Conversation with a chef: Brian Held

In this series, Bucks County Taste sits down with some of the best chefs in Bucks and Hunterdon County and shares their thoughts on food, life, and running a successful restaurant.

Update 8/15/17: Brian Held rebranded NoLa and opened Bistro Rouget in the same space on February 1, 2017. Learn more here.

It’s mid-afternoon on a cloudy February day. I’m meeting Brian Held at his newest restaurant, NoLa, in Stockton. As I wait in the empty dining room for Brian to bring me some hot tea, I hear the sounds of prepping from the kitchen: chopping, banging pans, muted voices. It’s a bit distracting. I can only imagine what is going on; I’d love to watch.

NoLa dining room; photo courtesy Brian's
Photo courtesy of Brian’s

Once we’re ready to go, I apologize to Brian. This interview should have happened a long time ago, I say, certainly back when he had Rouget in Newtown. At the very least, I should have reached out to him when he opened Brian’s in Lambertville in 2009. And then he opened NoLa (short for “North of Lambertville”) in June 2015. But everything happens in its time, I do believe.

I realize that I don’t know much about Brian before Rouget, his French-inspired restaurant in an old Victorian house in Newtown. As it turns out, Brian is a real Bucks County boy, having grown up in Levittown, and worked his way through several Bucks County restaurants before attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

Fast forward to his first restaurant, the Special Invitation Deli in Richboro, which he ran for nine years. “I slowly, very slowly converted it to a Provence-style café, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Brian explains. “I was a completely different chef then but I still really enjoyed it.”

Next came Rouget, touted by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic Craig LaBan in 2008 as “quite possibly the best restaurant in Bucks County” for its “elegant contemporary takes on classic French cooking.”

Veal Cheeks; photo courtesy Brian's
Photo courtesy of Brian’s

BCT: Tell me about your decision to leave Newtown and open Brian’s in Lambertville.

BH: I was very excited to go to Newtown and it was really good in the beginning. But it was an overhead nightmare. The rent was extremely high, we had 90 seats to fill and the kitchen was upstairs. It’s an example of being very inexperienced and wanting something very bad. At the end of the five year lease, we came up here to Lambertville.

I’ve been here almost five years. Lambertville is just a fantastic town. It truly supports its restaurants. We’ve been very busy. I’m so grateful.

BCTWhat was your vision for Brian’s, and how has it changed or evolved?

BH: If you remember what ’09 was like, it was brutal. We were in the middle of a recession and nobody was going out and spending a lot of money, especially on higher end French food.

So I had this idea to change my concept to hit a lower price point with gourmet pizzas which was very hot at the time. The wood-fired oven was already in the kitchen when we moved in.

When I got in there and started doing it, it was very well received along with the homemade pastas we were making. The menu was a la carte.

But then we decided to try more of what we had been doing at Rouget, which was the prix fixe. The majority of customers started choosing the prix fixe. Fewer pizzas were being ordered and it’s expensive to keep the oven going. Eventually we stopped making the pizzas.

Now Brian’s offers only the 3-course prix fixe: salad, entrée and dessert ($45 weekdays, $50 on weekends, with additional costs for prime meats and seafood like lobster). If don’t want dessert you can have cappuccino, or a salad and an appetizer, whatever. We’re flexible.

Prix Fixe at Brian's; photo courtesy Brian's
Photo courtesy of Brian’s

BCT: And Brian’s is basically French-inspired cuisine with some Italian, correct?

BH: Yes, but the problem with Brian’s is that over the years I’ve created a few signature dishes that are hard to take off the menu because customers want them. So I’ve been criticized for not changing the menu.

As a chef, I’m kind of stuck. It’s a double-edged sword. I’ve tried to change some of it but as long as those items are on there the perception will be that the menu hasn’t changed.

That leads to what we are doing here (at NoLa). The menu has changed many times since we opened. The concept here was to do a really nice outside patio with an open wood grill, all homemade pastas – truly homemade, we have someone rolling several hours a day – spit-roasted meats, real rustic, Tuscan to some extent, a little South of France, almost a Chez Panisse type feel, and working with all the farms around here.

But admittedly I was a little flaky and got away from the concept for a period of time.

BCT: What happened?

BH: When Matt Ridgway — a tremendously talented chef and a good friend of mine — closed his restaurant, the Pass, last year, he referred his cooks to me. One of them, Paul Mitchell, came here to NoLa. He is a great chef with tremendous experience. He got his start at the Four Seasons with Jean-Marie Lacroix. And his wheelhouse is definitely French food.

So we kind of ended up doing similar things here at NoLa that we were doing at Brian’s. The food was a little cleaner here from a plating presentation point of view, and slightly smaller portions.

To be honest, I don’t know if that was the right choice for this area. And we’ve obviously struggled in spite of the tremendous quality and talent that we have. Weekends were busy and weeknights were good but it just didn’t feel like that concept was going to go anywhere further than that.

BCT: So, where is NoLa going now?

BH: I do believe wholeheartedly in the original concept. I’ve taken a step back over the last month or so and have made a decision to go forward with what we were going to do originally. Homemade pastas, definitely a Mediterranean flair, specifically Italian but anywhere throughout that part of the world: South of France, Spain. That’s what I want to do here.

We bake our bread every day, as we do at Brian’s, although at Brian’s we do more of croissant type dough, a little more rich. Here we do a focaccia with durum wheat, a little chewier and we serve it with a whipped ricotta and mascarpone spread with olive oil.

Focaccia at NoLa_photo Lynne Goldman

We plan to keep on moving it (the menu) around to some extent but definitely a pasta heavy menu, and definitely something that is a little more rustic and homey and satisfying. I just think that is one thing that the town of Stockton has screamed out to me. Everyone is still upset that Meil’s isn’t here anymore.

BCT: More comfort food, Mediterranean and Italian but not southern Italian?

BH: More northern Italian than Sicilian or Naples. Not a red sauce type of place, ragus but not a gravy kind of thing.

We’ve taken a slightly different interpretation of classic dishes like doing a Halibut Puttanesca which had fregula and caper oil. Similar but the items are repackaged and done with a little more finesse. That’s what I hope to achieve.

We do a handwritten menu every day. We rewrite it based on what we have fresh and try to keep it somewhat sizeable: five apps, homemade pastas (which you can also get as a half portion), a small entrée or a larger entrée.

For instance, you can treat the pasta as an appetizer and get an entrée. We want to keep the price point down especially for weeknights. You could come in and get out for twenty bucks a person.

NoLa menu Feb 2016

BCT: It seems to me that you’ve been able to try out dishes at NoLa and bring it to Brian’s because the expectations at NoLa are that the menu is not going to stay the same all the time.

BH: Absolutely. That’s what it’s been. And the talent I’ve had here has been really beneficial for that too. For a while that’s exclusively what I was doing. I was trying stuff and seeing how it went here.

The duck crepe I have on now (at Brian’s) started as a dish here, the Shrimp Thermidor with the colossal prawns started here. By the same token there have been a few items that I’ve been doing over there that I’m now doing here that I think will fit better with the more casual feel at NoLa.

Right now my goal is to get everything worked out here for a little bit, and start remodeling over at Brian’s. Life has gotten a little harder with having two restaurants, and two sets of headaches and two sets of bills, but I expected it. I’ve been fortunate to have a staff that’s been with me a long time, since Rouget. Anner Escobar and Daniel Hernandez are my chefs at Brian’s.

It’s time for a serious menu change.

BCT: Will you be making changes to the menu at Brian’s? 

BH: With the grand reopening there will be changes. The beef a la mode, the mushroom soup, the bananas foster — these things that people get angry when I take off the menu — will probably be verbalized, that is, offered as kind of specials so that the impression isn’t that things haven’t changed.

And then I’m going to do a whole new set of apps that I’ve been slowly working on – Shrimp Thermidor which I did here (NoLa) for a while and some really southwest France kind of things: duck confit, crepes with fried duck eggs on top, heavy charcuterie – that kind of feel. Sweetbreads, things I love. I’m excited.

BCT: What’s the remodeling going to look like?

BH: Obviously we’re going to take the wood oven out. We’re going to sound proof, do whatever we can for the reverb and those kinds of things. The other ongoing issue is on busy nights, people sitting anywhere near the front door have this draft and people standing over them waiting for a table, so we are going to increase that space.

We are also going to spread the tables out a bit so it’s not so bustling and noisy. Since we are taking the oven out, we’ll be adding some seats and making lighting changes. It will look more like an upscale, elegant bistro.

The plan is to close for two weeks mid- to late-March for the remodel and have a grand “reopening” by summer.

I’ve been spending so much time here at NoLa that I’m looking forward to getting back to Brian’s.

BCT: To the customer, how would you differentiate Brian’s and NoLa?

BH: I would say the biggest difference from NoLa’s to Brian’s will be the price point obviously – a la carte vs. prix fixe.

At NoLa, conceptually, more of an Italian type flair – more pastas, rustic, Southern European. What I really want at NoLa’s is almost like an open-hearth type of thing, a more limited menu because we are working on the grill or on the spit, and then have some basic pastas like we do now.

BCT: Do you want to get to a standard menu at NoLa or keep it moving?

BH: I would definitely like to keep it moving, and keep writing it. Maybe there will be room for one or two signature items, things that are going well that people like.

BCT: Looking over the last year, what’s something you’ve had the most fun with? What are you looking forward to?

BH: It has to be NoLa’s. I think every chef loves doing something new, coming up with new ideas, menus. I do feel very lucky in the sense that my work is my hobby. When I’m home in the morning I love writing menus, I love looking at cookbooks.

It’s not always easiest on relationships but I’m working on that – to get balance — and although it might not make sense, I think doing this has afforded me the free time because both restaurants have to be staffed independently of themselves.

My goal to be more overseeing then being on the line, which is exhausting. I want to become more involved with – and this is something I’ve always needed to work on as chef – I’m a little bit shy — but I need to go out and build more rapport with customers. That is one of my goals going forward.

I think every chef loves doing something new, coming up with new ideas, menus. I do feel very lucky in the sense that my work is my hobby.

9 Klines Court
Lambertville, NJ 08530
PH: 609.460.4148
HOURS: Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30–9 pm, Sunday, 5–7:30 pm
BYOB, cash only

Updated 8/15/17: Brian Held rebranded NoLa and opened Bistro Rouget in the same space on February 1, 2017. Learn more here.

Bistro Rouget
Corner of Main & Bridge Streets
Stockton, NJ 08559
PH: 609.460.4863
HOURS: Dinner Wednesday through Saturday; Monday night prix fixe special for $35
Credit cards accepted

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