When Nina’s Waffles & Ice Cream opens its doors at 252 Nassau St. this month, it will represent the fourth location of this collaboration between chef and caterer Shawn Lawson and New Hope, Pennsylvania restaurateur Louis Zanias. Nina’s calling cards are authentic Liege-style Belgian waffles and housemade artisanal ice creams.
If your knowledge of the Princeton dining scene goes back 15 or 20 years, the name Shawn Lawson will ring a bell, first for his high-end catering business, Soufflé, and then for his Studio Cooking School on Farber Road in West Windsor. After those ventures, Lawson worked mainly in the New Hope area, where he connected with Zanias, the owner of two restaurants there, Karla’s and Zoubi.
The pair eventually teamed up on a wholesale business, Zoubi Cakes and Catering. But it was with the founding of Nina’s Waffles a few years ago that the partnership found its stride.
“Louis and I first met back in the early nineties,” Lawson recalls. “Then about nine years ago I was walking through New Hope and we rekindled that friendship. We started doing wholesale desserts and it kind of evolved from there.”
Nina’s Nassau Street location is next door to Small World Coffee and Nassau Street Seafood. The building is owned by Jack Morrison’s JM Restaurant Group, and the space was last occupied by a Subway sandwich shop. With almost 2,400 square feet, Princeton’s is by far the largest Nina’s; other locations are in New Hope and Doylestown, in Pennsylvania, and Sergeantsville in New Jersey. “That’s almost too much space,” Lawson says of Princeton, adding with a laugh, “It could be an annex to Princeton Airport! We could give ballroom dancing lessons here.”
Because the space is approved for only 25 seats, there’s plenty of elbow room. And to help defray the overhead costs, this Nina’s will differ from her siblings by being open all day, seven days a week, year round. In addition to the signature Liege waffles and ice creams served in the other locations, the Princeton restaurant will offer a line of savory waffles and fillings, as well as soups and innovative sandwiches, including a “Grilled Cheez of the Week.” (One example: The Apple Pie: doughnut, cheddar, Muenster, bacon, sliced apple: $7)
The newest Nina’s differs in one more regard, Lawson points out. “It’s our first license agreement.” Owners are businessmen Tom Pappas of Tmp Mechanical Systems in Trenton, and Mike Fanourgakis of Do Best Enterprises in Lumberton. “They’ve been dabbling in the restaurant business for a while, with snack bars,” Lawson says.
Their contracting skills and sensibilities proved useful in the design and construction of the Nassau Street restaurant with, for example, a bar/counter containing charging stations for smartphones and a reclaimed barn door that leads to two restrooms. The overall design aesthetic is rustic-industrial, so the main counter is clad with reclaimed rough-wood planks, and above it is a decorative tin ceiling. Elsewhere, a wood plank ceiling and exposed overhead HVAC system are painted deep blue-gray. One wall features large, three-dimensional metal letters with lights that spell out “Nina’s.”
While both American and Belgian waffles are found on other menus in town, Liege waffles are not. Liege waffles are made not from a poured batter, but from yeasted dough, similar to brioche, Lawson explains. Legend has it that in the late 18th century, the Prince-Bishop of Liege requested that his chef create a treat using the newly invented pearl sugar, a Belgian specialty made from beet sugar. Whether the story is true or not, Liege waffles eventually became wildly popular, first in Belgium, then Europe, and now the U.S.
Louis Zanias’ heritage is Greek, but he grew up in Belgium. “He remembered the Liege-style waffle as a kid – that was his snack,” Lawson says. “Every day in school, a little woman wearing a babushka would show up with them.” One day, when Zanias was reminiscing to Lawson about them, Lawson agreed to look into the feasibility of reproducing them. “So Louis calls up someone he knows in Belgium, and about two months later we have a pound of dough and a special waffle iron that costs some insane amount, like $1,800. So we freeze this dough and cook it and, wow, it’s good,” he says.
But Zanias felt that it was not as good as he remembered. So Lawson did some research and after about four months of trial and error, came up with his own recipe. “The only thing we have to import is the pearl sugar, which we buy by the pallet,” he says. (Pearl sugar, which is coarse, does not melt during baking as quickly as regular granulated sugar.)
It’s the combination of brioche-like dough and pearl sugar that gives Liege waffles their unique taste, Lawson says. “As they cook, the sugar caramelizes, making the outside crisp and crunchy. But the inside is chewy and bread-like. And then we have the warm toppings – chocolate ganache and caramel – as well as cold toppings.” Among those latter are Nutella, dulce de leche, chocolate chips, speculoos, peanut butter, whipped cream, pastry cream, bananas, and strawberries. “And apple Tatin,” Lawson adds. “You take cooked caramelized apples and add pastry cream and a little sugar, and torch it. A great dessert with a scoop of ice cream.”
These days, Lawson, his pastry chef, and his staff make everything from scratch, including Nina’s 130-plus flavors of ice cream. (About 24 will be on offer at any one time.) But that wasn’t always the case. The first Nina’s started as a shop selling Liege waffles, sans ice cream, inside the Stockton Market in early 2011. That was followed by attempts to establish beachheads in Seaside Park and Red Bank, but they didn’t catch on. “At that point, we still hadn’t finished the concept,” Lawson admits. They added ice cream by the time Nina’s opened in New Hope in May 2012.
They began by buying ice cream from OWowCow, an acclaimed creamery based in Ottsville, Pennsylvania that has a popular outlet in Lambertville. “It is wonderful, but it was cost prohibitive,” Lawson explains. “We tried for a year, but the numbers didn’t work.”
So Zanias went to Penn State to take the short course in ice cream making. “He came back with a huge stack of notes and tabulated a formula,” Lawson says. “And people got excited! So for the last three years we’ve made our own ice cream.” At their commissary in New Hope, Lawson and his team make Philadelphia-style ice cream — i.e., without eggs — and pasteurize their own base using milk and cream from Balford Farms, the local dairy distributor based in Burlington.
Their ice cream base is 14 percent fat and sugar — “Just enough to get by so it’s not too sweet, so you can taste the flavors,” Lawson says. He is proud of his seasonal fruit flavors, such as black currant. “We roast the fruit in the oven, thus decreasing the amount of water and intensifying the flavor, and we use twice the amount of fruit that most people do. So you’re really going to taste the fruit.”
Despite its rotating roster of 130 flavors, vanilla remains the best seller. The second best seller? Chocolate. His personal favorite flavor is sea salt caramel. He and his pastry chef bake all ice cream inclusions, such as speculoos cookies. “The only things we don’t make are the Oreo cookies and one flavor that includes pretzels, for which I buy skinny salted pretzels,” he says. He has had particular success with what he calls Mad Crack: Saltine crackers, baked in an oven with toffee and chocolate. “You chop it up and incorporate it into Madagascar vanilla ice cream base. People love it,” he says.
Nina’s Princeton will offer two styles of Belgian waffles. In addition to the signature Liege sweet waffles, the more common Brussels style will be used for savory items. Different steel waffle irons are used to make each kind. “The grates are different. The Brussels iron has deeper grooves and rectangular quadrants – better for a poured batter and to make four full-size waffles at a time,” Lawson explains. This creative chef even used cooked Liege waffles to sponge-paint a wall near the irons, dipping each into a different color of paint to make a series of decorative crosshatch designs.
Three savory waffle combinations are planned for the initial opening, including one of mac ‘n’ cheese and a gluten-free version with mashed Yukon Gold potatoes. But Lawson’s ideas for additions and combinations are seemingly endless. “You can add chopped bacon and cheddar cheese, or a sausage stuffing, or smoked salmon with sour cream, maybe topped with microgreens, or add our homemade pulled pork or turkey chili. We’re giving people options,” he says with a bit of understatement. “And in summer, I’m going to use local produce, such as Jersey tomatoes and basil. Maybe have a pizza waffle lunch special. Maybe our version of chicken and waffles using boneless thighs and not smothered in maple syrup!”
One of several blackboards around the airy space is devoted to party tray options. “With all the catering that goes on in this town you have to set yourself apart,” he admits. “Our sweet-savory waffles, such as Moroccan onion and goat cheese or poached pear and blue cheese, will be available in mini-forms on a tray of, say, 36. Our Yukon Gold ones can be made as one-bite hors d’ouevres.” He points out an option that’s “great for a kid’s party. We cook 25 fresh waffles and provide ten pints of ice cream plus a pint each of our chocolate ganache and caramel sauce. It’s $25 – and the kids get to make their own combinations.” Nina’s also boasts four trucks, including one devoted to savories, that can be rented for parties of 35 or more.
“And it all started because Louis grew up in Belgium!” marvels Lawson, who turns 51 this month and who just moved to Sergeantsville. Lawson grew up with his parents and two brothers in Hightstown, where his father taught at the Peddie School.
“Louis is a trained chef, too,” he says of his business partner, “but he hasn’t been cooking for a long time. He’s the original idea man, and we just clicked.”
Lawson says. Zanias, 61, named the business after his youngest daughter, Nina, who is currently a senior in high school.
Food writer and restaurant critic Pat Tanner has covered the Princeton dining scene for more than 20 years. She blogs at dinewithpat.com.