Experienced new owners, and a gifted chef whose time has come, have returned the Ryland Inn to the summit of New Jersey fine dining.
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People in hospitality like to say they do whatever it takes to please a guest, knocking down doors if need be. I always took that metaphorically—until I found myself imprisoned in the men’s room on my first visit to the newly reopened and revitalized Ryland Inn in Whitehouse.
I had sequestered myself in the restroom’s single stall to scribble down first impressions. Things like “Dramatic sense of arrival”—a nod to the new white portico that reaches out grandly from the freshened flanks of the one-time stagecoach station. On the new, contemporary bar: “dark wood, glass shelves flooded w light, comfy stools w upholstered backs, seductive space.” Even the amuse bouche, a cold celery and potato soup, our first taste of chef Anthony Bucco’s food, merited a nod: “clean, balanced flavors. Very nice.”
But when I turned the dull brass knob counterclockwise to release the lock, it spun uselessly. Leave it to me to find the only piece of hardware not replaced or restored after veteran restaurateurs Frank and Jeanne Cretella bought the moribund, 10.5-acre property out of foreclosure last year.
Slithering under or clambering over the louvered door was not an option—it reached from floor to ceiling, and the rest of the stall was walled in. All I could do was hope someone would soon answer the call of nature and not freak when a voice addressed him through the slats. As journalists like to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Those words also apply to the Ryland’s own saga. The modern part dates to 1991, when a wunderkind chef named Craig Shelton left Manhattan’s top-tier Bouley for a staid country inn in Hunterdon County. Shelton proceeded to transform the Ryland into a four-star culinary beacon, in 2000 becoming the first Jersey chef to win a James Beard Award. But in 2007, after a water pipe burst in a February freeze, the Shelton era sputtered out in a chain of setbacks ending in foreclosure. For four years the grand old dowager collected cobwebs. Then the Cretellas took over, and rolled up their sleeves.
Less than a year later, the patient is off the operating table and running wind sprints. Inside and out, the building has never looked better. The look, while still classic, is now more frisky than frilly, from the period equestrian wall art to the scrapbook-style menu filled with historic Ryland photos and mementoes.
But the racing heartbeat is strongest in the kitchen, where Bucco and chef d’cuisine Craig Polignano are sending out dishes that are beautifully composed, insightfully conceived and captivating in the only way that counts—bite by bite, as you tour the plate, sampling this element or that, savoring their individual depth or spearing them in combinations that leave you nodding sagaciously, as if you thought of them yourself.
Delivering that pleasantly anchored yet adventurous sensation is the game plan. As Bucco told me in an interview after my visits, “What we want to do is things that are a little bit different, but relatable.”
Take Composition of Beets, a somewhat precious title but a great starter. Multi-hued beet salads with goat cheese are nothing new, but here you get a light, delightfully tangy goat cheese mousse that teams with peeled grapefruit sections to tease out the sweetness of the beets, setting up the component that brings it all together: bittersweet crunchies that suggest Oreos minus the filling. They’re made of flour, butter and dark cocoa, and are so tasty with a bite of beet and a smear of mousse that I kept poking around with my fork in hopes of finding more.
Skate wings are a trendy protein that even in careful cooking often retain a hint of sinewy segmentation. Here they were creamy smooth. How is that achieved? Each raw wing is coated with brioche crumbs and butter and wrapped around a kind of crab-and-seafood quenelle that has been partly cooked. The pre-cooking lets the package be sautéed at very low temperature, just enough to irresistibly brown the crumbs and produce the best skate I’ve ever eaten.
At the heart of some of Bucco’s most rewarding dishes are intriguing, often counter-intuitive combinations. One memorable appetizer centers a lightly seared dayboat scallop over wakame seaweed surrounded by shiitake and short rib ravioli. Hot fortified mushroom stock is poured into the bowl tableside, setting up an eating experience Bucco aptly called “umami on steroids.”
Equally offbeat but effective was an entrée pairing seared yellowfin tuna with foie gras. “It’s funny,” Bucco said. “To me, tuna, swordfish and sturgeon eat almost more animal-like than fish-like. So I find that they pair well with something like foie gras.” Having the courage of his convictions, Bucco serves the dish with braised kale, barley and a full-bodied au poivre sauce. Voila: a great steak au poivre, just with a different kind of steak.
In three visits I tasted many dishes I would gladly order again. There isn’t room to describe them all, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention these:
• Eggs “Benedict.” The house-made muffin has a nutty, chewy texture marvelous on its own. Add a soft poached egg, shards of Woodland Farms ham, sautéed chanterelles and a frothy Hollandaise and you will be spoiled for anything less.
• Creamy sweet potato soup, its tendency to cloy tempered by caramelized fennel and onions in the purée and a finishing sprinkle of spiced cranberries and drizzle of hot spiced oil. This works so well the dish easily accomodates the finishing dollop of house-made cinnamon marshmallow.
• Stuffed Griggstown quail with carrots in a thyme jus. Sounds too simple to be a show-stopper, but as the fourth course (and first meat course) in the seven-course tasting menu, it does just that.
• Spanish mackerel crudo with jicama, jalapeño, Asian pear, crumbled rice cracker and mint oil. Spicy, cool, sweet, savory, luscious and crunchy. Out of complexity, unity.
Desserts at upscale restaurants often appeal more to the eye than to the palate. The Ryland’s—from Polignano and pastry chef John Boot (formerly of Elements)—are all pleasing. Three are sensational:
• Lemon curd with Earl Grey meringue is chef d’cuisine Polignano’s playful take on English afternoon tea. It comes with gingersnap ice cream and in spirit is more Monty Python than QE2.
• The Ryland’s panna cotta is like no other I’ve had. An intense passion fruit gel is wrapped around a cylinder of panna cotta made from tangy Valley Shepherd goat milk yogurt. It’s served with sliced star fruit and pineapple and sprinkled with ginger granola. It is amazing.
• As a peanut butter lover, I’ve tried peanut butter desserts for years and never found one worth finishing.
Now I have stumbled across what may be the Holy Grail. The Ryland’s peanut butter mousse, made with Skippy Creamy, virtually shouts, “I am peanut butter! Hear me roar!” The mousse is coated in Valhrona chocolate and served with banana-Nutella ice cream. The secret ingredient is passion fruit coulis under the mousse. “The acidity in the passion fruit,” Bucco explained, “pushes forward the peanut butter flavor.”
Bucco’s talent and drive have been evident since he helped lift New Brunswick’s Stage Left to prominence only a few years after graduating from the New York Restaurant School in 1999. The Matawan and Aberdeen native, who still lives in Aberdeen, opened Uproot in Warren in 2009. His food was fascinating, but the restaurant never clicked.
With the Ryland, Bucco, 37, takes the biggest leap of his career. Beginning next year, he will oversee catering and all other food operations. The success of those profit centers depends on returning the flagship restaurant to its lofty perch. Referring to Shelton, who recommended him to the Cretellas, Bucco acknowledged, “His shoes are immense.”
This is the first four-star rating New Jersey Monthly has given since Nicholas a decade ago. Four stars, according to our key, means extraordinary. It does not mean perfect. Not even the Hararys would claim that Nicholas was perfect when it opened, let alone now.
The Ryland's wine list, and especially its wine pairings for the seven-course tasting menu, are works in progress.
The cocktail program, however, is off to a rollicking start under the direction of Christopher James. My guests and I very much enjoyed the Ryland Shrub (rye, spiced pear, ginger ale), the Ginger Blossom (Creme de Yvette, anisette, lemon juice, ginger beer), Pisco Sour (pisco, agave nectar, creme de cassis, lime juice, egg white, black walnut bitters) and--my personal favorite, because I do love beets--the Harvest Margarita (tequila, beet juice, lime juice, simple syrup, mint),
Service at the Ryland clearly aims to match the excellence of the food and the physical setting. In the early going it did certain things very well (all plates for a given course brought together and placed before the right person without having to ask who’s having what). But it was often erratic, confused, unpolished. When you see two hostesses and a server chewing gum, you know discipline is lacking. Fortunately, the management team has taken firm steps to address the problem.
You may be wondering how I got out of that men’s room stall. Actually, I’m still there. (Sent in this review as a text message. Numb thumbs!) Okay, okay. After a staffer or two monkeyed with the door, Ed Torres, the burly manager, was called in. He heaved his shoulder against the door—and bounced off.
“Stand away from the door,” he said. I inched back. With three powerful kicks, he dislodged the molding, which flew back, nails glinting sharply. Two more kicks and the door gave way. Dusting off some wood particles, I stepped out, and shook Torres’ hand.
Now that’s service.
111 Old Route 28
WHITEHOUSE STATION, 08889
Experienced new owners, and a gifted chef whose time has come, have returned the Ryland Inn to the summit of New Jersey fine dining offering new American farm-to-table, local and sustainable ingredients & fresh seasonal dishes.