Picnic in Fair Lawn: Understated Elegance, Top Quality Ingredients, Lovingly Prepared

Picnic co-owners Christine E. Nunn, executive chef and Radburn/Fair Lawn native, and Annabel Schlair, front house manager, have brought Bergen diners a handsome, intimate restaurant with an emphasis on top quality ingredients, simply and lovingly prepared.  Located at 14-25 Plaza Road North in the Plaza Building, Picnic The Restaurant (picnictherestaurant.com; 201-796-2700) is a full of thoughtful touches which grace everything from the smart design which makes the just shy of 40 seat eatery a must-visit destination for those looking for creative, delicious offerings, whether at lunch, dinner or off-site through its catering arm.

The menu changes daily and can be viewed online; dinner reservations are strongly recommended.  Open since the summer following a highly successful catering business Nunn started in Emerson, the restaurant has found its rhythm and provides polished service, ambiance and food on even the busiest evenings.

Instead of the standard bread basket, Picnic diners are offered a plate of Nunn’s cheese nibble selections of the day (on our visits we enjoyed aged French sheep’s milk cheese and California goat) nestled in between house-made herb-flecked croutons, oyster crackers (addicting), dried fruit and oil cured olives, all serving to whet the appetite while perusing the thoughtfully constructed menu.  On a chilly winter’s evening, salads ($7) range from roasted beet salad with feta, oranges and fennel to a crispy iceberg wedge with house made thousand island dressing and studded with maytag blue, bacon, red onion, cucumbers and grape tomatoes still managed to beckon.  Other salads combine aged gouda and dried fruit with nuts.

Small plates span smooth and intensely flavored Cream of mushroom soup ($6), oysters Rockefeller ($14), slow roasted marrow bones with venison relish ($12), Gruyere fondue with duck and wild boar sausages, apples and baguette ($10) to seared foie gras with poached pear and fig balsamic reduction on toast points ($17).  All are delicious although my favorite is the Scottish Smoked Salmon napolean ($12) stacking apples, capers, and red onion-flecked goat cheese with the smoky, tender fish afloat in a pool of extra virgin olive oil, capers and cucumber chunks.  It’s four blissful bites and a stunning presentation.  Nunn’s French culinary influences shine through in preparation although the menu would not be classified as classic French.  New American with a French twist may be a fitting description.

Of the ten entrees offered, we enjoyed the Painted Hills Natural Steak au pouvre with roasted potato, shallot and butter tossed haricot verts and brandy peppercream sauce ($29) immensely.  This is a manly portion with deeply concentrated flavors.  Flavorful, tender and well-priced.  Perfectly roasted D’Artagnan-sourced Colorado lamb loin ($32) was crusted with herbed crumbs, drizzled with a vibrant mint-sauce and served atop a butter roasted spaghetti squash that was sublime – both the lamb and the squash.  The lamb and steak were both perfectly cooked.

Boeuf Bourguignon a la Picnic ($28), an homage to Julia Child, is lusty served atop smashed potatoes and slow braised pearl onions and mushrooms in a rich wine reduction.  Roasted monkfish ($31), Wild King salmon ($22) and Potato Crusted Chatham Cod ($28) were popular choices amongst other diners, along with a generously portioned Berkshire pork chop with apples, bacon, brandy butter and sweet potato puree ($33).  This is well thought out comfort food with sophistication that doesn’t befuddle or talk down to diners.  It’s good food, well prepared and presented lovingly and with confidence.

Desserts are made on the premises daily by a Bergen County Junior League friend of Nunn’s ,Rita Cookson, who, while not classicly trained, turns out equally comforting sweets ($8) ranging from a raspberry and almond tart to flourless chocolate cake.  Cookson has, according to Nunn, “free reign” and diners seem in uniform agreement that her confections are the perfect way to punctuate lunch or dinner at Picnic.  Like salads, small plates and entrees, dessert offerings change each day.

“Fine Fabulous Food” is the restaurant’s apt tagline.  Service is smart, polished and doting without being intrusive.  In fact, Nunn walks the dining room checking in with each table (Schlair was out of the country during our visits) and is clearly interested and committed to her guests’ comfort and satisfaction.  During our visits, the dining room was completely packed, yet the two servers supported by a very capable back wait staffer, were unfettered and attentive.  Nunn and Schlair’s smart design keeps noise levels in check thanks to foam egg crates affixed to the undersides of each table and textured wall panels camouflaging more sound-absorbing material.  Candle light, deep brown walls and antique blue trim envelop a dining room made elegant by understated table settings, richly upholstered chairs and large mirrors.

Picnic is a delight.  A charming, inventive restaurant which is at once cozy, elegant and intimate.  A wine store in the same building provides well-matched selections for this polished BYO eatery.

Heidi Raker Goldstein is our Bergen county regional editor.  A locavore, cooking enthusiast, publicist and mother of three junior gourmands, Heidi is equally comfy in greasy spoons and high-end restaurants.  When not visiting local farmers markets and farm stands in Bergen and Rockland counties, this New England native, former Manhattanite and Bergen county resident is busy running her PR and green marketing agency, Raker Goldstein & Co., buying food, planning menus, cooking food, writing about food or simply eating.  To reach Heidi, email her at heidi@rakergoldstein.com.