From soup with truffle cloud to minted desserts, this newcomer shows imagination and ambition.
By: Kate and Tom O’Neill
Verdigre is stylish, sleek and innovative a sophisticated addition to New Brunswick’s vibrant dining scene. The range and style of Chef James Corona’s menu is exceptional. The extensive wine list offers approximately 100 vintages as well as 22 wines by the glass ($6-$12), promising an appropriate pairing for every dish, even the most exotic. The striking design of each element of the space, from lighting and furnishings to tableware, creates a setting that attracts a hip crowd and raises diners’ expectations for the meal to come. The effort to offer unconventional variations may go too far with some dishes, but the occasional excess reveals ambitious goals.
Verdigre occupies the space once filled by the North Star Café near the theaters on Monument Square. It includes both a dining room and a lounge, called "V." That is where we were seated, perhaps because we arrived after 9 p.m. V offers live music on Wednesday evenings and an exhaustive list of martinis every night. The sound system’s incessant techno beat established the evening’s rhythm. The lighting is soft, the color scheme black and white, punctuated with mellow earth tones. The severe dining chairs are black with white seats; the high banquettes have white backs and black seats. The attractive, polished and friendly wait staff is garbed in black. This subdued palette, brightened somewhat by waves of ecru fabric along the wall, continues in the dining area behind the bar, which divides the space. The white china is Villeroy and Boch, some of it shaped into curves and swoops tailored to complement particular menu items.
While we studied the imaginative menu, we enjoyed our wine choices: a Montes Sauvignon Blanc ($8) from Chile and a white Pirineos Mesache ($7) from the Somontano region of the Spanish Pyrenees. It offers an intriguing blend of Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Macabeo grapes: floral, fruity and crisp. A bowl of mixed olives in barely sweetened oil and a basket of breads enhanced our enjoyment of the wine.
The menu presents starter courses under the categories Soup, Garden, Earth and Ocean. Choices include salt-roasted organic beets with grapefruit, watercress, pistachio and goat cheese ($12); quail balsamico with rosemary stewed lentils ($16); and shrimp cocktail with gazpacho salsa ($16).
Leading the soup list was asparagus cappuccino with a "truffle cloud" ($8). Who could resist that leap of culinary imagination? The asparagus purée was thickened with cream and perked up by a sprinkle of cayenne, and the truffle froth on top completed the cappuccino homage. It was served scalding hot.
Tuna crudo ($14) was a dish where the desire to innovate went a bit too far. Tuna crudo is often served as paper thin slices of raw tuna, dressed with lemon and olive oil, the seafood variation of beef carpaccio. But the inspiration for Verdigre’s version was tartare. The tuna was chopped, combined with herbs and capers and served in golf-ball sized mounds, each resting in a short-handled spoon. Crossed asparagus tips decorated the top of each mound all presented on a simple oblong, clear glass platter. The spoons were too big to eat from directly, and the soft, slick consistency of the tartare was unexpected. The most prominent flavors came from the capers and lemony olive oil.
The menu divides its main courses into Earth (including tamarind-painted duck breast with sweet corn flan, $28), Ocean (red snapper-shellfish zarzuela, the Spanish version of bouillabaisse, $30), and Pasta (ricotta gnocchi with Bolognese braised rabbit, $24), plus a three-course vegetarian tasting menu ($40).
The rice-flaked halibut ($29) succeeded in concept and execution. Golden flaked rice (looking like small corn flakes) coated the tender halibut, which was served with curried bok choy and oyster mushrooms, with a carrot emulsion uniting these three elements. The rice coating added a crunchy complement to the mellow, tender halibut. While the bok choy was described on the menu as "baby," the stalks displayed the fibrous toughness of mature Chinese cabbage.
Served atop mashed potatoes and attended by a half-dozen clams, the Portuguese-inspired pork was a large, savory chop that was a bit dry in places. A rich sofrito (pepper-based sauce) was generously spiked with diced chorizo sausage that added smoky grace notes to a well-tempered spiciness.
Verdigre’s dessert selections reveal the imagination and ambition that underlies the rest of the menu. A superb pistachio-cardamom cake ($8) was moistened and sweetened with roasted pear and presented in a swirl of mascarpone crema, topped with a sprig of fresh mint. Buttermilk panacotta with fruit sorbetto ($10) combined the cool, sweet blandness of the panacotta with blueberry compote and scoops of sorbet made from mango and other exotic fruits. The desserts were served on tailor-made platters with curved handles that matched the swirled handles on the espresso cups. The coffee was well-made: strong and zesty.
Verdigre opened in March and is already making a stylish statement in a city with a lively dining and entertainment scene that goes until late at night. Even the name Verdigre is a style statement. Co-owner Chris Flynn says the original plan was to call the restaurant "Verdigris," but a last-minute change in color scheme inspired the new spelling that reflects the restaurant’s inventive approach.