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 Pluckemin Inn
359 Route 202/206
Bedminster, Somerset County, NJ
(908) 658-9292

By The Artful Diner
March 28, 2009

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Almost every professional hired belly within reasonable commuting distance has bestowed his/her culinary imprimatur upon Carl and Gloria LaGrassa's Pluckemin Inn... and with good reason. The atmosphere is sophisticated but unstuffy, the service is impeccable, the wine list is every oenophile's dream, and the cuisine,,,

Ah, yes... the cuisine. Executive Chef David C. Felton's au courant American fare is utterly transporting. Contemporary, to be sure, but not convoluted. Thoroughly attractive to the eye but not anachronistic. There is a pristine, unencumbered quality with regard to the select utilization of ingredients, as well as their integration & presentation. The style is reminiscent of my dining experiences at Restaurant Nicholas, which puts Mr. Felton in illustrious company, indeed.

The menu presents a number of diverse dining choices, including a four-course winter prix fixe, a comparative bargain at $45.00 per person (an additional $30.00 per person for appropriate wine pairings).

For my money, however, more interesting things are happening on the à la carte side. Here you find four categories. The first and second are basically appetizers, while sections three and four enumerate fish and meats, respectively. Several of these latter may also be ordered in appetizer portions. And, if the mood strikes, you are also permitted to import items from the aforementioned prix fixe.

If you really want to see what the kitchen can do, and also wish to cover a variety of gastronomic bases, my advice is to choose one item from section one or two, move one to a diminutive fish course; and then, depending upon the state of your appetite, choose an entrée size or abbreviated version from the meat course.

During a recent visit, for example, starters included an arugula salad and the marinated cauliflower ferried in from the prix fixe menu. The former incorporated hints of basil, delicate slices of mango, Surryano ham (the American counterpart to European prosciutto and Serrano ham), Marcona almonds, and smoked crumbles of blue cheese. The peppery arugula was beautifully trimmed, the ham lean and luscious, and the other participants beguilingly complementary in their supporting roles.

The cauliflower was ingratiatingly firm to the bite and teamed with pungent slices of local apples, while bacon bits and segments of green olives provided an earthy point/counterpoint. An irresistibly enticing coalescence of tastes and textures.  

The fish course yielded two unmitigated delights. The first was the black cod. This is one finny creature that possesses a somewhat finicky countenance. If undercooked, it is very nearly inedible; if overcooked, the delicate flesh can turn mealy. Here, however, it was prepared to absolute perfection, exhibiting just a touch of translucence at the center and accompanied by a winning combo of soba noodles, bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms. The consummatory touch was provided by an ambrosial apple-scented miso broth that was administered at table. Incomparable...

The very same may be said of the pan-seared halibut filet, a special of the evening. Beneath the golden brown crust, the flesh was snowy white and beautifully textured. It was set on an emerald seabed of smoked green pea purée and crowned with a tiara of micro greens. A superlative effort.

And meat dishes demonstrate the same careful attention to detail, the same judicious utilization of ingredients, and the same subtle restraint as their piscatorial predecessors. The lamb shank, for example, literally falls off the bone and is rife with distinctive nuances of lamby flavor. Set on a creamy pillow of Anson Mills polenta, provocative finishing touches include an olive purée and the understated acidity of gremolata.

The pasture-raised veal loin is yet another striking example of the kitchen's prowess. The thick slices are incredibly tender while still maintaining their textural integrity. And they are teamed with ethereal nuggets of Parmesan gnocchi and finished with an exquisite vin Jura.

Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Joseph Gabriel, certainly carry on with style. And those that I sampled -namely, the Valrhona chocolate timeline and jasmine tea rice pudding tart -are served up on large oblong plates and obviously draw their inspiration from Bento, a Japanese-style take-away in which a box is divided into numerous small compartments. The chocolate timeline, for instance, is comprised of Aztec hot cocoa, peanut butter sablé torte, and a frozen chocolate pudding pop; the rice pudding tart is companioned by caramelized pear, funnel cake, and a dollop of pear & jasmine sorbet.

There is absolutely no question that Mr. Gabriel's creations charm both the eye and the palate. On the other hand, after indulging in a variety of sumptuously innovative appetizers and entrées, I would have preferred denouements that were slightly less sweet and picture-perfectly over-the-top. I realize, of course, that this is strictly a personal preference and that others may disagree -my wife, for instance!

And for those who would prefer to do lunch, the "Plucky" tavern is a great place to settle in for a casual repast (the restaurant also serves lunch on Saturdays). The menu includes a variety of starters, sandwiches, and entrées, as well as a three-course "Power Lunch" priced at $25.00 per person.

Recently sampled were the fish'n chips and a hand-rolled pasta dish. The pasta was superb, firm to the bite and awash with an appetizing array of tender morsels of chicken, zesty Tasso ham, and crimini mushrooms. The fish n' chips were accompanied by ramekins of malt vinegar, remoulade, and ketchup. And while the fries were first-rate and the quality of the fish excellent, the batter, though judiciously applied, was quite soggy. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the lunch chef during the week is different from the one who held forth during out Saturday visit. Despite this relatively minor faux pas, however, I generally found the cuisine to be exceptional with regard to both preparation and presentation.

The fruit of the vine also plays an important part in the Pluckemin Inn's approach to matters gastronomic... as the three-story glass wine tower, which holds approximately 15,000 bottles, clearly attests. And sommelier/beverage director Brian Hider is ever on hand to assist with your oenological preferences. Does a bottle of 1934 Romanée-Conti tickle your fancy...? It can be yours for a mere $25,000.

On the other hand, the restaurant also stocks an exceedingly wide range of reasonably priced vintages, as well as outstanding options by the glass- -including a top-flight Chassagne-Montrachet--and an intriguing selection of "Plucky" cocktails.

As I've mentioned on several occasions, the longer one rides the New Jersey culinary circuit as a professional restaurant reviewer, the more difficult it becomes for individual establishments to stand out from the crowd. But the Pluckemin Inn does just that --and significantly so. It is certainly one of the best dining experiences to come my way in quite some time. Expensive...? To be sure. But more than worth the price of admission.

Cuisine: Contemporary American
Hours: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Fri, 5:30 p.m. -10:00 p.m.; Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Plucky Tavern: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - Close; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - Close
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: http://www.pluckemininn.com/

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