In the center of Bernardsville, the Bernards Inn has been an elegant lodging and dining destination for over a century. The restaurant has three beautiful dining rooms, with dark wood and antique art, that express a genteel and romantic sensibility.
Executive chef Corey Heyer, 38, a CIA grad, favors the seasonal and local, such as produce from Red Barn Farm in Far Hills. “Having been born and raised in New Jersey,” he says, “I have tremendous respect for what the seasons afford us at a culinary level.”
After successfully running the kitchen at the Fromagerie in Rumson, Heyer took three months to work without pay at several prime Manhattan eateries, including Jean Georges, Gramercy Tavern and Tabla, before opening Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank. At Bernards Inn since 2004, Heyer heads a talented team consisting of chef de cuisine Craig Polignano, 29, a Ryland Inn alumnus, and pastry chef Duane Hundershot, 42.
Service, it must be said, can be uneven, almost imperiling the three-star rating. Our servers rushed courses (on a quiet evening) and presented the bill without being asked, before even clearing dishes. On another occasion, the server was surprisingly uninformed about the menu. More is expected of a place offering distinguished food and atmosphere (at premium prices).
Sweet-potato ravioli was the fall menu’s most notable appetizer. Not overly sweet, these delicate pasta packets were sheathed in nutty brown butter tinged with sage; additional richness came from truffle-flavored aged pecorino. The unctuous beef tenderloin used for steak tartare agreeably mated with the pleasant saltiness of garlicky anchovy aioli and shaved Parmesan. Velvety roasted-butternut squash soup was soothing, the sweetness well complemented by earthy black trumpet mushrooms, zesty five-spice-infused crème fraîche, and roasted chestnuts. In contrast, a slow-cooked lady apple beignet (the batter is flavored with cider) overwhelmed seared Hudson Valley foie gras with sweetness, masking the too-subtle acidity of a gastrique made from verjus, or unripe grape juice. However, beautifully choreographed flavors made a prize choice of hamachi, grilled slightly rare and ensconced in vividly green coconut-curry sauce with tender mussels.
The most impressive entrée was the pheasant roulade. Leg meat from the Griggstown Farms bird was ground and wrapped around strips of tender breast meat, small foie gras chunks, truffles and chanterelle mushrooms. Pan roasted, then sliced, it was superbly complemented by wilted Savoy cabbage perfumed with smoky bacon, celeriac purée and marjoram jus. Slow-cooked suckling pig, compellingly moist and tender with crisp skin, was graced by aromatic cardamom jus, fresh MacIntosh apple sauce and tasty peanut butter-filled dates.
Over-saucing marred dry-aged rib-eye, cooked perfectly medium rare. Likewise, rich bordelaise, a classic companion for beef, soaked accompanying fingerling-potato and smoked cheddar mash, as well as crisp broccoli, obscuring their flavors. Baby carrots and potato purée bedecked dayboat cod, perked by an herb-laden crust along with clam-and-chorizo vinaigrette.
Desserts were pleasing, especially the faultless crème brûlée. Veiled in milk chocolate, peanut butter mousse partnered amicably with glazed banana and rich caramel ice cream. Upside down-inside out pumpkin pie reinvented a fall classic, with a maple cookie replacing traditional pie crust, topped with mousse-like pumpkin filling surrounding a whipped-cream core.