This Bordentown spot combines Colonial decor and familiar charm.
By: Jeff Milgram
BORDENTOWN Some restaurants are greater than the sum of their parts.
The food may not be the ultimate, the service may not be the smoothest and the decor may not be the most imaginative, but you still enjoy the meal enormously. You promise yourself that you will return as often as you can.
You forgive the kitchen when it fumbles here or there because the total experience is so overwhelmingly positive that you leave feeling amply rewarded for surviving the slings and arrows of being an adult.
I am glad to say that The Farnsworth House Restaurant is one of those places.
The Farnsworth House is located in Bordentown, which while charming and quaint, is known more for its diners than for its fine dining restaurants.
Perhaps the dearth of good restaurants was the reason The Farnsworth House was packed on the Saturday night I dined there. January and February are traditionally slow months in the restaurant business, and I thought I could easily get a table early on a Saturday night.
Fortunately I stopped by during the afternoon to make sure. Not only were reservations necessary, they were essential. The second floor dining room was fully reserved and the only tables open were in the bar, which serves as the smoking section.
The bar turned out to be a good place to watch the crowd, a mixed group dressed in everything from grunge to tie and jackets.
Bordentown is steeped in Colonial history. The restaurant is located on Bordentown’s main drag, Farnsworth Avenue. Both the restaurant and the avenue are named after Thomas Farnsworth, who became the first person to settle in the area in 1682.
Bordentown has played host to Joseph Bonaparte, ex-king of Spain and Naples who just happened to be the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. Clara Barton, who later went on to found the American Red Cross, built a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of Bordentown in 1843.
So with all this history, it’s no surprise that the owners of the Farnsworth House have kept the Colonial ambiance.
The bar is long and comfortable, the kind of place where you can stop in for a beer after work. Of course, it’s also the kind of bar where you also can get a decent martini or cosmopolitan, as well.
Lighting is very subdued. Actually, subdued doesn’t come close to describing the lighting, which is so low that I could barely read the menu. The regular menu is long and encyclopedic. An entire page of specials makes it even more difficult to decide what to order. The menu is mostly continental, with heavy doses of Italian. There are several pasta choices with fresh, light sauces. Specials are more imaginative.
Dishes are attractively presented, but are not fussy. Several of the entrees are accompanied by roasted potatoes and broccoli.
Prices are very reasonable, with pasta dishes starting at $9. Entrees start at $13 and only a few cross the $20 mark.
Service is friendly, polite and attentive when you want it to be. Waiters don’t hover over you and they don’t constantly ask if everything is all right.
The Farnswoth House has a very user-friendly wine list, with many decent bottles in the budget-conscious $25 range. Basic selections are available by the glass. I was glad I followed the recommendation on the special menu and ordered a glass of Farnese Sangiovese from Italy for $5.50.
The meal got underway tastefully when our waiter brought over a complimentary plate of gooey, delicious garlic bread, two pieces per person.
We then graduated to appetizers, one hot, one cold. The cold poached mussels ($5.50) were wonderful and plentiful. The mussels were plump and tender, with not a grain of sand to mar their briny taste.
With the mussels, a bold, flavorful accompaniment was called for, but the mustard mayonnaise dipping sauce that came with the bivalves was too timid.
Oysters Rockefeller ($7) were fit for a king, or at least a Rockefeller. The three large, fresh oysters were topped with a heaping helping of flavorful spinach and then lightly cooked. Even with the spinach coating, you could still taste the sea in the oysters.
A rich chicken and vegetable soup ($3) came with shredded pieces of white meat, silky wide noodles and small white beans. The soup was warming on a cold winter evening.
Caesar salad ($4.25) had a nice dressing that tasted watered down from the romaine leaves, which should have been dried better. The croutons proved to be toasted slices of crusty bread rubbed with garlic and herbs.
The special entrees were irresistible. My dinner companion chose pan-seared duck breast with a wild mushroom Madeira sauce, accompanied by a corn pancake topped with sour cream ($20).
The duck was juicy and tender, with a rich, almost gamy flavor. The sauce, reduced to the consistency of a syrup, was too meaty and heavy for the duck.
The corn pancake, on the other hand, was light and airy.
Another special, Tournedos Rossini ($22), is an old favorite of mine. The classic version has filet mignon topped with paté de foie gras; a budget version uses chicken livers. The Farnsworth House makes it slightly lighter by topping the steak with artichoke hearts. But the filet was wrapped with bacon and then placed atop a sauce that is almost identical to the sauce that came with the duck, with the substitution of port for Madeira. But while the sauce didn’t work with the duck, it was perfect with the steak, adding just the right amount of flavors to a piece of beef that can be bland. The steak came with delicious roasted potatoes and broccoli cooked al dente.
There was a small selection of desserts. We swooned over the very moist and creamy ricotta cheese cake with strawberry sauce. And to satisfy the chocolate lover in all of us, we attacked a rich flourless chocolate cake with a vanilla mousse center.
Was the meal an unqualified success? No, there were some flaws. But until I find the perfect restaurant, I will continue to judge restaurants on a curve. And the Farnsworth House is definitely near the top of the curve.