You can hear the country crickets singing from the gravel parking lot behind the Pass, the old clapboard general store-turned-bistro in Rosemont, N.J., where Matt Ridgway is making his kitchen comeback three courses at a time.
Tonight's prix-fixe menu for $38.50 is completely different from my previous visit just a few weeks earlier. The layered terrine of confit turkey and foie gras with eggplant chutney has been replaced by a mosaic slice of tender octopus coins set into a lemony gelée. Instead of roasted lobster with luxurious chicken liver sauce, there is tile fish draped in a vivid green parsley-bread crust. Instead of a crispy Pavlova meringue for dessert, there is gateau Basque, another pastry relic resurrected from Ridgway's deep repertoire of classic French inspirations.
It has been awhile since the Bucks County native ran a restaurant. Does this bucolic outpost just beyond Lambertville mark a reluctant return? A defiant one? A triumph? Perhaps all of the above.
Ridgway's been elbow-deep in curing pork jowls, duck prosciutto, and foie gras terrines for PorcSalt, the charcuterie company that has been his refuge since dropping out of fine dining in 2009.
Before that, he spent 15 years training in the exacting art of gastronomy alongside French luminaries like Jean-Marie Lacroix and Joël Antunes, following culinary adventures from the Fountain at the Four Seasons and Lacroix at the Rittenhouse to Paris, Asia, Atlanta, and New York. But with the fiscal crisis taking its toll and America's food culture in drastic flux, Ridgway and his young cohorts awoke one morning at the last decade's end to realize their world of fine dining had suddenly become obsolete: "Haute cuisine was dead and that's all we knew. We were men without homes. Some of us didn't know what else to do."
For Ridgway, 37, there was salvation in artisanal bacon. But as that business grew and he began looking for a retail space, the possibility of an attached restaurant remained intriguing.
He's clearly embraced it at the Pass on his own terms, with a space more butcher-block rustic than white-tablecloth fancy. The creaky wood bones of the floors, the built-in teal-colored shelves and vintage 1938 display cooler (now used for PorcSalt charcuterie) remain intact from the onetime butcher shop, farm, and gas station market. There's good restaurant karma here, too: The previous tenant, Cafe Rosemont, was a brunch stalwart for 22 years.
But Ridgway and his kitchen accomplice, Paul Mitchell, a fellow alum of the Fountain and Lacroix, are taking full advantage of the seasonal bounty from the 15-plus farms that supply them in Hunterdon and upper Bucks Counties.
There are rabbits from Leaning Sycamore in Perkasie, simmered into shredded rilletes and tucked inside risotto balls for deep-fried arancini. The grass-fed short ribs from Tullamore Farms in neighboring Stockton get simmered into chipotle-scented goulash over tender quark spaetzle. A line-caught albacore gets cooked "mi-cuit" on one side only, the contrast of seared steak and pale pink sashimi in one bite, with a meatiness amplified by the sausage-potato sandwich on the side and a classic salmis fish sauce enriched with meat stock and red wine.
With such sophisticated cooking, the inexperienced service (unsurprisingly green given the rural locale), can offer an almost comical contrast, from the server flustered by having to open our BYO wine once she realized it wasn't a screwtop, to the young man who searched five minutes for a clean spoon from the Pass' mismatched vintage flatware so I could eat my beet gazpacho.
Once I did, it wasn't a kitchen highlight - the thick borscht-like puree had a strange disc of gelled almond milk floating like a rubbery lily pad.
It was an example of why high-tech cooking isn't Ridgway's forte. He's more likely to succeed with old-school caul fat, honeyed-orange gastriques (for the five-spiced duck fricassee with rye sable), gribiche (for the delicate tile fish), and fresh takes on traditional desserts like the Pavlova or an Austrian pancake, chewy with caramel beneath swirls of blueberry compote and crème anglaise.
That gazpacho was one of a handful of missteps at my second meal, whose inconsistencies showed the inevitable pitfalls of changing menus completely each week. The stuffed rabbit leg in sweet and sour sauce wasn't tender. A duck breast was tough. The complimentary shrimp crackers to start the meal were carelessly fried (lots of chewy corners). At my first meal, the prawn-stuffed zucchini flower was too bouncy with chicken mousse.
These complaints may seem small considering the remarkably fair price point that makes the Pass one of the region's best destination dining bargains.
But the potential is so obvious that I'm excited by the possibilities of what the Pass can become, especially when Ridgway knocks a dish out of the park.
The marinated swordfish, its lightly brined ribbons tossed with toasted farro salad, grapes, and sumac, was a good example. So was the giant raviolo giardiniera made with duck fat pasta dough wrapped around a coarse summer ratatouille. The hoisin-charred skirt steak with pickled shallots is a dish I'd like to re-create at home.
But so many of the brilliant touches here - enriching the red wine shellfish sauce for the lobster with earthy chicken livers; the cocoa-steeped agrodolce grapes that add juicy depth to the octopus terrine; the Roquefort glaze that lends transformative piquance to banana bread; a sweet-tart eggplant chutney that gives an exotic tang to the foie gras-turkey terrine - are whimsies best left to chefs with chops like these.
My favorite detail here, though, appears to be an old library cart trundling around with a single cheese under a glass bell - one night a creamy Cranberry Creek goat pyramid called Silver Lining, another night a large semi-firm cylinder of earthy Drumm from nearby Bobolink.
It's a far cry from the 30-plus cheeses Ridgway rolled each night into the haute-cuisine dining rooms of his youth. But the simplicity of one fine choice, locally sourced, thoughtfully presented, suits the spirit of this bucolic comeback show. Crickets, company is coming.
Chef Matthew Ridgway discusses the Pass at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchat
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Tiffin Bistro. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.