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Hannah & Mason's

(Restaurant Now Closed)
39 North Main Street
Cranbury, Middlesex County, New Jersey
(609) 655-3220

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
January 31, 2005

After several false starts -- debuting at another location... moving to their current domicile... closing to make renovations and improvements required by the town's building code... reopening again -- proprietor John Davison and his partner, chef Chris Posner, finally appear to be hitting their stride... And not a moment too soon.

I say this because Cranbury, although a charmingly bucolic little community, has never been known as a bastion of gastronomy. The closest representatives to upscale dining are the Cranbury Inn, just up the street, and the nearby Cranbury Station on Route 130. Neither has been particularly notable for the quality of its vittles. So Hannah & Mason's contemporary American cuisine fills the gourmet gap quite nicely. Mr. Posner's culinary offerings, which sport a number of intriguing international subtitles, are creative yet comfortable; they succeed in engaging both the eye and the palate without alienating those who may possess less adventurous appetites.

The rustically romantic atmosphere, of course, helps matters along considerably. (This restaurant was also cited as one of my "Top Ten for Romantic Dining 2005.") The converted old house boasts three cozy dining areas -- two down, one up -- polished wood floors, subdued lighting, votive candles, well-spaced tables, and crisp white napery. The fact that you may tote along a wine of your own choosing -- and various vintages are very much in evidence -- is yet another checkmark in the plus column.

And so... a basket of assorted breads, a pinch of dry herbs, a pouring of olive oil and you're on your way...

Appetizers are particularly well conceived and executed: Three meaty, beautifully seared scallops are wrapped in applewood bacon, set on a pillow of rösti potatoes, and finished with a superb cream sauce redolent of roasted leeks ($11.00); a cracker-encrusted jumbo lump crab cake is gently sautéed, the sweet, succulent meat exquisitely counterpoised via a red pepper rouille and avocado quenelle ($12.00); a Napoleon of house-made mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, red onion, and roasted red peppers is consummated with a balsamic drizzle and garnished with impeccably fresh greenery ($9.00). All, it should be noted are pleasing to the eye yet not anxiously "artsy-fartsy" or architecturally overwrought.

Given the courtly care apparently lavished on the starters, the state of the salads is somewhat difficult to fathom. Both the Caesar ($8.00 with entrée; $15.00 as an entrée) and the arugula ($10.00 with entrée; $17.00 as an entrée) were abundant apportionments and appeared somewhat disheveled, as if the various components had been piled willy-nilly upon their respective plates. The Caesar's romaine leaves were brown around the edges, the garlic croutons and Parmesan tuile were stale, and the dressing lacked punch. The arugula was impeccably fresh but not well trimmed, the promised Granny Smith apples, Bosc pear, and bleu cheese were rather parsimoniously administered, and the cranberry vinaigrette too meagerly applied to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

On the other hand, the soups sampled were right on the money. The tomato bisque ($7.00) was coarsely puréed and awash with rice and specks of prosciutto; the seasoning was both savory and savvy, neither too assertive nor too bland. And the pottage of portobello ($7.00), earthy of disposition but ethereal of countenance, hit similarly high notes.

Among the main courses, the only disappointment proved to be a daily special, the chicken Napoleon ($23.00), spinach and roasted red peppers sandwiched between two boneless sautéed chicken breasts topped with Maytag bleu cheese. A nice idea, but even with a tiara of bleu cheese pointing the way, the dish was significantly less than exciting, and the chicken was dry and overcooked.

That said, however, the other entrées acquitted themselves with suitable distinction. A presentation of sautéed shrimp and scallops Provençal ($24.00) -- appropriately adorned with garlic, white wine, tomato, olives, spinach, pinch of fresh herbs, and set on a seabed of al dente linguine -- was first-class in every respect. Both the crustaceans and the bivalves were at the peak of good health: the former congruously crunchy, the latter, sensuous and meaty.

Pan-seared breast of duck imbued with a honey and Vermont maple glaze ($25.00) is another of Mr. Posner's specialties. Artistically arranged, lusciously thin slices take center stage, while pear & quince chutney and pumpkin ravioli exercise strong supporting roles.

The aforementioned successes notwithstanding, based upon my own dining experiences, red meat appears to be the kitchen's strong suit. The filet mignon au gratin ($28.00), for instance -- dusted with porcini mushrooms, crowned with bleu cheese, and accompanied by garlicky mashed potatoes and firm-to-the-bite haricots verts -- is prepared to a perfect medium rare and consummated with a heady port wine reduction and toasted walnuts. The texture is pure velvet and, yes, it does, to quote that hackneyed old cliché, "cut like butter."

A variation on the theme presents diners with equally tempting twin tournedos dressed with candied shallots, green peppercorn sauce, and partnered with tender rösti potatoes ($26.00). For those with a king-size appetite, theres always Mason's king-cut rib eye garnished with a garlic confit and roasted crimini mushrooms ($26.00).

Given the spatial limitations of the kitchen, most desserts ($6.75) are imported from outside sources and, to be perfectly frank, aren't worth either the extra calories or the added expense. The crème brûlée, however, IS made in house and, in whatever guise it may appear, it is always a sure winner. Team it up with a potent cup of espresso ($3.00) and you have a most pleasurable postlude to any meal.

Despite an occasional glitch, Hannah & Mason's is a restaurant that is easy to enjoy. No matter what the company or the occasion, it offers its patrons a satisfying and rewarding dining experience.

Cuisine: Contemporary American with international touches
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Fri & Sat 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended at lunch; essential at dinner
Parking: Street parking; bank parking lot opposite the restaurant
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Difficult
Web Site: www.hannahandmasons.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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