“Hi Paul, not Tom”, was our greeting upon entering the beguiling Park Place Café and Restaurant, a six-table BYOB in sleepy Merchantville, NJ. Since the restaurant only takes reservations by voicemail, they thought I said my name was “Tom” when the restaurant called that afternoon to confirm. We thought it was clever to use that as a greeting when we walked through the door. It was a light-hearted, warm welcome.
We were greeted by Francesca, the restaurant’s relentlessly charming host and co-owner. Our table had four seats and the restaurant was a bit loud, so when it came time to order Francesca actually sat down next to Marnay to go over the specials and to take down our order. It made us feel like we were regulars, even though it was our first time.
The chef and co-owner Phil Manganero, runs the kitchen but also spends his days off foraging for ingredients. The restaurant also has its own garden and gets the rest from mainly local purveyors. Their vision for the restaurant, among a sea of red sauce Italian joints, is to create a “New Jersey Terroir.”
The “Kitchen Sink Salad”, a weekly special, is a good example of what they are trying to do. It’s a mix of just about every fresh and seasonal or foraged fruit and vegetable that was available that week. Our salad had wild purslane, wax beans, blackberries, blueberries, herbs from the garden and a few other things thrown in. This seems like a lot, but it made sense. All of the flavors came together in harmony, and they were tied together with a sublime vinaigrette.
The housemade rigatoni, which Francesca informed us that the chef had finished making just before service, showed great restraint. It’s Jersey tomato season, so the pasta highlighted a light tomato sauce and a bit of parmigiano reggiano on the rim of the plate. The dish was brilliant simplicity – there was nowhere for imperfections to hide. A lesser chef would have drowned the rigatoni in sauce – but the housemade rigatoni was way too good to do that and needed to shine on its own.
We had seen on Instagram that Park Place was popular with wine aficionados and it did not disappoint. Shortly after we arrived, a table of six showed up, each person with three bottles of wine! I didn’t want to stare at them too long, but judging by the color of their white wine (almost brownish yellow) it had some serious age. It was entertaining to watch them pour each glass.
The olive oil poached tile fish, a special, was blitzed with shaved truffles and chanterelles. It was an umami bomb that was also intriguing because of its mix of temperatures – warm fish, cold chanterelles that tasted like they had been soaking (perhaps reconstituting?) in vinegar. Meanwhile, the poach in olive oil kept the white tile fish from overcooking.
The walnut cake for dessert reminded me a fancier version of my grandmother’s walnut rolls. Park Place takes it to a whole other level with a rich cream and extra walnuts placed on the side.
Park Place Café is a dream of a restaurant tucked away in Merchantville, NJ. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that place was real. If you live in the area, we strongly suggest that you check it out.
Paul and Marnay: Housemade Rigatoni with Jersey tomato sauce
Park Place Café and Restaurant: 7 East Park Avenue, Merchantville, NJ 08109