This article was originally published in the October 2017 Princeton Echo.
After a delay of more than a year, the newest restaurant to join Princeton’s downtown dining scene was finally ready to open its doors at the end of September. Marhaba — “welcome” in Arabic — is now serving classic Middle Eastern dishes in the space most recently occupied by Cheeburger, Cheeburger at 182 Nassau Street.
While Marhaba is new to Princeton, it is not new to New Jersey. Owner Karim Elsharabasi, a native of Egypt, and his wife, Karen Branson, opened the first branch of Marhaba in 2009 in Lambertville, where it has been well received, including in a 2011 review in the New York Times.
Now Marhaba’s pita — “exquisite,” per the Times — hummus, and the like can compete with Princeton’s existing Middle Eastern offerings: Efe’s, at 235 Nassau Street, and Mamoun’s Falafel, at 20 Witherspoon Street.
While Marhaba gets going, just a short car trip away in Hopewell and Pennington are three new ethnic spots that are up and running.
Bonne Assiette, a handsome spot that offers one chef’s take on French-American cuisine, occupies the space off 23 West Delaware Avenue, formerly occupied by Avanti and most recently by Camillo’s, a favorite of many Princetonians when chef Camillo ran his eponymous restaurant at the Princeton Shopping Center.
As George Point observed in U.S. 1 newspaper, owner and chef Assi LiPonte promises to deliver an experience that will “awaken your senses.” He also promises to offer a menu that features grass-fed meat and free-range poultry, wild-caught sustainable seafood and fish, locally sourced produce, and artisanal breads, in an effort to support local and small businesses. And then there’s the name of the restaurant, Bonne Assiette, which, loosely translated, means “a well-prepared meal.”
And Chef LiPonte appears to have the bona fides to deliver on his ambitious promises. LiPonte received his early culinary training in France, and went on to assume the role of executive chef or manager at a number of notable establishments, including highly regarded Classic Cafe at Roanoke in Texas.
Patrons may enter Bonne Assiette via a short stroll down the little alley next to the Pennington Barber Shop, or from the (free) municipal parking lot in back. The space has been renovated post-Camillo’s in a subdued, spare, tasteful style. Comfortable high-backed chairs, warm wood tones, and a mix of images of France and America on the walls make for a relaxing setting for what’s to come. Well-spaced tables can accommodate 34 patrons in the main dining area. A side room seating 12-plus may be reserved for private parties, while a patio at the rear seats 18, weather permitting.
Menu offerings hit all the right notes. Appetizers include moules frites, saumon tartare, charcuterie, a selection of artisanal cheeses, and salad selections including the expected and the less so, like the betteraves confit — candied roasted red and golden beets, goat cheese frites, and sweet aioli dressing.
Mains range in price from $16 for roast chicken seasoned with herbes de Provence, to $29 for petoncle au caviar — diver scallops, caviar, farro confit, orange beurre blanc. Creme brulee, mango sorbet, assorted cakes and pastries complete the picture. Diners are welcome to bring their own wine.
Bonne Assiette, 23 West Delaware Avenue, Pennington. Most major credit cards accepted. BYOB. Closed Monday. Tuesdays through Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. 609-737-7174 or bonneassiette.com.
Next door in Hopewell, Basilico — Italian for “basil” — is the third restaurant to open at its East Broad Street location, following in the footsteps of the Bell and Whistle and, more recently, the Southern-influenced SweetGrass.
Basilico is also the third restaurant outing for Princeton-born Joe Trani and his partner, Kari LaSpisa. Trani is also Basilico’s chef, and the menu at Basilico reflects Trani’s deep Italian roots, having spent three decades with his family in his native Ischia, five of those years studying hotel/restaurant management at IPSAR V. Telese, a polytechnic culinary school.
Trani and LaSpisa wisely chose to leave the distinctive architecture of the venue essentially untouched, reports George Point in U.S. 1. The impressive interior makes use of natural materials such as stone, brick, and wood, and the high, barrel-vaulted ceiling adds to the charming ambience. Even before you arrive at the door to Basilico, the approach, down the path beside Boro Bean, makes it feel as though you’re headed someplace special, slightly hidden from Hopewell’s main street.
A series of colorful food-themed paintings in primary colors added a bright snap of visual interest along the west-facing wall of the 45-seat dining room, while a broad expanse of glass on the east-facing wall leads to additional fair weather dining on an attractive open patio.
Excellent ciabatta rolls and herb-infused olive oil come to the table while you peruse the menu. There were a variety of preparations in each of three categories — salads ($10 to $14), antipasti ($9 to $18), and entrees ($17 to $28) — as well as a special or two.
The arugula, kale, pear, fig, and caprese salads are each generous enough to share. The choice of antipasti includes familiar favorites as well as Trani’s Ischian-influenced offerings. The selection of entrees also runs the gamut, familiar to less so; Frutti de Mare and Penne Bolognese squarely in the former category, and dishes such as Ravioli Ischia — fresh jumbo cheese ravioli in a cherry tomato sauce with shrimp and zucchini — in the latter.
Desserts include tiramisu, chocolate lava cake, cannoli with chocolate chips, and Nutella Poppers.
Basilico, 9B East Broad Street, Hopewell. Most major credit cards accepted. BYOB. Tuesday to Saturday, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. 609-333-9900. basilicohopewell.com.
Tomatillo’s Mexican Cuisine recently opened in the former Jack and Charlie’s, also on East Broad Street. Its menu has a familiar feel for fans of Qdoba, Chipotle, and Moe’s Southwest Grill: burritos, tacos, quesadillas, and salads for lunch and dinner.
Chef Harold Tello can usually be found dishing out the meals from behind his stainless steel steam table. As Joe Emanski reports in the Hopewell Express, patrons might recognize him as the owner of the World of Paint on Princeton Avenue.
Tomatillo’s is a family affair. Daughter Katherine is a veterinary nurse who helps out with the business in addition to working at her full-time job. Her brother Jonathan works at the restaurant and the paint store. Harold’s wife, Ayda, is also involved behind the scenes.
Katherine says her dad harbored “his own little secret” of opening a restaurant for years. After immigrating to Florida from Cali, in Colombia, some 30 years ago, Tello worked as a sous chef in several restaurants before starting his painting career. It turns out that he never quite quelled his culinary aspirations.
Late last year he learned that the space was available at 23 East Broad Street. He repainted it and brought in the steam table, and after several months spent perfecting his recipes, he was ready to go.
Tomatillo’s has some counter seating inside and patio seats outside, but the restaurant is designed more with carry-out customers in mind. Tello chose Mexican cuisine because he felt there was demand for a Tex-Mex restaurant in the borough.
The menu may look familiar with its meat choices of chicken, steak, carnitas, and chorizo and all the traditional burrito and taco fixings — including guacamole — to go with them. But there are some interesting flourishes: Filling options include not only rice, but also orzo and a starch alternative, cauliflower rice.
“At most Mexican restaurants the food has a lot of spice and a lot of grease,” Katherine says. “We wanted to keep it as healthy as you can and still keep it Mexican. We wanted to give our customers who are gluten free something to enjoy.”
Though Tomatillo’s doesn’t have a full kitchen, Tello prepares all food fresh each day in a professional setup at a nearby site. On Fridays in particular, Tello lets his professional training show with specials like pulled pork tacos or chicken fajitas with avocado cilantro salsa verde and roasted pepper coulis.
“We definitely have our repeat customers,” Katherine says. “Of course there are the little things we’ve had to change — people have given us good feedback so we can improve. The most important thing for a first-time restaurant owner is to get all the feedback we can. It’s important to have that community feel.”
Tomatillo’s Mexican Cuisine, 23 East Broad Street, Hopewell. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 609-466-0001.
Food for thought
Observant pedestrians may have noticed a stone staircase — currently leading to nowhere — under construction along the side of Blue Point Grill, facing Pine Street. Curious pedestrians should know that the mystery staircase is the first step — pun intended — in an expansion to build a roughly 690-square-foot glass-enclosed porch area along the Nassau Street facade.
The minutes of a March, 2016, zoning board meeting explain the concept:
“The porch will provide covered outdoor dining for the existing 24 seats serving Blue Point Grill and 6 seats for outdoor dining at Small World Cafe. The porch will feature fixed glass panes with doors for the three existing business along Nassau Street. The plans indicate the glass panes will roll up garage door style with a six foot fixed glass area at the top.
“A deck with railing will be constructed above the covered porch and provide outdoor dining at Blue Point Grill for 28 additional seats during warmer months. Access to the deck will be via a stairway on the Pine Street facade.”