Revolutionary-era hotshot Gouverneur Morris penned much of the Constitution. He also leaped from a married mistress’s window, resulting in a wooden pegleg. Just as erratic is Blue Morel, the ambitious restaurant in his namesake hotel, the Westin Governor Morris in Morristown.
Open since August, Blue Morel is overseen by Thomas Ciszak, the north Jersey chef-entrepreneur behind Chakra in Paramus (three stars, February 2011) and Copeland, which formerly occupied Blue Morel’s digs (Top 25, 2009-2010). Blue Morel’s soothingly lit, 120-seat dining room has comfortably spaced, white-clothed tables and banquettes on two levels that break up the space’s boxy dimensions.
Blue Morel’s eclectic clientele mixes Morris County locals and hotel guests. More than a few diners are road warriors dining solo, with laptops open beside the wineglass.
Ciszak says the restaurant’s name is a nod to its two culinary directions: seafood and produce. Blue Morel’s menu has a fashionable farm-to-table emphasis on regional, seasonal food and house-made offerings such as pickles, pasta and ham. As to the blue, there’s fresh seafood (Jersey caught when available) and a considerable sushi sideline.
Blue Morel executive chef Kevin Takafuji is well equipped to handle both sides. He grew up on Oahu, Hawaii, absorbing kitchen lore from his mother, a cookbook-averse home chef. After a flirtation with an architectural career (“drawing in the studio till 3 am was not for me”), the 41-year-old attended the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, “where you learn classic technique that prepares you to cook in any style,” says Takafuji. He hit the ground running under Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin and later worked under top New York toques Daniel Boulud, Geoffrey Zakarian, Laurent Tourondel, Andrew Carmellini, Doug Psaltis and Bertrand Chemel. “On the East Coast, I’ve always lived in Jersey,” says Takafuji, currently a Madison resident. “I like the small-town feeling—quiet, like Hawaii.” He took a sous-chef job with David C. Felton at the Pluckemin Inn (Felton now helms Ninety Acres). And Thomas Ciszak called last year. “At Blue Morel, it has to be Kevin’s food,” Ciszak notes. “I give him a lot of freedom to do the food he likes to do within our concept.”
Among Takafuji’s providers are Orange-based Arthur & Friends, whose hydroponic greenhouse is staffed by disabled workers; Oak Grove Plantation, a 160-acre Pittstown farm that gets its electricity from solar panels; biodynamic Uncle Bill’s Farm in Far Hills, producing natural vegetables, eggs, poultry and lamb; Madison Seafood in Newark’s Ironbound; and Valley Shepherd Creamery, an artisanal sheep dairy in Long Valley.
“I’m trying to update the classics with these fresh, seasonal, local ingredients and an international approach,” says Takafuji. It’s a tall order that is only sometimes fulfilled. I had three dinners at Blue Morel: one outstanding, two lackluster. Takafuji was in the kitchen each time. Some dishes had recipe issues, such as a seafood-and-potato lobster bake with everything cooked in a sealed bag for the same length of time, rubberizing the lobster. Short ribs were moist perfection in one meal, but in the other two, their flavor and texture had cooked out. A yam side dish arrived burned, yet cold.
Blue Morel’s scattershot service does not help. Servers are cheerful but neither terribly familiar with the menu, nor on top of things like bringing the correct utensils for a dish or serving food hot—not placing it on a tray table, where it cools while other dishes are finished in the kitchen.
Certain of Takafuji’s dishes are goof-proof and quite delicious. Sushi is a standout. It is conceived by Takafuji (“I was raised on Hawaiian poké sashimi and could eat sushi every day”) and executed by sushi chef Dennis Yap. Blue Morel’s generous 8-piece rolls elegantly combine flavors and textures: dragon roll pairs velvety avocado with meaty eel; rainbow roll combines a trio of seafoods with gently peppery Sriracha aioli.
The chef’s lime-bathed yellowfin tuna ceviche starter, zippy with house-made red chili and lush with avocado, is impeccable. His crab cakes, crusted with honey mustard and horseradish ranch dressing, are among the best I’ve had. “The trick,” says Takafuji, “is not to overwork the crab, so the meat stays lumpy and light.” The single pasta on the menu, black pepper fettuccine, is simple and very tasty. It is sauceless but rich with pancetta from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack (cured in chili and cocoa powder for an additional month at Blue Morel), unctuous nameko mushrooms, and a blizzard of nutty, semi-firm Oldwick Shepherd cheese from Valley Shepherd.
For other entrées, I’d stick with simply grilled or roasted dishes, like chunky Barnegat scallops appealingly served with Oak Grove cauliflower, nutty with almonds and browned butter. Black Angus steaks are best suited to diners who prefer lean beef to the rich mouthfeel of more marbled cuts. The Berkshire pork duo of pork belly and tenderloin with housemade chorizo arrived overhandled, dry and just plain tired.
One complicated Blue Morel recipe that succeeds is the Asian tea-smoked duck breast served with bits of house-made Cajun-style Tasso ham and glazed with a piquant Asian spice mixture. Similar flavors pervade the fine organic Arctic char entrée, one of Blue Morel’s top-sellers, rendered exotic by an accompanying Medjool-date chutney perfumed with anise and cumin.
Blue Morel desserts are somewhat redemptive. Pastry chef Ernie Rich, a Jersey native who served as dessert don at Moshulu in Philly and Scalini Fedeli in Tribeca, has a creative way with country classics. Seasonal fruit crisps or trifles showcase Jersey bounty like blueberries or cranberries. Roasted pears adorn Rich’s lemony angel food cake. His banana pot de crème with a trendy malted-milk shooter is thoroughly enjoyable. I can’t recommend the wan house-made ice creams, least of all the vague crème fraîche and sweet-corn flavors. But even if you’re tired of flourless chocolate cake, Rich’s version, dark with Peruvian chocolate and tangy with blood-orange sauce, is worth ordering.