David Burke of David Burke & Donatella has come to Rumson, New Jersey as new owner of The Fromagerie. More accurately, Mr. Burke has returned to Rumson after a series of stages in France, a stint as a chef in Westchester, and some time heading up restaurants in both NY and Chicago. It turns out that at some point in the long history of the little French restaurant on the corner of Ridge Road and Avenue of Two Rivers, David worked part-time at the Fromagerie, so this is a sort of homecoming.
Other than the fact that Chef Burke is involved in David Burke & Donatella, I cannot tell you a lot about him other than what I learned from his bio on the Fromagerie website, which credits him with inventing salmon pastrami, flavored oils, and tuna tartare. My history in the dining room is not as long as Chef Burke's is in the kitchen, so I was not around at the time to confirm or deny these claims. What I can tell you is the first real use of infused oils I was exposed to was at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago circa '92, and that that meal was what started me down this endless path of searching out better and better meals. So it would seem both Chef Trotter and I owe him a debt of gratitude. As for pastrami-cured salmon, I have never known it not to exist. And tuna tartare is too trite at this point to address. If Burke was the first, though, huzaah's are definitely in order, or at least should have been before every single place in the universe regardless of cuisine started making it and mercury concerns began outweighing any joy to be found in anything but the greatest of tuna.
As for the Fromagerie, I have a long history with the place. When I was young (in the '80's) in Monmouth County, special occasions took place at either the Fromagerie, Doris and Ed's (a seafood restaurant that evolved during the California cuisine movement), The Shiki (a Japanese Hibachi place) or The Farmingdale House (real Italian), all very good versions of standard American places as accepted at the time. In the '90's, a couple of more innovative places opened, like Nicolas for fine dining and Copper Canyon and The Bistro for better dining. The Fromagerie moved from well-settled/dependable to formerly best around, where the restaurant and the Peters family that owned and operated it existed dear to the hearts of most of the locals for quite some time.
As I understand it, the new management's intention is to entirely renovate the interior of the Fromagerie before the beginning of fall, when a re-branding will take place. At this point, the bar half has been opened up, brightened, and if you overlook the spackle drying on the sheetrock, it is shaping up to be a far lighter space. As for the dining room, it still wears its patina, but as we were sat we were informed ours would be the last butts to grace that banquet before reupholstering.
The menus are still in the old green holders, but the inserts definitely hint at things to come. On the inside page, one of David's cookbooks is offered for sale, and there is an announcement of a three-course prix-fixe brunch to start in the near future. The rest of the menu breaks down into Appetizers, Entrées, and Fromages. There is a wine list focused on France and America, consisting of the Peters' collection that will be buit around, along with some newer California stuff and a bunch of '04 white Burgundy they have already added.
Our meal started with a shot glass of asparagus soup and a cod-cake with horseradish cream, offered as amuses. The crust of the cod-cake was perfectly crisp, its interior seemed to be flaked potatoes and cod (a brandade cake, if you will). Once we figured out the soup was asparagus and not avocado (the young server had a cute brain lapse) it was quite nice -- the astringency of spring asparagus tempered by an amount of cream (maybe crème fraiche there was a slight tang) without getting heavy and creamy.
After the amuse, but before ordering, each person at the table was served a cheddar and poppy popover. A huge cheddar and poppy popover. Large empty humid pockets of air with striations of fleshy dough, all held in a brown crust of toasted little cheddar bits. The perfect bread service for a place called Fromagerie. I would, however, suggest they wait for the guests to order before serving it. The popover is the size of a Nerf basketball and the kind of thing it is just fun to tear into and eat until it is gone, so when ordering time comes around a significant portion of your hunger is sated. Wife had soup and an appetizer, BIL had just an entrée, and only after yours truly committed to both components of service did Sis commit to a soup in addition to her main.
From Appetizers, I selected PRETZEL CRUSTED CRAB CAKE, mango vinaigrette and poppy seed honey. The pretzel crust was actually two rafts made of pretzel sticks sandwiching loose Alaskan (or just the claw meat of blue claws)crab meat, lashed with chives, and rolled in a crunchy puff, which (based the saturation in the sticks) I would bet was then sautéed in clarified butter. Turns out that once pretzel sticks have gotten a nice crisp while sautéing, they have absorbed enough butter for it to become a primary flavor in the dish, perfect with the iodiney sweetness of the pacific crabs. For secondary flavors, there was a light yet pervasive note of fennel and/or tarragon that played well off the poppy seeds in the honey. The interactions of sweet in the crab meat, sweet in the honey, fat in the buttery pretzels, and richness from the binder of the crab meat made perfect room for the leavening tropical and citrus flavors of the mango vinaigrette. Beautifully plated, the only question this dish begged was how much sweeter it would be if made with local lump blue claw crab, maybe in fall.
From Entrées, I had the HALIBUT "T-BONE" STEAK, lobster dumplings and lobster bordelaise. Ignoring the quotation marks in the description, this was a perfectly pan-roasted halibut steak, crisp on the outside and medium-rare at its center. It was firm, dense, and moist. Few do it as well. The bordelaise was quite nice, tasting more of brandy than red wine, but the lobster aroma was deep and permeating. In the sauce were a scattering of crisp haricot verts which added a nice tactile counter-point to the fish's flesh. Also on the plate were two lobster dumplings, beautifully tasting of the iodine sweetness of deep cold water. That being said, part of their composition was about an inch-and-a-half section of the shell of a lobster finger, inedible and for some reason imbedded in the dumpling. For her appetizer, Wife had LOBSTER BISQUE which, while being decadent and lobstery, had a lobster's tentacle rolled into the spring roll that accompanied it. I am all for cool presentation, but if it isn't edible it shouldn't be on a plate, let alone strung into a component of a dish. If you want to put these elements in a dish, go buy one of Ferran's books. I am sure he has figured out how to make something that looks just like a lobster shell, while still being edible and probably tasting of lobster. But putting shells in food is something even breakfast places know to avoid with eggs. Presentation, as important as it is, should not take precedence over composition.
Well fed at this point, for dessert we all went with the David Burke Cheesecake Lollipop Tree, a very cool presentation consisting of a silver stand with three types of cheesecake pop -- chocolate truffle, strawberry, and three-chocolate -- radiating from a silver trunk and branches. The two chocolate pops were quite nice but there was a flavor, or more a consistency, of a stabilizing gum of some sort that made the sugars taste artificial. The strawberry had a crust of something like the old shell dip for soft ice-cream, sickly sweet and oily in texture.
If you look up David Burke & Donatella on Zagat.com the pricing is considered "ridiculous" by the New Yorkers who write in. In spite of this, the restaurant remains hugely successful which is one of the awesome paradigms of the New York Dining scene. The food on my inaugural visit to the Rumson outpost was expertly prepared and plated with true art, seriously respectable product, inspiration, and execution, across the board, the potential is apparent.
Monmouth County is by anyone's definition a well-heeled area with sizeable disposable income that could stand to have some truly well-made cuisine, but that halibut T-bone is one dollar cheaper than the "ridiculous"ly-priced same dish at Chef Burke's NY establishment. Are the diners of Monmouth County ready to swallow prices exorbitant by Manhattan standards in order to add a fine food establishment to their list of options? I'll go back to see how it feels once the renovation is complete and whether the finished product is in line with the right column of each page of the menu, but at the moment, with only Manhattan restaurants and Nicolas for comparison, the entrées feel about 20-25% off-market.
On the night I went, the place was full of people pleased with their first foray, in spite of the "under construction" appearance and the inevitable "the one in NY is better" comparisons. People will check out anything new for the first time, but if they feel taken advantage of it may not even become their special event place. Is Rumson ready for a new paradigm in dining? Only time will tell.