After its New Year’s Eve opening in the space that had for years held the often-forlorn Martini Bistro and Bar, the Hills Tavern caught on quickly. Handsomely outfitted with tufted, black leather banquettes, gleaming subway tiles and dark wood floors, the Hills feels welcoming, endearing and even a bit exciting. The range and quality of its tavern-style food represent a marked upgrade over its predecessor.
The Hills also represents an uptick in ambition for its owner, the Park Restaurant Group, which also runs the neighboring Pizzeta, as well as Pizzeta Enoteca in Livingston and the Landmark pub, a beloved one-time stagecoach stop in Livingston. (The group expects to open a Pizetta in Florham Park in May.) The Hills is named for the topography of the area, including Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation. The names of two very fine cocktails—the Mister Jack (a tweaked Manhattan) and the Miss Jill (prosecco, Aperol, lime)—also riff on the hill theme.
Executive chef John Joseph, 33, grew up in Wyckoff and Wayne. A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education, he rose from line cook at Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan to sous chef at Chakra in Paramus under chef/owner Thomas Ciszak. He cooks simply, but with care and attention to detail. Instead of using store-bought graham crackers to make his s’mores, for example, he bakes his own, scented with cinnamon and brown sugar, turning a humble campfire treat into a memorable dessert.
Joseph’s appetizers include fun foods like a tuna poke made more virtuous with avocado and seaweed salad, and a Bavarian-style pretzel the size of a Mini’s steering wheel.
Sandwiches range from modest to grand. A grilled-chicken sandwich features meat, cheese and bread in exactly the right proportion; basil-scented mayo, balsamic syrup and juicy roasted peppers lend moisture and verve.
The Hills Burger boasts bits of crispy onions, a strip of bacon, and a runny blend of cheddar, American and cream cheeses cooked down with beer. Yet these enhancements do not eclipse the juicy richness of the brisket, short rib and chuck that makes the burger great.
The Trifolata pizza, a white pie of shiitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms garnished with arugula, is distinguished by its toothsome crust. Proofing, or letting the dough rest, longer than usual helps make it crisp and flaky. “My style is to focus on technique and execution,” says Joseph. “I just try to do things the right way. Always.”
When he doesn’t, it shows in dishes like a tomato-basil soup that tastes like commercial red sauce; a too-sweet banana trifle; and a lobster sandwich with bland meat.
Farmed Scottish salmon, nicely pan seared, rises in class on the strength of its accompaniments: asparagus sautéed with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and house-made spaetzle flecked with fresh dill.
Two sides worth ordering are the deep-fried brussels sprouts and perfectly sautéed baby spinach.
You can dine comfortably at the 24-seat bar, which offers a rotation of about 20 craft beers on draft or in bottles. More popular than beer, says Lee Jorge, 52, one of the owners, are wine and cocktails. The wine list, which is small but well chosen, tilts heavily toward California. Signature cocktails are fresh, fun and reasonably priced at $12.
The Hills well suits the couples, groups and families of this mostly affluent neighborhood. Like the best taverns, it addresses a range of desires: excellent burgers and light dishes, more elaborate entrées and a well-tended bar. Casual but lively, the Hills succeeds at its multilevel mission.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, salads, $6-$21; entrées, $12-$38; desserts, $8-$15.
Ambience:White-tiled bistro, relaxed and fun.
Service:Generally amiable and efficient.
Wine list:Full bar, craft beer, signature cocktails; small, mostly California wine list.