Who is escaping from what? That was my question for Bryan Gregg, chef/owner of Escape, the new Southern-accented BYO in Montclair. “It represents getting away from working for other people,” he said in a phone conversation after my visits. “It’s escaping from the everyday grind and being free to show my true colors.”
Those colors are manifest in what he terms “Southern fine cooking.” Though Gregg, 37, has never lived or worked in the South, he has traveled there and followed Southern cooking avidly. “For me,” he said, “you have to start with Sean Brock. His style of food got me motivated toward cooking Southern.”
Brock won the 2010 James Beard Award as Best Chef Southeast. On an eating adventure with friends about a year before opening Escape, Gregg dined at Brock’s home base—McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina.
“The keys to Southern fine cooking are: use great quality local product, make sure the flavors make sense together and don’t overcomplicate things,” Gregg said. “That’s the concept of Escape, along with, ‘Come in, be comfortable, dress however you want.’”
You detect a Southern drawl in Gregg’s beautifully braised collards. He slow cooks them three hours in salted water, then finishes them with roasted shallots—nothing else, he swears. That astounded me. “Sometimes restraint and simplicity are the keys,” he said. Equally persuasive were buttermilk dressing for bitter greens; grits with crab meat; and sides of pickled green tomatoes, mac & cheese and okra (fried in duck fat). But what really had me whistling Dixie was the bread basket, actually a soft denim bag filled with exemplary cornmeal madeleines and biscuits, served warm, upon which you smear honey butter.
The bulk of the menu, though, hews to today’s new normal: eclectic, farm-to-table New American. Blackboards proudly list Jersey cheesemakers and farms. Plush, creamy foie gras, lightly seared, was balanced in late summer with sautéed plums, thyme, honey and a tangle of cress. Silky yet full-bodied gazpacho with a peppery tang brilliantly combined roasted tomatoes and watermelon in a purée of sunset color drizzled with olive oil. “It’s jewel-like,” observed one guest, “with the ribbon of olive oil like a gold necklace.”
Gregg grew up in Pittsburgh and earned a degree from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts. After stints in New York and Europe, he worked at the renovated Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and at Michael Anthony’s in Jersey City. In May he opened the 48-seat Escape in the space that had been True North Osteria. A remodeling is scheduled for next year. For now, the space is spare and extremely loud when packed, which it almost always is on weekends.
Meats, poultry, fish and shellfish arrive at the perfect state of doneness. He starts many off sous vide, then sautés to crisp the surface. Among my favorites were rosy medallions of seared duck breast in a late-summer wine and blackberry sauce dotted with zaftig blackberries, lavender and colorful, peppery nasturtiums. The dish got a Southern kick from chard sautéed with roasted shallots.
So often, swordfish in restaurants comes to the table dry and bland. Gregg’s thick, full-bodied steak was tender and juicy, among the best I’ve had. He brines the fish, cooks it sous vides and finishes it in a sauté with “lots of butter but nothing sneaky or fancy,” he said. Even a sizeable block of barbecued tofu—hey, it is a protein—was satisfying. Brushed with a mild, sweet barbecue sauce, hit with generous grinds of salt and black pepper and roasted, it comes with those great collards and is one of several entrées on a vegetarian menu presented on request.
Strangely, a few proteins we tried lacked flavor despite perfect texture and doneness. An undersized sushi starter of farm-raised kampachi (similar to yellowtail) was bland. An entrée of big-eye tuna all but vanished, flavorwise, wasting the promise of an intriguing assembly of Satsuma plums, Malabar spinach, tomatoes and sherry. Two other surprising flavor fade-outs: A juicy, inch-thick, pork chop Lafayette, despite an inspired fennel-pollen crust and a glaze of Terhune apple cider and cider vinegar; and a moist, springy chicken breast. Sad, because the restaurant and its patrons pay a premium for these locavore products.
Some desserts missed as well. A Key lime bombe bombed for lack of Key lime kick. On one visit, the chocolate flavor in a chocolate-curd tart was ghostly. Fortunately, a chocolate gateau was terrific, boasting a molten underbelly and a crackly chocolate-cookie crust. On a revisit a month or so later, a suave chocolate terrine was devil’s-food intense.
A few service gaffes marred my first visit. A server asked one of my guests if he could clear his bowl of mussels—while my guest was still eating them. Answer: “No!” Undeterred, the guy proceeded to clear everyone else’s dishes and had the temerity to ask for the saucer under the bowl of mussels. My second visit went more smoothly.
On a recent Saturday night, Escape was packed and the decibel meter on a guest’s smartphone hit a peak of 105, with an average of 98. That’s time to resort to sign language.
But the food was excellent and the service was brisk, error-free and personable. If Gregg can keep the service team clicking at this level, tamp down the noise and remedy his few flavor fade-outs, his true colors could wave for quite some time.