Seasoned Chef Returns Home To Spice Up Hunterdon County

Josh DeChellis's Juniper Hill Is a promising addition to the central Jersey dining scene.

Juniper Hill

I could live on the bar snacks alone at Juniper Hill, a major-league-restaurant in-the-making in the enclave of Annandale in Clinton Township. One night, I flit from grilled shishitos sprinkled with tamari and yuzu then dusted with a crackling pop of coarse sea salt; to homemade ricotta flecked with potent Thai chili flakes and ready to spread on crusty sesame-sourdough bread; to a rice bowl plumped by juicy pork cheeks so deliciously fat that I was reminded of Dizzy Gillespie blowing his horn.

Grilled shishitos

Another night, there’s a somewhat-salty, spring-pea salad saved by tender, vibrant mint and olive oil as fruity as a peach orchard in full bloom, and avocado hand-rolls both provocative and pert, with crunchy sprouts and carrots playing off the pungent shiso and racy wasabi pickles.

Spring Pea Salad

Then, snag a platter of Juniper Hill’s “Cured in America” charcuterie, and you need nothing else to float home on a cloud.

This is 21st-century dining.

Juniper Hill, the creation of chef Josh DeChellis and his wife Jennifer, is the sum of his far-flung and storied career: Born in Colombia, raised in Hunterdon County and schooled at the Culinary Institute of America, DeChellis got his pro-cooking start at the Frenchtown Inn. He went to San Francisco to work as Postrio for the ultimate star chef Wolfgang Puck; to France, where he cooked at Michelin-starred restaurants L’Arpege and Lucas Carton; to Japan for a summer at Tokyo’s celebrated San Kichi-ya; then to New York City, where he starred at Sumile, Jovia and La Fonda del Sol.

A few years ago, DeChellis came home to Hunterdon, and began plotting Juniper Hill at the site of an old bank. Now re-imagined, it offers a bar space with a sliding barn door that divides it from a clean-lined dining room with vintage accoutrements, and a couple of set-apart areas for more private eating experiences.

Much has been put in place since its opening two months ago, but there are a few weak spots in the operation. One night, we inquired about dessert and were told by an obviously embarrassed server that the kitchen hadn’t prepared any confections that day. She hurried out back to double-check, then reported that there might be a couple of sorbets. Another night, there were just a couple of basic finales on tap. The drinks menu, with cocktails, wines and brews, could use vino better attuned to DeChellis’s food, and servers more knowledgeable about the offerings. With farm-to-table touted, and Hunterdon being a farming heartland, it would be galvanizing to see local produce not only used more liberally, but touted by name on the bill of fare.

What Juniper Hill does right, however, isn’t merely right, but inspiring. Crudo of Barnegat scallops is crowned by frothy puffs scented with lemongrass, pin-dots of chili paste and leaves of cilantro, a triumvirate of accents that play off the sweetness of the scallops.

Crudo of Barnegat scallops

Octopus boldly enlivened by black garlic needs nothing more than potatoes with rousing spice and lush aioli to shine. Near-square tubes of pasta might be better thinner but the beefy ragu sports a depth of tomato flavor that spotlights the richness of preserved tomatoes.

Paccheri Genovese

Duck breast, its ruby interior and crisped skin flattered by a rhubarb sauce, is ringed by wild watercress hand-picked locally (an in-the-know dining mate told me).

Duck

Soft-shell crabs, grilled and served atop Japanese rice, get a lift from a one-two punch of gumbo and Thai basil. Gumbo as an accent, a kind of seasoning—what a concept. It works.

That’s the kind of experience, not to mention courage, DeChellis brings to Juniper Hill. There’s innovation and interpretation bolstered by knowledge of the fundamentals. There is an audience for such sophistication in this part of the state—heck, an audience statewide. Juniper Hill has the potential to give birth to a culinary dynasty in northwestern New Jersey.

Juniper Hill, 73 Beaver Avenue in the Annandale section of Clinton Township. Currently open for dinner only, Tuesday through Sunday, though expanded service hours are planned. 908-335-8905; juniper-hill.com.

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