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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Matt's Red Rooster Grill
22 Bloomfield Avenue
Flemington, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 788-7050

By The Artful Diner
4/25/05

Most of us have vivid remembrances of foods we relished as children... perhaps the taste of a homey casserole or hearty soup lovingly prepared in mother's kitchen, or the indelible impression made by a certain culinary creation placed before us during one of our earliest restaurant recollections. Since my father was a chef, I have many such reminiscences; but none more compassionately comforting than those incomparable mashed potatoes consumed in a diner on Newark's Springfield Avenue, just a few blocks from my grandparent's brownstone apartment. I was a mere child -- 7 if that -- but the memory of that utterly hedonistic encounter has slumbered serenely on my palate, waiting patiently to be reawakened.

And then, several weeks ago, while dining at Matt's Red Rooster Grill, I experienced what could only be described as a sybaritic epiphany. For there, lurking unobtrusively beneath my tender filet, I discovered a sensuous pillow of whipped potatoes that prompted the most overwhelming sense of gastronomic déjà vu I have ever experienced. The flavor... the texture... the subtle hint of garlic... of seasonings... of butter and cream... all in just the proper proportions. A childhood taste memory brought to ultimate fulfillment.

But I digress... The Red Rooster Grill is about infinitely more than mashed potatoes, however glorious they may be. Chef/proprietor Matt McPherson, former chef du cuisine at Hamilton's Grill Room in Lambertville, presides over one of the most exciting culinary properties to hit the Flemington area in a long, long time. Domiciled in a venerable old building lovingly restored by Pickell Architecture, the restaurant is comprised of two floors that are innovatively but tastefully adorned. The first floor, which contains a bustling open kitchen, can become quite boisterous; the second floor is (relatively) more sedate.

Mr. McPherson likes to refer to his establishment as an "American chophouse." The cuisine is reassuringly and restoratively robust, yet is decidedly sophisticated in both preparation and presentation; it also, as you would surmise, emphasizes the chef's considerable talents at the grill.

Soups ($6.50) hold a prominent place among the starters, and as there is always a triptych of possibilities present and accounted for on the printed menu, Mr. McPherson wisely gives patrons the opportunity to sample all three ($7.50). You may, for example, be treated to the unmitigated pleasure of a sensuously subtle split pea garnished with a tiara of crisp crumbled bacon in the distinguished company of a wild mushroom broth with port chive cream and caramelized three-onion soup with sherry and shaved Gruyere. On another occasion, an intensely flavorful purée of roasted carrot and ginger may take center stage or, perhaps, a Manhattan-style seafood chowder.

On a more substantive note, the tower of tuna tartare ($12.00) is an excellent choice. The unctuous obelisk is crowned with wasabi cream and presented with oblong crisscrossed toasts and soy dipping sauce. Also highly recommended is the vegetable terrine ($9.00) -- slender strips of eggplant, roasted red pepper, and zucchini separated by layers of creamy goat cheese -- garnished with fresh greens and artistic waves of sweet balsamic and chive oil. On the other hand, if you'd prefer greenery, the baby spinach salad ($7.00) and the grilled romaine doused with Parmesan dressing ($7.00) -- the current culinary rage -- are both good bets.

Entrées highlight Mr. McPherson's love affair with the grill. And should you entertain a passion for finny fare, the grilled whole fish of the day ($26.00) (branzino during my two most recent visits) -- which may be served intact or filleted in the kitchen -- is clearly the way to go. The skin is crisp and crackling, the flesh marvelously moist, and the accompanying lemon caper butter stunning in its simplicity. The grilled scallops ($27.00), a daily special, were also quite nice, although I found the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette a touch too astringent.

The pork chop roulade ($22.00) is another winner. The meat is pounded thin then rolled with provolone, Swiss, and mixed herbs and grilled to tender perfection. The consummating touch is a heady mushroom Marsala sauce.

Lovers of red meat, of course, also have some very appetizing choices: rib-eye steak with cabernet demi-glace ($23.00), for instance, or peppercorn-encrusted New York strip with tarragon shallot butter ($26.00). As noted above, however, I opted for the filet mignon ($32.00). Velvety of texture and grilled to a mouthwatering medium rare, you will find the accompanying blue cheese sauce vividly assertive but not overpowering.

Accoutrements vary... With the pork and beef presentations, you may be treated to those fabulous echoes-of-my-childhood garlic whipped potatoes or a lovely amalgam of mashed Idaho and sweet potatoes; piscatorial presentations, on the other hand, are likely to be partnered with orzo or couscous. Vegetable medleys also change from day to day. On one occasion, a nicely seasoned combo of shredded cabbage, zucchini, red onions, and red peppers; on another, crunchy haricots verts and sugar snap peas spruced up with julienne carrots and delicate slices of red pepper.

Desserts ($7.00), all made on the premises, are worth both the additional calories and the added expenditure. Topping my list is a moist island of vanilla bread pudding surrounded by a sea of rich dark chocolate. Disarmingly decadent. Coming in a close second is a creamy peanut butter torte built on a benchmark graham cracker crust and topped with a luscious layer of chocolate drizzled with caramel sauce.

As I noted above, Matt's Red Rooster Grill is one of the most appealing eateries to make the scene in this neck-of-the-woods in quite some time. Just how appealing? On our most recent visit, my wife and I drove an hour and fifteen minutes through a driving rainstorm in order to put in an appearance. Given the inclement weather, we were certain the precincts would be sparsely populated at best. But we were dead wrong. Even at 6:00 p.m., a relatively early hour on a Saturday evening, the joint was already jumping.

Even though the restaurant has only been in operation a scant five months and has yet to engage in a formal advertising campaign, word has obviously already gotten out... and, trust me, it's all been good. Once the gastronomic hordes descend in earnest, I have no doubt that tables will be at a premium. If you want to beat the crowds, the time to make reservations is NOW... And, as an added incentive, beginning the first week of May, Matt's Red Rooster Grill will be open for lunch Thursday - Saturday. Be sure to call for exact hours.

Cuisine: American Chophouse/Grilled Specialties
Hours: Lunch: Thurs - Sat, beginning first week of May; Dinner: Mon - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - Until; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended; essential on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.mattsredroostergrill.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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