Imagine being a starting quarterback going against the ranks of Joe Montana, Payton Manning, or perhaps Tom Brady. You’d most likely feel intimidated, nervous, but without a doubt, determined to give it your all to make a name for yourself like your opponents have. Such is the case of Executive Chef Michael Antony Bell of Tula Restaurant/Lounge in New Brunswick. To him, the opposing forces include such notables as The Frog & Peach, Due Mari, Stage Left, and Daryl. All of these are not only competing with him, they are in the same 5 miles radius. Luckily, America loves an underdog and Tula is just the type that we will root for.
Chef Michael began his reign about a year ago in the 2 year old location adjacent to Evelyn’s on the hustle-bustle of Easton Ave. Owners, Gus and Naji Sleiman, who also own the formerly mentioned Evelyn’s Restaurant and Bar, have created a space that is architecturally unique and beautiful. The hand carved wood and ceramic bar alone shows the dedication and time spent to make this place succeed. The “al fresco” dining made possible by the retractable floor to ceiling windows adds non-stop activity and ample people-watching opportunities. While the view from your seat is captivating, it can not compete with the food. Chef Bell, previously a sous chef at The Highlawn Pavillion, has handcrafted a menu that is seasonal, innovative, and simply delicious.
On the evening my husband and I were invited to dine, we were both intrigued and delighted by the menu and specials. We were offered a complimentary cheese and meat board to start, which combined aspects of both the Fromaggi ($18) and Charceuterie ($18) ‘plates to share’ selections. Our board consisted of aged blue, brie, and manchango cheeses along with hot soppresatta and prosciutto, olive tapenade, a few gala apple slices, and a dipping bowl of honey. The cheeses, by themselves, were outstanding. Not normally blue cheese-eaters, my husband and I surprisingly found Tula’s offering extremely creamy, almost silky, with just a hint of the sour bite we feared. Additionally, our pieces of crostini soon became vehicles for a shmear of tapenade, a piece of prosciutto and a hunk of manchengo. Needless to say, the platter was devoured before we realized we still had many dishes coming our way.
For appetizers, we decided to split a salad and the ravioli of the day special. The spinach stuffed raviolis were without a doubt a veggie-lovers’ delight. Being one of those myself, I truly enjoyed the pronounced spinach flavor as well as the wonton-like dough of the pasta. And although some might feel the dough was too delicate, I found it refreshingly light for such a usually heavy dish. As for our salad, the Avocado and Roasted Beets ($10) option was quite the looker! Fortunately, looks matched flavor and we both had great things to say. I, myself, found the meaty beets to be a perfect partner against the soft avocado. The complimentary clash between the tangy goat cheese and modest beets was what Matt found to be nothing short of satisfying.
As for entrees, we both went in different directions. I went with the Grilled Berkshire Pork Chop ($24) while Matt ordered the Applewood Smoked Bacon Burger ($13). And just as the cheese and appetizer courses shined, so did dinner. My pork chop was sizingly fitted for a king, yet plated minimally with just a few of the rosemary potato gnocchi and cherry tomatoes. The pasta pieces, made in-house, were sautéed with a ridiculous amount of thick-cut bacon bites. No complaints here: if you want to plate my pork with more pork, by all means, go ahead! And although I tend to like my pork chops more on the pink side, I found the meat to be tremendously tender and seasoned just enough to allow the pork flavor to standout. As for the burger, with its aged white cheddar and house made barbeque sauce, it was executed well. The accompanying lightly-dressed organic salad countered the fatty-nature of the beef respectively. Salty, not the crispiest we’ve ever had, fries also came with and rounded out the sandwich entrée.
The dessert course was also compliments of the Chef and we went with the Mexican Chocolate Sponge Cake. It was paired with a dulce de leche ice cream, sourced from neighboring ice cream shop Thomas Sweets. Each triangle of cake was deliciously moist yet feather-light. A spoon carrying a piece of cake, some ice cream and a touch of the raspberry drizzle was the perfect note to end our meal on.
And so it goes that although Chef Michael does have his work cut out for him against the other heavy-hitters of the town, he is skilled and passionate enough to thrive and compete. When asked what dish he feels most proud of and encouraged guests to order, he suggests the scallop entrée ($25). He laughed that while working at the Highlawn, he cleaned and prepped so many of these seafood delights, that his rendition of them should be nothing but perfect. So with that said, I hope you try Tula, order the scallops, and put your money towards the underdog.
Tula Restaurant and Lounge is located at 47 Easton Ave., New Brunswick, NJ. They are open for lunch Monday-Friday and Dinner Monday-Saturday. Sundays are closed, but can be reserved for private events. Outdoor seating is available, reservations only. More information can be found at www.tulalounge.com
Gina Glazier is a born and raised Jersey Girl. She recently earned her Master’s degree in Reading & Literacy and currently teaches 5th grade. Gina lives with her husband Matt who is her number one fan and shares in her passion for the culinary arts, minus the cooking part! Her “culinary life” became a reality a few years back when she was chosen to be a guest ofThe Star Ledger’s Munchmobile. This ignited Gina’s desire to be around food and all its counterparts all the time, meaning restaurants, cookbooks, TV shows, cooking, etc. Gina says her “biggest and most monumental experience” was being a part of The Star Ledger’s Pizza Patrol two years ago where she traveled the entire state, eating at 3, 4, sometimes 5 pizzerias a night for just about 6 months! You can check out her Hungry Teacher adventures, on her blogwww.ahungryteacher.blogspot.com.