Intellectually rich... Gastronomically impoverished. This has long been Princeton's well-deserved reputation. Fortunately, over the past several years, things have begun to change for the better. And at least part of the reason for this community's restaurant renaissance is Main Street, an extremely popular eatery located in the Princeton Shopping Center.
The food here is not world-class--but then you don't expect it to be. What you do expect is solid bistro fare that is carefully prepared and presented, eminently satisfying and reasonably priced... and that, for the most part, is precisely what you get. In addition, this establishment has a host of other pluses to recommend it.
Chief among them is the cozy bar/lounge. Oak and "banker's green" predominate here, along with a tasteful array of black and white photographs. This sedate Ivy League enclave is the perfect spot for an afternoon stopover or some preprandial refreshment. Indeed, there are always a dozen or so excellent wines available by the glass; and a host of draft micro-brews, spirits, aperitifs, cordials and assorted coffee concoctions round out the interesting roster of libations.
The spacious dining area, boasting an open kitchen and well-spaced glass-topped tables, exudes it own unique brand of charm. It manages to be both light and airy by day and appropriately romantic by night. In warmer weather, you may even take your meals alfresco beneath the green and white canopy in the shopping center's interior courtyard.
At whatever time of day you decide to pay a call, you will undoubtedly discover said dining room populated by a highly diverse and fascinating clientele. Expect to encounter, for example, very proper Princetonian ladies chatting very properly over their Perrier and white wine, illustrious representatives of the business community busily engaged in the latest episode of "office intrigue," rumpled professorial types picking absent-mindedly at their plates while poring over the latest epistemological tome, assorted celebratory gatherings, couples of every age, shape and persuasion. Not your typical boring crowd, by any stretch of the imagination. If you're in the mood for a little social and cerebral stimulation at table, you've come to the right place.
But back to the food... The menu is a well-rounded and well-traveled affair, a provocative blend of culinary constants and monthly (rather than daily) specials. During the bleak days of February and March, for instance, patrons were treated to several hearty stews: Coq au Vin from France; Eintropf, a beef stew from Germany; Stufato, an Italian veal stew; and Pei Mei Jou, a Chinese pork stew. Additionally, the sautéed calf's liver with grilled onions, mushrooms and a balsamic demi-glace, and side dishes like stick-to-your-ribs caramelized onion mashed potatoes epitomized the more robust winter fare.
With the coming of warmer weather, as you might anticipate, the offerings have lightened up considerably. However, whatever the time of your visit, be assured that you will be treated to the freshest ingredients the various seasons have to offer. A recent sojourn featured such appetizing starters as steamed spring asparagus and braised leeks artfully presented with an absolutely intoxicating citrus vinaigrette. The Prince Edward Island mussels, served in a broth of white wine, garlic, parsley, butter and Parmesan, are also highly recommended. They join such other delectable staples as bruschetta caponata, con queso dip (layers of avocado puree, southwestern spread, grated cheeses, chilies, tomatoes and scallions) with yellow and blue corn chips, and Asian spring rolls accompanied by a positively addictive wasabi mayonnaise.
Entrees also present a number of interesting possibilities. When in season, soft-shell crabs are an absolute must here. They are served up in a classic lemon caper sauce, and are simply delicious. Roast filet of salmon is a permanent fixture on the menu, and with good reason. It is dusted with sun-dried tomatoes and herbs, presented on a bed of broccoli rabe and finished with lemon aioli. I could eat this dish every night of the week. Well... perhaps I might be persuaded to alternate it with the "Stracotto," an Italian-style pot roast braised in Chianti wine and served with egg noodles. My wife, on the other hand, would have no difficulty subsisting on the tasty shrimp Creole. Of course, for those who would prefer to keep it simple, there's always the grilled Black Angus strip steak with cabernet butter.
One of the advantages of chowing down at Main Street is that you are not restricted to the entrees; for those in the mood for somewhat lighter fare, a number of salads, sandwiches and pastas present viable (and delicious) alternatives. I personally recommend the grilled chicken and feta salad with balsamic vinaigrette. Ditto the grilled portobello mushroom salad with spring asparagus. In the sandwich department, why not give the mahi mahi burger a try? It's grilled and then garnished with the aforementioned wasabi mayonnaise, tomato-sesame relish and pickled ginger. Thinking along more traditional lines? The savory chicken pot pie special, served Sunday through Thursday evenings only, may be just the ticket.
If the kitchen has one weakness, it is that it is prone to make occasional--and, I might add, ill advised--overtures toward the East. Case in point: pasta panang. Thai-style spaghetti is combined with grilled chicken, leeks, carrots and cilantro in a sweet and sour satay (peanut) sauce. As usual, the chicken is perfectly prepared; ditto the spaghetti. Unfortunately, both are smothered in a sauce that is so cloyingly sweet it takes only a few bites to set your teeth on edge and send your taste buds running for cover. The dish is also served piping hot--and with good reason. Once it begins to cool, the sauce's viscosity index degenerates to that of Crazy Glue with frightening speed, imprisoning one's utensils (and dental work) in a viselike grip.
Apart from this faux pas, however, all other comestibles sampled have been consistently good--and that includes the scrumptious desserts from Main Street's own bakery. Like the entrees, a number of these change with the seasons. But the star of this sweet show is undeniably the Mississippi mud cake, a dense, rich chocolate bourbon bundt cake that is certain to propel chocoholics into a state of incomparable ecstasy. And while you're at it, be sure to go whole hog. Garnish it with both the yummy raspberry sauce AND the homemade vanilla ice cream.
While prices are extremely reasonable (entrees averaging in the mid- to upper-teens, with main course salads, pastas and sandwiches going for significantly less), wine tariffs are a tad on the elevated side. The "Proprietor's List," for example, holds some marvelous treasures... but dropping $50.00 - $100.00 for a bottle of vino here seems like an exercise in oenological (as well as fiscal) futility.
A far more effective stratagem is to make a selection from the short list of monthly-featured wines. These are invariably good/excellent vintages that have been specially discounted or are less expensive than those on the "Proprietor's List." Depending on the luck of the draw, you may discover a 1995 Torres Sangre de Toro, a perfectly agreeable red wine from Spain, normally $19.00, going for $14.95 per bottle or $3.95 per glass. A marvelously crisp and flavorful 1996 Lagaria Pinot Grigio from Italy is also a steal at $14.95/$3.95. For just a few dollars more, we've also sampled a spectacular Columbia Crest Merlot from Washington State at $22.00/$5.95, a 1996 Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc at $22.50/$5.95, and another lovely Spanish red, a 1995 Scala Dei "El Cipres," at $20.00/$5.25.
Like a good marriage, food and wine should always enjoy a complementary and harmonious relationship. In other words, this establishment's solid bistro fare is best served by wines that are equally hearty and robust--and relatively inexpensive. Those in the above price category, I believe, fill the bill quite nicely. There is absolutely no reason to pay more.
Just one final note... Dining at Main Street is like enjoying a casual, comfortable meal with an old and dear friend; there are no pretensions, just good food, excellent service and a warm, inviting atmosphere. My wife and I discovered this charming restaurant several years ago, and we have been back on a regular basis ever since. No matter how far afield you may travel in search of a suitable scratch for your culinary itch, you'll always be happy to settle down at table here once again.
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: MC, V
Smoking: This is a nonsmoking restaurant
Reservations: Accepted for five or more only
Parking: Ample shopping center parking
Online: Main Street Bistro
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