AT HIS KITCHEN POST AT THE METUCHEN INN, TOMMY ROMERO INDULGES HIS FLAIR FOR THE UNEXPECTED

BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE

When Chef Tommy Romero is in the kitchen at the Metuchen Inn, playing with fresh local ingredients while conjuring the week’s specials, he begins with a simple, dependable concept: adding an unexpected twist to make each dish unique.

“My fried calamari, for example, is served with portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers, and a basil aioli,” Romero said. “The avocado salad has a hint of jalapeno, and is infused with a mango vinaigrette. The octopus is grilled and served with capers and baby arugula; meatballs are served over polenta with just a touch of goat cheese. Then there’s our foie gras, served with apple chocolate bread pudding and dried fruit in a port wine reduction. These things are simple, but sophisticated, and made with one or two ingredients that change the whole concept. We’re not trying to be eccentric, just tweaking each dish so that the menu is varied. We have no borders when we are creating something.” Romero, who graduated from culinary school in Ecuador, came to California in 1991 before settling on the East Coast in 1994.

“I worked in several restaurants with both Italian and Spanish influences before meeting Constantine,” he said, referring to Constantine Papanicolaou, who owns the Metuchen Inn with Victor Scaipa. “I was hired here 15 days before they opened, and have been here for 25 years and helped put this kitchen together. Constantine is more than my boss; he’s my big brother.”
Romero, who focuses on a transcontinental menu laden with Mediterranean influences, said that he is inspired by both American and further flung spices.

“The truth is, we have the best of everything,” he said. “There’s a lot of clams and calamari, a couple of pasta dishes, and deliciously seasoned meat with cloves on the steak and bay leaf and Mediterranean spice on the osso bucco. I also like to choose whatever protein and produce is available locally and then build off of that, but seasoning and spices are what give our menu dimension.”

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That menu, he added, changes frequently, and that both Papanicolaou and Scaipa are also active in the kitchen.

Timepiece Spread

“My contribution comes from exposure I have to outstanding dining from all over the world,” Papanicolaou said. “I travel a lot and bring ideas back so we can play and experiment. But without Chef Tommy’s execution, I would be nowhere. We are successful here because we collaborate.”

With respect to fish, bronzino, halibut, and salmon are Romero’s favorites. He also likes to experiment with game; an herb crusted rack of lamb and grilled wild boar tenderloin are two of his signature entrees.

“Anyone can grill and season a steak to perfection,” Papanicolaou said. “To cook a rabbit or properly simmer osso bucco takes time, talent, and knowledge. And that’s exactly what Tommy has.”

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The chef also makes efforts to round out each dish, avoiding potatoes and other basic side dishes.

“Everything is unique,” Papanicolaou explained. “He comes up with root vegetables that eat like a starch puréed butternut squash, roasted parsnip purée but there is no evidence of a potato…delicious alternatives that truly make all of our dishes different. Tommy’s creativity is what makes this menu so unexpected and extraordinary.”

Metuchen Inn
424 Middlesex Avenue, Metuchen
732.494.6444 / metucheninn.net