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Lahiere's
Restaurant Closed
5 - 11 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 921-2798

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
12/27/1999

Cosmopolitan and cultured -- yet decidedly unstuffy -- this venerable restaurant has been serving generations of Ivy Leaguers since 1919. From the homey ambiance of the main dining room adorned with university memorabilia, to the exposed brick walls in the clubby bar, a spirit of soothing civility pervades throughout. And since Chef Gregg Smith's contemporary American/continental cookery has successfully propelled the kitchen out of its former Gallic doldrums, Lahiere's position as Princeton's esteemed culinary elder statesman remains ever secure.

Make certain you spend some time perusing the award-winning wine list, as there are many excellent vintages from which to choose. If $1,500.00 for a 1982 Chateau Petrus is a bit out of your reach, you might try the first-rate 1997 Markham Merlot ($35.00) or the 1998 Calera Pinot Noir ($36.00). On the other hand, should you prefer white wine, and also don't feel like springing for a full bottle, allow me to suggest an outstanding 1997 Riesling from Trimbach, a most reliable producer located in the Alsatian region of France ($7.95 per glass).

When contemplating your appetizer, keep in mind that Mr. Smith's seared scallops ($12.50) are a perennial favorite here; and, in whatever guise they may appear, these delicious bivalves are a most propitious harbinger of the good things to come. On one occasion, they arrived in the company of sauteed wild mushrooms and an absolutely ambrosial green pea pesto. On another visit, the preparation clearly demonstrated the chef's occasional fortuitous forays into the alluring and colorful world of Asian cookery. They were seared with a pepper crust, presented at table swimming in a slightly spicy Vietnamese broth over a seabed of crunchy shredded cabbage, and crowned with crispy rice noodles. A marvelously creative interplay of tastes and textures.

Also, depending upon the time of the year you pay a call, you may be treated to roasted seasonal oysters embellished with marinated Thai sprouts ($12.00), or rock shrimp with a tomato rouille ($12.00). Rouille is a zippy rust-colored sauce comprised of hot chilies, garlic and olive oil that has been pounded into a paste... and it adds just the right tantalizing touch to these delightfully crisp crustaceans.

If you are fond of soups, as I am, Mr. Smith's exemplary offerings ($5.95) are not to be missed. His black bean is incredibly rich and rustic, exhibiting subtle touches of cilantro and a host of provocative spices; his roasted sweet red pepper and eggplant is heady of body and flavor and enhanced with just a touch of cream.

Entrees are, without doubt, every bit the equal of their predecessors. Mr. Smith has the knack -- which seems to be sadly lacking in many younger chefs -- of making his presentations attractive without indulging in overblown exercises in architectural futility. His selection of ingredients is also right on the money. The various components coalesce into a savory seamless gestalt without a horde of individual items indulging in gastronomic warfare upon the palate. His "Selection of Assorted Grains and Vegetables" ($16.00), which varies daily, is a delightfully delicious case in point. Sauteed baby spinach, haricots vert, shitake mushrooms, broccoli and cauliflower florets, and wedges of cous-cous are arranged around a yummy mound of garlic mashed potatoes. Simple yet sophisticated; as tasty as it is tasteful.

The other main courses -- whether meat, fish or fowl -- demonstrate the same steady hand at the stove. The succulent roasted chicken breast ($19.00), jazzed up with a positively decadent goat cheese-potato puree, crisp sage and caramelized shallots, is anything but ordinary. Ditto the honey glazed roasted duck ($22.00), with papaya wild rice and a charmingly subtle natural sauce adding a decidedly spiffy but still understated touch.

Lovers of flesh may revel in the top-notch grilled filet of beef ($28.00) that receives an added kick from a Mediterranean-style eggplant chutney and roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Even the grilled calves liver ($18.00), a relatively mundane dish, is spruced up with a plethoric variety of roasted veggies, potatoes, and an irresistible onion confit.

It is, however, in matters piscatorial that you are most likely to experience Mr. Smith's splendid Asian accoutrements; and, trust me, his innovative finny fare is well worth seeking out. The pan-roasted Atlantic salmon ($25.00) is bathed in an exotic ginger/cilantro broth replete with barley and garnished with tender baby bok choy. Superb! The same may be said for his sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna ($26.50). It is served rare and is accompanied by shrimp wontons, a warm Thai salad, and an intoxicating kaffir lime/coconut sauce.

Desserts, under the watchful eye of Pastry Chef Jennifer Robinson, don't miss a beat. Her incredible tiramisu ($8.00) is layered with mascarpone cheese mousse, flavored with rum and espresso, and consummated with chocolate sauce. Her bread pudding ($7.00), the ultimate in comfort food, is served warm and embellished with dried fruit, vanilla ice cream, and a dense and delectable apricot sauce. Both are guaranteed to assuage your sweet tooth. On the other hand, the chocolate cup filled with dark chocolate/banana mousse and milk chocolate/hazelnut mousse, crowned with a devastatingly rich chocolate sauce ($8.00) is, without doubt, a chocoholic's sine qua non. Top things off with a potent cup of espresso ($2.25), and your stomach will surely be purring contentedly.

Depending upon your choice of liquid libations, couples should plan to spend in the neighborhood of $125.00 - $140.00 (including tax and gratuity). A fairly ritzy neighborhood, granted. Given the pleasant surroundings and the superior quality of the food and service, however, you are certainly receiving more than your money's worth. Lahiere's continues to be an outstanding choice for sophisticated yet comfortable dining.

Cuisine: Contemporary American/Continental
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: AX, DC, MC, V
Attire: Smart casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar only
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Metered street parking and nearby parking garages
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.lahieres.com

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