Friday, June 17, 2011

Hamilton's Grill Room

There are those meals that are so extraordinary—the food, the ambiance, the experience—that you just have to thank the chef. I had the pleasure of thanking such a chef after enjoying an amazing meal at a charming restaurant we found in Lambertville, New Jersey. Hamilton's Grill Room is tucked away at the end of a small dirt alley, the likes of which usually appear suspect but often hide a town's most prized gems. The restaurant is perched on the banks of the Delaware River and shares its alley with a quirky yet sophisticated bar, The Boat House, where I felt transported back to a different time (think old-fashioned cocktail hour meets nautical shack).

As I walked through the door into Hamilton's Grill Room, my eyes were immediately drawn to an upside-down tree hanging from the ceiling. Creatively smothered in tiny white lights, the whimsical chandelier cast a glow over the already cozy space. It was a cold January night and I sought refuge next to the fire, warming up with a little help from the bottle of Cabernet we purchased at Phillip's Fine Wines. What I loved most about this restaurant was how it seemed to be the anchor of the community; regulars settled into their favorite tables and dove into genuine conversation with the staff, who greeted each patron with the kind of warmth you'd expect from a good friend. A fixture in the lives of Lambertvillians for over twenty years, Hamilton's feels like a home away from home.

Five months later, my genuine gratitude for that unforgettable meal led to an inspiring interview with Chef Mark Miller. I sat down with Mark at his post (and the heart of the restaurant): the grill. With only a few stools at the small island overlooking the hearth, I couldn't help but think that these were the best seats in the house. Mark agreed, adding, "I love meeting the customers. It's a great set-up." We talked about food and family as I watched him prepare for the dinner rush. I felt truly inspired by Mark because his love of cooking goes beyond the process itself. His yoga is the joy of feeding others and the communion that happens when people gather around a table and enjoy good food.

Listening to Mark describe his history with Hamilton's Grill Room, it became obvious that it was love at first sight. "I worked across the river at Martine's for a while, then someone told me that there was a job opening at Hamilton's. I met Jim and saw the way the food was prepared and fell in love ... big time." Miller's passion is palpable and has clearly played a role in catapulting his career from formally untrained cook to Executive Chef and respected pillar of this beloved restaurant.

Our interview took place during the staff dinner, which was cooked by none other than the owner, Jim Hamilton—a Broadway set designer turned restauranteur. (Jim's daughter, NYTimes best-selling author Gabrielle Hamilton, owns her own restaurant, Prune, in New York.) Mark told me that Jim uses Saturday nights to experiment in the kitchen, testing recipes for the menu. As I observed these two men interact I could sense the deep respect and fierce loyalty Mark holds for Jim. In that moment I understood why I had fallen in love with this place: it's all about family.

I asked Mark about his favorite flavor combinations, a question I was inspired to ask after watching him rub the most amazing rosemary garlic marinade over the evening's lamb chops. "Anchovies," he responded, which served as an amusing reminder to myself of how easy it is to get stuck in flavor ruts; his response caught me totally off guard as I had never considered anchovies to be a flavor! "This restaurant was built on anchovies," he explained (referring to Jim Hamilton's famous Shrimp with Anchovy Butter appetizer).

He revealed that appetizers are, in fact, his favorite dish to cook. "It's the first thing people eat and it sets the tone for the entire meal, " Miller explained. He also articulated the importance of quantity, saying, "I like to leave people wanting one more bite." Mark recommended the appetizer special for that evening: fresh artichokes from California stuffed with crabmeat. Phenomenal.

Our meal was amazing. Billy, being the true cowboy that he is, ordered the cowboy steak which was prepared in a bordelaise sauce and served with onion rings (which were replaced—thanks to the kind souls in the kitchen—with Billy's mandatory steak accompaniment: mashed potatoes). I ordered the lamb chops and each bite literally melted in my mouth.

It should also be said that the staff is beyond lovely. Everyone from the manager, Reed, and the hostess, Nancy, to the to the wonderful waiters (ask for James or Chris) went above and beyond the call of duty to make us feel at home. I haven't found a restaurant like this in a long time and I'm looking forward to cherishing heartfelt meals at Hamilton's again and again.