The Ho-Ho-Kus Inn was built in 1796 as a stone-walled manor home for the Zabriskie family, whose patriarch, Albert, arrived on these shores in 1662. The house’s inaugural owner, John Jacob Zabriskie, had been jailed by the Redcoats for nearly a year during the Revolutionary War. His father, Andrew Zabriskie, owned much of Hoppertown, later renamed Ho-Ho-Kus, an abbreviation of a tribal term for “red cedar.”
In its second century, the gabled manse served as a tavern with a few rooms for country travelers. In the 1970s, retiree Richard Nixon frequented what was then Claude’s Ho-Ho-Kus Inn.
The inn was bought two years ago by a local partnership spearheaded by Ho-Ho-Kus residents Laurie and Gordon Hamm. After a $1.5-million renovation peeled off two centuries’ paint and wallpaper and added gilt-framed portraits and crystal chandeliers, the inn reopened last December. Two connected downstairs dining rooms boast vermilion walls, plush carpeting, and fireplaces with marble mantels. For executive chef, the Hamms tapped the talented Bryan Gregg, 34. Gregg spent his high school years in Chatham; attended culinary school in Pittsburgh; was sous chef at American Fare (now Luke’s) in Maplewood; and served as executive chef at the Embankment in Jersey City, Papillon 25 in South Orange, and the delicious but short-lived Domaine Laurino in Berkeley Heights.
At the Ho-Ho-kus Inn, he says, “I’m doing 100 percent my own food—seasonal American with classical technique and modern, Asian touches. We try to do farm-to-table wherever possible.”
Gregg makes all his sauces and reductions “the cut-no-corners way, with bones and shells,” he says. “Even some of my salt is house-smoked.” His house-made pappardelle with Maine lobster is sensationally lush and fresh, with earthy chanterelles and silky “tomato butter” that begins with fresh Jersey tomatoes.
“I keep everything simple: four great components on the plate, tops,” Gregg says. “But I still like to have fun in the kitchen.” This spirited approach finds expression in the surprising and winning Mangalitsa ham salad. “It’s a take on the prosciutto and melon you see on every Jersey Italian menu,” says Gregg. He places thin slices of the velvety ham (from black, woolly, Hungarian pigs) over roasted nectarine slices, with arugula and acacia honey drizzled on top.
Gregg showcases the superb Mangalitsa pork in an entrée as well. A thick loin cut is cooked sous vide in a vacuum bag in hot water overnight, then roasted to caramelize its skin. Gregg gives the loin an Asian finish with a sweet-and-sour glaze, Shanghai cabbage, and toasted peanuts. Occasionally, Gregg serves a crispy, fatty Mangalitsa pork belly cooked in his smoker. If this pork is on the menu, mangia Mangalitsa.
Gregg has a winning way with duck. A Hudson Valley breast is cooked sous vide to seal in tenderness and intensify flavor. Then the breast is crisped in a pan and served whole. “Everyone else slices duck breast,” Gregg says. “But this way, it doesn’t dry out.”
Niman Ranch filet mignon, cooked sous vide, is basted with a thyme, shallot, and rosemary reduction, seared, doused with a strong green peppercorn sauce, and topped with lush crimini mushrooms. Gregg’s delicately smoky, seared Kindai tuna filet is his most unusual entrée. (This hard-to-get fish, from Japan, is the first sustainably farmed bluefin tuna.) The filet is dusted with Gregg’s Moroccan spice mix, then seared and served atop couscous boiled in lemon verbena, with pickled squash alongside. The dish is exotic and irresistible.
Before Gregg’s arrival, the owners recruited a superlative breadmaker from the Hilton Short Hills. Patrick Muller’s sesame-dotted parmesan crisps, in particular, are perfection. In France, breadmaker and pastry chef are two distinct trades: boulanger and patissier. Unfortunately, Muller’s ability with bread does not cross over to pastry.
His “The Elvis,” a riff on the King’s favored peanut butter and banana, belongs at a retro diner. This artily deconstructed interpretation assembles banana cream, reconstituted peanut butter flakes, cloying grape gelee, and vaguely vanilla ice cream unappetizingly swirled with bits of bacon. “The Chipwich” is no more successful: overbaked chocolate cookies sandwiching wan vanilla ice cream.
Though the inn has been open almost a year, service and pacing are unpredictable. One Friday night dinner, our brassy waitress jolted our table by asking, “Can you move that bag? That’s where I like to stand and talk.” Then she dematerialized, and a manager finally took our order 55 minutes later. On our second visit, our likeable but pen-less waiter had to take our order twice. That night our entrées arrived lukewarm; our side dishes appeared ten minutes later. Soon after, two busboys brazenly sat down at an empty table to shoot the breeze.