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When Craig Shelton took over the Ryland Inn as chef and managing partner in 1991 at the age of 30, the idea of lingering three or four hours over a meal of many small courses was as foreign to New Jersey as wolfing down a hot dog is to France.
But Shelton, fresh from four years as the chef de cuisine at Bouley in New York City and with French four-star training behind him, believed that tasting menus provided the ultimate showcase for the interaction of food and wine. In his fifteen years at the Ryland Inn, Shelton has won four James Beard Awards, two “Extraordinary” ratings in the New York Times, and top rankings from New Jersey Monthly and its readers, to name just a few of his honors. Shelton didn’t open the Ryland—the one-time stagecoach stop has been serving food since 1935—but he put the place on a much bigger map.
The tasting-menu concept caught on slowly—it was served to 5 percent of customers at the start—but 70 percent now choose one of the two tasting menus, either the six-course Garden Menu ($75) or the eight-course Gastronomique ($125). Vegetables are a key asset—in season, they come from the Ryland Inn’s three-acre organic farm.
The flavor compass points in various directions. On one evening, the second Garden course is a meltingly lush corn tamale flavored with sweet red peppers and culantro (a pungent cousin of cilantro). This is followed by a ragout of chanterelle mushrooms and summer truffles topped with a poached egg. Stir the egg (cooked to precisely 149 degrees, the menu notes) into the ragout, and you have heaven.
The tasting menus change almost daily, including such dishes as a Provençal tomato and fennel stew accompanied by an honor guard of excellent potato-garlic gnocchi. These are browned in the manner of dumplings, and that slight crispiness puts them over the top. The impulse to gobble them all up must be resisted, especially when it’s someone else’s dish and there aren’t that many of them.
The Gastronomique ramps up with an ethereal starter of enticing sashimi. One night, the second course of roasted fluke, as prosaic a fish as New Jersey has to offer, is remarkably tender and delicious, and the combination of white-port macerated figs and Tunisian-spiced seven-vegetable couscous that accompany it is inspired.
Gorgeously browned foie gras, crispy sweetbreads, and Griggstown poussin are presented for their flavor and texture contrasts in a single course, each with its own rewarding understory.
Shelton, a serious cheesehead for years, introduced a 55-cheese cart back in 1991. The Gastronomique eases you toward dessert with a trio of lovingly conditioned cheeses, plus accents such as a bit of local honeycomb and a brace of tiny champagne grapes that pop like caviar, releasing a delectable sweetness. For all the attention lavished on complete menus, the Ryland does not neglect the à la carte side, where some real home runs can be found. Among appetizers, the charlotte of asparagus and crabmeat tastes as good as it looks, and it is one of the most artistic creations on a menu where presentation is prized. The cylinder of crabmeat and other ingredients is framed by a picket fence of asparagus tips sliced lengthwise so that the flat side faces out.
In the “sinfully good” category is the seared foie gras. When paired with some kind of cooked fruit, this dish is inevitably so luscious it’s almost unfair, so Shelton gets extra credit for his preparation, which involves crunchy strands of shaved green papaya and a reduction of sassafras, vanilla, and cola.
Dessert is a must, even when ordering the tasting menu, where it’s included. That’s because there are à la carte desserts worth eating: the Valrhona chocolate tarte (practically a cliché these days, but this one is awfully good); the crème brûlée flavored with green cardamom; and the chilled peach soup (summer only). So the good news is that, after fifteen years, Shelton and his talented team are still turning out four-star food, or damn close to it. So why does the restaurant earn only three and a half?
The answer is in the dining room. You get the feeling that only a few senior staff have a deep knowledge of the food, wine, and overall je ne sais quoi. Ask a few questions, and the servers scurry for the kitchen. The sommelier is affable but not exactly a font of knowledge, or at least not a great communicator.
When you’re paying these prices, you don’t want somebody tipping the teapot so far that the tea spills onto the tablecloth, and you expect the server to know who gets which dish he’s just brought out from the kitchen. The service can be smooth and it certainly aims high, but it ought to be on the same level as the kitchen, and it isn’t quite.
Reviewed in: November 2006