160 Highway 35
Middletown, Monmouth County, New Jersey
I first reviewed Nicholas in May 2001, a scant five months after its debut; and, interestingly enough, my initial visit came hot on the heels of an evening at the old Ryland Inn (recently completely renovated and reopened under new ownership), at the time, the most highly touted eatery in the Garden State.
The differences between the two establishments, I clearly recall, were readily discernible. The Ryland seemed more like a culinary shrine than a restaurant… the atmosphere was positively funereal… the service overbearingly stiff & formal, elevating obsequiousness to a fine art. And the cuisine was overblown; it felt heavy, cumbersome & pretentious; as if the kitchen tried just too damn hard to impress. In comparison, Nicholas seemed alive and vibrant, pulsating with possibilities. The food had a fresh, contemporary ring. It captured the eye, but not ostentatiously so; and, even more importantly, it beguiled the palate with the purity of its transcendent flavors and tantalizing textures.
And even after numerous visits with different dining partners, we (and they) are still completely blown away by the outstanding quality of the cuisine and the impeccable service. In September 2007 I posted a second review of this restaurant; which was, even at its very inception, the best restaurant in the Garden State. And today, nearly twelve years later, it remains completely unchallenged as New Jersey’s premier dining establishment.
In light of the fact that I’ve already reviewed Nicholas on two separate occasions, rather than launch into a full exposition this time ‘round, I thought I might simply share the joys of a recent meal… And my wife and I always begin in the bar. The contemporary atmosphere is exceedingly comfortable and the perfect venue to enjoy preprandial libations.
There are a number of specialty cocktails, as well as a select list of wines by the glass. With regard to the latter, of particular note are the 2009 Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and the 2009 Santenay (Pinot Noir) from Domaine Oliver Leflaive. The bar is also convenient for spur-of-the-moment dining, as you may pop in without benefit of reservation and dine sumptuously on an assortment of small & large plates and decadent desserts.
But on to the dining room, a serene setting dramatically complemented by the subtly diffused lighting of Robert Kuster’s fiery tubular chandelier (a smaller version is to be found in the restaurant’s foyer). Few establishments can match the subtle ambient nuances exuded here. Ever inviting – but decidedly unstuffy – the casually sophisticated space is the perfect match for the personable service and exquisitely prepared & presented cuisine.
To start things off, my wife selected the chilled Atlantic halibut. The filet was poached, cooled, and then teamed with smoked blackberry purée and figs, with fromage blanc adding just a hint of creaminess. The flesh was pristinely white & beautifully textured, and the infusion of complementary/contrasting accoutrements utterly inspired.
And my appetizer of pickled heirloom baby beets was every bit the halibut’s equal; as picture-perfect as it was delicious. Once again, a perfect gastronomic gestalt, as the chef artfully commingled olive oil mascarpone, Meyer lemon, and diminutive dabs of spinach purée.
As a main course, my wife’s Skuna Bay salmon was nothing short of extraordinary. And here, a word of explanation is in order. Skuna Bay salmon are raised in Nootka Sound, British Columbia, Canada, using farm-raised, non-industrial techniques. The fish are craft-raised without hormones, growth promoters, or antifoulants.
The difference in taste and texture from ordinary Atlantic salmon is palpable; and the careful preparation and presentation is equally impeccable. Two filets were arranged on a pillow of sliced baby summer squash, enhanced with petite pools of pickled blueberry, and adorned with a quinoa tuille.
Ordinarily, I would have opted for the salmon; however, on this occasion, the Rohan duck breast proffered on the early fall menu clearly beckoned. The Rohan duck is a unique crossbreed that is raised naturally, without antibiotics or hormones, and boasts rosy-red, juicy, tender meat that exhibits a mild flavor. In this instance, the breast was roasted, cut into three segments, adorned with slices of baked honey-crisp apple & acorn squash purée, and finished with an assertively addictive port wine reduction. Outstanding in every respect.
In lieu of dessert, we elected to share four (4) cheeses: Mainland New Zealand Cheddar (aged 24 months with a strong piquant flavor and crumbly texture); Brillat Savarin (a cow’s milk, triple-crème brie-style cheese… rich and decadently creamy); Pont-l’évêque (soft & creamy with a fine texture and pungent aroma); Roquefort (piquant and richly flavored…spectacular artisanal-production Roquefort). And nothing goes with cheese quite like several glasses of Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Tawny Port. Fabulous!
As I mentioned in a previous review, and it certainly bears repeating, as it captures the very essence of this extraordinary restaurant: “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.”
Restaurant Nicholas, even after a dozen plus years, still at the very top of its game. An unparalleled dining experience!