Pascal & Sabine is one of five restaurants throughout Asbury Park owned by Smith, a group that finds itself on the cutting edge of restaurant design. Even so, they do not view themselves as a hospitality group. According to Smith principal, Mark Hinchcliffe, "Smith is, first and foremost, a creative firm. Although we happen to currently be in the hospitality industry, we don't see ourselves as a hospitality group. Hospitality is simply a medium for us to create great brands."
In regard to how this is accomplished, Hinchcliffe adds, "Everything we do is in house: from the architecture to the interior design, graphic design, copy-writing, menu creation, management, and daily operations." To emphasize that point, they are one of the few, if not the only, firm in the country that functions in this manner.
The success of operating as Smith does is clearly evident in the dark and romantic bistro-style lounge they've created with Pascal & Sabine. Housed in a former gas company building at 601 Bangs Avenue, the care and forethought that went into its renovation is remarkable down to the smallest detail. Named after the childhood actors Pascal and Sabine Lamorisse who were cast by their father, Albert Lamorisse, in the 1956 Oscar-winning French film The Red Balloon, Smith spared no effort to achieve their desired end result. Their insistence on creative perfection is particularly obvious in the banquette-style dining room that hosts tables fashioned from marble salvaged from the building's upper floors and paintings by Milan-born artist, Paolo Ventura; a surrealistic touch that delivers a bold stroke of whimsy to the darkly romantic setting.
In this regard, Pascal & Sabine is a testament to their success. The restaurant is intimate, yet lively. The subdued lighting and intimacy of the restaurant's banquettes offer the perfect Parisian flair for a special night out, whether that may be with that special someone or with a group of friends. The environs play host to a comfortable mix of young professionals, artist types and middle-aged couples who engage along a main bar that seats eighteen, as well as a smaller, circular bar tucked within a lounge area that boasts a grand piano where conversation and entertainment is never in short supply.
The allure of this setting proved strong, and on a recent Saturday evening, I was finally able to make the trip from north Jersey to Asbury Park and visit Pascal & Sabine to share in an evening of culinary exploration with four of my favorite dinner and drink companions.
We took our seats within one of the spacious banquettes, and after a round of cocktails that allowed us time to take in the warm ambiance of the establishment, decided that we each would order a different menu item and share the choices among the five of us in order to get a complete representation of the restaurant's offerings.
French Onion Soup ($10)
Although recipes for this popular appetizer can vary greatly, at it's most basic, French Onion Soup is generally a beef stock with caramelized onions that is typically finished with a slice of bread and melted Gruyere. Here, the choice is Swiss cheese, and together with the croutons, sit atop a noticeably thicker stock that adds a profound richness to the integrity of the dish. This chic presentation creates an unity in flavor and design that distances itself from the stringy messiness we've come to associate with most representations of this offering. If not for the fact that I felt it could have been served a tad hotter than lukewarm, I would say with utter conviction that its silky mouth-feel and rustic comfort equated to one of the best French Onion soups I've enjoyed in quite some time.
Escargot, 6 or 12 ($10, $15)
Garlic Shallot Butter
Served plucked from the shell, these escargots were amazingly tasty and tender and should be a prerequisite for anyone looking to experience the perfect French appetizer. As an added bonus, the pools of garlic shallot butter left behind once the escargots were removed from the plate proved far too tantalizingly delectable to even contemplate resisting the inclination to dunk every morsel of baguette within reaching distance. Rest assured, we did.
Moules Frites ($21)
Blue Bay Mussels, White Wine, Garlic, Shallots, Thyme & Baguette
It was hard to ignore the fact that the Blue Bay Mussels used in the Moules Frites displayed an unusually soft tenderness that I had not fully expected. Expertly prepared, I appreciated the manner in which the delightful texture of these mollusks danced within a light, understated sauce that did not overstay its welcome on one's palate.
Hand-cut Wagyu Beef Tartare ($16)
Black pepper aioli, Local Micro Radish, Lemon, Toasted Baguette
The Hand-cut Wagyu Beef Tartare was the one appetizer on which the general consensus of our party could not find a common sentiment. Although, all agreed the flavor of the dish was nearly faultless, it was the texture of the composition that seemed to be at the core of our dissension. Whereas, steak tartar is typically constructed of finely-chopped, or even, minced raw beef, here at Pascal & Sabine it is offered up in fine, one-quarter inch cubes. I enjoyed the mouth-feel of such a presentation and among those in our party, led the charge in the its favor. However, in this case, I was soundly in the minority.
Coq Au Vin ($22)
Chicken stewed in red wine with mushrooms, pearl onions & bacon, with pommes purée
Coq Au Vin is a classic French dish that is typically created by braising chicken with red wine, mushrooms and lardons (a small strip or cube of pork fat). This rustic stew may appear rudimentary on the surface, but in actuality, can be quite challenging to execute properly. Even so, the Coq Au Vin at Pascal & Sabine is one to be taken seriously. The essence of bacon threads its way through the dish in barely noticeable flourishes that linger upon one's palate with an unexpected delicacy, while the use of sweet pearl onions and button mushrooms harmonize within a red wine sauce that erupts in a cacophony of seductive aromas. One of the highlights of this dish is that it is served with pomme purée. To the casual American diner, this may appear to be nothing more than mashed potatoes, but to the discerning palate - as well as any self-respecting Frenchman - Pomme Purée is created by striking the perfect scientific balance of potato to fat ratio that results in a silky, rich smoothness that is far superior to ordinary mashed potatoes. Together, this dish finds its roots in the "rustic", and somehow along the way, transcends itself to the "seductive" and leaves one yearning for one more taste. Excellent choice.
Duck Cassoulet ($28)
Confit Duck Leg, white navy beans, bacon, root vegetables, thyme & Espelette Breadcrumbs
Making a proper cassoulet is a time-consuming process that in my opinion, is well worth the final reward. That is perhaps the reason I repeatedly find myself gravitating towards its inclusion on any menu. I find it easy to appreciate the effort and I contend without a hint of reluctance, this offering of Duck Cassoulet was perhaps my favorite item on Pascal & Sabine's entire menu. The rustic charm of its presentation within a cast-iron pan, coupled with its smokey richness and perfectly prepared confit duck leg, led me on a delightful culinary journey for the senses.
Lobster Bouillabaisse ($50)
Lobster, Shrimp, scallops, mussels, bouillabaisse broth, rouille
The Lobster Bouillabaisse was a menu item of impeccable grandeur that did not fall short of expectations. The rouille - a sauce of olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and peppers that is served as a bouillabaisse garnish - was exquisite, as was the perfectly prepared assortment of shellfish. The bouillabaisse broth had a depth of flavor that played upon one's sensibilities long after the dish was consumed.
Day Boat Halibut ($35)
corn pudding, cockles, saucisson sec, sea beans
Roasted Breast of Chicken ($28)
Asparagus, Fried Duck Egg, Jambon de Bayonne
The Day Boat Halibut and the Roasted Breast of Chicken were again, two expertly prepared dishes that did not disappoint on any level. Although both offerings failed to speak to me with the same wave of unbridled enthusiasm as did the Coq Au Vin and Duck Cassoulet, they also displayed no visible flaws in flavor nor execution. Remarkably constructed, their only blemish was to be served beside a couple of other dishes of irrefutable excellence.
Créme Brulée ($10)
Bourbon Vanilla Bean
Milk Chocolate Pot de Créme ($10)
Caramel, Sea Salt
The Créme Brulée was as expected; rich and delightful. What was wholly unexpected was the manner in which it paled in comparison to the Milk Chocolate Pot de Créme, the restaurant's signature dessert. This fantastic offering intertwines a creamy milk chocolate custard with the viscously rich notes of salted caramel and crispy flakes of sea salt that are hardly noticed until the sweetness of the dish subsides. This is a dessert that easily ascends to the level of greatness.
Hinchcliffe relates that Smith's executive chefs, “work on all of our projects, and we like to move them around.” He goes on to explain that this strategy helps keep their team of chefs creative and passionate about what they do. More surprisingly, the chefs seem to enjoy the company's policy of rotating them throughout Smith's stable of restaurants and by all indications, appear to flourish within the system.
"Our current chef at Pascal & Sabine is Rob Santello,” he answers when asked about the restaurant's current leading man. “Prior, he led the kitchen at Porta, our Neapolitan pizzeria in Asbury Park.”
When one ponders why Smith has zoned in on Asbury Park for such progressive restaurant development, Hinchcliffe is quick to explain:
“We like to build our brands in areas that most people overlook. When we opened our first restaurant in Asbury Park in 2006, no one was coming to Asbury Park. No one. We really put Asbury Park on the map through our 5 restaurants in the city. They’re what brought people back to the city after decades of neglect. It’s why we just opened another restaurant in Burlington, New Jersey. Burlington is just outside of Philadelphia on the Delaware River. It’s a beautiful colonial town that had fallen on some hard times. But the bones of the city were and are amazing.”