Chef/owner Melissa Hill has earned a loyal following in the upscale communities of Bedminster and Somerset Hills with American farm-to-table fare with French and Italian influences that is pleasantly au courant without being trendy. The 30-seat space is comfortable and modern, done up in shades of white, gray and black and nestled inside a pretty, two-story home dating to 1922, its Norman Rockwell-worthy exterior intact, thanks to the local historical commission.
That her restaurant has resonated with locals since it opened in December 2009 is no accident, says Hill, who is only 32 and was raised in nearby New Providence. “The idea is that this place should feel like an extension of home, someplace where you can catch up with friends.” During the week, regulars have been known to stay for four hours. While perusing the seasonal menu, they can indulge in Hill’s crumbly home-style biscuits, smearing them with her not-too-sweet strawberry butter. The biscuits winningly replace bread and exemplify the style Hill dubs “comfort with a twist.”
There are certain items regulars won’t allow Hill to take off the menu, foremost among them a buttery, beefalicious 16-ounce New York strip with an ideal accompaniment: a hash of fried cubed potatoes, melted leeks and, to seal the deal, blue cheese. The hash, dangerously, is available as a side.
After graduating from Johnson & Wales with an associate degree in culinary arts and bachelor’s degree in culinary nutrition, Hill worked at Palm Desert Resort in California; Celebrated Food in Maplewood (when it was a restaurant); and for five years as executive chef at David Ellis Catering in Cedar Knolls. “I grew up cooking,” she says. “My mom always prepared fresh, homecooked meals and I saw early on what a bond food creates. Cooking is the only job I’ve ever had or ever wanted.”
Regulars get to store a few bottles of wine in decorative mailboxes salvaged from Yale’s music department. (Picnic in Fair Lawn, another BYO, offers a similar service.) Wines brought here will be handled properly, although on one occasion our young server confessed she did not know how to use a corkscrew. Service in general—provided by what appears to be an all-female staff—is competent, if not particularly warm and fuzzy (regulars may disagree).
I’m totally with the regulars on the merits of the strip steak, as well as of Hill’s signature dessert—hot, made-to-order cinnamon-sugar doughnut holes. Even so, my favorite dish here features a rare bit of ethnic flavor: a big bowl of Manila clams, kielbasa and coins of small potatoes in a white wine sauce swirled with whole-grain mustard.
A customer favorite, rack of lamb, swimming in a sweetish port wine fig reduction, proved just okay.
Same for an apple and pear cobbler. A lot of the fare is like that: more than acceptable, but undistinguished. And that’s a bit of a problem since prices put TwoFiftyTwo in the same league as the best BYOs in the state. In many cases, costlier. When you’re dropping $36 for lamb or $24 for a cured meat platter “for the table” that parcels out four small-diameter pieces each of soppressata, coppa and fennel-flavored finocchiona, you sit up and take notice. To be sure, those meats are of excellent pedigree (Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack), and the plate is rounded out with pecorino, olives and bread, but still…
The high prices make every flaw noticeable—like a generous, tender but bland pork chop. That the chop’s accompaniments of caramelized onion yogurt and spinach-and-chickpea stew are terrific only heightens the disappointment. And $39 for two meaty knobs of butter-poached lobster, accented with cubes of short ribs in a sweet braise, would be an acceptable price—if only the lobster weren’t overly chewy. Time and again, I found myself savoring the vegetables much more than the proteins; examples include a terrific caperberry relish, flawless asparagus or potatoes in any form. If this talented young chef ever opens a vegetarian restaurant, I’ll be there. For now, she has established a restaurant perfectly attuned to its place and time.