Many know that I waltz through life like a prince.
But few know that I was once christened a pig.
Call it a combination of life and destiny that brought me to a prophetic gastro-lounge of sorts, aptly titled The Pig and the Prince, set in the midst of Montclair New Jersey, where every other restaurant had Bentleys parked outside it and where the affluent upper crust savored unparalleled views of New York without succumbing to its gritty interiors. It remains as a place where the logo is permanently etched in my mind: that of the derriere of a chubby pig in a crown, munching down gourmet goodness.
Not often do you find a place that takes the vintage tales of yore, and modernizes them with such restraint that they still ooze a charm of the past as much as transcend into a world of contemporary. And this place, in fact, has a tragic, dark history.
Michael Carrino and Serge Hunkins successfully converted a once-grand railroad terminal of Lackawanna Plaza into an opulent eatery for the past few years, which lies on a history that was visible in its sumptuous architecture. It was built in 1912 and operated for commuters from 1913 to 1981. The station’s opening was linked to the Titanic tragedy, for its architect William Hull Botsford set sail in the doomed ship, leaving behind this legacy at age 25. The charm of its sweeping ceilings and history continues today, combined with award winning food by Chef Carrino, who won Food Network’s Chopped in 2009.
Apparently, the prince stands for the banquet of dinner options, while the pig epitomizes the laid back attitude of the place. Clever really, but not as clever as my own heritage. And thanks to the charming Egypitan heiress who brought me to this fascinating chip of history.
The main seating area is the former waiting room with 50-foot vaulted ceiling with bronze chandeliers that adds grandeur, which contrasts with the original brick walls and a mahogany bar that make the slick place more appealing for the sophisticated, hoity crowd. My favorite part of the interior was obviously the mural of a giant pig, alongside other pig-ly statues on the walls.
I started off with a drink aptly titled Hibernation: Tequila blanco, rum, lime juice, st. Germain and Peychaud bitters. Theatrically red in color, it was one strong blow on my senses, owing to the clean tequila and bitter combination.
Soon to be followed by the Locomotive Lemon Paanch II (the I to which I will never know): Titos Vodka, Lillet Blanc, simple syrup and lemon. More of a palette cleanser, this one deposited more swooning thoughts than it cleansed.
Feeling rather princely, the first dish came on a black marble slate, a presentation tactic that I love. A curry oil and avocado sauce played bedsheets to a heap of quinoa, pickled cucumber, more avocado, jalapeno bits and radish. Thankful for this pig for being a vegetable boar, the sheer variety and fresh crunchiness of the vegetables was delightful. The yogurty cool taste and fluid texture of the avocado complemented the sharp spicyness of the jalapeno splendidly, averaged out by the characterful cucumber, which took the coolness of the former and the crunchiness of the latter.
With my newfound penchant for beets, my favorite course was the horizontally laid out work of culinary art: beet root with vichyssoise yogurt, radish, cured egg yolk, grilled baby leeks and herb puree. Transformed into a fabric of polka dots surrounding a central beet-pink stripe, this was a dish that begged for stories to be told. My only complaint was the lack of apparent sauciness, for all of them were dropped into dots instead of curvaceous smears. Nonetheless, the flavor combinations were enchanting: a tight egg yolk and a rich yogurt against a spicy herb and herbacious beet… the foods that feed the dreams.
Known for homemade pastas, probably the most vanilla of all courses was the squash risotto with roasted squash and toasted almonds, with notes of cardamom and vanilla. Perhaps my Milanese foodie experiences had created an elevated benchmark for remixed Italian food, or perhaps the first two dishes had created unbearably high expectations, but this came across as a plainer attempt, despite my love for the crunchy toasted almonds.
As the shadows in the waiting room grew, speaking of secret decades of a languished world, I began to crave the renowned desserts, made under the guidance of Amanda Hartigan. Her fame was the desserts in a jar, of which I picked the candied yam creme brûlée with maple biscotti. Expecting a pig-like mason jar, I was suprrised with the petite jam jar more fit for a prince. The crisp maple taste complemented the candied yam well, which was partway between sweet potato and vanilla in texture and taste. The overall experience made me salivate for more.
Which is why, with an undeniable addiction to gastronomy and deconstructed classics, I opted for the modern rendition of a carrot cake. The center of the dish was the carrot cake itself, however surrounded by unique accompaniments of white balsamic ice cream, carrot caramel polka dots, walnut praline and dollop of cream cheese frosting. My favorite was the tangy ice cream, a sensual marriage of vinegary essences with cloyingly sweet vanilla, balancing the extremes of both out. The traditional portion was ordinary but well made, and supplemented well with the intriguing carrot caramel, where the aromas and undertastes of carrot were undeniably present. And who doesn’t like walnut praline?
Feeling both pigged out with a gourmet meal and prince-like with opulent plating and a heritage site setting, I was pleased at having munched through a slice of culinary history.
And so this prince, as full as a pig, and devoid of an identity crisis, bolted out of the historic chamber called a waiting room, like stepping off a steam train, into a world of options and opportunities.
Where everything becomes history as soon as the clock ticks.