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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Hamilton's Grill Room
8 Coryell Street
Lambertville, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(609) 397-4343

By The Artful Diner
May 10, 2004

The second in a two-part series of Lambertville restaurant reviews...

If you've never chowed down at Hamilton's Grill Room, your first sojourn is likely to turn into a frustrating game of hide-and-seek. The address is 8 Coryell Street, but this is something of a prevarication, as the restaurant is sequestered away in what is known as the "Porkyard," a complex of buildings that once housed a slaughterhouse and meat smoking facility. So... park your car on Coryell and meander down the alleyway directly opposite Finkle's Hardware Store. Just before you reach the cul-de-sac, take a gander to your left... Voilà!

But before crossing the threshold, hang a right and make a detour into the Boat House. Here, among two rustic tiers of seafaring and historical memorabilia, you and your spouse/significant other may enjoy a cozy preprandial libation. In addition to the usual (and unusual) assortment of cocktails, there is also a compact and very reasonably priced list of vintages available by both the glass and the bottle. Consider, for example: 2002 Dry Creek Fumé Blanc ($5.00/$20.00), 2001 Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay ($7.00/$28.00), 2000 Joseph Drouhin Pinot Noir ($4.50/$18.00), and 2001 Ravenswood Zinfandel ($4.75/$19.00).

And now, with nether regions thoroughly warmed and palate sufficiently primed, you're ready to embark upon the short journey across the courtyard and the spirited and pleasurable pursuit of more substantive ingestion. And Hamilton's offers a variety of venues to assuage your hunger... These include al fresco dining in warmer weather and a host of intriguing interior possibilities as well.

There is, of course, the actual "Grill Room." Here, surrounded by a sea of crushed ice awash with the former inhabitants of Davy Jones' locker and an equally appealing collection of meaty comestibles all awaiting their baptism of fire, executive chef Mark Miller holds court. This is really more of an antechamber, however; and it is usually quite noisy and bustling. Infinitely more sedate is the "Gallery," boasting a comfortable pillow-lined couch and 10-by-10-foot reproduction of a nude originally painted by Titian (see photograph). But if you're really in the mood to indulge in a bit of gastronomic erotica, check out the intimate "Bishop's Room," which is guaranteed to stimulate your libido as well as your appetite, courtesy of a reproduction of Edouard Manet's provocative "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe."

Once settled in comfortably at table, you realize immediately that this restaurant doesn't cater to the usual "grab 'n' growl" clientele. No, you've obviously fallen in with the artsy-fartsy crowd; and their decidedly cumbrous conversational junkets may take them as far afield as the schematics of Harvard Yard... the epistemological implications of the war on terrorism... or the deleterious effects of doggy droppings on the rotary lawnmower.

But, hey, you didn't come to gawk at the artwork or eavesdrop on patrons' pretentious palaver... you came for the food. And, with one or two exceptions, Mr. Miller delivers on his promises.

Appetizers are especially recommended, as they are excellent across-the-board. And the charcuterie plate ($10.50), a menu mainstay, is always a good bet. Recently sampled was a marvelous warm pork terrine in the company of lean and luscious ultra-thin slices of prosciutto di Parma and chunks of manchego cheese. The only quibble here is that the cheese had obviously just emerged from the fridge and lacked the proper flavor until it warmed up to its companions.

The grilled shrimp ($9.75) are also popular permanent residents. Appropriately crunchy to the bite, they are kissed by a salty and sensuous anchovy butter. And speaking of sensuous... this is surely the only word that adequately describes the incredible chicken liver pâté ($8.00). Prepared on a bed of fresh greens with cornichons, crumbled hard-cooked egg, and a tangy mustard, it is a silky revelation to the palate.

The duck spring roll ($10.00), a special of the evening, is more exotic of disposition but no less rewarding. The exterior is delightfully crispy, yielding to a rich, succulent core. The soy dipping sauce makes a most suitable companion, but it is the lusty, high-powered shredded carrot-ginger salad that truly propels this presentation into orbit.

Main courses, unfortunately, are destined to yield a few disappointments. As is the case in many restaurants, entrées fail to reach the same lofty heights as their illustrious predecessors. And, interestingly enough, while grilling is usually considered a macho form of cookery and has been known to inflict irreparable damage on the delicate denizens of the deep, if you are a connoisseur of seafood, you will undoubtedly fare infinitely better than those who elect to engage in more carnivorous pursuits.

If you wish to minimize the possibility of misfortune, you would do well to cast your lot with the grilled whole fish of the day ($24.00). This pristine specimen is invariably beautifully charred on the outside and wonderfully moist and flaky at the interior. It reaches the table completely intact, and you may do the filleting honors yourself or opt to have your server perform the task. The red snapper, for example, is absolutely the most delectable representative of this particular genre that I have sampled anywhere. Served up with an engaging artichoke tapenade, the fish is perfectly complemented by a triptych of braised cabbage, julienne carrots, and basmati rice. On a subsequent visit, the black sea bass is equally up to the mark... ditto the scallops ($25.00) adorned with mango salsa.

Meaty matters, however, are somewhat problematic. The grilled rib-eye ($22.00), a house favorite, arrives at table a perfect medium rare, nicely textured, and slathered with a potent chipotle barbecue sauce... But the excessively thick coating proves to be too much of a good thing, completely obviating the natural flavor of the beef. The presentation would have been infinitely more effective with a lighter touch or with the sauce served on the side.

The difficulty with the veal chop stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella, and mushrooms ($30.00) appears to be more a matter of quality (or lack thereof) than of quantity. Actually, this is quite a tasty combo... but the chop is inordinately fatty with precious little meat to justify its lofty price tag.

Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Deborah Croll, return a welcome note of consistency to the proceedings. Topping my list is Ms. Croll's delightfully decadent cappuccino mousse ($6.50), luscious layers of dark chocolate, espresso, and caramel. Her creamy vanilla cheesecake ($6.50) places second, with the raspberry/blueberry jelly roll ($6.50) running a distant third. The cherry tart with white chocolate topping ($6.00) isn't bad either... unfortunately, the almond crust appears to have been produced in the Jurassic period.

An additional note -- and one that has been known to put an instant burr under the saddle of numerous diners, this one included -- the restaurant does not offer espresso... In its sixteen-year history, according to our server, it has NEVER offered espresso. Something to do, apparently, with the spatial logistics. An anomaly, indeed. Infinitely smaller eateries have managed to find room to squeeze an espresso maker into this corner or that for the sake of their patrons' enjoyment. I find it difficult to believe that an establishment of this caliber is unable or unwilling to make a concerted effort in this regard.

Hamilton's Grill Room is a fine restaurant, and one to which I would gladly return at the drop of a fork. And there is no question that Mark Miller is an accomplished chef. His appetizers are beautifully prepared and presented, and his grilled whole fishes are incomparable. The only problem to be overcome is the lack of consistency with regard to a number of entrées. Once the kitchen's penchant for minor miscues has been resolved, this charming establishment will surely attain its rightful place as one of the Garden State's premier dining destinations.

Cuisine: Mediterranean/Grilled Specialties
Hours: Dinner: Mon - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Parking: Street parking
Alcohol: BYOB... unless you are seated in the room connected to the bar across the courtyard
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.hamiltonsgrillroom.com

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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