Day and night, the tables at Kathy and Tom West’s small Mockingbird Café in the center of Basking Ridge are topped with white butcher paper and well-used crayons. Servers appear to be in their teens. Locals come for down-home breakfasts and for items on the “casual” side of the lunch and dinner menus like burgers (beef, lamb, tuna or turkey), nuanced chili or meatloaf with mashed potatoes. You don’t expect such basic fare to be the work of two savvy, accomplished chefs. But take that meatloaf, a sophisticated mixture of beef veal, and pork. Its gravy is made from a classic demi-glace that starts with veal bones in a stockpot and takes days to complete.
I was a fan of the Wests’ previous place, Limestone Café in Peapack, so I wasn’t surprised at the finesse of Mockingbird’s Oysters Bingo. Five plump and creamy Wellfleets are gently pan-fried, nestled into three shells and daubed with beurre blanc for an eating sensation not unlike a fine chunky bisque. Equally good were two deboned quail with maple syrup glaze, mashed sweet potatoes and a mix of haricots vert and carrots.
We ordered the quail, a special, because on both my visits many popular items on the printed menu were unavailable. These included ricotta gnocchi, “simple salad,” duck with blackberry and rosemary demi-glace, rabbit tenderloin and even the turkey burgers. I took solace in a huge crab cake that was crunchy outside, creamy and crabby inside.
The Mockingbird is a very personal, quirky place. The menu was still labeled “Spring 2012” when we dined there in late fall. The Wests, who live in town, serve dinner only three nights a week so they can spend more time with their 15-year-old daughter. I commend them for hiring local youngsters, but on the downside, service is a bit clunky and lackadaisical. When clearing our entrées, servers stacked empty plates on top of a mostly uneaten T-bone special without asking if we wanted to take it home. We did. (Kathy noted that at least 12 of her servers left for college shortly before my visits.) One night we had to prompt our servers to take coffee orders after we managed to buttonhole them to order dessert—and only two desserts were available, both involving shortbread and ice cream. At one point, I watched an older couple linger forlornly at the front door while, further back, five or six servers chatted, backs turned.
Clearly there are trade-offs. But prices are reasonable, portions are generous and the food is reliably good. You make the call.