The Metuchen Inn has been in operation for 168 years, and it shows. If you've dined here, you know what I mean. Its rooms range from charming to tacky to just plain run-down. The bar is a warm saloon-style room with old woodwork and a professional bartender, and the dining room with the fireplace is beautiful, quaint, and warmly lit. The back room, however, is narrow and dim, but worst of all is an annoyingly bright dining area with hideous, dark-green walls, exacerbated by a wheezing air conditioner--positively depressing. Yet the inn warrants a visit anyway, because, thankfully, the food far outshines the decor.
Owner Constantine Papanicolaou, who bought the inn nearly five years ago, cooked here for a year, then passed the reins to Dan Slobodian so he could work the floor to improve the restaurant's notoriously slow service. Though still uneven, the service is getting better. Two years ago, Don Reeves, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who honed his craft at the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse, the Stage House Inn in Scotch Plains, and various Manhattan eateries, replaced Slobidian. Since taking over the kitchen, Reeves has enhanced the menu with solid American fare.
It's always nice to start a meal with oysters. Though the menu describes them as seared, Chef Reeves' polenta-crusted oysters paired with an interesting roasted-yellow-pepper sauce seem deep-fried--which could explain why they're so good. Reeves nicely juxtaposes the intense flavor of his savory stuffed rabbit loin with sweet potatoes. The best appetizer, though, is the Hudson Valley foie gras, mysteriously billed as the chef's preparation; when I ordered it, it was dressed with an intense balsamic reduction and served with sweet mango chutney.
When it comes to main courses, Reeves's knack for preparing fish gives those selections a slight edge over the not quite consistent meat offerings. His Atlantic salmon is beautifully seared and drizzled with red beet juice; although the truffles promised in the accompanying potatoes have about as much impact as an air kiss, the spuds are very good. The sesame-seared halibut, served with Israeli couscous and jus made with tomatoes and saffron, is also well prepared.
Crisp sweetbreads are always a treat, and the chef serves them here atop a tasty bed of napa cabbage, roasted onions, celery root, oyster mushrooms, and a butternut squash purée. The pan-roasted duck breast with apple, pancetta, and basmati rice is wonderful, as is the roasted rack of lamb served with tiny noisette potatoes. Temperature, though, is a recurring problem, both with the plates coming from the kitchen and the way the meats are cooked; on several occasions my filet mignon arrives overdone, ruining an otherwise beautiful cut of meat paired with an earthy mushroom ragout.
Although the wine list is well written and adventurous, the wines are not always stored properly; the reds consistently arrive at room temperature, which on some nights could be well into the seventies. And come dessert time, despite the fact that there's a pretty good selection of after-dinner drinks, there's no list of cordials or ports.
Desserts are in step with all the latest trends. The best is the trio of crèmes brûlées; try the chocolate one--an excellent way to end the meal.-- A.G.
424 Middlesex Avenue (Route 27), Metuchen (732-494-6444). Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 pm; Sunday, 3:30 to 8:30 pm. Wheelchair access difficult. American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two without wine averages $80.