Years in the planning, the Natirar resort puts a fine first foot forward—a farm-to-table restaurant where the pleasures are simple yet sophisticated.
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From the big open kitchen at Ninety Acres in Peapack-Gladstone (the first part of the Natirar resort complex to open) comes many fine things, but you should not fail to try one of the simplest, a dinner appetizer called the Natirar poached egg. The egg is served inverted like an igloo over a hearty potato hash with applewood smoked bacon and house-made croutons. The combination is delicious, but the egg itself is eye-openingly flavorful. Eggs star at Sunday brunch, too, a fun meal at Ninety Acres.
“We have some of the greatest eggs in New Jersey,” says executive chef David C. Felton, immodestly but not inaccurately. After you dine, stroll over to the fence and give the ladies across the field a standing O, for awesome ova. They’ll be clucking and pecking and flapping their wings, which is poultry-speak for, “Thanks, ’tweren’t nothin’.”
Farm-to-table was part of the Natirar master plan, and word of that aim is what led Felton, then executive chef of the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, to contact New Jersey entrepreneur Bob Wojtowicz almost two years ago. After a vetting process that involved several other chefs, Felton emerged as Natirar’s executive chef and helped design the kitchen of his dreams.
After all that has been written about Natirar—the luxury resort and private club being developed by Wojtowicz with Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group fame on 90 acres of Somerset County parkland once owned by the King of Morocco—I approached for the first time with anticipation and a little trepidation.
There was plenty of time to wonder what the tone of Ninety Acres would be as we followed the (unnervingly narrow) curving blacktop road for probably a mile through the public park and up a long, stately hill, passing on the left the vast Tudor-style mansion that was built by the Ladd family in 1912—long before the 490-acre property was sold to the King and then, in 2003, acquired by the county. (Kate Macy Ladd’s father, a shipping and oil magnate, was a business partner of John D. Rockefeller.) It was the Ladds who named the estate Natirar, which is the reverse of Raritan, the river that twists through the property.
The mansion will eventually be renovated to house a hotel, spa, and fitness center, and be surrounded by swimming pools, cottages, and “a lawn sports pavilion” for use by club members and hotel guests. Over the crest of the hill, the one-time carriage house and garage have been renovated and expanded into the Ninety Acres Culinary Center, which comprises a cooking school, a wine school, and the Ninety Acres restaurant—all open to the public.
A team of valet parkers stood at the ready. (On our second visit, in the teeth of that hellacious nor’easter that flooded parts of Jersey, a tag team of umbrella carriers shepherded guests back and forth the 30 yards or so between the driveway and the front door. Nicely done.) Inside, the staff’s friendly welcome put us at ease. The restaurant, which has three dining areas, a bar, a lounge, and a room for private parties, is big. But because tables are not jammed together and seating is very comfortable, with fine materials (copper table tops and upholstered leather or leather-like armchairs in the main dining room, plush booths in the room that contains the large open kitchen with wood-burning oven), each party enjoys a sense of privacy. In the warmer months there will also be outdoor dining.
The 19-acre vegetable and herb farm begins just past the rear windows. The enclosures for the chickens, lambs, sheep, and the two cows, nicknamed Lunch and Dinner, can be seen from the driveway. Wojtowicz, the developer, likes to downplay the similarities between Ninety Acres and the highly regarded Blue Hill at Stone Barns on the Rockefeller Estate in Westchester, but they are there.
Felton and his staff know how to cook a lot more than eggs, but those eggs are not anomalies on the menu, which easily decodes as comfort food of a high order. Ingredients are very fresh, very seasonal, as local as possible, and put together in a simple yet sophisticated way that never masks flavor. An example on the winter menu (which will be gone by the time you read this) is the venison carpaccio appetizer, which is cooked medium rare before it is sliced, intensifying the flavor, then combined joyously with a compote of cranberries, Jonathan apples, and smoked black pepper. Equally good is the starter of tender grilled octopus and littleneck clams with white beans, oregano, and lemon.
Felton’s open kitchen juts forward from a wood-burning brick oven which produces very good pizzas. My favorite was topped with pumpkin, ricotta, kale, nutmeg, and sage. The sweet and herbacious flavors balanced each other beautifully, and I respectfully disagree with my friend at the table who said, “If it doesn’t have tomato sauce and mozzarella, it isn’t pizza.” The pizzas are just big enough to share, and at $10 to $12 each they fulfill part of Felton’s intention “to make the public feel very welcome here.” (There is a private lounge upstairs for members of The Club at Natirar.)
To that end there is a bar menu of small plates from $3 to $13 and daily Farmer’s Plates (“like the old-fashioned blue-plate special,” says Felton)—fried chicken with cole slaw, grilled meatloaf with onion rings, chicken pot pie, and crab macaroni and cheese with bacon crumbs, for $18 to $24. We tried the mac and cheese, the Saturday plate. It would make a good side dish but was a bit too monochromatic to be a meal on its own.
There is good reason to venture to the right side of the menu, where main courses dwell from $24 to $34. Pumpernickel-crust salmon was ravishingly moist, and the touch of caraway in the crust and the cardamon brown butter sauce cleverly elaborated the salmon’s flavor. Hudson Valley duck breast mated well with a prune and Armagnac sauce. Barnegat scallops were excellent with chestnut, frisée, and niçoise olives.
The adventurous might consider ponying up $75 for the six-course tasting menu, which the menu puckishly bills as Bring Me Food. The BMF menu lists fifteen different ingredients. The diner leaves it to the chefs to turn them into something special.
Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Jessica Knik, formerly of Hearth in Manhattan, continue the sophisticated comfort food theme. Our favorites were the bergamot poached pear with Earl Grey ice cream, the chocolate peanut butter pyramid with caramel ice cream, and the apple-filled doughnuts with cardamon ice cream and candied ginger. Those last, served hot and crispy, were crazy good.