Fans of the now defunct Yves in Montclair will recognize the work of Chef Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome, at the helm of this hot spot in New Brunswick's theater district. According to co-owner/maîd' Mark Pascal, Pierre-Jerome, the fifth chef to man the kitchen since Stage Left opened in 1992, is "by far the best we've ever had."
Pascal's opinion obviously is shared by his customers, who've flooded the restaurant since Pierre-Jerome started cooking here last May; reservations definitely are advised. Regulars who've watched this eatery evolve from an informal cafßto a fine dining establishment no doubt have noticed the precipitous price increases that have accompanied the transition. Consider yourself warned: Most appetizers are priced above $11, and main courses range from $23 to $33.
Pierre-Jerome, 38, who came to New Jersey from Haiti when he was 10, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, cooked in France for a year, opened his own restaurant, Yves, and went on to make desserts at the Ryland Inn. He claims that his strongest gastronomic influence is French and his menu reflects his attempt to create American fare with French savoir faire.
Start off with his creamy shrimp mousseline with crawfish tails and black mushrooms, or the fabulous warm Brie with apple-currant chutney and brandied-pear coulis. The sauté escargots with roasted tomatoes are a refreshing break from the butter-bathed snails served elsewhere and the lobster dumplings with sesame-soy vinaigrette are heavenly. Pierre-Jerome's appetizers demonstrate his ability to maximize flavor with minimal ingredients.
Several of his entreés, however, seem to yield to the "big portions" mentality that afflicts so many restaurants in this state. I suspect that this is probably a management decision, but it's not necessary, since the core ingredient in every dish he makes is excellent. Choosing from the seven menu entreés is difficult enough without the daily specials thrown into the equation. You really can't go wrong unless you're concerned with price: The specials are usually in the $30 range.
Most entrßare well executed, but some tend to be inexplicably crowded. The free-range chicken, for example, is roasted to crispy, juicy perfection but piled atop a mountain of collard greens dressed in bacon sauce and accompanied by a bread pudding so garlicky it overpowers the chicken. The perfectly sautßstriped bass, served over lobster ravioli and shrimp dumplings dressed in a savory ginger-basil-and-saffron reduction, also has too much happening on the plate.
On the other hand, the Long Island duck-and-ham cassoulet is exactly what it should be: a hearty bean stew with delicious ham and duck. I especially like the rosemary-scented lamb porterhouse served with delicious mashed potatoes flavored with black truffles and porcini mushrooms. Curiously, a filet mignon of beef special is cut rather thin; it's delicious though certainly not worth the $34 price tag.
Co-owner Francis Schott's wine list is well written and includes selections from small producers and a few surprises, such as a comprehensive array of wines from Domaine de la Romanee Conti. The somewhat high prices seem entirely appropriate for a clientele comfortable spending upward of $30 for an entreé. A selection of fine international cheeses is always a nice touch after a meal, but it might supplant dessert, which you don't want to miss. Pierre-Jerome's tenure at the Ryland Inn is obvious, as the desserts are spectacular. --A. G.
5 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick (732-828-4444). Lunch: Friday, noon to 2 pm. Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5:30-11 pm; Sunday, 4 to 10 pm. Wheelchair access easy. All major credit cards. Dinner for two without wine averages $90.