REVIEWS BY PAT TANNER AND
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY
TOAST OF THE TOWN: Princeton has heartily embraced owner Jim Nawn, left,
and executive chef Josh Thomsen’s new “community eatery,” as Nawn calls it.
Below, spring pea soup with a dollop of carrot yogurt espuma and, bottom,
one of the stylishly rough-hewn dining rooms.
watches the chefs and crew turn seasonal ingredients—many from Nawn’s farm four miles
down the road—into food reflecting the same
refined yet rustic sensibility as the decor.
Nawn, 47, knows restaurants well, but not this kind. From 1999 to 2010, his Fenwick
Hospitality Group built and ran 37 Panera Bread franchises in North and Central New Jersey. His journey beyond fast-casual began in 2007, when he and his wife, Ann, an equestrian
therapist, bought 112 acres of dormant, preserved farmland on Great Road in Skillman and
built a barn and riding arenas to further her work. He planted a garden.
In 2010, having fulfilled “our build commitment” to Panera, Nawn sold the eateries and
let his imagination roam. Wanting to understand fine dining, he enrolled in an eight-month
cooking and management program at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. It
culminated with an externship at the Michelin-starred Veritas in New York. The first tool
he was handed was a mop. “I spent three days just peeling Brussels sprouts,” he told me in
an interview after my visits. Bottom line? “Cooking is not my passion.” But his vision of an
upscale yet down-to-earth, farm-to-table restaurant began to take form.
Nawn, who grew up outside Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of a plastics entrepreneur, needed a chef, and he found a fine one who just happens to be a Jersey native. Thomsen, 42, grew up in Woodcliff Lake, graduated from the CIA and spent most of his career
in the West Coast kitchens of luminaries like Michael Mina, Joachim Splichal and Thomas
Keller. In 2005, he opened Tao at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. During his two-year
stint, it became the highest grossing restaurant in the country.
Agricola marks a change for Thomsen as well. Tao and his next stop, the Claremont
Resort in Berkeley (where starchefs.com named him a 2010 Rising Star Hotel Chef ), were
huge operations. At Agricola, by contrast, “we start from scratch every day,” he told me.
“The only freezer we have is for the ice cream we make here.”
The menu is refreshing in its simplicity and focus: roughly eight starters and a like num-
ber of mains and desserts. Thomsen’s cod fritters (he called them “my ode” to New Eng-
lander Nawn) look like three golden golf balls. The light crunch of barely-there beer batter
yields to a soufflé-like filling of salt cod poached in milk and puréed to creaminess with
white potatoes. Shaved raw fennel adds a bracing cleanness and more crunch. Oven-dried
plum tomatoes contribute intensity and a crimson contrast to this brilliant opener.
Strozzapreti pasta with spring onions, English peas and wild arugula was one of my
favorite entrées. The dried tomatoes also worked their magic here, along with Parmigiano-Reggiano, the sweet, firm peas and the gentle astringency of the arugula. The vegetables
and even the pasta shape will change as summer ushers in the bounty from the five acres of
Great Road Farm under cultivation. (Tip of the hat to farm manager Steve Tomlinson.) But
this debut pasta bodes well.
Another fine entrée, a vegetarian mushroom and farro stew with kale, small turnips and
mild but flavorful harissa, came chock full of exotic, unparalleled fungi from Princeton’s
Shibumi Farms, notably its lemon oyster mushrooms. (Lemon refers to this firm mushroom’s
color, not its flavor, which is richly earthy, a perfect match for the nutty farro.) The farro, like
most of Agricola’s grains and beans, is cooked in vegetable stock. The dish was a triumph of
nuanced flavors and textures. So were three big, beautifully caramelized Cape May dayboat
scallops on cauliflower purée, each capped with a salty-sweet, golden raisin-caper relish.