The Enchanted European: Rat’s Restaurant

Lifestyle

 Rat’s Restaurant sets the stage for a magical dining experience directly drawing inspiration from classical European art and literature, to further integrate the old-world charm of a proverbial French countryside inn with the colloquial familiarity of the Garden State. Located in the heart of the mystical Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, Rat’s Restaurant provides a necessary escape into an enchanted land straight from a fairytale. Coupled with the comforting French-inspired flavors and architecture inspired by French impressionist painter Claude Monet, the mythical imagery and wondrous art of European folklore become a fantastical reality for any visitor.

 But why name such an exquisite restaurant with an upscale dining experience Rat’s?

 For prolific Jersey-born artist and founder Seward Johnson, Rat’s references the cheeky character “Ratty” from the early twentieth-century children’s fable The Wind and the Willows by Scottish novelist Kenneth Grahame. Johnson believed Ratty to emulate the vibrant, entertaining traits behind his vision for the restaurant, according to knowledgeable General Manager of Rat’s, Michael Kurtz.

“Rat’s is a fun, whimsical, creative, and exceptional name, which unquestionably grabs the attention of many, as it should, and as Seward Johnson had courageously imagined,” said Kurtz after interviewing Johnson’s right-hand man, Bruce Daniels, in the development of the restaurant.  

 

Nestled within the fantastical, story book realm of whimsical artist Seward Johnson’s Ground for Sculpture garden and park, Rat’s Restaurant evidently appears to have existed as an old-world architectural masterpiece for centuries. But Johnson, after enlisting the aid of visionary Bruce Daniels, spent nearly a decade after Ground’s 1992 opening, meticulously curating his peculiar, yet wondrous vision for Rat’s. A whimsical revolutionary of his time, Johnson believed in creating an ageless social space for both artists and guests of the vibrant atelier to convene, exchange ideas, and appreciate art. The idea behind “Rat’s Restaurant” grew on itself, coupling the classical European charm with the equally amity of New Jersey.

 Built in the center like an escape through an enchanted forest in the South of France, Rat’s Restaurant stands as the old-world inn with cobblestone roads, villa -style architecture, and a toolbox of upscale, charming French-cooking fused with the fresh farm produce, familiar atmosphere, and vibrant spirit of the Garden State.

Upon entry, the faint, amber glow of several lanterns lining the driveway welcomes you, setting a mysterious, yet captivating atmosphere under the ink black sky. But beyond the mystery of the park’s enigmatic nature stands Rat’s Restaurant tucked away like the hidden gem of the farmland estate. And within the first wondrous glances of the garden, you wonder if there had been a spellbound portal casually connecting New Jersey to an enchanted faraway land of a European fairytale.

 Seward Johnson’s quest for creating Rat’s became an architectural competition set between six of the prestigious firms in the Greater New York and Philadelphia areas. First garnering the aesthetic and architectural inspiration from abroad, Johnson rented Monet’s notorious Giverny, a small village from Normandy. The soft garden greens inspired the famous impressionist painter of the late nineteenth-century, and similarly, Johnson observed the village to fully encapsulate the feeling of a painting into his project at home. After clear deliberation, Johnson chose New York-based architect and landscaper Brian Carey’s “Belgian Village” design, closely emulating the artistic nuances from the past trip to France. Within three years, Rat’s Restaurant opened to the public, in January of 2000.  

 

The interior takes on the warm, and cozy aesthetic accompanied with the inviting scent of crackling firewood burning in the hand-crafted stone fireplaces and the intricate wood finished furniture. Between the velvet green seating upholstery, blue stained glasses, and faint table-top candlelight glow, to the jovial greetings from staff, the first steps into Rat’s Restaurant emulate the beginning, middle, and end of a storybook from start to finish. Whether your first time or fortieth, every guest is treated like the talk of the town. Looking to muse at the back pond? Dine outside on the patio accompanied with multiple space heaters to keep the chilling frost of late winter away while appreciating the white snow resting on the skeleton tree branches. And by the late spring, the lush green verdant plant-life will return, adding a natural, refreshing sight to the garden.

 

Rat’s Restaurant champions a seasonally inspired menu that integrates the comforting flavors of France with the fresh, locally sourced ingredients from farms around New Jersey. The result is an astounding, upscale dining experience.

Upon our arrival, the house cheerfully welcomed us with dazzling glasses of Vandori Prosecco from the Friuli-Venezia region of Italy, offering a light, yet refreshing  wine to enjoy by the flickering splendor of the nearby fireplace. Accompanied with the proverbial cheese & charcuterie board, featuring an authentic curated selection of artisanal cheeses and meats, and the endless basket of soft, yet crisp baguettes, and you heard it here folks, freshly baked popovers, the verdict was clear – we were here to eat.

 

Each trip to the board meant a distinctive, harmonic combination of balanced flavors. The subtle pungency of the Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese offered a distinctive zing that paired effortlessly with the sweetness, yet tartness of raspberry jam on a crisp slice of baguette. While the distinctive creaminess from the St. Stephen cow’s milk cheese brought a finesse that courageously stood up to the delicacy of the warm popovers topped with a thinly sliced apple wedge for a fruity finish.

 

The vast selection of house cocktails, various bottles of wine, and craft beer painted the table with a complementary mix for the palette. Ratty’s Ultimate Manhattan introduced the spicy, bitterness of bourbon paired with the balanced sweetness of the Carpano Antica Vermouth and Luxardo cherry’s syrup. The classic Autumn Old-Fashioned only added to the fireside chatter of the night. Not into Whiskey? Perhaps try the White Cosmo made with the slight tartness of white cranberry juice and citrus vodka. But as the seasons change, the menu, including drinks, will renew with even more original creations.

 The first-course established the theme of excitement and newness as a fresh, obligatory plate of Escargots reached the table of first timers with the delicate Winter Green Salad. Despite the common stigma, the Escargot mimicked the chewy texture of a scallop or mussel with the earthy flavors reminiscent of a mushroom, a perfect rustic addition to the table. The salad’s silky burrata paired superbly with the fibrous texture of the kale while the hazelnuts added a necessary crunch and richness to the overall bowl.

Entrées introduced two of Rat’s classics: the luxurious Steak Frites and the delectable Roasted Griggstown Chicken, critically acclaimed to have replaced the notorious Coq Au Vin. The tender richness of the steak blended with the Burgundy reduction while the moist chicken, sourced from a local Princeton farm, delivered an organic freshness, a testimony to the high-quality sourcing of the Garden State. And with the vegetarian roasted Brussels Sprouts complemented with tiny, crispy, yet subtly sweet cubes of bacon, the table’s hearty choices only added to the cozy ambiance.

 Rat’s Restaurant brought the fantastical flavors and inspiration from abroad with the homey familiarity of Jersey. Between the elegant, locally sourced menu to the friendly guidance of staff like family, Rat’s gives every guest a number of reasons to return to try something new.

 “Rat’s encourages our guests to step into the magical cross-section of creative art, refined food, and historical architecture and design and immerse themselves with new experiences. If that means the discovery of a glass of fine wine from across the world or an escargot introduction, that’s a win in our book,” said Kurtz.

For more information, go to https://www.ratsrestaurant.com/

By Karlo Sta Cruz

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