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Due Mari Joins the New Brunswick Jazz Project

Gloria Krolak BY

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Thanks to the efforts of three friends, Virginia DeBerry, Jimmy Lenihan and Mike Tublin, creators of the New Brunswick Jazz Project, it's getting harder to dine out in that Middlesex County city without hearing some jazz. The Hyatt Regency, Tumulty's Pub, The Garden State Ale House and Esquina Latina all offer jazz on a regular schedule. Since last May, add Friday nights at Due Mari to that list.

Due Mari is a modern Italian restaurant on Albany Street and member of the impressive Altamarea Group of 15 dining establishments worldwide. Eight of those are in New York City, three here in New Jersey, and the rest in D.C., London, Turkey and Hong Kong. The two owners, Chef Michael White, who has a taste for business, and former co-president and chief operating officer of Merrill Lynch & Co., Ahmass Fakahany, who enjoys the business of taste.

On this particular Friday night, Due Mari was humming like a well-olive-oiled machine. Diners streamed in the door as bartenders at the packed square bar, located in the middle of the room, were shaking up their icy concoctions like it was New Year's. There were tables to the left and right, as well as the front facing Albany, where a small room of three tables sat in a window like a Saks Fifth Avenue tableau. My partner and photographer Michael asked that we be seated near the pianist—probably an unusual request—and that was quickly granted.

We found pianist Mike Bond not only playing a collection of jazz tunes, but playing with them, tickling and teasing, ordering and re-ordering them at will. The results were fluid and elastic. A listener might briefly forget Bond was playing "All of You," "Days of Wine and Roses," or "What's New" with his creative and lengthy improvisations, until he drew the melody back to the surface. Tunes played solo can sound spare but Bond brought a lushness and depth to each tune, worthy of the debonair movie spy who shares his surname.

Whether it was "Night and Day," "All the Things You Are," "Corcovado," "Bluesette," or "Caravan," Bond's gold fingers sounded the perfect complement to well-prepared and well-served dishes and cocktails. We started with the summery Punch Di Melograna, made with rum, orange liqueur, pomegranate-vanilla syrup and lime juice. Michael relished both the sea bass and dessert of panna cotta, an Italian custard, he ordered. It's hard to improve on eggplant parmigiana when you've grown up with EP perfectionists. The dish was so popular in my Italian-American family that my parents could not go to a restaurant without ordering it—the joke has been even if it was a Chinese restaurant—but I had to try. Layered very thin and stacked cake-like with touches of creamy ricotta and sage béchamel sauce, the dish was above my high expectations. A sprinkling of crunchy breadcrumbs added surprise texture.

A Princeton native and Rutgers graduate, Bond is the hometown boy making good. He was a student of Mike LeDonne, whose own impressive pedigree includes his years as vibraphonist Milt Jackson's pianist. Bond both worked (as label manager and assistant to owner Spike Wilner) and performed (with his trio, quintet and quartet as host of the after-hours jam) at Small's in Greenwich Village. He recently transplanted from New York to New Brunswick while his wife attends graduate school. The NBJP, in their collective wisdom, brought the young talent into the fold, no longer snaring him between gigs in New York and Philadelphia.

If you want to hear the musician, sit near him or her since the music is not piped throughout the dining room. With the right sound system, though, it could be, without interfering with diners' conversations, as long as the volume was soft enough. Bond's Roland keyboard was as pianistic as they get, but a baby grand in Due Mari would look and feel just right. Although the GM Mona Carbona said there are no plans to install a piano, the metropolitan look of the place—grey and black with dark wood accents—and a nicely dressed crowd, seems to beg for it. Think of Bobby Short and Café Carlyle on this side of the Hudson.

There is a parking garage around the corner on Church St. if you prefer to park your own ride. Valet parking is another option. We spent about $200 for dinner (two and a half courses since only one of us had dessert) and parking ($7) but you could save some money with the four-course, prix-fixe at $58 per person ($87 with two wine pairings). The wine list is deep and well-curated. Two single-user bathrooms are gender neutral. Reservations suggested.

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