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Apr 3, 2010 01:05 PM

An Objective Look at Nicholas

We were all set to eat an early dinner at the bar at Nicholas last night when, on a whim, I found out they had a table available in the main room. It's been a while since we ate there so off we went.

First observation - $59 for either the 3 course or the Garden 4 course meals is a bargain. We were stuffed by the time dessert came and overstuffed afterwards.

Second observation - All the small details are there. From the bread to the service to the take home sweet loaf at meal's end, it was all top notch.

Third observation - The food is every bit as good as it ever was. The amuse was excellent and the sunchoke soup, the foie, and the Dover Sole were as well. Big props for a different dessert in the French Toast also.

All in all, I don't see why they have gotten some negative reviews lately. I can't think of any better way to spend $60 on dinner.

160 Hwy 35, Red Bank, NJ 07701

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  1. Nobody can ever accuse Nicholas of stinting on portion size. When I took myself to the bar last summer (Mr. R. was away), portions were extremely generous -- and they were "small" plates!


    I agree that $59 for 3 courses + extras is a steal for cuisine of such high caliber, and that service is always top-notch.

    No restaurant can please every diner, so Nicholas does get some negative criticism. Happily for us, we've never had a disappointing experience.

    1. seal, i agree wholeheartedly that the french toast dessert is awesome!

      1 Reply
      1. re: njchowgal

        We devoured the bar menu last night...don't judge us.

        Sunchoke and black truffle soup - Awesome
        Scallops - Great
        Oxtail ravioli....a little on the dry side for me, only near miss of the evening
        Stuffed squab - REALLY good.
        Lamb - best dish of the night
        Arctic Char - Wife got it, didn't try it, but she liked it
        Tagliatelle - Wife got it, didn't try it, but have had it before

        Cheese plate....

        French Toast dessert....Mmmmmm

        Portions were generous...but I'm just a glutton!

        For me, the prices at Nicholas are perfect, especially the bar menu. Not many places you can go to and get that caliber and more importantly, consistency in food and service.

      2. Thanks Seal (i.e. for your objectivity). While that price tag is for but the food itself, adding wine to the experience does drive up the number. With two at college, that's a tough act for a family of 4. However I will use your post to remind myself that it's worth it as my next 'occasion meal', in this case, my oldest graduating from the University this June.

        Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

        5 Replies
        1. re: JustJake

          hopefully all reports are objective. is that not the assumption?

          1. re: tommy

            By definition aren't all reports subjective?

            1. re: joonjoon

              indeed. but they are objective to the extent that no bias impacts the reporting (relationship with the restaurant). so I'm wondering what was special about this report that made it necessary to state that it's objective. i'm sure i'm just not getting it, but i'm curious.

          2. re: JustJake

            JJ - Huge grats on the graduation. I'm amazed you can go out to eat at all with the cost of college these days.

            As I reread my post I noticed that it didn't sound that objective to me as it was all positive. But I really did walk in looking for something to gripe about. We did have wine and the bill certainly reflected it, so it really must have been all good.

            From a few tacos to the grandest tasting menu, I have been pretty hard on those places that didn't meet my standards, but equally nice to the ones that did. And, speaking of tacos, my next trip into Red Bank this week will definately be to North of the Border.

            Salus, Amor, et Pecuniam et Temporum Fructurus ( did I get that right? meant to say, Health, Love and the Money and Time to enjoy them in Latin.)

            North of the Border
            176 Monmouth St, Red Bank, NJ 07701

            1. re: seal

              Just looking for a clarification-- why do you feel it was a bargain if you were "overstuffed"? Are copious amounts of food a standard at fine restaurants?

          3. so, finally made our way to Nicholas last night, after reading much about it. and the many praises by specific people...but I'm sorry to report that our experience was not so great.

            we did the tasting with the pairings. the main things:

            - most of the food was beautiful and delicious (fluke, gnocchi, lamb, char); some of the food was average (scallops, squab)
            - but the souffle was inedible - smelled and tasted of bad eggs, something went wrong
            - the cheese plate was boring
            - BUT the biggest disappointment was that the timing of tasting and pairings was completely off. 1st course was served w/o wine (we had to ask where it was) and then the wine for the 2nd course was served 20 mins before the 2nd course arrived!), and the 3rd course was served immediately following the 2nd course.

            I have read that some people think it's a bargain for this kind of food, but I disagree if the service is not on par with the food. we were 4 ppl and the bill was over $600, so for that price, I want to enjoy my food with my wine and I want to served on time - I mean, that is what we are paying for right?

            I have never had these issues at 3-4 star restaurants in NYC. and just another note - the dress code is definitely not enforced there. besides our party, only saw 1 other man with a jacket - others had golf shirts and untucked button-downs.

            I realize this is just a 1-time experience but I was expecting better - and a place like that shouldn't have an "off night."

            I do agree with a previous poster about North of the Border tacos - one of our favorite places and it never disappoints!!

            North of the Border
            176 Monmouth St, Red Bank, NJ 07701

            10 Replies
            1. re: jpmcd

              p.s. with all of that said, we did have a good time - i think it had to do with all of that extra wine while waiting for courses tho! and I would give it a second chance.

              1. re: jpmcd

                I'm sorry you had such a disappointing experience. We've been there many times, have always found the cuisine to be first-rate, and have never encountered the problems with wine service you describe. But we've not been there recently, so your report makes me wonder what exactly is going on there. It's surprising because Nicholas and Melissa have always been *very* hands-on.

                With regard to the soufflé, since you felt there was something seriously wrong with it, why didn't you tell your server and send it back?

                As for the dress code, jackets are only suggested, not required, so some diners do dress casually. While business casual, imo, is fine, I have to agree that golf shirts and untucked button-downs are not appropriate for a restaurant of this caliber.

                1. re: RGR

                  after the mistakes, they were all over us and I think it was Nicholas who came to our table to apologize - they gave us some extra desserts and cheese, so didn't complain about the souffle. plus, we were trying to still enjoy the experience so didn't focus on the last course.

                  we still tipped well and will go back again. it's true, there are no other places like that here in jersey. beats going into the city.

                  1. re: jpmcd

                    I have never had anything but amazingly creative food and attentive, professional service. I agree wirh RGR. If you had an issue with any dish, you shoud have informed the staff. The extra desserts and cheese were not a 'trade off' for the souffle. They were an apology for any inconvenience you may have suffered. EVERY restaurant can make a mistake. It's how they respond to an error that demonstrates their worth.

                    1. re: Tay

                      really? we just couldn't. it would be like salt in the wound. i'm sure they realized it anyway bc 3 of us didn't have more than 1 bite.

                      1. re: jpmcd

                        Of course you could. and should. If you shared it with us you surely should have told the staff. Honestly, Do you really think they knew something was 'off'' and figured: "Oh what the Hell!' and served it anyway?
                        Not in a million years. If your Server was not attentive and up to their standards, he/she will soon be history.

                        1. re: Tay

                          The server or captain could not have have been attentive. As the server your are the last set of eyes to see what is being served. Your are the last line of defense to make sure the product is up to industry standards. Then when you clear that particular course and see that only one bite was taken you should ask yourself why. Further inspection would reveal the bad eggs. Attention to detail is a huge part of the hospitatality business and at the level of Nicholas it should be a priority.

                        2. re: jpmcd

                          I agree with Tay. There was no way the servers could know that the soufflé was rancid unless you told them. They probably thought either you didn't care for it or you were too full to finish.

                          1. re: RGR

                            i'm not saying it was rancid or the eggs were necessarily bad or spoiled, I just meant the souffle really smelled like eggs, which normally it shouldn't. and when eggs smell, they stink. I have not made enough souffles to know what went wrong. don't want to diss the quality of their could have just been cooked improperly.

                            1. re: jpmcd

                              souffles must be made fresh there's no way it was rotten/rancid. sounds like it didnt expand properly and when you opened the top you just got a wif of eggs whites coagulating along with pastry cream

                2. Friday night at Nicholas - we arrived early from NYC for our reservation and well before our friends arrived and with no room in the bar, we were seated at our table and took in the scene as the room had quite a buzz to it, filled with forty and fifty something’s dressed one and all in casual black.

                  We were seated in the “Chihuly room” at a four top in the corner next to the window. Not a huge fan of this table as the two top next door is really invading your space, but we do love this room, as the sweeping sound dampeners make it feel you are dining in an elaborate tent. We also noticed the ambient lighting outside of the restaurant provides an interesting air to the room, as it felt like twilight all evening inside.

                  Overall the food was good, not great, too much salt in too many of the dishes to really rave over the food. The service though is truly outstanding, providing one of the best dining experiences in NJ and competitive with Daniel or EMP. We had a great time visiting with friends we had not seen in a few months and while the conversation flowed - water, wine and accoutrements (butter, silverware, etc.) appeared without us even noticing.

                  Four menus were offered, three crammed in on the menu presented and another “garden” menu presented upon request. “Menu mixing” was handled extremely well and actually encouraged by the young man serving as our main server/captain (even though we felt he was much more like a “host” for the evening, he was that gracious).

                  Two diners chose the chef’s tasting menu (6 courses with choices for each course) one elected the six course “Black Truffle” menu and me, the 4 course garden menu.
                  We decided to opt out of wine for the evening but the list was varied and had some good values ($160 2002 Gevry from Dujac and a $125 2005 Justin Isoceles were hard to pass on).

                  The vegetarian received a pickled carrot over some greens as an amuse bouche, it really wasn’t anything more than as described, and if chomping on a pickled carrot seems like an odd way to begin a food adventure let me assure you - it was. The rest of the crew received lobster bisque that was presented elegantly in a broad white bowl with a foamy top. Everyone’s first sip brought about the same wince as the salt spike was just too intense to handle.

                  The chef’s menu diners elected to have the fluke, mushroom soup and black bass courses together before deviating - one had the suckling pig and the other substituted the day boat scallops from the winter menu before finishing up with two desert courses – some peppery couscous underneath pomegranate sorbet and then a collection of small treats called a Peppermint patty that was highlighted by mini chocolate sorbet balls that were outrageously good.

                  The black bass was the favorite of the two dining on this menu, with the bacon jam tortellini accompanying the bass a particular favorite. But the salt complaint reigned over all of the other courses and the peppery couscous was just not to these diner’s liking.

                  The vegetarian courses picked up quickly after the carrot nosh. The dinner started with heirloom pickled beets that were savory and presented on top of a red gelatin skin that was a intense borscht reduction. The skin base was prettier than tasty but the beets themselves were sublime. This was followed by a serving of four large asparagus stalks that were blanched and left tender and moist but still firm. They were then drenched in a deliciously warm portabella ragout that was spooned from a copper pot tableside. This diner lapped up every drop of the mushroom sauce he could as it was great. Then followed was a pasta dish of handmade garganelli that was layered in a Parmesan Romano cheese sauce and covered with black truffles. This dish was just far too heavy, the amount of truffles were ridiculous, layers and layers of black truffles proved the kitchen had plenty on hand and were not stingy at all. But the cheese and truffle mixture was just was not balanced well and suffered because of it.

                  This diner received an extra course of the couscous to keep from having to sit out two servings as this was a four course meal and everyone else had six courses coming to them. A very nice touch and again representative of the service level at Nicholas. The desert choice was a peanut butter soufflé that was crunchy, sweet and delicious!

                  The black truffle menu started with a truffle custard presented in an egg shell made famous by Alain Passard at L’Arpege and copied thousands of times over in restaurants around the world. A good presentation which was followed by the garganelli then by a butter poached lobster that was the hit of this menu. The lobster surrounded leeks that just melted in your mouth and was by far the highlight of this menu. Lobster was followed by a puff pastry filled hen pot pie that again was salt drenched and just off. This was followed by the couscous which had some truffles added to it for no reason than to keep the truffle theme going. It added nothing to the dish and it did seem rather lazy to add this to the truffle menu. The desert included a thick and gooey bread pudding that was accompanied by truffle ice cream that one really has to be a huge truffle fan to even think of even trying, lest enjoying.

                  Coffees and cappuccinos were delivered between the couscous and the desert course. All in the entire bill with tip was over $600 without wine but with six cocktails. A name branded bag filled with tissue paper hiding a mini-banana bread was delivered to the one lady dining with us as we departed.

                  This is truly an outstanding restaurant and we are fortunate to be able to have a dining experience like this without traveling out of state. The restaurant is meticulously clean, the service staff expert and if we can just somehow remove the salt from the chef’s hands this local treasure could be one of the best of the best anywhere, anytime.

                  15 Replies
                  1. re: carlylecat

                    "Overall the food was good, not great"

                    For $150 per person for a meal and a couple cocktails the food had damn well better be great. Even the choreographed Busby Berkley floor show they call service isn't going to make up for that...

                    1. re: carlylecat

                      Detailed review. My only " flaw" in your evening was your mysterious choice of " opting out of wine". This is a mortal sin, in my book. :) An absolute essential to a fine dining experience.

                      1. re: menton1

                        Well, then, menton1, Looks as though I'll be going to Hell because I don't drink. But seriously, I love fine cuisine and totally disagree that not drinking wine makes the experience any less enjoyable for me than for those who do.


                        1. re: RGR


                          I'm in agreement with is not necessary, nor essential.......the only essential for me for fine dining is good company.

                          1. re: fourunder

                            fourunder, I agree. And I'll bet that you make especially good company. :)

                            menton1: I thought that's what you meant. Just yanking your chain a bit. :)


                            1. re: fourunder

                              Actually, it's a personal choice. And for some, wine IS ABSOLUTELY essential to enjoying a fine meal, myself included...(Can 50 million French people be wrong? )

                              1. re: menton1


                                My husband, who loves wine, would certainly agree with you --and those 50 million French folks. While he will do bottles if we are out with other wine drinkers, when it's just the two of us, he does pairings. In so doing, he has gotten to experience some truly extraordinary wines which he might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do.

                                Actually, I have been making efforts to acquire a taste for wine and have come to like some sweet wines. I'm a foie gras junkie and, as I don't have to tell you, sweet wines pair well. Also, for a special occasion, a dear friend gifted us with a half-bottle of Brachetto d'Acqui. It was like drinking cherry soda, and I lapped that up. lol


                            2. re: RGR

                              Actually, I was just trying to display a little light-hearted humor. (Note the smiley) And I definitely respect those who do not drink. The "essential" of my post applies to me personally.

                            3. re: menton1

                              OK, maybe I shoudl answer the tongue in cheek question as to why we opted out of wine, it does bring up an interesting question/situation

                              At the start of every year, I stop drinking and see where it goes, this year I am down 5 lbs with no change in exercise or food options

                              I lasted until March 4th in 2010 which was a record, and i droped 9 lbs that I managed to keep off all year.

                              So the wine opt out comes from how I behave at the table, especially when we are out with couples, my wife would never order a bottle on her own and usually asks for a cocktail before dinner and may drink a glass with dinner but very infrequently unless I have a bottle open.

                              So when we are out with another couple it seems like if I dont drive the wine choice, no one does,

                              Most of the time (90%) we are picking up the check and most people that we dine with know I enjoy wine and have an extensive cellar, so I guess if the host does not order a bottle or is not drinking it is awkward for people to do so even when I say please choose something you like.

                              I think if I order the wine and then announce I am not drinking (or the reverse, announce and then order) either way it just seems odd and if I ask my wife to choose she would just hand it back to me and say get me somthing I like.

                              Would love advice on this as to how to make people comfortable, especially if we dine with the menton1's of thsi world who probably would have been very disappointed to have a fine meal without any wine.

                              I assume the easiset advice is to tell me just to start drinking again, but I kind of like what I am doing and really dont want to spoiil a nice evening for others.

                              1. re: carlylecat

                                Most restaurants offer wine by the glass these days...

                                1. re: menton1

                                  They do as well as pairings but there is something unique about ordering a special bottle and having it decanted with proper glassware in a special meal at a place like Nicholas....

                                  1. re: carlylecat

                                    Yeah, but you'd have to "start drinking again" to do that! :)

                                2. re: carlylecat

                                  Carlylecat - I'd be happy to drive wine choices for you if you pick up the check! Haha

                                  1. re: carlylecat

                                    It seems to me the most accomodating way to handle it would be to simply say I am taking a little break from wine myself, but I would love to get a bottle for others at the table...recommend a good pairing, and stick to your perrier.

                                3. re: carlylecat

                                  I was at the bar a few weeks ago with friends and got to try about 10 dishes. The highlights were the gnocci, fluke + caviar, and filet mignon. I'm generally not a fan of the filet but this one was cooked right and the sauce was wonderful. The lows: I was very disappointed with the short ribs (bland, flavorless), the oysters where tasty but microscopic, and the truffle egg dish was WAY oversalted. This was the first dish I ever sent back and Nicholas - and unfortunately it was still just as salty when it came back. But overall still a good meal, and for a good price.