Over the last decade, dining has changed. As consumers, we’ve traded in haughty waiters and stuffy venues for a more approachable (and casual) experience, one where the sophistication of taste and top-tier ingredients trumps all other matters of refinement. We’re more educated about where our food comes from, more mindful of our dietary restrictions, and the restaurant industry has picked up on this trend.
But in the words of Brooks Hatlen, it “went and got itself into a big damn hurry.” This especially goes for the fine dining segment. Think back 20, even 10 years ago to your favorite high-end restaurants: starched tablecloths, wall-to-wall carpeting, certain flavor profiles were considered taboo and so on. While we’re happy for some of these departures, the shift towards the likes of street-inspired food and loud, laidback atmospheres don’t lend themselves particularly well to special occasions.
What I mean is dining used to mean something. Today, even a quiet night out seems near impossible at the top-tier eateries. While these are places we know and love, we have to admit that between those Instagramable dishes, otherworldly embellishments and big crowds, anniversary toasts and hymns of “Happy Birthday” often get swallowed by the evening’s action. There are some restaurants, however, that still capture the importance of dining as an experience while keeping the modern consumer in mind.
After my recent visit to Restaurant Nicholas—which is tucked in its own seclusion off Route 35 in Red Bank, NJ—it’s clear that there’s a need for a high dining experience coupled with a few subtleties of today’s comfort. The New American restaurant isn’t one that’s unfamiliar to New Jerseyans, having first opened back in 2000. Nevertheless, 18 years later, it remains a top choice in our state. Its secret? Knowing which aspects of fine dining’s past to let go of and which new industry changes to accept. Ousting things such as tableside carving and silver cloches while maintaining an environment that’s both elegant and comfortable, has been a key to their continued success—and then of course, there’s the food.
Restaurant Nicholas is run by Owner and Executive Chef Nicholas Harary, a native New Yorker who spent time working at Manhattan’s Jean-Georges in the late ‘90s (when the man himself was still there). Though Harary describes his time at Jean-Georges as “a lifetime ago,” the restaurant that thrilled the masses with its audacious cuisine and on-point service would serve as a sort of finishing school for the chef before he ultimately made the move with his wife to Red Bank. Here, he would craft his own philosophy, which, is in many ways an ode to restaurants past.
“In the old days, we used to say that a restaurant is a spa for the culinary arts. You just sit back and relax, enjoy yourself—let us take care of you. Unfortunately that’s been lost a little bit with the faster pace and casual nature, and that’s why people come here. You can eat at a lot of places but you can only dine at a few,” Harary said.
At the time of its opening, Harary gave Monmouth County something it was desperately lacking—what some even referred to as “Jean-Georges in New Jersey.” It made sense from an outsider’s perspective—being that Harary spent some time working there—but Restaurant Nicholas had its own sentiments from the very beginning. Harary was never concerned with conforming to someone else’s vision and instead, gave Monmouth an upscale dining experience that was nuanced in its own right.
“Jean-Georges was one of many mentors. I think that we’ve been in Red Bank so long that I’m not sure that, other than philosophically, anything comes from those days anymore,” he said.
Though Harary has remained true to his ideals, he recognizes the changes in the industry and only adapts as he sees fit—a method his customers trust. Restaurant Nicholas has never been about trends but much of what we see in the industry today—like the oh-so over communicated farm-to-table—are things Harary has always done even before he opened almost 20 years ago.
“We’re not focused on trends, but we present them in an elegant way. Farm-to-table is a promotional word, but all fine restaurants do this. When I was at Jean-Georges in 1998, that was farm-to-table. We’ve been farm-to-table long before that term came about—I didn’t know any other option. Everything comes from the sea or the land.” Harary told me.
When it comes down to it, there’s always going to be a need for restaurants with an elegant feel. This is ultimately where Restaurant Nicholas excels, bringing fine dining into the 2010s and beyond. “We’ve been here for 18 years and we’re still going strong,” Harary said. “I don’t know if the definition of fine dining exists anymore—I think it’s constantly being redefined. We have been part of that redefining. Our servers aren’t wearing tuxedos; we don’t have that stuffy feel you’d expect from a fine dining restaurant. But people still go out for special occasions. It’s really nice to be casual, the world is very casual now, but there’s times that you want a more refined experience. That’s what we try to do.”
From the moment you walk into Restaurant Nicholas, you can instantly identify this refined experience Harary refers to. The vibe, while upscale, evokes the serenity of a spa-like atmosphere, one where the tuna crudos and suckling pig flow like wine. The decor is clean, vibrant and though that may come across as old school to some, it’s contemporary in its own right.
While Restaurant Nicholas’ ambiance bridges the gap between fine dining’s past and present, its best asset is still its sophisticated cuisine. The food itself definitely pays homage to the intricacies of fine dining, and Harary and Chef Kevin Koller don’t bother with the segment’s deconstruction fad. Instead, portions at Restaurant Nicholas are where they should be, full and filling, but not obnoxiously robust.
Diners have several options when visiting Restaurant Nicholas, beginning with a choice between a standard three-course or a six-course chef’s tasting menu (with an optional four-course garden menu for vegetarians). The kitchen also features a chef’s table which, when reserved, can be crafted to your party’s personal taste. In addition to this, the restaurant’s bar room comes with its selections. Harary and Koller work in tandem to produce new and exciting menu items that reflect the changing seasons, while some dishes like the suckling pig remain a staple year-round.
Chef Koller, who started as a line cook at Restaurant Nicholas six years ago, worked his way through the ranks and was recently promoted to chef de cuisine. An Ocean Township native, he spent time after culinary school at Crystal Springs’ well-known fine dining venue, Restaurant Latour. Today, Koller feels at home at Restaurant Nicholas and describes his style as “refined comfort” and is tailoring the new menu to echo this. “These guys taught me everything I know. I’ve worked under two chefs here and taken the best from both of them—from classical French to comfort food,” Chef Koller said.
During my visit to Restaurant Nicholas this spring, I worked my way through a few of their most notable dishes. Beginning with appetizers, it’s hard not to lean towards the seafood when you’re going to a venue that’s known for it.
Starters kicked off with citrus-cured fluke with charred pineapple and chili. The citrus gave the dish fresh tang, reminiscent of an elevated ceviche with the pineapple and chili balancing out the vinegar taste—a dish Chef Koller was inspired to make after a discussion with a local food runner. Throughout the season, the pan-seared scallops, which come right from Barnegat, served with cipollini onion and bacon jam have been one of the business’ biggest sellers. But of the starters I sampled, the real star was the cavatelli pasta with pickled enoki mushrooms and fontina cheese. It had that perfect flavor profile you look for in a cavatelli dish but it was pleasantly lighter than most.
When it comes to mains, the bourbon-braised suckling pig is reason enough for a return visit. A signature of Restaurant Nicholas for years, the pig is braised for 12 hours, removed from the skin, removed from the bone, then re-pressed back onto the skin and seared until crispy. The dish is usually served with Parisienne apples, toasted pecans and a little maple jus for a finishing sauce. However, the excitement really begins with the creativity of Restaurant Nicholas’ seasonal dishes. Most notably the Moroccan-spiced Colorado lamb lion, which is served with Greek yogurt (for a little bit of tartness), spiced lentils, heirloom carrots, micro mint and some lamb fat to bring fullness to the dish. Elsewhere, Koller’s panko-crusted halibut stole the show with varying textures of sugar snap pea greens, Marcona almonds, crispy basil and basil almond milk purée.
While the dessert (and dessert wine) options are plentiful, one of the many things that makes Restaurant Nicholas so unique is that they’ve always pasteurized and flavored their own small-batch ice cream. In fact, the ice cream is so good that Harary is currently opening two creameries in Atlantic Highlands and Fair Haven, NJ. The aptly named Nicholas Creamery will also feature vegan flavors as well as a nut-free soft serve.
For its bar program, Restaurant Nicholas has picked up on the brown liquor boom, with specialty cocktails like the “New Fashion” (which thankfully includes bourbon and bitters). But aside from their killer cocktails, the wine pairings are always changing with the food menu. Harary, who served as a sommelier to Jean-Georges in the late ‘90s, also helms an online wine company known as Nicholas Wines (www.nicholaswines.com). Along with the restaurant, these wines are curated by Harary’s discerning expertise. “These are typically wines that I find that you may never have heard of but, instead of giving someone 20 chardonnays to choose from, I might have just two or three from different categories. I’ve tasted 100 from each category and these are the best ones,” Harary said.
All of the details at Restaurant Nicholas are what truly add up to a unique, elegant experience. Harary himself believes that he has a duty to stand by his promise to not only cultivate a relaxed environment of elegance and refined taste, but one with its own soul.
“In France, restaurants talk about the terroir of a wine, in this case, I’m talking about the terroir of a restaurant that has a soul to it and it’s a place for people to come for their special occasions. People have been coming here year after year for special occasions and we have a responsibility to uphold that experience—you don’t want any missteps or wrong orders. I can’t take back a wrong order. When that note gets hit wrong in a symphony, you can’t go back—the magic is gone.”