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Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank is about customer-driven hospitality—and food that speaks for itself

by Marisa Procopio • Photos By Amessé Photography

The small white building on a busy stretch of highway is unassuming, tucked behind trees and shrubs. But enough people knew it was there, judging from the steady stream of after-work visitors who have stopped in. By 8 p.m. the din at Bar N, just off the dining room of Restaurant Nicholas, hits a high, contrasting with the cozy mellow light of votive candles at each table.

The light plays off the enormous white platters and bowls that go by, bearing creatively presented fish, vegetables, and awfully pretty little souffles. Behind the bar, servers are in hustle mode, but it’s clear they have this dance down.

And overseeing it all in an impeccably cut suit is Nicholas Harary, executive chef and owner—moving around the room, chatting, asking patrons if they’re enjoying themselves. “The experience is about them, not about us,” he said. “The experience of a restaurant is everything. We spend a ton of time training our staff. It’s the hospitality. It goes in a circle. It all has to be equal.”

Harary, with wife Melissa, helped to pioneer a new approach to dining at the Shore, with pristinely fresh and exquisitely presented dishes. The effort hasn’t escaped the notice of the people who track this sort of thing: Restaurant Nicholas was awarded four stars from The New York Times, earned 29/30 in both food and service from Zagat (2005-present!), and was named by AOL in 2008 as one of the top 11 restaurants in the country.

But when the pair opened the eatery in 2000, their brand of fresh, seasonal cuisine hadn’t yet taken root at the Shore.

H&S Spread

“When we started, everyone had an opinion on what we should or shouldn’t be. That was a big hurdle,” said Harary. “People didn’t understand why they couldn’t just come in and get a hamburger.” Fifteen years later, most have caught on to the integrity of Harary’s vision, and consistently come back for more.

“I’ve never known a time that wasn’t busy,” said Jodie Edwards, the business’s director of marketing and public relations, when asked whether they have a slow season. “We’re always busy.”

Harary got his start in the food business as a teen. “I was working in a pizzeria. I was very energetic and wanted to learn more,” he said. “Being ambitious, I worked through the ranks.”

“My training is basically French. [New American cuisine] is an American style using French technique,” he added.

The assertion that other fine-dining establishments commonly have ingredients shipped in from boilerplate suppliers, and that many’s the restaurant that champions artistically presented food with little intrinsic value, prompts unmistakable disgust. “That’s never happened here,” said Harary. “We start with the best natural product.

“We deal with a lot of little local farms around us. It’s not unusual to have a woman come in with a basket of asparagus. We just got tomatoes from a local place.”

Customer appreciation here goes well beyond a pat “Thank you for coming.” For birthday or anniversary celebrations, the pastry chef creates a box of homemade chocolates, and cards are sent to patrons on their birthdays.

The Chef’s Table is an idea that Harary set in motion in 2006. (“I decided to create a table in the kitchen. The whole kitchen revolves around the table.”) A Grand Tasting Menu, created by Harary and his team based on the tastes of up to four guests, is the centerpiece of the evening. Not exactly a trifle at $150 per person, but between the Champagne, custom-designed dishes, and in-the-action kitchen voyeuring, it’s a hit with patrons.

“We book it four days a week. It’s a great experience,” Harary stated.

Once through the doors, Restaurant Nicholas guests are treated to the first of three blown-glass sculptures above their heads. The exuberant Crayola squiggles of red, yellow, and orange (and open-parasol plates in the same colors) are the work of artist Robert Kuster. Harary’s discerning fingerprints are all over the restaurant’s design, with cool, pale-grey marble floors and straight-backed chairs giving way to more reds and oranges that warm up the angles and clean lines of the intimate dining areas. Silverware in napkins placed diagonally on tables, and the painting in the dining room that can roll up to reveal a TV screen, are unusual signature touches.

“If you’re looking for a place to eat good food, I’d suggest Bar N. If you want to dine, Restaurant Nicholas,” explained Harary. The latter is prix fixe. We opt for the former, and a server greets us with a super-watt smile and a little bread basket filled with fresh, warm rolls.

We order three small plates to share. Out comes a salad of still-life artistry: heirloom baby pickled red and yellow beets and raw, thinly sliced Chioggia beets. Delicately placed Meyer lemon and sour cream droplets surround the vegetables. Chopped pistachios are a playful, salty, delicious addition.

The New Jersey corn bisque is wonderfully smoky, with a zingy brightness from bits of pickled tomato. Crab, cornbread croutons, and a few kernels of popcorn lend earthiness and a bit of whimsy.

Last is hand-rolled pappardelle with ricotta, squash blossoms, and smoked tomato vinaigrette—our favorite dish. The pasta is perfectly al dente (a detail kitchens don’t always respect) and the sauce’s sweet-vinegary-salty balance is on point. One note to keep in mind: the small plates at Bar N truly are just that. For a very light meal, they’re fine; for dinner, aim higher and choose from the large plate selection. The restaurant is looking forward to a new season and a new menu. “Fall is always an exciting time for the staff—white truffles, pumpkin soup,” said Harary. For those who appreciate wild game, he also offers Game Night, for one night only. But it’s Restaurant Nicholas’s online wine store that gets Harary especially passionate.

“My customers kept asking me, ‘Where can I buy this?’ Most of the wines at Restaurant Nicholas come from very small wineries, and people couldn’t find them,” he said. “It’s exploded into a whole other business.”

“About three years ago, Nicholas realized that with his liquor license, he could start selling wines,” added Edwards. “And what started out as a quirky idea has turned into some-

The assertion that other fine-dining
establishments commonly have
ingredients shipped in from boilerplate
suppliers—and that many’s the restaurant
that champions artistically presented
food with little intrinsic value—prompts
unmistakable disgust. “That’s never
happened here,” said Harary. “We start
with the best natural product.”

thing really successful. We’ve had tremendous response to it.”

In every case, with every wine, “I pick the best in that price range. I’ve done all of the legwork, and it’s very fairly priced,” said Harary. Each of his emails to wine customers contains a personal story, and “people love to see how he brings it back to wine,” smiled Edwards.

Most importantly, Restaurant Nicholas wines are kept at a consistent 55 degrees, the ideal temperature for storage. It’s a detail that matters enormously when it comes to maintaining character and essence. Harary said the average shopper wouldn’t think of buying milk or fish from a store that kept them at 75 degrees, but does not hesitate to buy wine kept at room temperature. “It’s going to lose all of its vibrancy,” he emphasized. Not so with wines sold here: “From day one, it’s kept in the right conditions.”

What makes Harary proudest, when he looks out across the landscape of this work? “I’m just proud of the people who work for me,” he said. “We’re teaching. One way or another, we are just part of the community.”

Restaurant Nicholas

160 Rt. 35, Red Bank
732.345.9977
restaurantnicholas.com
Cuisine: New American
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 5:30–10:30 p.m.
Sunday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Closed Monday
Price: Restaurant Nicholas:
Prix Fixe $70-$140;
Bar N: $12-$49
All major credit cards accepted
Service: Friendly, efficient
Bar: Extensive wine list,
including dessert wines and cocktails
Parking: Street, Valet
Private Parties: Yes