The first thing that strikes you about Picnic the Restaurant in Fair Lawn’s Radburn section is its elegance. The Italian chairs are upholstered and very comfortable, the lighting just right.
At one end is a credenza where regular diners store wine for the next visit. Mirrors reflect white-clothed tables with salt cellars and good tableware.
And then there’s the food, which can compete with anything served in New York or London’s posh restaurants.
Executive Chef Christine Nunn, a third generation Radburn native, began her career as a writer in New York, but after 9/11, she said she wanted to do something she loved–cooking. Her mother had been a big fan of Julia Child's and as a child, Christine watched Child’s TV show daily.
So Nunn gave up writing and went to the Culinary Institute of America, graduating in 2003. She was named the school’s top chef, an honor which earned her a trip to the Aspen Food and Wine Festival where she rubbed elbows with the nation’s culinary stars.
“Then it occurred to me that I had to get a job,” she recalled in an interview. She found a want ad on the Culinary Institute’s site to cater five UN parties. She really had no Manhattan kitchen but she got the job and began catering for UN missions. “Their apartments are great but they have postage stamp kitchens.”
Next, she found a ready-made professional kitchen available in Emerson, NJ, and launched her catering business from there. She also met and married fellow CIA graduate Javier Ordonez, who now serves as sous chef at Picnic. And she became a food critic for the Bergen Record, a job she resigned from after Annabel Schlair, who serves with her on the board of the Radburn Association, suggested they open their own restaurant.
“It would have been awkward to review other restaurants while I was running my own,” she said. Nunn and Schlair took over a spot formerly occupied by Quiznos. It had been stripped of fixtures and left empty.
“It took a long time to do the work that needed to be done,” Nunn said. “And we had a lot of time to think about the details. Annabel did the decorating. I wanted fish knives and good glasses for people who bring their wine.”
The week before our interview, my partner and I had gone there for an early dinner on a week night. Nunn was in the front of the house and gave us a foursome instead of a table for two, the better to accommodate the cane I had to use because of recent foot surgery.
Comfortably settled, we looked over an interesting and imaginative menu, deciding to start with salads. I had the arugula with poached pears while my partner went for the “Deconstructed Caesar Salad.”
But before those courses, we got the best complimentary plate or amuse-bouche that we have ever had. Two small pieces of cheese–a gouda and an Irish porter—olives, thin slices of bread with herbes, dried cranberries and apricots and walnuts. We had never had the Irish porter and my partner was enchanted with it.
The “deconstructed” Caesar included a quail egg eggs and two anchovie slices, which also delighted him. The arugula with poached pears came in a honey lemon vinaigrette which complemented the very fresh greens.
The menu changes every day and one of the night’s specials was a walnut crusted cod nestled on a bed of green beans and risotto and topped with a cranberry apple compote. It was a beautiful dish that tasted as good as it looked.
I elected to go with two small plates for an entrée –a smoked salmon napoleon with goat cheese, red onion, cucumber and caper dressing and a “French pizza” which turned out to be puff pastry topped with olives, carmelized onions and anchovies.
Both were really great dishes and I found out later that though there are new dishes every day, created by Nunn, her husband or chef John Keyser, the salmon napoleon is a mainstay. “When we take it off the menu, there are too many complaints.”
I also found out the origin of the chef’s complimentary plate. “We have a small kitchen and we were getting so many requests for bread refills, it was tying up the ovens,” Nunn said. “We thought this would stave off all those bread refill requests.” Her husband, it turns out, is the bread baker in the family.
Picnic is pricey because, Nunn explained, she spends far more on food than most other restaurants. For example, she gets morels flown in from Oregon and buys soft shell crabs as soon as they come on the market. Her accountant, working in the corner, was nodding in agreement. “She wishes I’d spend less,” Nunn said.
And though her prices are high for this area, she points out they are half what they would be for the same dishes in Manhattan’s high end restaurants. And I found them just as good.
Nunn said the name “Picnic” just popped into her head when she launched her catering business, but this Picnic is best suited to diners who like a bit of an adventure and are intrigued by dishes such as “First of the season ramps and morels with sherry cream sauce and baguette.”
Since Nunn says you have to reserve a month ahead if you want a table for four or more on a Saturday night, we guess there are a lot of adventurous diners in this part of Bergen County.
Atmosphere: Upscale Friendly
Entrée price range: $19-$35
Small Plate Prices $8 - $18
Reservations: (201) 796-2700