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It's New to Us by Jean Stratton

DINING OUT: “We’re set apart by our style. Our theory is that presentation is very important, and ours is very colorful. When the food is served, you eat it with your eyes first!” The staff at the Calico Grill includes, back row, from left: owner Marguerite Heap, general manager Carlos Espichan; front row, from left: owner Alan Heap, sous chef Juan Cifuentes. In the foreground is a featured seafood platter, with red snapper, New Zealand mussels, and sauteed jumbo prawns over broccoli rabe and mashed yucca potatoes.

Calico Grill at Cox’s Market Is Popular New Dining Choice

The hot new restaurant in town is almost hidden away. But once diners find it, they are sure to return. Opened in August, the Calico Grill is located down the alley behind Cox’s Market, at 180 Nassau Street.

“‘Princeton’s oldest restaurant meets Princeton’s newest restaurant,’” is our slogan, report Alan and Marguerite Heap, owners of both Cox’s and the Calico Grill.

“We are very strong here at the Calico Grill with Asian-Pacific cuisine. It’s something different for Princeton, and we hope to be a great new addition,” says Mr. Heap, who is also the chef. “I really like Asian- style and Pacific-style in cooking. It’s the freshest fish, the freshest fruit, and the most colorful plates. We get fish delivered daily. The idea of having good food is having fresh food.”

His interest in cooking began early, he adds. “I always liked it since I was a kid and worked in restaurants. My stepfather was the cook in our house, and I watched him, and thought — I can cook too.”

He went to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, known for its culinary school, and then set out for Hong Kong, working in the Hong Kong Hilton, where he met his wife-to-be. “The best experience was really in Hong Kong,” he says. “I worked in two restaurants that had California-style cuisine. They became very successful, and I really was anxious to open my own restaurant.”

After a year in Guam and then in Hawaii, the now married couple came to Princeton, where Mr. Heap’s mother had grown up. He worked as a chef at Mediterra and the Hyatt, and then in 2004, Cox’s, Princeton’s oldest eating establishment (106 years!), was available to purchase.

Inviting Interior

“We had also had a small cafe at the Y,” notes Mrs. Heap, who grew up in Hawaii, and specialized in the hospitality field. “Then, space became available here, and we were able to open in August.”

The charming restaurant, which indeed is tucked away, seats 34, and offers an inviting interior, featuring an appealing mural with blue sky, aquamarine sea, and palm trees, which surely bring to mind the Pacific, California, and other scenic locales.

White linen tablecloths are complemented by royal blue napkins, and patterned chair cushions from Guatemala are brightly colored. “The colors of the mural are soft and calm,” points out Mrs. Heap, “and the chairs are vivid.”

The cuisine, which is available for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and take-out, features a variety of fresh fish (a specialty), meat, pasta, soup, sauces, and salads, all with the flavor of the Eastern Pacific, and enhanced by a Latin influence as well.

“Breakfast on weekends is especially popular,” notes Mrs. Heap. “People like to come in for brunch, and we have great choices. Seafood Loco Moco is a favorite. It’s a Hawaiian dish, including two crab cakes over Spanish rice, with two fried eggs and red pepper sauce.”

Other breakfast choices are Breakfast Burrito (scrambled eggs, Spanish rice, black beans, tomato salsa, and avocado, with bacon, chorizo, or chopped steak); and Breakfast Stir-Fry — a medley of chorizo sausage, breakfast potatoes, peppers, and onions topped with two fried eggs, served with tomato salsa and corn tortillas.

Lunch Menu

In addition, traditional French toast, pancakes, and omelets (lots of choices) are all available, as well as eggs, toast, and muffins.

The lunch menu is varied, ranging from classic club sandwiches to Mexican Torta (homemade roast beef topped with avocado, pepper Jack cheese, tomato, and fried egg — grilled in a French baguette and served with Jalapeno coleslaw and steak fries) and fresh fish ’n chips to Calico burger and Calico Pacific Caesar salad.

Dinner is where Chef Heap especially loves to demonstrate his culinary expertise. Four or five specials are available every night in addition to the regular menu, and there is a strong selection of hearty appetizers. Very popular are cevice (shrimp and bay scallops marinated in lime juice, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and jalapenos), Poisson Cru (mahi mahi marinated in a mixture of lime juice, coconut milk, carrots, Spanish onions, and cucumbers); and crab cakes, served with a cucumber and pepper slaw and topped with a roasted corn salsa.

For some customers, these appetizers, among many others, serve as a meal in themselves, says Mrs. Heap.

On the other hand, most diners wouldn’t want to miss a chance to sample the fresh seasonal fish, along with the opportunity to customize the dinner with choice of sauce, vegetable, and starch, including Spanish rice, Chipotle mashed Yucca potatoes or linguine in a cilantro cream sauce.

Skewered tiger prawns, New York strip steak, and filet mignon are all offered, and the Latin influence is evident in the very popular Mexican lasagna (seasoned ground beef, black beans, refried beans, tomato salsa, Queso fresco, and cheddar cheese, layered between corn tortillas).

Good Show

And if one still has room, delicious desserts include raisin and apple bread pudding with caramel sauce, cappuccino latte mousse, triple layer chocolate cake, pumpkin cheesecake, and tiramisu — among others.

“I really love doing the dinners,” says Mr. Heap. “Dinner is when I can concentrate on putting on a good show. I love to create dishes in which the food looks good as well as tastes good. We want people to have a dining experience here. The idea is to have really fun food, including all the bells and whistles.”

Also, he continues, “We have a sous chef second to none, Juan Cifuentes. He was formerly at Tre Piani, and I came upon him just by luck. He came in, and he knew everything. We do a lot of experimenting with cooking. For example, we can take a regular Beurre Blanc sauce and enhance it with papaya, mango, and other tropical flavors, and it becomes delicious.”

Both Mr. and Mrs. Heap are very happy with the Calico Grill staff. “We have a great relationship with our staff. It’s a great team of people, and we also have a good time. Some of the Cox’s staff has been here for years and years, and some of these employees also work for Calico. We have really good, dedicated people.”

Customers, many of whom are repeats, are pleased with the new restaurant. “I thought the food was very good and the atmosphere and service very nice. Also, since it’s kind of tucked away, you feel you’re making a special discovery,” says a lunch-time diner. “I will definitely go back again.”

Prices range from $5.50 for breakfast, $7.75 for lunch, and $16 for dinner.

Long hours and hard work are par for the course in the restaurant business, as Calico’s owners well know. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” says Mr. Heap. “You have to love what you do in the restaurant business, and we do.”

Adds Mrs. Heap: “It has always been Alan’s dream to be a chef and have his own restaurant. He persevered in that. It was hard and a challenge, but he never wavered or gave up. That is so special. I look forward to realizing that dream with him and seeing it become a success.”

The Calico Grill, which plans to open outdoor seating in the spring, is open Tuesday through Thursday 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast and lunch; 5 to 9 for dinner. Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 for dinner; Sunday 7 to 3 for brunch and lunch. Reservations are recommended. (609) 924-0500.

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