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29 Hullfish Street
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 252-9680

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Forget any negative vibes you may have heard about Mediterra's cuisine of late... There's a new executive chef in town, and he has culinary matters well in hand. A native of Italy, Gabriele Grigolon is an alumnus of several illustrious European kitchens: Il Cortile, a one-star Michelin restaurant in Paris under the management of Alain Ducasse; the Hotel de Paris and Harry's Bar in Monte Carlo; and Aimo e Nadia, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Milan. And while impeccable credentials do not necessarily translate into impeccable cuisine, if Mr. Grigolon's newly unveiled menu is any indication, Princeton's Ivy Leaguers can look forward to some first-rate dining in the days to come.

Ensconced on the ground floor of a retail/office complex just behind Palmer Square, Mediterra is a cheery, bustling kind of place that attracts a widely diverse clientele. This is especially apparent in warmer weather, when tables spill out toward an attractive piazza replete with bubbling fountain. And Mr. Grigolon's casual yet decidedly focused Mediterranean fare is the perfect complement to this festive environment. There's a lusty, rustic edge to the food here... but the chef never loses his artistic perspective; his presentations are as attractive as they are palatable.

If you really want to get a feeling for what this kitchen is about, begin with a convivial combo of roasted red pepper hummus, baba ghanoush, and roasted black bean hummus accompanied by grilled lavash (Armenian cracker bread) and Parmesan crostini ($8.00). What sets this dish apart from those of similar (but inferior) ilk is that, rather than allowing the three constituents to degenerate into an amorphous garlicky witch's brew, the chef permits each to maintain its own uniquely flavorful integrity. The red pepper is subtle and sophisticated, the black bean decidedly racy, the baba ghanoush pungent of tone and silky of texture.

The panzanella, a luscious bread and tomato salad ($9.00) spruced up with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and a touch of basil, is also highly recommended. The special lentil soup ($6.00) sporting a prosciutto stock is also quite good, albeit a trifle bland.

Other preludes include plump and succulent steamed Prince Edward Island mussels swimming in a savory broth redolent of cracked black pepper & lemon ($12.00) and a jumbo lump blue crab cake kissed by a sweet corn saffron cream sauce and chaperoned by fried shoestring potatoes ($14.00). Both are up to the mark.

Seafood also holds a prominent place among the entrées... The sautéed tilapia ($24.00), a daily special, is moist and flaky, an embellishment of cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives in a light white wine sauce providing a most suitable counterpoint to its endemically bland countenance. The Alaskan halibut ($25.00) is beautifully pan seared, although just a touch overdone, and garnished with a Yukon gold potato pancake, delicious disc of vegetable ratatouille, and splash of basil olio. The addictively crunchy sautéed jumbo shrimp ($26.00) reap the benefits of a jasmine rice pilaf, oyster mushroom confit, and invigorating garlic sauce.

The rosemary-marinated free-range breast of chicken paillard ($22.00) is another auspicious choice. The paillard, it should be noted, is a delectable and delicate creature, easily bruised and abused in the infernal conflagrations of the grill... But in the chef's capable hands it remains juicy and tender to the last, reclining on a savory pillow of smashed roasted Yukon gold potatoes and local Swiss chard.

The farfalle with morsels of seared salmon, diced tomatoes, creamy goat cheese, and spinach ($16.00) is quite excellent, as is the parrillada ($28.00) -- grilled chorizo sausage, flank steak, lamb chops, marinated chicken, Jersey corn, and olive oil whipped potatoes -- surely a carnivore's dream-come-true.

Since Mr. Grigolon is an accomplished pastry chef, your sweet endings are also in good hands. His fresh fruit tarts ($8.00), which receive prominent display in the dining room, are exquisite in their homespun simplicity. The crusts are rich and buttery, the fillings, whether mixed berries or apple almond crème, a sensual delight. The blueberry bread pudding ($7.00), a robust, tantalizing treat kissed by crème anglaise ($7.00), is also not to be missed.

As you would easily surmise, Mediterra is an extremely busy and popular eatery. And yet, even on hectic, free-for-all Saturday nights, from what I've observed, the young servers have matters well in hand. And members of the management team restlessly prowl their assigned precincts, striking up a conversation here, lending a helping hand there, proudly introducing their new executive chef to the establishment's enthusiastic patrons. All concerned appear to be putting forth a concerted effort to make your dining experience as pleasant as humanly possible.

When I first reviewed this restaurant, nearly four ago (10/5/98), I was equally high on the cuisine; the only downer I noted was the less than sparkling condition of the restrooms. I am happy to report that that condition has now been rectified... the facilities are completely up to snuff.

Mediterra is highly recommendable on all counts.

Cuisine: Mediterranean
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:30 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat: 11:30 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, Noon - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V, DC
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Parking: Limited street parking and several nearby parking garages
Alcohol: License; excellent international wine list
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: mediterrarestaurant.com

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