It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to interview owners of one of the top 40 restaurants in the country, nor the top-rated restaurant in the state by Zagat and Gayot (2011 and 2012).
But on days when it does happen, it’s great. Some of you know that I’m a huge foodie and a closet chef; not to mention, I love my wines.
Restaurant Nicholas, now in the company of other restaurants such as Daniel, Per Se, and Jean-Georges, is a food writer’s dream, owned by Chef Nicholas Harary and his wife Melissa.
Restaurant Nicholas, a New York Times four star rated restaurant, in Middletown, NJ, is known for its exquisite New American gourmet cuisine, formal atmosphere, and impeccable wine pairings. However, what many people do not realize is that in addition, this is a multi-faceted family business that offers you the option to pair wines like the pros with its wine club, “Nicholas Wines”; the ability to test your kitchen prowess by attempting to duplicate the recipes shared in the chef’s cookbook “Nicholas The Cookbook”; and a more casual dining experience with no reservations required at Bar N.
I’ve followed Restaurant Nicholas’s progress over the years, and through the many meals I’ve enjoyed immensely there, I think the one I had on Easter Sunday was the most memorable.
It was the first time I took my 7-year-old daughter to the restaurant. As the premier food critic in her age group, she described her courses as "so good that her brains fell out." Now what better endorsement can you get than that?
Well, in 2008, AOL did name Restaurant Nicholas one of the top 11 restaurants in the country, but dishing out fine dining to a first grader is a much tougher audience!
“I have three passions, “ says Culinary Institute of America graduate, Chef Nicholas Harary, “my family, my restaurant, and the Giants.” And he’s completely serious!
Did you know that Restaurant Nicholas only closes two days a year? Christmas Day and when the Giants are playing the Super Bowl. It’s true! (They’ve got the Giants to thank for quite a few days off in recent years!)
Melissa, his wife, used to walk around the dining room on days when the Giants were playing telling people not to talk about the game, so he would not overhear plays and scores and could go home and watch it later. The New York Giants are taken seriously here!
Keeping in line with his three passions (well, four, if you count classic cars), you won’t find Chef Harary watching reality food shows like Kitchen Nightmares, or Master Chef. He says that there is a reason why it’s called "culinary arts" — not “culinary sports”. Art is beautiful and taken seriously. Cuisine should be something that is presented artfully and deliciously; not by introducing whatever the camera crew can throw at you on a given day.
One of his most famous works of art, in my opinion, is his Braised Pulled Suckling Pig dish, which is a menu staple, and I highly recommend trying it. It’s just one of many seasonally fresh mouthwatering dishes offered with the ability to pair the perfect wine.
The restaurant is known for its tasting menus where you can enjoy the chance to try wines in ways you never thought would complement each course. It’s not all about red with meat and white with fish. Far from it.
The staff can suggest wines that go with everything from Butter Poached Halibut, Fiddlehead Ferns, Spinach Purée, and Stinging Nettle Consommé, to Cardamom Pineapple Cake served with Rum Vanilla Ice Cream and Coconut Shortbread Crumbs.
Chef Harary is a family man, who loves his two children a lot. You can sense this when he sends out his Nicholas Wines newsletter and speaks about making them pancakes for breakfast, and trying to keep a Nutterbutter secret from their mother.
When he does something, he strives to do it well. This is why he sees himself focusing on his one restaurant now, and for the next several years to come.
"I don’t think we’ll expand," Harary said. It’s a family-owned and operated restaurant. My goal was to have the best place I can have. If I had two, three or four restaurants, it seems to me something has to be sacrificed. If I had a second restaurant it would feel like a ghost of what this is. There’s soul to Restaurant Nicholas. The soul of the restaurant is my wife and myself."
And after meeting him, I can see he and his wife are sincere in their intentions, because neither of them would want to sacrifice spending time with their children.
“We can create new avenues from here,” elaborated Melissa Harary. “What’s wrong with having one [restaurant]?” Chef Harary also exemplified that there are other chefs who have a number of restaurants in many locations, but imagine what they could do if they concentrated all of that energy and put it into one! What an amazing restaurant that would be!
And in the pursuit of creating new avenues, that’s exactly what this husband and wife team was doing when they decided to launch their wine club.
“What makes the wine unique from here is that it’s stored properly,” Chef Harary explained. “They cook the wine in liquor stores. We want to provide people with wine the way the winemakers intended it to be; enjoyed at the proper temperature. We offer really good wines that are unique.”
As pointed out by Chef Harary, even if liquor stores do maintain cooler temperatures, they are not consistent throughout the year, or even the store. Try walking into one on a ninety degree day in August, and surveying the internal temperatures near the door.
All of the wines at Restaurant Nicholas and offered in the wine club are stored in a climate controlled facility, so you are assured that you are getting the best that’s bottled.
Additionally, the wines offered from Nicholas Wines are not necessarily on the wine list at the restaurant, because they sell out fast. Purchasing wine from Nicholas Wines is a great way to get a tasting experience at home; and as a subscriber and buyer of these wines, I will tell you that you can’t go wrong listening to the recommendations of Chef Harary, who was also the youngest person to ever achieve the head sommelier position at Jean-Georges in New York City.
One of the other interesting facets of the Restaurant Nicholas experience is Bar N. Bar N offers fresh, seasonal menus and wine tasting, in a "no reservations required," more casual atmosphere.
You enjoy the same faire offered in the fine dining, but can order a la carte or just come in for cocktails. Bar N also features a $29 three-course tasting menu that changes daily. I’m not downplaying the ability of the dinner to sweep you off your feet.
Zagat confirmed in 2009 and 2010 that it really rates as a "brilliant alternative" to the formal dining on the other side of the building. So guys, forget your jackets and ties, and girls, you don’t need to get all gussied up for some fabulous food. You can easily spend $29 (or more) per person when you go out to a chain restaurant where the food is nothing near fantastic; so give Bar N a try. You can peruse the Bar N menus posted on Restaurant Nicholas’s Facebook page.
I know when I leave Restaurant Nicholas, I wish that I could duplicate the delicious dishes at home. This is one of the reasons why “Nicholas: The Cookbook”, takes center stage on my kitchen table.
The photos, taken by world renowned food photographer Steve Legato, make you want to devour the pages — but don’t, because the techniques and carefully explained food preparations will allow everyone to expand their cooking horizons, even if combined in new ways.
For example, I have used the recipe for pasta on its own in my kitchen. Never let a book bind you when it comes to cuisine! And certain recipes, like the Watermelon Sashimi, are easy enough for the patient novice to duplicate as an amazing appetizer or as a beautiful breakfast beginning.
“The cookbook was up against Williams-Sonoma and Thomas Kelleher’s cookbook in the year that it was published,” commented Chef Harary. It was an IACP Award finalist and also received The Prix Littéraire Gastronomique award and other accolades.
What makes this cookbook so perfect is more than the pictures, but it also provides the pairings! Wine recommendations are right at your fingertips. There is also a great introduction to the man behind the meals and how Restaurant Nicholas all began.
“We didn’t try to build a brand. There was no brand. It was just us,” said Chef Harary. “Years later we look back and realize we did — with integrity and quality.” That is something to be proud of, especially when you started working in a pizzeria, and are now the number one restaurant in New Jersey.
As for his plans to publish a second companion cookbook, that’s not something that he’s going to undertake right now. “Because of the amount of work that went into it, I wouldn’t want another to take me away from Restaurant Nicholas,” he explained.
If you are not in command of your kitchen, you can still take something away from the fine dining experience with you at Restaurant Nicholas — complimentary banana bread. Oh, and it’s really good banana bread at that.
Restaurant Nicholas’s banana bread has become the signature parting gift. The philosophy behind it is that the owners want you to take something more than just the exquisite dining experience home with you. And although you leave stuffed, doesn’t the idea of reveling over the most sensational meal appeal to you over breakfast while biting into banana bread the next morning? A pretty smart idea, right?
Why banana bread? Well, it stays moist for a long time. Actually, when the restaurant first started out, they would change the breads seasonally — pumpkin, banana ... “But people always asked when the banana bread is coming back,” Chef Harary said. So, now, it’s here to stay. (By the way, you can duplicate this recipe at home right from his cookbook.)
Nicholas Harary and his wife Melissa are really down-to-earth people, though, when you catch them away from the restaurant. Nicholas’s favorite thing to eat is ... pizza.
Yes, you would think it would be a dish with a name that you can’t pronounce, but, it truly is pizza, and is quite fitting, I think, since that’s where his love of cooking all began: preparing the pies when he was just a boy. As a couple, they go out to dinner, and they will grill at home. Their kids, well, they are kids and eat what kids eat, remarked Melissa.
“We’re getting them to eat some vegetables," she said. "We always introduce them to something new. Juliana has a really good sense of smell, and Nicholas loves to cook." So you see, even if your father is the best chef in the state, you still get to eat your pizza and burgers, too.
“I love to eat gourmet, but I can’t cook or duplicate it!” said Melissa. I was surprised, assuming that the culinary skills would be shared among the team of two. However, Melissa and her husband have separate roles. She is in charge of the day to day administration, and Nicholas runs the restaurant.
They even have separate offices. But Melissa’s role is very important when it comes to testing and tasting anything new that Chef de Cuisine, Nicholas Wilkins, and her husband invent. There is a chefs’ collaboration when new dishes are constructed, and Melissa provides the opinions.
With all of these wondrous elements in the Restaurant Nicholas empire, I started to wonder — Why New Jersey? Out of all of the places they could start a restaurant, why here?
Both Chef Harary and his wife have ties to the Garden State. Nicholas went to high school in New Jersey, and they both have family in the area, too. They wanted to be close to New York so they catered to customers who like dishes with detail and depth; however, if Restaurant Nicholas was too close to the city, people may opt to venture there, instead of here, right in Middletown. New Jersey was just geographically suitable, in that regard. However, I think they both state their reasons for location best themselves:
“I like the attitude of New Jersey. There’s a feistiness here,” says Chef Harary.
“It’s a little gritty — a little salty,” adds Melissa.
Plus, they are in close proximity to their favorite team. Did you know that in 1985 Chef Harary put his name on a waiting list for Giants season tickets? After 26 years, he cleared the list and bought six personal seat licenses. Unfortunately, because he felt the new Giants Stadium experience was not what it should be, he sold the PSLs, but he still loves to experience the games when he can.
His love of the Giants began when he was a boy. A neighbor of his in New York at the time had a dog that bit Nicholas. Nicholas was being a boy, you know, a little rambunctious when this happened. His neighbor felt bad that the dog bit him and took him to his first Giants game to make it up to him. It was a pre-season game in 1984. From that point on, he started watching the games on TV, and as a 12 year-old he witnessed them win a Super Bowl. That clinched it for him.
So as you can see, when Chef Harary sets a goal, he works toward it, whether it’s acquiring Giants tickets or running the best restaurant. He invests his time and energy into accomplishing what he sets his mind to. He said to me that he doesn’t dream. You can’t achieve dreams. You can’t achieve winning the lottery by putting hard work into it. But, he elaborated, you can achieve goals. When running his restaurant he wants it to be the best restaurant possible.
“If that goal leads us to be one of the top 40, so be it. If not, so be it,” he said modestly. “I just want to make people happy, as long as it falls within my philosophy of how the restaurant should be.”
To make reservations and find out more about the many facets of Restaurant Nicholas, you can connect with them on their website: http://www.restaurantnicholas.com/, “Like” them on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/restaurantnicholas and follow them on Twitter @RestaurantN