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Witherspoon Grill
57 Witherspoon Street
Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 924-6011

By The Artful Diner
July 21, 2008

Where have all the preppies gone...? This is a question that springs to mind as I contemplate my cabernet, my sundry sins (both real and imagined), and the human tsunami flooding through the doors of the Witherspoon Grill on a free-for-all Saturday evening. One thing appears certain, however: Wherever the preppies may be hiding out -- and I have no doubt that they are positively an endangered species -- precious few are alive and well within this restaurant's precincts.

And a line from the 1982 musical comedy film Victor/Victoria surely paints the scene. After Robert Preston has concluded his performance in a Paris cabaret, there is a polite sprinkling of applause: "Thank you," he responds. "You're too kind... in fact, you're every kind." A most apt description of the invading hordes, most of whom look like they would be infinitely more at home in an Applebee's or a T.G.I. Friday's rather than in the confines of a rather pricey all-American steakhouse. On the other hand... maybe that's why they're here.

The restaurant refers to itself as "A classic American steakhouse, with a casual, straightforward spin." And this may well be the key. As one member of our party observed, the place "feels" like a chain. Of course, it is not. For although proprietor Jack Morrison presides over several other culinary enterprises -- including the seafood driven Blue Point Grill -- Witherspoon is his first foray into carnivorous pursuits.

Be that as it may... despite the sophisticated décor & soft lighting and a slew of outside tables to ameliorate the crowds in warmer weather, the restaurant does possess a chain-like aura. The interior decibel level is nothing short of daunting. And rambunctious progeny are everywhere -- both seen and heard -- climbing on chairs, cavorting back and forth to the restrooms and around the reception desk, incessantly whining and hanging on parents' arms, and generally causing as much mayhem as humanly possible.

I realize, of course, that there are those who positively thrive on this kind of culinary commotion -- if you are one of them, be my guest -- but I freely confess that I am not so kindly disposed. Settling in at table should be a relaxing, enjoyable experience, not an exercise in sanity survival. Interestingly enough, since the restaurant does not accept reservations on Friday and Saturday evenings, should you arrive around five o'clock for a preprandial libation at the bar, you will have the place pretty much to yourself -- but don't be fooled. By six, the marauding multitudes are on the march.

As for the food... my chief gripe is with the quality/price ratio. The special tomato-cucumber gazpacho is good, yes... but at $8.00 for a small cup ($10.00 per bowl) it is entirely too pricey... ditto the lobster bisque ($9.00/$12.00).

In point of fact, starters here, though generously proportioned, are also more than generously priced. The cheese & crab dip, for example, weighs in at a whopping $14.00, the shrimp cocktail at $12.00, the crab cocktail at $14.00, and the steak tartare at $12.00; even the plebeian fried calamari will set you back $9.00.

And entrees follow suit. They top out at $44.00 for a 14-ounce bone-in filet mignon, while the 16-ounce dry-aged strip steak finishes a close second at $42.00. The 12-ounce filet mignon goes for $39.00 and the 18-ounce bone-in rib eye for $36.00. A goodly number of other items hover between the high twenties (several seafood selections) and the low thirties.

Of course, there are less expensive alternatives, like several of the blue plate specials -- Sunday's roast turkey and Monday's meatloaf (both $16.00) -- or the 10-ounce Witherspoon burger with house-cut fries ($12.00)... but they are also far less interesting. And bear in mind that, in typical steakhouse fashion, you are paying for a basic entrée. Should you decide to jazz things up with a few sides, these will cost you $4.00 - $5.00 per. Factor in a couple of glasses of wine, dessert, and coffee/espresso and the bottom line is surely capable of delivering a severe case of sticker shock.

But if you should decide to chow down here, red meat is your surest and safest bet. The 12-ounce strip steak ($30.00), for example, is a right-on-the-money compromise between medium and medium rare. The texture is just right and the natural flavor comes easily to the fore. The bone-in rib eye ($36.00) is also a good bet, and the filet mignon, whether presented in the 12-ounce ($39.00) or 8-ounce ($32.00) rendition, also has a good deal to offer.

Seafood, however, tends to be problematically uneven in preparation. When offered up within steakhouse precincts, treasures of the sea -- especially fish -- are best served by those embellishments that intrude the least. But the presentations here tend to be self-consciously convoluted: sautéed rainbow trout with spinach, cucumber & crab salad with vanilla rum butter ($24.00); blackened marlin with black bean & peach salsa with pineapple & lime ($25.00); herb-roasted organic King salmon encrusted with pesto and served with tomato-artichoke salad ($28.00).

And the bouillabaisse ($28.00) was, well... yes... meagerly. I am certainly not one to complain about small portions; however, this presentation -- especially considering the price tag -- was positively paltry. There was one shrimp, two small morsels of fish (of indeterminate species), one scallop, several clams MIA (the shells were present and accounted for, but their inhabitants were nowhere to be found), and a number of mussels that had failed to pen. All constituents arrived swimming in a strictly mediocre roasted tomato-saffron broth. Hardly the stuff that dreams are made of.

Accoutrements sampled were something of a mixed bag. We avoided the green bean casserole ($5.00) after our server related that it was made with canned mushroom soup; the creamed spinach ($5.00) was conspicuously generic; and the sautéed asparagus (recommended by our server) was pristinely fresh and perfectly cooked but in dire need of some form of seasoning.

My choices in the sides department would be the pan-roasted mushrooms ($5.00), the buttery macaroni and cheese ($5.00), and the Yukon gold mashed potatoes ($5.00). And to start things off, I'd go for the crab cake ($15.00) or the roasted beet salad with pecan-crusted goat cheese ($8.00). The retro iceberg wedge ($8.00) -- with the usual adornments of bacon, diced tomato, and blue cheese -- is also a reasonable choice; although, it falls far short of the superlative rendition served up at Doc's in Sparta.

Desserts, in my opinion, aren't worth the added expenditure. The toasted almond pound cake ($8.00) isn't bad, especially the garnish of orange-custard sauce, but it is on the heavy side and doesn't justify the price tag. The Key lime pie ($7.00) simply falls short of the mark.

Bottom Line: I certainly don't mind paying top dollar for excellently prepared and presented cuisine, impeccable service, and appropriately upscale ambiance. But I do balk at shelling out a significant amount of long green for what amounts to basic comfort food delivered by harried, overworked servers in a frenetic, loud, feeding-time-at-the-zoo environment inhabited by an inordinate number of mischievous moppets.

In my opinion, you could get an infinitely better bang for your buck elsewhere... It's your call.

Cuisine: Steak/Seafood
Hours: Sun, 12:00 noon - 10:00 p.m.; Mon & Tues, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Weds - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m. (bar open until midnight)
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Available for lunch; dinner reservations available Sunday through Thursday. Reservations are not accepted on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Parking: Street parking; nearby garages
Alcohol: License; well-selected wine list
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.jmgroupprinceton.com/divisions/jmdivision7.html

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