adorned with sun-dried cranberries, almonds and scallions. An utterly ethereal port wine sauce obviously relishes its role as the ultimate consummating catalyst.
Lovers of red meat will find it impossible to pass up the incomparable tenderloin of angus beef. Even though your carnivorous cravings will set you back a hefty $37.00, this is one filet that is more than worth its elevated price tag. Ordered medium rare, the prodigious portion arrives at table proffering just the proper shade of pink and -- contrary to popular preconceptions regarding this particular cut of meat -- oozing flavor from every juicy pore. Set on a bed of sautéed Swiss chard, it is surrounded by three delectable dollops of whipped potatoes and finished with a heady red wine demi-glace.
The only entrée that seems a bit off the mark is the black pepper-seared yellowfin tuna ($32.50). The fish itself is a pristine specimen, rare, moist and meaty, but even its robust constitution can't stand up to the onslaught of an extremely pungent parsnip purée. Add a touch of shallot confit, a dash of port wine reduction and, in my opinion, you have a dish that is entirely too rich and quirky for its own good.
Desserts, courtesy of French Culinary Institute graduate Luis Vasquez, are outstanding. And the sine qua non of sweet endings is surely his celebrated Napoleon ($9.50), a delectable combo of poached pears and passion fruit-scented dates interspersed with delicate cinnamon phyllo crisps. Coming in a close second is the "Tasting of Chocolate Desserts" ($10.50), an irresistible array of ice creams, cakes and truffles. Of course, you may also opt for the fresh seasonal berries swimming in a decadent vanilla Chantilly cream ($9.00) or an excellent assortment of cheeses ($14.00).
Recent sojourns to The Frog and The Peach have pointed up some rather interesting facts, which, I believe, both diner and critic would do well to keep in mind. First of all, the timing of one's visit will undoubtedly have a great deal to do with the overall enjoyment, or lack thereof, of one's dining experience. Our first call took place a scant ten days before Christmas, with a veritable slew of boisterous holiday parties very much in evidence. It was on this occasion that we encountered a slight disappointment in the dishes noted above. And while the food was certainly quite good, it did not come up to the high standards we had been expecting. The kitchen appeared to be just a smidgen out of sync.
Subsequent visits, during the relatively quiet days of January, however, found Chef Lefebvre and his myrmidons at the very top of their game. Any restaurant, no matter how excellent, may be pushed to the max during certain peak holiday periods. Those in search of an intimate evening at table would do well to plan accordingly...
These thoughts also lead one to suggest that any hired belly worth his/her salt substitute must put in an appearance on more than a single occasion in order to properly evaluate a given eatery. Popping in for a culinary quickie, so to speak -- even with a sizeable entourage in tow -- is likely to yield a host of false impressions. Garden State diners and restaurateurs deserve infinitely more than a one-night stand from their culinary critics.
And no restaurant is more deserving of time and intelligent commentary than The Frog and The Peach... a truly exceptional establishment that has not only survived and prospered during the past nearly twenty years, but has also matured with grace, dignity, and a definitive sense of style. It remains, to this day, one of New Jersey's most delightful and satisfying dining destinations.
Cuisine: New American
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 4:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Valet and street parking
Alcohol: License and extensive wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes