The odds against a carrot salad being a showstopper are long. Yet the one Ben Pollinger has been serving at his new restaurant, the Hill, in Closter, is as intensely involving as it is Instagramable.
The carrots, cut into short batons and roasted to caramelized catnip, are set across a cradle of radicchio leaves. This careful construction comes to the table in a Thai and Italian basil vinaigrette bolstered with parsley, coarsely ground black pepper and crumbled walnuts. You go at it with knife and fork. The play of sweet, herbal, peppery and bitter flavors across soft, crisp and crunchy textures gives an early inkling of the heights the Hill can reach.
Pollinger, 47, calls his cooking “globally-influenced, reflective of food I can eat every day, that tastes great, is interesting, but is lighter and not too rich.”
Much of the menu is devoted to seafood—not surprising, given that Pollinger won three stars from the New York Times, as well as a 2006 Michelin star, in his decade as executive chef of the Manhattan seafood restaurant Oceana. He left in 2016 to return to Bergen County—he grew up in Rutherford and Fair Lawn and now lives with his wife and children in Oradell—to do two things he had never done before.
Despite a sterling resume, ranging from Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo to years at Danny Meyer restaurants in New York with exemplary chefs Floyd Cardoz at Tabla and Michael Romano at Union Square Café, the CIA grad had never opened or owned a restaurant.
Pollinger took over a barnlike building that had once been a restaurant called Harvest, and redid it inside and out. The windowed dining room, with about 100 seats under a peaked roof, and the bar, with 15 stools facing flat-screens and 20 seats at high-top tables, are odes to what he calls “Scandinavian minimalism”—soothing pale grays and off-whites, with a stone fireplace, vintage barnwood on the walls and rustic oak tabletops and floors, all warmed and offset by the blue upholstery of blessedly comfortable chairs. There are also a private dining room with a hideaway flat-screen and a refurbished rear patio with fire pit.
Bergen, the state’s most populous county and the fourth highest in per capita income, is crisscrossed by congested highways and shopping malls that fade away as you reach the wealthy northern enclaves. If you live in the far northeast corner, restaurant-rich towns like Ridgewood and Englewood can feel like a bit of a haul.
That might be one reason the Hill, which opened in May, is doing brisk business. Restaurants of its caliber are scarce in and around Closter, a leafy northeastern borough whose name derives from the Dutch word for cloister. But recent visits suggest the Hill would shine even on one of the state’s several restaurant rows.
The beverage program is overseen by GM Mike Greenberg, a former Tabla colleague who worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester. One of his original cocktails, the Crooked Smile, brought that ineffable expression to our lips with its piquant blend of Tapatia tequila, blood-orange juice, ginger and lime.
Pollinger says he “learned a heck of a lot about genuine Italian cooking” from Romano at Union Square Café. Evidence includes a perfect asparagus risotto made with Acquerello carnaroli (which he considers the best Italian rice), enriched with mint, mascarpone and pecorino. And don’t spurn the side of gnocchi, insanely luscious not just because they bask in a butter-Parmesan emulsion.
The carrot is not the only stellar salad. Last summer’s chickpea salad reset one’s impression from the familiar dried bean (hello, hummus) to the seldom-seen, fresh, little globe, blanched and served, tender and green, in a like-minded mound of crisp sugar snap and snow peas, cucumber slices and Thai basil over a base of yogurt enlivened with lime juice.
Fanned lengths of endive, suggesting an open hand, held chilled slices of seared duck breast topped with roasted almonds. Textural contrasts and a rapturous rhubarb compote under the duck slices made it even better as victual than visual.
The glow of Pollinger’s Michelin star will draw people craving memorable seafood off the Parkway and into Bergen’s sylvan northeast. They won’t be disappointed. During a business trip to Tahiti, Pollinger became enamored of the national dish: poisson cru, cubes of raw tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk. Ever the texture geek, he caps his terrific version with a layer of shredded, toasted coconut, a meaningful addition.
Two fried dishes were exemplary: plump, crisp, soft-shell crabs with spring onions and a sambhar jam influenced by his time doing modern Indian with Cardoz at Tabla; and calamari (including tentacles!) with a vibrant tomato aioli.
A robust yet refined entrée of Spanish octopus, braised and then grilled, came astride crushed potatoes and grilled scallions, with lengths of chorizo mirroring the octopus amid a generous surround of romesco. Slow-cooked, thin-sliced halibut, very fresh but a bit underwhelming in flavor, was redeemed by an exceptional underpinning of wilted spinach in a lively cherry tomato-and-chili vinaigrette.
Someone in your group does not want seafood? Not a problem. A confirmed carnivore at one of my dinners ordered the 12-ounce prime New York strip steak with crispy Yukon gold potatoes, grilled escarole and house-made barbeque sauce. I managed to nab a few bites before it was gone. It was beyond reproach.
The breast of chicken from Goffle Road Farm in Wyckoff was a bit dry, a fault offset by the confited leg and the bed of zucchini, cut like pappardelle and infused with a sauce of confited cherry tomatoes. Confit is one of France’s greatest gifts to gastronomy. You could confit a Popsicle stick and people would fight over it.
Summer desserts celebrated stone fruits in refreshing parfaits, panna cottas, and an ethereal cheesecake semifreddo. A believer in what he calls “the childhood yum factor,” Pollinger also offered a delightfully melty ice cream sundae served on a plate to facilitate commingling with scattered brownie bites and whole hazelnuts.
In naming his restaurant, Pollinger researched the road name Schraalenburgh, which he says in Dutch times was Schraalenberg, meaning barren mountain or hill. “So it was a strong name that had some confidence to it, but was still humble,” he says. “And a hill is a place you can look up to.” Which fits the Hill pretty well.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $14-$17; pastas, risottos, $16-$32; entrées, $24-$44; sides, $8-$12; desserts, $12
Ambience:Airy, soothing and elegantly rustic
Service:Informed, attentive, accommodating
Wine list:Small, interesting cocktail list; 6 draft beers, 7 in bottle or can; 7 white, 8 red wines, each by glass or bottle