359 Route 202/206
Bedminster, Somerset County, NJ
The Artful Diner
March 28, 2009
Printable Copy of this Review
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
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 &
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
Handicapped Accessible: Yes