16 Fairgrounds Road
Hamilton, Mercer County, New Jersey
By The Artful Diner
Note: Restaurant now managed by Stephen Starr
Owned by noted sculptor and pharmaceutical heir J. Seward Johnson, Jr., and named after the engaging character in Kenneth Grahame's children's classic, The Wind in the Willows, Rat's restaurant was created, at least in part, as an added inducement to visit Mr. Johnson's magnificent Grounds for Sculpture, the adjoining 22-acre sculpture park located on the former site of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. And as you stroll about, taking in the captivating and decidedly audacious works of art and perfectly manicured landscaping, your stomach growling in eager anticipation, you can't help but wonder: Will matters gastronomic be equally as intrepid... or as edifying? The answer, unfortunately, is NO.
As of this writing, Rat's remains -- on nearly all counts -- very much a work in progress. The eatery's exterior, modeled after a French village and sporting a garish salmon-colored paint job, the Toad Hall gift shop, and a few impavid sculptures of its own, is "gimmicksville" personified. The interior on the other hand, is a wonderfully rustic reserve of antique wood and stone, ceiling beams and stucco walls... but its countrified coziness is effectively obviated by a plethora of ostentatiously colored napery and screaming assortment of outlandishly modern embellishments. Imagine Monet's provincially picturesque digs decked out for the Mad Hatter's tea party, and you begin to get the general drift.
As you have undoubtedly surmised, the decorative garniture doesn't particularly turn me on. But that's just a personal opinion; I'm sure there are many who find it both attractive and exhilarating. Actually, a bit of restaurant whimsy is good for the soul... and probably the digestion as well. But the establishment in question must have the substance -- namely, truly exceptional cuisine -- to go along with the eccentric embroidery... And there's the rub...
Oh, don't get me wrong. The food is good... in some instances, quite good. But in this overwrought atmosphere -- and at these overwrought prices -- you want more than good. You want the best... and it simply is not forthcoming on a consistent enough basis. Given executive chef/general manager Eric Martin's impressive credentials -- graduate of the CIA, alumnus of the illustrious kitchens of Joel Robuchon and Christian Delouvrier, and former exec at Stage Left in New Brunswick -- these lapses are difficult to fathom. Difficult or not, the fact remains that I have sampled infinitely superior, more creative and joyously satisfying cuisine at infinitely less expensive tariffs... and without all the culinary and artistic hyperbole.
Indicative of some of the solecisms you are likely to encounter is the special appetizer of spiced-rubbed steak slices garnished with Matag bleu cheese ($11.00). The beef is of excellent quality, but the spice is barely discernable, and the promised horseradish vinaigrette to spruce up the epicenter of greens is a definitive no-show. "Bland" is the word that comes immediately to mind. The asparagus with crumbled egg, tarragon, and black truffle vinaigrette ($10.00) has infinitely more punch, but it is still a mere step beyond the ordinary. Ditto the lobster terrine ($12.00).
When it comes to preludes, the star of the show is clearly the salmon trio ($9.00), consisting of house-smoked with freshly grated horseradish, creamy gravlax roulade, and tartare gaufrette. The presentation is utterly exquisite... and an incontrovertible demonstration of this kitchen's enormous potential. The angel hair pasta tossed with basil white wine clam sauce ($8.00) is also quite good... but it arrived at table lukewarm on two separate occasions.
Entrées strike many of the same discordant notes as their predecessors... and, sad to say, a few new ones as well. The main problem seems to be that a number of dishes are entirely too convoluted for their own -- and the diner's -- good. A few less ingredients and a bit more care in preparation would be extremely beneficial for all concerned.
The orange lentil-crusted scallops ($31.00) are surely a case in point. They are of impeccable repute but simply cannot stand up to the heavy-handed assault of red wine reduction, chanterelles, Jug Town bacon lardoons, peas, and sweet bell pepper chutney. These beautiful bivalves are, quite literally, lost in the sauce. And the miso and ginger slow-baked coho salmon ($29.00), which tastes decidedly fishy, suffers the same fate at the hands of a Thai basil and caramelized sweet and sour cream sesame sauce.
A well-chosen word of advice: The less gussied up, the better the chances that your main course will not disappoint. If you have a penchant for matters piscatorial -- which predominate the menu -- I would suggest the lovely steamed paupiettes of sole kissed by a sublime infusion of Asian aromatics ($29.00). They swim to table in an invigorating Meyer lemon broth accompanied by perfectly steamed potatoes, plump & succulent mussels, and a smattering of haricots verts. Rustic yet refined, this delightful presentation, like the aforementioned salmon trio, is certainly one of the chef's finest efforts.
The restaurant's vegetarian offering ($24.00) is also quite recommendable. A roasted sweet Vidalia onion is filled with a luscious amalgam of wild rice, walnuts and Roquefort cheese. It is then placed on a bed of wilted arugula and surrounded by rings of fava bean purée and roasted vegetable demi-glace. An exceptionally ingratiating combo.
The carnivorously inclined may find the pickings somewhat slim... Still, the veal chop with honey citrus glaze ($32.00) and the filet mignon with béarnaise ($32.00) should fill the bill nicely. In lieu of both, however, I would opt for simplicity itself: the moist and delicious rotisserie-roasted chicken embellished with a sage jus ($24.00).
Pastry chef Max Dierkes' desserts, like all that has preceded them, incite a host of ambivalent emotions. The crêpes Suzette ($10.00), for example, is a culinary anachronism at best. Flambéed tableside with an enthusiastic -- and slightly unnerving -- display of pyrotechnics, the flamboyant production is strictly a show for gastronomic tourists.
The "Banana Tower" ($12.00), layers of caramelized banana spice cake interspersed with white chocolate mousse, is a majestic citadel obviously dressed to impress. But while this marvel of culinary engineering may be a feast for the eye, it is famine for the palate. The mousse is entirely too heavy-handed, lacking that silky ethereality one has every right to expect. And it tastes, well... yes, it tastes... decidedly generic, as if it could have been whipped up in the kitchen of any reasonably competent commercial bakery.
The pick of the litter in the sweet endings department is, interestingly enough, also the most robust... but certainly the most satisfying: the English toffee pudding ($8.00). The brioche pudding is saturated with milk chocolate and toffee. And its decadent richness finds a perfect counterpoint in the white chocolate sorbet.
In addition to the capriciousness of the cuisine, there are a number of supplementary matters that need to be resolved. This past winter/spring, for example, the restaurant was closed for several months while extensive renovations -- including the installation of a $180,000 Waldorf-style Maestro stove -- were made to the kitchen facilities. Among other things, this refurbishing was specifically designed to allow the staff to deal with dinner orders in a more expeditious manner.
And yet... on a recent Saturday evening, the speed at which our entrées emerged from the nether regions could only charitably be described as slower than a herd of lethargic turtles. Groups that had been seated long after our gathering were already well on their way to coffee and Cognac. The wait was so horrendously long, in fact, that management bestowed free desserts on our entire table (a party of six). But even after this token largesse, arrival was still delayed by another ten minutes... and then one item had to be sent back to the point of origin because its temperature proved to be significantly less than lukewarm.
There are difficulties at the front of the house as well. On the Saturday in question, we were three couples journeying from various locations for our gastronomic rendezvous. My wife and I and another twosome arrived just before the appointed hour. We gave the young woman at the hostess desk our name, indicated that we were awaiting a third couple, and that they were aware of the name under which the reservation had been made. The hostess seated us upstairs with effusive assurances that she would send the other couple to our table the moment they put in an appearance.
The other twosome breezed in a scant five minutes later, gave the proper name, and were told that they were the first of their party to arrive. Thus... while they bided their time in the lounge and patio, we cooled our heels upstairs awaiting their advent. Finally, some thirty-five minutes later, through sheer blind luck, we managed to hook up with one another.
And the faux pas that characterize the kitchen and hostess desk are true of the members of the wait staff as well. They are certainly not inept; they try their best, but they lack the consummate polish and professionalism that should be endemic to such an upscale environment. Even on a (relatively) quiet weekday evening, our white wine (chosen from an absolutely extraordinary list of vintages, I might add) is not properly chilled in ice -- although receptacles for said purpose are everywhere present -- but is left to languish on the table in a tray reserved for red wine. As if to add insult to injury, the wine steward appears only infrequently to do the pouring honors.
To err is human, etc., etc... In lesser establishments, such gaffes may be winked at; but in a restaurant that apparently enjoys touting its world-class pretensions at every opportunity, they are simply unforgivable. Two years ago, shortly after Rat's made its much-publicized debut, several hired bellies -- including those who gave the eatery extremely high marks -- noted a number of items that would reap the benefits of a bit of fine-tuning. As of the present moment, these problems have yet to be rectified... indeed, they appear to have become even more pronounced.
Like Mr. Johnson's art, his eatery is something of a crash course in anomalous eccentricities. There is a great deal happening here, the place is incredibly larger than life, but the multifarious elements of fine dining -- cuisine, service, ambiance, etc. -- seem never to have been properly introduced. Each goes flying off in a different direction; one never knows from evening to evening what strange aberration is likely to be encountered.
"Consistency," as Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, may very well be "the hobgoblin of little minds," but it is the absolute sine qua non of a truly exceptional restaurant experience... And at Rat's, this is the one basic component that is all too conspicuous by its absence.
Cuisine: French with eclectic variations
Hours: Lunch: Hours change seasonally. It is best to call for this information. Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; Sunday Brunch: 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Alcohol: License and impressive wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: Rat's Restaurant