Tu-F (11:30AM-9PM); Sa (11AM-9PM); Su (11AM-5PM). Closed Mondays.
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In the 1980’s, sculptor J. Seward Johnson created a plan for a contemporary sculpture museum in Hamilton, NJ. He purchased the land that had housed the NJ State Fairgrounds, and by the 1990’s “The Grounds for Sculpture” was a thriving public indoor/outdoor art museum. In 2000, Johnson opened “Rats Restaurant,” his Monet-inspired, indoor/outdoor fine dining restaurant located on the Grounds for Sculpture campus. And today, it is still worth a visit.
Rats is one of the most exquisitely designed restaurants you will ever enter. The whimsical drive up to the restaurant is flanked by sculptures of people strolling in and out of the building. The restaurant itself has a quirky exterior and a bountiful interior. It is named after Ratty, one of the characters in The Wind in the Willows–known for throwing terrific parties with spectacular wine. And Rats doesn’t disappoint.
If you sit inside, you’ll be in one of an exquisitely designed series of intimate rooms (with 4-6 tables each) that weave throughout this surprisingly spacious interior. Expect first-class service, some of the best food in NJ, and some of the top prices as well. But as you’re dining, take in the decor–it is beautifully curated and fancifully arranged, creating a feast for all the senses. If you sit outside, you may find yourself on one of several patios, perhaps looking over a lily pond and bridge, or taking in some of the playful sculptures that seem to pop-up everywhere. After you place your order, make sure to take a stroll around–even without entering the Grounds for Sculpture themselves (for which there is a separate admission fee) you can still see a lot. If you exit the bar area toward the patio and make a left outside, you might find yourself stumbling upon the “employee shower”–a sculpture of a nude woman under a flowing shower with a sculpted CD player accompanying her bath. Or follow along the path to your right and you’ll see some delightful renditions of impressionist paintings, done in life-size sculpture.
Of course, the visual appeal isn’t the only reason to go to Rats. The food is divine. On a recent visit, I enjoyed the Provencal mezze for the table (hummus, eggplant salad, quinoa tabbouleh, olives and a home-made flat bread), which was perfect. Before it arrived, the chef delivered an amuse bouche to us to whet our appetites: a delicious shrimp ceviche, served in a shot glass. I had the eggplant “mignon”–an herb-infused eggplant steak, cooked sous vide to retain a surprisingly toothy bite, and garnished with ratatouille, roasted tomato, and mint pesto. My companions had the scallops ala plancha (perfectly grilled scallops with spaghetti squash, pickle pepper oil, and turmeric bureau blanc) and the pan-roasted branzino (with local corn coulis, heirloom tomato salad, and broccoli rabe). For a side, we enjoyed a plate of roasted brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes. Everything was as good as it sounds. We had a spectacular peanut butter and chocolate mousse for dessert. Their wine list is terrific, and I’m told that the cocktails are great as well.
This is romantic fine-dining at its best, and a perfect special occasion place for a birthday, an anniversary dinner, or a graduation. If your companions have never been to Rats, you’ll be introducing them to not only some of the best food in Mercer County, but also a dining experience they will never forget.
Of course, it all comes at a price. Rats is among the more expensive restaurants in Hamilton. At the time of this writing (2015), you could expect dinner appetizers between $10-18, and entrees between $16-$49. And this is a meal in which you’ll want to have a cocktail or two, or a few glasses of wine. You’ll easily be spending upwards of $50/person. If you go for lunch, most items are under $20, so you’ll see a significant savings. The best deal is at their Happy Hour, served Tues-Fri from 4PM-7PM, where you can get bar snacks and burgers for $2-$5, half price wines by the glass, and steep discounts on the cocktails. Plus, it’s fun to be there in the daylight when you can really take in the ambiance.