Farmer Steve Tomlinson. (Photo courtesy of Agricola.)
Farmer Steve Tomlinson. (Photo courtesy of Agricola.)
Chef-partner Josh Thomsen. (Photo courtesy of Agricola.)
Chef-partner Josh Thomsen. (Photo courtesy of Agricola.)

For the past half a year, various nosy people—vendors, passers-by, reporters and the like—have poked their heads into the construction going on at the former Lahiere’s restaurant on Witherspoon Street and ask the workers what they were building, only to be rebuffed by the booming voice of foreman Charlie Roesing, saying “I can’t talk about it! Talk to the owner.”

Now, the owner, Jim Nawn, is more than happy to talk about Agricola, the restaurant he plans to open this fall in the space occupied until 2010 by the legendary fine dining restaurant, Lahiere’s.

Agricola (“ahGREEKola”) is Latin for farmer. The name appealed to Nawn for several reasons. First, Nawn was a classics major, and second, the restaurant will aim to provide rustic American fare with vegetables grown on Great Road Farm in Skillman, which Nawn owns.

But make no mistake: while Nawn’s farm, run by farmer Steve Tomlinson, uses sustainable methods, the mission of Agricola is gastronomical, not ecological.

“This didn’t start off as a save-the-world venture,” Nawn said. “This started out where a restaurant starts, and that is trying to create great taste.”

Nawn said that means most of the menu won’t come from the farm, just the fruits and vegetables that grow well in New Jersey, at least at first.

“We’re not thinking about carbon footprint, we’re thinking about taste, and taste is enhanced by (being) local,” Nawn said.

Nawn founded Great Road Farm in 2007, while he was in the midst of his former career as a manager of Panera restaurants. Nawn had a stake in Panera’s New Jersey franchises, and built dozens of the restaurants over his 11-year career.

The farm was intended to produce lettuce and tomatoes for Nawn’s Paneras, but now he believes the 120 or so varieties of herbs and vegetables grown there will be better suited to a more upscale eatery.

All that fresh food will be prepared under a kitchen staff led by Nawn’s partner, chef Josh Thomsen. Thomsen is a former chef at Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant and Nob Hill at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

Thomsen, a New Jersey native who recently moved to Princeton, said he had started eight restaurants before, and took the job at Agricola in part because the restaurant will have access to its own farm and fresh ingredients.

“There’s nothing cooler than having your own farm at your disposal,” Thomsen said. “I mean, this is such a monster pro right at the top of the column of pros and cons, to be able to grow your own food and know where it comes from. It’s like raising kids and seeing them off to college. You do the whole thing yourself.

Thomsen illustrated the advantages of farm-to-table cuisine by describing a planned menu item, the Farmers Market Salad.

“Farmer Steve’s going to call me up and be like, ‘Dude, I’ve got this awesome whatever, and all this stuff,’ and I’ll come and get it and he’ll bring it down and that will be the salad of the day,” Thomsen said.

Nawn is completely overhauling the interior of the building, which operated at 11 Witherspoon St. as Lahiere’s for more than 90 years. Nawn would not reveal how much the project has cost.

He said he plans to hire 40 or 50 staff members to run the 200-seat restaurant. The new layout will include five distinct dining areas and a 40-seat bar parallel to the street and visible through an 11-foot-tall glass window.

“We’re not hiding what we’re doing behind the door,” Nawn said. The kitchen will also be on full display.

For those who prefer more privacy, there is another dining area farther away from the window, plus a private 60-seat private dining room that is expected to have audiovisual meeting capability.

“We’re trying to create a guest experience and food service that people are really going to love,” Nawn said.

As construction continues, Thomsen is sampling the veggies on the farm and planning the new menu, though he intends to change it in response to the preferences of the customers and the changing produce available through the seasons.

Nawn said he had hoped to open the restaurant three months ago, but that it has proven logistically challenging to complete a construction project in Princeton.

Logistics are a puzzle that Nawn is able to tackle, after running a statewide restaurant chain. This is a bit different though.

“Panera Bread was system that I bought into,” he said. “This is my creation, one that I got a lot of help with, but it’s my creation.”

Agricola is located at 11 Witherspoon Street in Princeton. For more information, go online to agricolaeatery.com or call (609) 681-2877.

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Diccon Hyatt is business editor of U.S. 1. He has worked for Community News since 2006 and was previously community editor of the Ewing Observer, the Hopewell Express, the Lawrence Gazette, and the Trenton Downtowner. From 2003 to 2006, he was a general assignment reporter for the Middletown Transcript in Middletown, Delaware. In 2002, he graduated from the University of Delaware, where he was features editor of the student newspaper, The Review. He has won numerous awards from the Maryland-Delaware D.C. Press Association and the Association of Free Community Newspapers for features, news, and opinion writing. He is married and lives in Marlton, NJ.