New York Times Review of Ursino Restaurant
From Farm to Table, but Hardly Rustic
A Review of Ursino, at Kean University
By KARLA COOK
WHEN I hear the words “farm to table,” I picture an old white clapboard inn, with gardens all around. Ursino, an ambitious farm-to-table restaurant on the campus of Kean University in Union, is in a hulking glass and metal building that fronts Morris Avenue.
According to Peter Turso, the executive chef, Ursino appealed to the university’s administration as a place for high-level entertaining and as a way to raise the school’s profile and make it more attractive to prospective students.
Ramsay de Give for The New York Times
MODERN COOL Under huge windows, diners at Ursino on the Kean University campus sit on cushy furniture while enjoying nuanced food.
As a whole, the space brings to mind hard cash, not warmth and delicious plenty. But Mr. Turso transcends the chill, possibly because a four-acre farm on campus managed by Henry Dreyer, a third-generation farmer, supplies crops, including beets, cilantro and spinach, for the kitchen.
“The connection to nature roots me,” said Mr. Turso, a New Jersey native and a 2001 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, speaking on the telephone after my visits. That is reflected in the cooking: Flavors are clean and pure and concepts are solid, with amusing grace notes (though uncertain and uninformed servers were an occasional distraction on our visits). Mr. Turso and his team turn out mostly very good, nuanced food, albeit with more meat and fewer vegetables than ideal.
Among the appetizers, the house-smoked swordfish with shaved fennel pulled me in with the menu’s promise of pea tendrils, but my portion, while satisfying in its smoky undertone and balance of flavors, contained only seven slender tendrils. Beet salad, too, suffered from a minimalist treatment, though the carrots, mâche and candied walnuts helped me forget the beet deficit. The luxuriant early-summer greens, with snap beans, fava beans, asparagus and pecorino cheese, were more in keeping with the image of farm-to-table. Mussels in coconut curry, served with shrimp toast, were agreeably spiced, though the mussels contained bits of grit and were less than plump.
Less successful starters were the grilled octopus, mushy inside and charred at the tips, over a sticky smoked Marcona almond purée; and a portion of handmade cavatelli, artichokes, olives, arugula and crisp shallots that did not transcend its components.
Except for a slightly overseared halibut beneath a pleasingly crispy crust, the meats and seafood in the main dishes were uniformly well prepared, as I expected of Mr. Turso, who has worked with the chefs David Drake (at Restaurant David Drake in Rahway, now closed) and Nicholas Harary (at Restaurant Nicholas in Middletown).
Indeed, the meats were table favorites, tender and juicy: roasted veal loin with barigoule and its typical ingredient of artichoke, accompanied by nutty green Picholine olives; grilled pork loin with tiny herbed spaetzle, pickled red cabbage and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms; Lancaster sirloin with its reconstructed potato (mashed and stuffed back into the shell, then browned) and sautéed red watercress; and pan-seared duck with honey-glazed, gingered baby beets and Swiss chard.
Vegetables, however, should star — in both flavor and quantity — at any place with a four-acre farm. Ursino has nailed the flavor, but on my two visits, the quantities were uneven. On my first visit, five beautifully seared Barnegat scallops came with maybe a half-dozen dice-size pieces of turnip, about the same number of raspberry-size orbs of Fuji apple, and a few leaves of radicchio ceviche. On my second visit, a companion ordered the same dish, and the supporting players were more plentiful.
Desserts — all house-made by Kathleen Grosch, the pastry chef — were another high point, particularly the lemon ricotta ice cream sandwich; the deconstructed sangria with dabs of orange sorbet, chestnut honey, compressed orange, poached apple and micro borage scattered across a huge plate; and a moan-worthy warm chocolate cake. The cheese plate contained three selections from Valley Shepherd Creamery, of Long Valley: Nettlesome and Tewksbury, both cows’ milk cheeses, and my favorite, Pepato, a mild aged sheep’s milk cheese with bits of peppercorn.
Mr. Turso and his team have the skills to put Ursino on the culinary map; sharp, focused and knowledgeable servers would further the effort.
1075 Morris Avenue
THE SPACE Stylish restaurant with seating for 74 (including a private dining room seating up to 12), and 35 seats on an outdoor patio; the bar upstairs seats 30 indoors and 45 outdoors. Ample space between tables; elevator access.
THE CROWD Quiet and dressy; very few children. Servers are pleasant but uninformed.
THE BAR List of 72 carefully chosen, mostly domestic wines by the bottle, $45 to $95, and 12 by the glass from $9 to $10. Three domestic craft beers on draft, $6. A short bar menu includes pizzas, burgers and some seafood, $11 to $18.
THE BILL Lunch items, $9 to $18. Dinner main dishes, $23 to $32. MasterCard, Visa, American Express accepted.
WHAT WE LIKED Smoked swordfish, beet salad, early summer greens, halibut, veal loin, pork loin, sirloin steak, scallops, duck breast, lemon ricotta ice cream sandwich, deconstructed sangria, chocolate cake, cheese plate.
IF YOU GO Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. There is plenty of parking next to the building. Reservations recommended on weekends.
RATINGS Don’t Miss, Worth It, O.K., Don’t Bother.
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