Jersey Restaurants: Hotoke Restaurant–Hot or OK?

I dined at Hotoke in New Brunswick on Friday night for the first time since at least 2011. I’d remembered the place fondly, and it was wildly popular at the time, so I was anticipating a fabulous meal.

Sadly, not so much. Laura and I started out with cocktails—she with the Silk Road—X-rated Malibu and Parrot Bay Passion Fruit Rum, Pineapple juice and a splash of Cranberry, which was great. My whiskey sour, though, was watery and near-tasteless and went back in favor of a Pomegranate Martini, which was at least decent, but served for some odd reason in a wide-bowl wine glass.

Appetizers of Mini Lobster Crab Cakes, which as far as we could tell had nothing to do with lobster, were delicious, with just enough breading to hold them together, perfectly cooked and nicely flavorful. The Crispy Shrimp Dumplings were not so great; they were smallish, 50% over-crisped to the point of burned, and lacked any distinctive shrimp flavor. Warm and salty Edamame was delicious.

Our main courses were, well, decent and underwhelming. I had the crispy whole fish, with both head and tail on, served with sweet-and-sour mango-pineapple salsa. The fish was nicely crisped and meaty, but was not fileted and I spent some time spitting out the bones. The salsa was both too much and too spicy—and coming from me that’s saying something—and it overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the fish. Laura’s pan crusted pork shop was somewhat overcooked and lacking in flavor, which was supplied, supposedly, by the accompanying ginger sauce.

The service was both over-solicitous and mediocre, but not terrible. The restaurant was virtually empty (3 tables occupied including ours), but our initial drink order took 20 minutes and another 15 minutes to replace my watery sour. Our waiter, who was pleasant and sincere, was nonetheless determined to drag our entree orders out of us when we’d said twice we were in no hurry and would take our time. Hoping to have a splash a bubbly on what was “National Champagne Day” (yes it does exist even if no one knows) I ordered a half-bottle of Moet Chandon Brut Imperial, and after a 20 minute wait was told that they were out of all half bottles because of a recent party where “everyone was drinking Champagne.” That sounds silly—Champagne partygoers don’t order half-bottles, and it’s better to just say “we ran out” than offer feeble excuses.

The wine list is actually varied and reasonably priced if not terribly imaginative. The atmosphere is nice, if overwhelmed by the giant, illuminated Buddha statue that takes up one entire wall of the dining room. But the real problem with Hotoke is that the place is dining out on its now worn reputation for being a “hot” place. My suggestion is to go back to the basics: good and prompt service, a properly stocked bar, and a little more attention to making the food both interesting and properly prepared rather than trendy.