On my first visit to the Pluckemin Inn, for a private benefit, I’m impressed, to say the least. The building is beautiful, the food is exquisite, and the wines are terrific. I wonder how it all would translate to a conventional restaurant, with all the problems that can ensue.
Now that the inn is open to the public, some have voiced concerns that it’s too expensive to succeed. But an area that has long and happily accepted the elegant Bernards Inn in Bernardsville at one end and the no-frills-but-no-bargain-either Sammy’s Ye Olde Cider Mill in Mendham at the other end would seem receptive to an establishment that is better than both.
From the moment you walk through the door, you know you’re in for a splendid evening. A three-story glass tower in the center of the restaurant contains more than 10,000 bottles of wine of all prices and quality. The Pluckemin Inn is owned by Gloria and Carl LaGrassa, who also own Ocino, an Italian restaurant in Washington Township in Warren County. Chef Matthew Levin is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia; Moonlight in New Hope, Pennsylvania; and the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse. The menu, American with Asian and French overtones, is expensive but deliciously different.
Some dishes are simple in the extreme, like the baker’s dozen of pristine littleneck clams with cocktail sauce, the oysters with mignonette, and the Kumamoto oysters with Kaffir lime mignonette and wasabi tobiko (flying-fish roe). Four enormous spicy steamed shrimp in a small cocotte with onions have too much broth, but sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras with pistachio powder is delicious. Broiled Japanese hamachi (yellowtail) served in three “textures” comes with avocado ice cream and green-apple dashi (broth), both unusual and refreshing.
The brik of halibut, wrapped in phyllo with jumbo lump crabmeat and accompanied by snow peas and Kaffir lime, is delicious, crisp, juicy, and well-flavored all at once. Also delicious are the butter-poached lobster with slices of melon, melon foam, tofu, and coconut, and the sturgeon with beets, blue burrata cheese, watercress, and lemongrass; the mix of flavors is perfect. Whole black-feather chicken, flavored with porcini mushrooms and Romano cheese and served with noodles, is wonderfully crisp outside and moist inside.
Dry-aged prime beef cooked on the grill is worth its flat rate of $46 for various cuts, and not only because the portions are enormous; the flavor is incomparable. A nice touch is the tray of six types of knives offered to those who order steak. A 24-ounce bone-in rib eye paired with a shallot sauce, which comes with a tiny spoon for scooping out marrow from the accompanying bone, is terrific. The 18-ounce New York strip steak, served with a Merlot reduction, is almost as good. Of the accompaniments, priced at $6 each, opt for the tiny fingerling potatoes with black olives, bacon, shallots, and a vinegary butter sauce; the onion strings; or sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic.
Pastry chef Joseph Gabriel, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, worked at Aureole in Manhattan and Petrossian in Las Vegas. On one visit I’m treated to a special dessert that is now a personal favorite of mine: two soups in one bowl—elderflower-and-lychee, and Bing-cherry-and-champagne—delightfully refreshing. I also like the apple strudel, with crunchy apples and a praline pastry crust; the spice cake with carrot cream; and a dessert comprising a chocolate trio: Mayan hot cocoa, Manjari bombe, and sesame-caramel tart with chocolate and gold leaf.
Reviewed: December, 2005.