Sunday in the Yard with Nicholas

Renowned for his elegant Red Bank restaurant, chef Nicholas Harary revels in casual entertainment at home. It starts with a jug of cocktails and a splash in the pool.

Juliana nibbles a slice.
Juliana nibbles a slice.
Photo by Miki Duisterhof

You would think, after putting in nearly 12 hours a day six days a week at Nicholas, his acclaimed Red Bank restaurant, chef Nicholas Harary would rather do anything than entertain when he’s home. But in the warm months, Nicholas and Melissa, his wife and the restaurant’s co-owner, enjoy welcoming family and friends to casual Sunday-afternoon gatherings in their spacious backyard.

Noted for its elegance, hospitality and fine New American cuisine, Restaurant Nicholas has won a place on New Jersey Monthly’s annual Top 25 every year since the list began in 2007. The accolades attest to the couple’s dedication to giving their guests an experience they will treasure for years. (Click here to visit their wine website.)

At home, where Nicholas and Melissa entertain almost every other Sunday in summer, they are just as attentive to their personal guests, but the menu is decidedly different.

“If friends want my butter-poached lobster,” says Nicholas, “they come to the restaurant. They aren’t coming to my house for Restaurant Nicholas food.”

The Location
Seven years ago, the Hararys purchased their contemporary cedar shake home on several acres at the end of a cul-de-sac in Atlantic Highlands, a 10-minute drive from the restaurant. They quickly set out to make it their own. After tackling the interior (the custom kitchen was featured in NJM’s October 2012 issue), the pair turned attention to the property. The isolated lot is surrounded by mature laurel trees. Neighboring homes can barely be glimpsed through the woods. Deer—no doubt with discerning palates—often nibble their way to the patio.

After careful planning, the Hararys created a two-tiered backyard perfect for entertaining. The lower level has a rectangular pool and cabana; the upper level has a large patio just off the kitchen and living room. The patio seats 12 around an 8-foot-long table. The monstrously heavy piece from Restoration Hardware has a solid cement top resting on a long wooden base.

The backyard came together over a three-year period. “I was in no rush,” Nicholas says. “I wanted to see how we lived with it, so I designed it in stages.” First, he mapped out the pool and had it lined with teak tile, a natural stone from Turkey. That first year, he says, “the grass came right up to the pool.”

After a summer floating in the water, Nicholas knew exactly where to put the cabana. An open-air pavilion with a fireplace and wide-screen television, it faces the pool. “People thought I was crazy,” Nicholas says of his layout. “There are no walls. But I can watch a baseball game while I float in the pool.”

Practicality also dictated the placement of the wood-burning, brick pizza oven. It was intended for the upper patio near the kitchen, but Nicholas realized it would be too far from the center of the action. Shipped from Tuscany, it was assembled on the upper level but overlooking the pool, enabling Nicholas to mingle with his guests while tending the oven. “It just made more sense,” he says.

The backyard forms a family paradise for Nicholas, Melissa and their two children, Juliana, 5, and Nicholas, 8. It makes such an ideal hangout for the kids, you’d think it was created just for them. Not so, says their father with a laugh. “This backyard is really for me. I designed it to be my oasis.”

The Food
Idyllic as the setting is, the main attraction is the chef’s food. Gatherings usually begin midday Sunday, when Nicholas takes a break from his long hours at the restaurant, swapping his chef’s jacket for a bathing suit. Although the food he serves at home is less elaborate than his restaurant menu, the emphasis on freshness and vivid flavors remains the same.

Nicholas likes to prep as much as possible before his guests arrive. That means having a big cocktail pitcher at the ready. “I like to have something right away for everyone,” he says. “It gives me 15 to 20 minutes of relaxing time, and I’m not running around being bartender.” His go-to: a jug of mojitos made with Brinley’s Coconut Rum and pineapple.

The day unfolds without an agenda. Cocktails and appetizers—including Nicholas’s lobster rolls, a favorite of his guests—are served by the pool, often while the kids splash about. No Sunday gathering is complete without Nicholas firing up the pizza oven. He makes the dough himself and tops it with whatever fresh ingredients inspire him that day: mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, possibly potato and bacon. The wood-burning oven operates at around 1,200 degrees. A pizza cooks in roughly 90 seconds.

“I can’t walk away from it,” Nicholas says.

Everyone eventually migrates to the upper level for a sit-down dinner featuring grilled meat, fish or kabobs, always served with fresh seasonal vegetables. Dessert is served poolside, encouraging additional plunges into the cool water. That might be followed by a final course of s’mores around the fire pit. “We kind of eat all day long,” Nicholas says.

Virtually all the cooking is in the hands of the chef. “Nicholas is in the driver’s seat,” says Melissa. “No one is coming to taste my food.”

The chef actually has two ways to make a splash. “It’s not uncommon for me to jump in the pool between courses,” he says.

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