Friday, March 14, 2014

Pascal and Sabine - Asbury Park, NJ

Feasting Flashbacks: Opening Week at Pascal and Sabine

In the last decade, Asbury Park had changed from the sketchy, forgotten beach town of my youth (“where the debris meets the sea”) to a bustling mecca of new restaurants and shops, including Pascal and Sabine (PS), a European brasserie which opened the same week I was visiting Jersey.

The Four B’s of this Brasserie:

1) Beans: My eyes were drawn directly across the room to the polished gleam of an enormous copper, espresso machine lording over the back coffee bar like a more personable version of C3PO, since he could dispense hot chocolate and espresso from his orifices.

2) Books: Two steps in and I immediately wanted to plop down in the comfy corner to my right that could have easily passed for a stylish friend’s living room (perfect for happy hour) with bookshelves that went from waist-high to the ceiling, flaunting colorful volumes, including The Red Balloon (noted as the restaurant’s inspiration).

3) Bar: I could almost picture a European version of the Rat Pack clinking glasses in this minimalist setting where the atmosphere and drinks were both served neat (including a specialty menu of bourbons, whiskey, and scotches). I could also picture cheers-ing here with my own ratty pack of friends and slurping down a few cocktails in this fancy-feel, yet down-to-earth space that brought a certain je ne sais quoi to Jersey.

4) Booths: I felt like Tony Soprano meeting for a sit-down, dwarfed by a booth that evoked the same privacy felt in the curved shell of a Tilt-a-Whirl. The straight, brown backing was more like an insular wall that kept our semi-circle (big enough for six) muted from outside chatter, while still keeping us in the warm glow of company.


Duck confit - seared duck breast, Swiss chard, fingerling potatoes & duck jus
I’m a sucker for skin and this salty, crackly crunch of a coat was the best one I’d seen on a duck breast in years – we’re talking serious fowl fashion. PS rendered out most of the fat, which forced the skin to crisp into a protective, edible armor like Magic Shell hardening over ice cream.

I didn’t even miss the duck confit that was supposedly the headliner of this dish – whoops! They’d run out unexpectedly, but rectified this by giving a more generous portion of the breast. Since this was their first week, I understood a few glitches…and this happened to be Glenda the good glitch = more duck skin for me!!

Fried chicken - drumstick, breast & thigh with parsnip slaw *
Every time I ordered fried chicken at a restaurant, I could almost hear Kenny Rogers singing The Gambler. Of course it was a risk, as was ordering any simple classic. It meant that I would ultimately compare it to my favorite, fried chicken moment in time and judge it by those merits. But PS paid out in full with salty skin that spoke for itself (literally and audibly) with a range of sound effects that gave way to moist, juicy chicken.

But the real surprise was the parsnip slaw beneath - a shredded root veggie blend exhibiting all the signs of complex life = spicy, earthy, crunchy and creamy. Every element was there, just enough to fool the mind into thinking “summer picnic” in the midst of Jersey winter.

*No longer on the menu - I guess it didn't make the final cut!!

Burger - brioche bun, gruyère, gribiche sauce & frites
It was an $18 burger, but I had to say it was worth it. Just like the fried chicken, it was easy to get a bum burger when the mouth already had certain expectations, but PS' house-made patty imparted the succulent luxury of well-marbled meat, along with the gribiche (creamy, green peppercorn) sauce which was more velvety than Prince’s suit in Purple Rain. The brioche bun turned a bit soggy with all of that juicy beef, but it was a minor distraction in what I would call a masterpiece of meat.

And I guess those stereotypes of simple classics followed me all the way to the frites, since I automatically assumed “steak frites” meant skinny, sleek, and shoved in my mouth by the handful. But no, no. These kitchen-cut fries were like a plus-size model knowing she looked goooooood. Their thick body worked every curve with confidence.


Fried baby artichokes - lemon, herbs, anchovy bread sauce
Bright and fresh. These looked like miniature sunflowers and they opened on the tongue with the same sunny warmth.

The bread sauce was salty and thick, almost like a variation on a Caesar dressing with a hint of anchovy and citrus that made a second order necessary.

Roasted beets - crème fraiche, hazelnut crumb
I'm not the biggest fan of beets, but when these carved, fuchsia orbs arrived, I couldn't help but stare.

Crème fraiche helped ground the beet's loamy earthiness with tangy dollops of puffed cream and was topped off with buttery hazelnut sprinkles - a savory sundae of sorts = beauty and the beet.


Hot chocolate duo with madeleines
I had to admit this little novelty of a dessert was what had drawn me here and I’m not even a big sweets fan. But multiple samplings of hot chocolate sounded too good to pass up, and the fact that they came with buttery, cakey madeleines, perfect for dunking, made it all the more exciting. The two flavors:

1) Traditional French hot chocolate: I found myself on the streets of Paris, where I had first tried this European version of hot chocolate that pretty much tasted like a melted dark chocolate bar in a cup.

2) Caramelized cinnamon: But this was my favorite. It wasn't quite as rich, and the aroma of the roasted spice had an oddly calming effect...even in the midst of gulping straight sugar.

Chocolate Mousse - flourless chocolate cake, chocolate ganache, creme anglaise
This looked like a sturdy, chocolate covered bell, but as my fork cut in, it deflated its shape, I realized there was no backbone to this structure. The chocolate cake came in the form of a shallow flooring at the bottom of a two story house of mousse, which was a bit heavy for my liking.

But it was a creative way to reinvent classic chocolate mousse.

PS I love you
I was impressed on so many levels - the menu, the atmosphere, the quality of food and drink. I was smitten. I could picture many scenarios here: at the bar for some Belgium beer (Chimay - red, white and blue!) or a designer cocktail or just a quick pop-in for some charcuterie (happy hour anyone?). Maybe a rainy Sunday for hot chocolate and a foie gras breakfast sandwich on a sea salt croissant. Whatever the time of day, I knew I would revisit this little piece of Paris whenever I found myself back in Jersey.