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Race Street Café
Bridge and Race Streets
Frenchtown, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 996-3179

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

(Note 9/2003 - New Chef/Owner)

If you've ever chowed down in a tiny Paris bistro, you know the story... The noise. The cramped quarters. Tables in such close proximity that seating requires the physical dexterity of an anorexic contortionist. But the food... It is a soul-comforting indulgence that more than compensates for a host of spatial and acoustical sins. This, too, is the ongoing saga of the Race Street Café, where good-natured diners jostle for elbow room and, in turn, share a gratifyingly delicious culinary camaraderie. James and Diane Zalewski have presided over these diminutive digs since 1983... and the vittles just seem to get better with age.

Small this establishment may be, accommodating a scant thirty patrons -- thirty-five if you rub them in olive oil and pack them in like sardines -- but that only adds to the charm. No tablecloths here, napkins are attractively fanned out in water glasses on bare wooden tables. Stucco walls are covered with paintings by local artists, which are also for sale. There's even a small gallery/sitting room on the second level, along with the restroom -- but it's a low bridge, so watch you head coming down those stairs!

The quality of the eclectic cuisine is, however, what sets the Race Street Café apart, what makes it a unique and exciting dining experience. The culinary offerings are both interesting and innovative. You'll certainly sit up and take notice, but your palate won't be drowned in a gaggle of superfluous ingredients nor your eye overwhelmed with a host or architectural gargoyles. In short, all is as it should be... food and decor forming a perfect marriage.

Starters provide a number of goodies, including several intriguing daily specials. From the printed menu, the hummus accompanied by perfectly grilled pita and a veggie crudite ($7.50) is simplicity itself and simply delicious. The escargots ($8.00) are also an extremely pleasant diversion. The snails, plump and earthly, are presented out of the shell and commingled with whole roasted garlic cloves in an exceptional butter sauce.

I would suggest, however, that the appetizer specials are where the action is, so always lend an attentive ear. The mushroom bruschetta ($8.00) consists of grilled chopped mushroom caps blended with Boursin cheese. This delightful amalgam is then presented on toasts that provide just the proper "crunch" without threatening irreparable damage to your dental work

The salmon corn cake ($8.00) is another first-rate starter. Morsels of salmon are combined with corn kernels, egg & breadcrumbs, and then sautéed and garnished with diced cucumber, tomato & red onion. Both the salmon cake itself and the accompanying chipotle pepper sour cream will add a bit of spice to your life. And speaking of sour cream... Be sure to sample the mellifluous brown sugar sour cream sauce that bubbles about the baked cabbage/apple crepe ($8.00). An incredibly decadent prelude that is certain not only to wreak havoc with your calorie counter but to sabotage your upcoming cholesterol test as well.

For those who may prefer somewhat more healthful fare, the special salad of mixed greens ($8.00) is just the thing. Impeccably fresh greenery is tossed with a tangy raspberry vinaigrette and adorned with pear slices, walnuts and crumbled blue cheese. A wonderfully invigorating combo.

Entrées are equally provocative and give the diner a nice variety of possibilities from which to choose. The "Capellini De Rosa" ($15.00) is a heart-warming pasta of angel hair, basil, capers and Canadian bacon presented swimming in a bold and brothy tomato sauce. You might also wish to have a go at the linguine with plum tomato marinara ($13.00).

Seafood is well represented, especially among the daily specials. The trout filet ($19.00), whether grilled and embellished with tomato/corn salsa or coated with breadcrumbs and simply sautéed with a touch of olive oil, is particularly recommendable. Ditto the shrimp oreganato ($19.00) and the grilled salmon with an exciting honey/sesame/ginger sauce ($19.00).

Steak is also a good bet. On the set menu, you find the succulent New York sirloin "Aldean" ($21.00) topped with a lively sauce of Dijon mustard, molasses and mushrooms. Also recently sampled was an excellent steak au poivre ($20.00) finished with molasses, brandy and a touch of cream... And for those who prefer fowl, be sure to try the "Chicken Havana" ($18.00) spiced up with jalapeno peppers and a zippy barbecue sauce.

Homemade desserts ($5.50) vary with the season and are consistently yummy. A silky cheesecake is topped with cherries and chocolate grenache; the filbert torte is decked out in chocolate, hazelnuts, raisins and a rich caramel glaze; and the harvest torte -- replete with apples, walnuts and raisins -- has the tempting texture of a homespun bread pudding and is served up in an attractive goblet.

With the famous Frenchtown Inn just down the block, the Race Street Cafe doesn't garner a great deal of publicity... And that's just fine with those of us who know and love this charming establishment and would like to keep it as our own personal secret. But the next time you make a pilgrimage to this delightful little hamlet's handful of colorful specialty shops, be sure to take advantage of the Café's gracious hospitality, delicious food and moderate prices. This has been a personal fave for many years... and is highly recommended.

Cuisine: Eclectic
Hours: Lunch: Sat, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 11:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY - WEDNESDAY
Credit Cards: NONE; CASH ONLY
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Street parking and nearby municipal lot
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Dining room is very cramped and the restroom is on the second floor.

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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