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New Jersey Restaurant Review

160 Highway 35
Middletown, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 345-9977

By The Artful Diner
September 24, 2007

Over six years ago, in my first review of restaurant Nicholas, I penned the following: "A scant five months into its hopefully long and prosperous existence, it is already one of the finest culinary establishments to be found in the grand and glorious Garden State."

I freely confess that, when I posted my original critique, I erred on the side of caution, as I had absolutely no doubts that Nicholas was, even at that time, the most superlative dining experience that New Jersey had to offer. And I believe that, without being immodest, history has certainly proved me correct. So allow me to reiterate, in slightly different words, some of my initial comments, which are even more valid today then when they were first written...

What truly sets restaurant Nicholas apart is Nicholas and Melissa Harary's overwhelming commitment to excellence, their passion to provide their patrons with a lovingly orchestrated harmonious gestalt. Many of the presentations, for example, are consummated at table... yet without the all-too-frequent culinary bravado. The cuisine is fresh and vibrant, alive with the symphonic interplay of exceptional flavors and tantalizing textures. And yet there is simplicity... a clarity, if you will. You find no egoistic enumeration of superfluous ingredients, no contrived architectural oddities assaulting the eye while leaving the palate wanting. The culinary artistry is readily apparent. But it is the artistry of subtle restraint... of purity of form and of substance... of intensity of flavor.

Of course, a number of things have changed in the interim: Long-awaited renovations have been completed, and with them the addition of a sophisticated bar/lounge; and the décor -- initially a sedate study in creams, beiges, and browns -- is now enlivened with subtle splashes of red and a stunningly colorful chandelier. And the personnel has undergone some changes as well. David Santos, formerly of New York's Bouley and Per Se is now the chef de cuisine who brings Mr. Harary's remarkable recipes to glorious fruition.

Nicholas features a three-course menu ($55.00), four-course vegetarian menu ($55.00), and six-course tasting menu ($75.00), as well as a small plates menu that is available in the bar/lounge only. Given the nature of the aforementioned bills of fare -- and the fact that they change seasonally -- it is probably best to simply note the extraordinary dishes I've enjoyed over the course of several visits during various seasons of the year.

Among the most recently sampled starters, for example, are green asparagus, Parisienne gnocchi, and beef carpaccio. The thick asparagus spears are firm, yet tender and finished with an incomparable morel mushroom ragoût; and the beef carpaccio is wafer thin and beautifully paired with pickled ramps, arugula, and fiddlehead ferns. The Parisienne gnocchi, however, is without peer. Made from pâte à choux, versatile dough comprised of flour & water and eggs, the diminutive dumplings are golden brown, yielding to an ethereal epicenter, with sugar snap peas and braised artichokes adding their own unique complementary flavors.

Also forever alive in my taste memory are the "Chilled Seafood Tasting" -- a triptych of marinated oyster in crème fraîche, bluefin tuna & avocado sashimi, and scallop & hazelnut ceviche presented in a lovely triplex serving dish -- and the decadent delights of seared foie gras aided and abetted by quince chutney and spiced cashews.

Then, of course, who could possibly resist the unmitigated joy of delicate flakes of peekytoe crab salad set on an infectiously crunchy coriander tuile chaperoned by a scintillating red pepper vinaigrette, or the breathtakingly tender rabbit ravioli imbued with prune and encompassed by an intense yet delicate ginger broth infused with a hint of sherry vinegar.

Superlatives fail... and choices become more rather than less difficult as you move on to the extraordinary entrées. Just bear in mind that no New Jersey restaurant manages matters piscatorial with such subtle savoir faire as does Nicholas; so fish, in whatever appetizing incarnation may strike Mr. Harary's fancy, is always the ultimate gastronomic gift for both eye and palate.

Wild Copper River salmon, for example, is pan-seared to absolute perfection, set on a texturally contrasting cold bean salad, and consummated with incomparably complementary smoked tomato vinaigrette. And the golden crusted crispy halibut is accompanied by delicate clusters of honshimeji mushrooms, fava beans, and finished with an assertive lemon-caper sauce.

Other transcendent tasting notes include the seductive sweetness of honey- and orange-glazed sablefish paired with caramelized shallots & baby bok choy, and moist and meaty monkfish set on a seabed of lentils, crowned with apple & celery root, and finally gently enveloped in a transporting lentil broth.

When it comes to carnivorous offerings, my favorite remains the braised suckling pig. The absolute pinnacle of the kitchen's refined restraint, the presentation exhibits just the proper contrasting hint of sweet/tart, courtesy of an electrifying interplay between cinnamon jus and tincture of quince. But then I also find it difficult to forget the sumptuously seductive taste and texture of a superbly prepared NY strip steak endowed with a delightful dose of horseradish-marrow butter, or the utter sensuality of seared slices of duck breast in the company of an equally beguiling port plum purée.

Desserts, of course -- whether the ever-evolving créme brûlée trio, ricotta cheese tart, or sublime coconut parfait with pineapple "carpaccio" -- demonstrate the same flair and finesse as their predecessors. If given a choice, however, I would invariably opt for the positively stellar artisanal cheese tasting.

Proprietors Nicholas and Melissa Harary also have a great passion for the fruit of the vine. And given Mr. Hararay's background as sommelier at New York's Jean-Georges, you expect more than the usual assortment of over-oaked and overwrought California cabs and chardonnays -- and, trust me, you will not be disappointed. He has assembled a remarkable prospectus of rare and fine vintages, which are certain to inspire even the most dedicated oenophilist.

So should you be in the mood for the six-course tasting menu -- given the quality, an incredible bargain; and the portion sizes are just right -- I would urge you to take advantage of the wine pairing with each course ($45.00 supplement). Mr. Harary personally chooses the wines for each table, and his choices are, needless to say, outstanding.

Allow me to paraphrase the paragraph with which I closed by initial review of this restaurant in 2001, as it is even more veracious in 2007: "If you have a penchant for the pleasures of the table, you are certain to savor the epicurean delights that an evening at Nicholas will afford. No New Jersey restaurant can measure up to the extraordinarily high standards that are set here. Indeed, this is urbane, sophisticated dining at its finest."

Cuisine: New American
Hours: Dining Room: Sun - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Bar/Lounge: Sun - Thurs, 4:15 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual; jackets preferred but not required
Reservations: Essential in the dining room; first-come, first-served in the bar/lounge
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License; extraordinary wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.restaurantnicholas.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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