The Pass

Craft and purity, a destination for foodies

By Antoinette Buckley
FOR those who take their food seriously, this newcomer offers a unique and intimate dining experience that will have local foodies talking at the water cooler. A prix fixe menu that changes weekly is the focus at this charcuterie/restaurant, opened Wednesday through Saturday for a French-inspired dinner. The Pass was home to the former Café at Rosemont, the 22-year-old eatery that put Rosemont (in Hunterdon County) on the map. This 1860s building was originally a general store and that quaint, country ambiance is still part of the charm today.
   Owner Matt Ridgway is a real student of his craft and a purist at his culinary heart. A distinguished graduate of Johnson and Wales Culinary School, Mr. Ridgway perfected French cuisine under master chefs Jean-Marie Lacroix and Martin Hamman at The Fountain Room in the Four Seasons Hotel, and eventually became chef de cuisine of Lacroix at The Rittenhouse in Philadelphia in 2000. In 2009 he broke away from the restaurant kitchen and started PorcSalt, a company that produces charcuterie, pates, and terrines in the tradition of Italy and France. PorcSalt has been supplying fine restaurants, gourmet markets, and farmers markets with these artisanal cured meats and delicacies. Now, Mr. Ridgway sells these products at The Pass behind a vintage white case that stores specialties such as red wine bacon, duck prosciutto and guanciale (cold-cured pig jowls).
   The Pass displays rustic charm with creaky wood flooring, painted green shelving, butcher-block tables, and a bathroom that says it all. The latter is a three-dimensional collage of random items that have personal significance to Mr. Ridgway. Among them are framed postcards of skeletal figures representing Mexico’s Day of the Dead, small and arbitrary artwork from France, and menus from places he’s worked. Beyond visiting tables during dinner hours, Mr. Ridgway connects with customers through the restaurant’s website. There, Mr. Ridgway presents an informal glimpse of his background, preferences, and personality, especially when it comes to his weekly wine-pairing suggestions.
   It’s a hands-on business for Mr. Ridgway and his longtime colleague and sous chef, Paul Mitchell. In fact, it’s just the two of them prepping and cooking for this 38-seater setting. The restaurant is small, the menu is tight, and the frequency is limited. That’s how they offer such a special product four days a week. Serving a new menu every week requires managerial precision, a vibrant culinary mind, and a lot of hard work. Mr. Ridgway spends part of his week on a quest to secure the freshest ingredients; he works with purveyors, visits farmers markets, and sculpts out a new menu that is posted online every Tuesday.
   While the food is deeply rooted in French technique, Mr. Ridgway and Mr. Mitchell add global influences where it makes sense, without overshadowing the core of the dish. A typical menu consists of five appetizers, three entrees, and two desserts. A quick look at the website’s archives of past menus reveals that each menu is indeed very different from the next. Each one is a neatly packaged array of rare finds and welcome discoveries. One common link, however, are the shrimp chips served before the meal. These Asian-inspired crispy chips are made from dried shrimp and seasoned with zatar, a Middle Eastern blend of herbs and spices.
   With the restaurant opening May 1 for dinner, we visited the restaurant when Menu #11 was being served. A bowl of smoky Lentil Potage incorporating pieces of tripe made a textural statement that some might have found challenging. Nevertheless, the flavors of this generous portion were in perfect harmony and showed promise for the rest of the meal. A bowl of Bouillabaisse emphasized the flavors of the sea, but the highlight of the dish was the crispy fried oysters dropped into the broth just before hitting the table. I could have eaten those on their own and been very happy.
   We were dining as two, but three out of three entrees called out to us. Therefore, our server accommodated our request to share the pasta dish, creating a fourth course for the evening. Glad we did. The Tajarin Pasta was homemade, presenting delicate egg-based noodles that melded against the warmth of a simple preparation using bottarga, breadcrumbs, and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Bottarga is an Italian delicacy made from cured fish roe that tends to intensify overall flavor. Mr. Ridgway and Mr. Mitchell made their own bottarga from a particularly attractive catch of fluke that they purchased a couple of months ago. That is a classic example of the chef’s attention to detail and the exceptional quality that translates to the plate.
   Roasted Young Chicken glistened with crispy, golden-brown skin protecting the sumptuous meat within. It was set in a lime yogurt sauce and a satisfying bed of sorghum, a Middle Eastern grain that has a bit of chew to it. The Gratineed Fluke dish used a classic Newburg sauce that was sparked with the garden fresh flavors of snap peas. A cousin to the earlier flavors of the bouillabaisse, this dish was richer and as a result, delivered a luscious treat.
   Sides are respectful companions to the meal. On the evening of our visit, it was broccoli slaw, finely shaved and seasoned with an emulsified dressing that used whole grain mustard.
   Dessert came after a slowly paced meal, when we were actually ready for it. Blueberry and Brown Butter Tart showcased the essence of blueberries without over-sweetening. And the Coconut Lemongrass Soup harbored little bites of tart rhubarb within a cold Thai-inspired soup.
   With a wall decoration featuring a chef’s coat and the names of chefs who influenced them, Mr. Ridgway and Mr. Mitchell pay homage to their mentors. Indeed, they have learned well and the students have become the professors, showing mastery of their ingredients in every menu. This sophisticated three-course meal at The Pass comes at the down-to-earth price of $38.50. The Pass is a little quirky in spots, and offers a charming setting for expressive food prepared by two inspired chefs.