Simply described, a croque monsieur is a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, albeit made with French ham and Gruyere. Literally translated as “crunch sir” or “bite (a) man,” the croque monsieur is as ubiquitous in French cafes as grilled cheese or Ruben sandwiches in American diners.
The croque monsieur—along with its sister, the croque madame—can now be ordered at Cargot, Princeton’s newest fine dining establishment, as well as other foods that tip their hat to French cuisine. Cargot owner Jim Nawn describes it as “approachable French.” His Fenwick Hospitality Group also owns Dinky Bar & Kitchen next door, Agricola on Witherspoon Street, Main Street Catering in Rocky Hill, and The Great Road Farm, which supplies all the restaurants as well as area farmers markets.
Cargot opened July 12 across the street from McCarter Theatre Center and adjacent to the soon-to-open Lewis Center for the Arts. Located in the former baggage handling building for the Dinky, the name Cargot plays on the building’s function (cargo) and the French word for snail (escargot).
The Dinky, a beloved Princeton institution that shuttles NJ Transit Northeast Corridor passengers 2.9 miles from Princeton to Princeton Junction and back, now operates out of a new station house 460 feet away. In building its $330 million Arts & Transit neighborhood, Princeton University stirred controversy by moving the station. Now that the two 1918 stone buildings have become restaurants, complaints have subsided.
Princeton’s former train station (shown here) was built in 1918 and connected Princeton University with Princeton Junction, on Northeast Corridor rail line. This view shows what today would be the back side of Cargot. (Photo courtesy of Cargot)
Both buildings were refurbished and the cargo building expanded, with design features paying homage to its roots. The original wooden benches from the station have been repurposed as banquettes, and the light fixtures, tile, tables and chairs suggest early 20th-century brasserie/bistro, with contemporary amenities. There are three dining areas and a raw bar, seating 130, with additional seating for about 60 on the stone patio outside. Dinky Bar has 60 seats indoors, bringing the total of the two eateries to the magic number at which Nawn hopes he can operate at a profit.
Menu items are described as “seasonally changing brasserie classics, with contemporary interpretations.” Signature dishes: French onion soup, tuna Niçoise, beef tartare, moules frites, cassoulet and raw bar selections. Desserts run the decadent gamut: chocolate soufflé to crème brûlée beignets. Thirsts can be quenched with wines representing the regions of France, imported and domestic craft beers and ciders, or cocktails such as the Cargot gin and tonic with Lillet, or the Petit Madame—pineapple and pink peppercorn infused vodka with crème de cassis and lime.
Nawn was out of the country after opening the restaurant—he asked that his location not be disclosed—but said he was confident that “my guys are doing their thing, running Cargot and Agricola, the Dinky and Main Street. We have a great team.”
With past careers in the pharmaceutical industry and as a franchisee for Panera Bread Company—he developed and opened 37 Panera Breads in northern New Jersey—Nawn, who lives on the Great Road Farm with his wife, Ann, bought the Main Street enterprise a little more than a year and a half ago. That included a café in nearby Kingston, a bistro in the Princeton Shopping Center and a catering division with a commissary kitchen in Rocky Hill. Since that time he has sold the Kingston café—it is now a PJ’s Pancake House—and is in the process of closing the bistro.
“The bistro had been declining in sales for a while and our attempts, with some investment to change that trend, have not succeeded,” he says. “We continue to run the catering division from a renovated kitchen in Rocky Hill and are incorporating new menus inspired by our other restaurants.”
The commissary kitchen has been used for Dinky Bar & Kitchen, where the prep area is small, and for baked goods at Cargot.
As the pots bubble on the front burner, there’s been a changing-of-the-guard at the back end. Farmer Steve Tomlinson, who worked on the Agricola cookbook, has been replaced by Kyle Goedde. “Steve moved on to a great opportunity,” says Nawn. “I was excited to welcome Kyle as farm manager in February. He worked for Steve a few years back before setting out on his own, and now with those experiences he is doing a great job for us.”
So, how does one decide whether to eat at Dinky Bar & Kitchen, or Cargot? And how does Nawn fill seats in both places without competing with himself? “They are different experiences designed to work side by side. With food and drink at both, the focus is different. You can get cocktails and beer with elevated bar food at the Dinky, wine centric and French-inspired food at Cargot. Breakfast is served at Cargot, while the late night is covered by the Dinky.”
Nawn doesn’t see the new location as off the beaten path—rather, he expects diners to be beating a new path to the Arts and Transit district. “Diners come here for McCarter Theatre, the university and to avoid going downtown where there is too much congestion. Access to our eateries is easy for the Route 1 dining traffic which would otherwise go to the malls. Dinky has worked well with a steady flow of guests and is especially busy around events.”
As for parking, there are 75 metered spots on University Place alone, and additional parking is available at the Dinky station and in the University’s West Garage.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Nawn is working on his next restaurant at 277 Witherspoon St., a more casual neighborhood spot expected to open within the year.
Cargot, 98 University Place, Princeton. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a café menu and pastries to go. www.cargotbrasserie.com