Montville?” a friend asked when I told him where I would be eating. “They have restaurants there?” The town, ideal for suburban living, has never been a dining destination. But in July of 2007, owner Randy Frankel completed a $3 million rebuild of the Montville Inn, just off I-287. There may have been restaurants in Montville before, but now there’s one worth talking about.
The property was once home to the colonial Mandeville Inn, established circa 1770. The inn gave the town its name—Montville was the Dutch settlers’ pronunciation. The Mandeville burned down and was replaced by the Montville Inn in the early 1900s. By the time Frankel bought it in 2004 it had fallen into such disrepair (a friend of the current chef was sitting at the bar when the back legs of his stool went straight through the floor) that he simply demolished the place and started over. The Inn today is not an inn but a restaurant, and Frankel, to his credit, recruited John Livera from Blue Smoke in Manhattan to head the kitchen when they opened last year.
The website, until recently revised, invited you to “let The Montville Inn become your neighborhood restaurant.” Many entrées are $20 to $23, and none are above $29. Factor in the kitchen’s consistency, quality, and epic portions, and you’ll want to take them up on the offer, whether or not Montville is your neighborhood.
Pictures of the Mandeville line the walls, but the makeover is modern, from the dark-paneled bar with glossy leather stools to the diner-like block of booths in the center of the dining room. Lighting is soft, music loud, table-to-table conversation unfettered.
“Are we the only people who don’t know everybody here?” a friend asked, as diners chatted over the backs of banquettes and between tables. The service has a little too much neighborhood casualness, but is cordial enough to make you feel at home.
You could detect Livera’s barbecue pedigree even if no one mentioned his three-year stint as executive sous chef at Blue Smoke. The barbecue sampler is clearly the work of a pro. You get two sliders of rich pulled pork topped with crisp slaw, and two sliders of irresistibly fatty brisket. Four tender babyback ribs—in a ketchup-based barbecue sauce with the kick of black pepper and mustard—round out this appealing appetizer.
I’ve never cared for deviled eggs, but Livera serves them fried—hard-boiled yolks whipped with mayo, mustard, cayenne, and lemon; the whites sheathed in crisp panko bread crumbs—adding a crunch that won me over.
Livera’s background is not all hickory smoke. The 14-ounce filet mignon comes with grilled asparagus and diced balsamic-soaked tomatoes that bring the perfect touch of acidity to the silken beef. That dish is Livera’s nod to his first mentor, chef Dennis Foy. Livera was sixteen when he walked into Town Square restaurant in his hometown of Chatham, presented himself to Foy, and asked for a job. Foy—whose restaurants were instrumental in New Jersey’s culinary evolution—took Livera under his wing.
“Sometimes Dennis would want a seared steak for breakfast,” Livera recalls. One day the protégé dipped some leftover steak slices into a bowl of Foy’s signature salad of asparagus, haricots verts, and tomato concasse, dressed in truffle oil and aged balsamic vinegar. “Those flavors were phenomenal together,” he recalls. Thus was the idea for his filet mignon born. Potatoes, thinly sliced and lightly fried, add just the right amount of salt and crunch.
Livera studied culinary arts at Johnson & Wales after leaving Town Square, and cooked at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco with such competence that the chefs there sponsored his externship at Les Élysées du Vernet, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Paris. He has the technique to show for it, evidenced by an appetizer of three perfectly seared day-boat scallops with a gastrique of sherry vinegar and black pepper, a subtle foil to the scallops’ natural sweetness. The sherry vinegar and tarragon vinaigrette that dresses the accompanying mesclun salad pleasantly echoes the gastrique, and thin slices of crisp bosc pear provide a perfect counterpoint. “It’s one of my favorite dishes to eat,” Livera says. Now one of mine, too.
A lot goes on in these dishes, but always with purpose. In the crispy calamari “two ways,” half the portion is tossed with hot peppers and shallot butter while the other half is served kung pao-style, with peanuts and pineapple. The combination lets you shift sensations, dialing up sweet or hot like treble and bass.
House-smoked prime rib with sweet peas and mashed potatoes was perfectly executed. A bison steak, leaner than beef, had a deep, earthy flavor balanced by sweet onion relish. Impeccably flaky pan-seared Chatham cod was topped with a tangle of arugula and sliced cherry tomatoes, in Milanese fashion. It was positioned on a crisp Parmesan risotto cake in a heady tomato broth, studded with Brussels sprouts, that had the heft of a sauce.
Although Livera seems to understand Italian cooking, pasta is not his strong point. The shrimp and lobster meat tossed with fettuccini were fresh and delicious, but drenched in an underwhelming cream sauce. Orechietti swam in a tomato ragout with sausage and stringy, melted mozzarella. A blue-crab ravioli appetizer showed the kind of restraint I’d hoped for in the other pastas. Delicate pockets of fresh pasta filled with sweet lump crabmeat were served with Jersey’s finest: sweet corn and a puree of fresh tomatoes.
As inviting as the bar looks, avoid the cocktails (a cucumber martini tasted like juniper and cucumber shampoo, and a raspberry mojito was cloying). Stick with the Napa-centered wine list that offers old standbys (Liberty School cabernet, Cakebread chardonnay) priced fairly.
The comfort food shtick wears thin at dessert. I was hoping that “Milk and Cookies” would be more than the sum of its parts, but the chocolate chip cookies had a stale, boxed flavor, and the glass of milk was just a glass of milk. But fried Granny Smith apples more than passed the sum-of-the-parts test. It is a kind of streusel minus the dough: four slices of fried Granny Smith apples with vanilla ice cream between the slices, served with crushed walnuts in a strawberry balsamic reduction. Old-fashioned donuts topped with chocolate sauce and melted marshmallow made a uniquely satisfying throwback.
It takes self-assurance to follow a three-star meal with desserts in the style of an afterschool snack, but Livera pulls it off. The Montville Inn feels comfy in its $3-million skin; if you didn’t know better, you might think they’d been doing this since the British were in charge.
Find more restaurant reviews in our NJ Restaurants section.