The historic Washington Crossing Inn (originally a home, dating to 1817) has upped their culinary game by hiring executive chef Mark Valenza. I first ran into Mark when I reviewed Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton in early 2002, one of my first-ever reviews. I fell in love with his food then, and continued to enjoy his “cross-cultural comfort cuisine,” as he put it, after he opened his own restaurant, Za in Pennington. Then, all of a sudden, Za closed in late 2013 after briefly rebranding itself as the Tomato State Café. Customers were bereft, and wondered where Mark had gone.
So imagine my pleasure when he contacted me recently to say he is the new chef at the Washington Crossing Inn! His influence is already evident on their menus, which offer such Valenza classics as his warm lentil salad and other dishes his fans have loved over the years, with some tweaking for his new surroundings.
The owners, brothers Dr. Eli Mordechai and Jerry Moradi (they purchased the Inn in 2009) have given Mark a lot of freedom, as long, he said, as he continues to offer the even-popular prime rib on weekends (yay for that). With a broader customer base, Mark will have his work cut out for him, offering some of the more traditional dishes, but with an updated touch, and his own original creations. I’ll wager that his cooking will win over a whole new fan base, and he seems quite excited to have something new to challenge and engage him.
I enjoyed a prix fixe $13.99/3-course Fireside Lunch there last Friday with my friend Carolyn, and the Inn’s dining spaces were packed, plus there was a large private event in the banquet room. I don’t usually expect much from the food at historic venues and places with a lot of banquet business, but Mark is paying careful attention to the public dining rooms, and our lunch was lovely. He did send out one dish that was not on the prix fixe menu that he wanted us to be sure to try, the Navajo Fry Bread, and it was indeed delicious, fried to a greaseless shattering crispness, and dabbed with melted cheddar, arugula oil, and pico de gallo….fantastic! (Photos below.)
Given the nice bread basket and relishes, and the fry bread, I barely made a dent in my appetizer of macaroni and cheese – really, it’s more of a main course n’est pas? – which was nice and saucy with Cheddar, Parmesan, and Fontina (reheated leftovers were still nice and moist). The vegetables in my friend’s tempura were good, although the coating needed another minute in the fryer to achieve the proper crispness. For entrées, we both selected risotto with red pepper and bok choy, and topped with grilled chicken, and that was very good.
And notice the desserts, the pumpkin pie is so prettily garnished, and the cannoli shell is house made, the filling scented with Amaretto – no ubiquitous chocolate bits here. (Mark and I share a love of toasted almond flavor from childhood–remember the Toasted Almond popsicle from the Good Humor truck?) The staff was fantastic, friendly and efficient. (Please note that bargain lunch is understandably on hiatus now until the New Year.)
There are many interesting touches all over the menus, so give them a try soon. I made a reservation for lunch, and you should too, no matter when you plan to go, and especially around holidays. I will also add that the Inn is gorgeous and the premises seem very well-maintained. There’s a parking lot next to the Inn (it fills up) and more on side streets nearby; the day we visited they were valet parking in the lot which we thankfully took advantage of.
Mark, I am SO glad you reached out to let me know where you are now, and I look forward to returning to try more dishes in the New Year!
(Click on any photo to start a slideshow.)