This article was originally published in the February 2018 Princeton Echo.
Few things are more eagerly anticipated than the advent of a new restaurant from the Fenwick Hospitality Group. Jim Nawn and his talented team already have created three venues that have quickly become iconic in Princeton. Starting with Agricola, they preserved and revitalized the site of the venerable Lahiere’s on Witherspoon Street. Pass by at almost any time and the place is jumping.
More recently they have become an energizing force in the new Lewis Arts Center complex on the Princeton campus near McCarter and the train station. The Dinky Bar is a funky delight for drinks and light bites located in the lovely old Dinky stop and the more upscale Cargot offers refreshingly creative takes on French brasserie fare. Who can resist either location’s warm stone buildings and inviting decor. Pre-theater dinner, post theater drinks, satisfying breakfast on the way to the daily commute, it’s all available on University Place.
Now comes the fourth jewel in Fenwick’s crown, Two Sevens, which opened just before Christmas. This industrial chic urban dining venue with Latin-inspired cuisine is located next to the Avalon Bay apartment complex. The name itself is a play on the address, 277 Witherspoon Street. It promises to become the linchpin for the proposed retail shops that will top off the development.
What do these four venues have in common? Difference. Fenwick’s creative minds have deliberately established a distinct personality, vibe, and ambiance with each of their restaurants. The new Two Sevens is completely different in feel and food from its sister locales.
“We had been thinking about developing the space for quite a while,” says owner Jim Nawn. “Our first restaurants were the product of knowing what cuisine we wanted and then creating the space. This time we reversed the process. We knew we had a superb location. It’s very residential so it’s home to many people. That dictated creating a neighborhood eatery. The space lent itself to an open design; a place where you could hang with friends, stop by for a drink and a bite, sit with the family or friends for a while. Then the question was what kind of food to serve. We thought of barbecue. We considered a diner. But neither of those cuisines really fit the strong cultural heritage and evolving feel of this part of town. We wanted to attract a variety of people and keep a cultural and economic mix. It was all about diversity.”
This then was where chef Patrick Lacey came in with a completely new approach to how the menu would be created. “We wanted a place where everyone will gather to eat and enjoy the company of others. That vibe would not work with a sit-down restaurant with white linen tablecloths. We wanted simple, delicious bites that could be shared easily. We also wanted to harmonize with the classic Mexican/Latin flavors of the neighborhood.”
Lacey grew up in the kitchen of his Italian American family home in Syracuse, New York. “Food was a big part of my upbringing. My grandmother was the cook. We would watch the food network shows together. Being a cook was considered a big deal in our culture and it represented career mobility,” he says.
This upbringing took him to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. At the forefront of a farm-to-table revolution, local farmers, artisan cheese makers, brewers, wine makers, and others dominate the innovations at resorts and restaurants there. Students were exposed to the community of food activists changing the way food tastes, is grown, produced, and distributed.
After graduation, Lacey paid his dues and ultimately found his mentor in celebrity chef Akhtar Nawab after being introduced to him while working in the Hamptons. It was through Nawab that Lacey became experienced in blending flavor profiles. After the closure of one of his restaurants, Nawab, who grew up with the rich culinary traditions of India, had reinvented himself through Mexican food, at La Esquina in New York City, where he found Mexican and Indian tastes to be harmonious. Even the slow-cooking techniques and layering of flavors that characterize Indian food had enormous parallels with Mexican cooking.
“You can take one food tradition and with a couple of substitutions create something new that speaks to another,” says Lacey. “For example, apples and honey in one recipe takes on a Latin flavor when you use tamarind and agave. Once you understand the seasoning profiles, you can begin to innovate.”
Lacey worked for several years in New York City but decided that he and his wife needed to escape urban life. They purchased land in Allentown and planned to build. Lacey was willing to do the daily commute back to the city, where he did recipe development for a tech food start-up that had a delivery app. “We were supplying 5,000 to 10,000 meals a day,” he says, “but then the company was bought up and I was out of a job. Talk about timing.” Not quite a year ago, Lacey connected with Nawn via Craigslist.
This then was the genesis of Two Sevens, an eatery and cantina. Its menu features snacks, tacos, small plates, shareable dishes, and more, inspired by the cuisines of Central and South America. The casual, urban design encourages pop-in dining. “We have only been open a couple of weeks but already we are seeing the local kids coming by after school with friends to hang for a while, share some tacos or snacks; just unwind and chill,” Lacey says. “This is exactly the feel we wanted. Simple dishes that are really good food.”
Lacey is adamant that Two Sevens is not another Mexican restaurant. “Latin cuisine can easily become bastardized. We are inspired by it and then do a fresh take on the ingredients. This is not ‘fusion’ anything. That trend ends up being just combining things for the sake of combining them. We focus on knowing flavor and having the full spice palette available.”
Most of the items on the tapas-style menu are small plates, meant to be shared. A sampling of the innovative dishes would include Empanadas of potato, sweet pea, chipotle crema ($9); Octopus Tostada with chorizo and salsa veracruzana ($10) or Chicharrones of crispy pork skins, with house-made sazon ($7). Fish, shrimp, and steak are served on house made tortillas ($8-$9).
Lacey says the menu “is gluten free because we use corn, not wheat, in our tortillas. We offer numerous vegetarian dishes like our fried oyster mushroom tacos.”
For larger plates from the grill, try short ribs chimichurri ($25) or grilled snapper with salsa roja, and watermelon radish ($26). Pork belly or a half chicken is also available and all are served with fresh tortillas and rice and beans.
Facing Witherspoon Street is a large bar area with counter seating and tall tables. Fenwick’s own artisanal bartender, Kitty Agbaglud, has created specialty cocktails for Two Sevens alone. There is the Two Sevens Margarita ($12) made with blanco tequila, lime, and agave. Or try the Amalia ($13), unique to Two Sevens, with blanco tequila, licor 43, combier, and lemon. Two Sevens also offers large format cocktails of four to five drinks per order. The Make Momma Happy Punch ($53) of mixed rums, vermouth, cranberry, pomegranate, and bitters is worth trying for the name alone. Spirit flights and draft beers are also available.
“The skill is in the cooking and the weaving of complex but harmonious tastes, but the ultimate goal is good, simple food. It seems we have hit our mark. We have been surprised by the number of repeat diners we have greeted in the short time we’ve been open,” says Lacey.
But Two Sevens is not done yet. Soon a separate, more private dining area will open downstairs. “We want people to come and party. There is a smaller bar/ lounge area down there, a stage for music and video capability. We can see hosting World Cup parties and other celebrations there or in warm weather out on our patio. We have seating for more than 40 guests there. We want to welcome everyone,” says Lacey with an expansive sweep of his arm. “Come join us.”
Different is good; different is exciting. Two Sevens is just the difference Princeton needs.
Two Sevens. 277 Witherspoon Street. Open Sunday through Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday to 10 p.m. Happy hour 3 to 6:30 p.m. daily. 609-921-2779. twosevensrestaurant.com.