Gray-carpeted and subdued, Blue Morel in the Westin Governor Morris Hotel might at first glance seem designed to soothe the busy business travelers who bunk there, a couple of miles from the statue of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette on the historic Morristown Green. But like those three founding fathers, Blue Morel wants to rouse you, and its beef tartare does so at once.
Executive chef Bryan Gregg foregoes the standard filet mignon for more flavorful New York strip, dry aged in house 21 days, and diced, not ground. He presents it with salt-cured egg yolk, soy mayo and peppery baby greens. Most fun of all, he swaps out the usual toast for a bed of crispy, charred rice cake. The best way to salute this tartare is with a glass of red from the intriguing house list.
Gregg, 45, has been top toque of the 110-seat eatery since last July. He runs the kitchen, hiring cooks and creating menus under the aegis of the hotel’s culinary director, chef Thomas Ciszak, who opened the restaurant as Copeland in 2005. Ciszak’s crab cake recipe, racy with horseradish and whole-grain mustard, remains a menu highlight. “Our repeat diners would revolt if we changed it,” deadpans Gregg.
I myself would rebel if Gregg tweaked his beet and goat cheese salad, “a dish from all my past kitchens,” he notes. Tongue-teasing, lightly pickled local beets, generously strewn with Hudson Valley chevre, elevate this oft-seen starter. Every beet and goat cheese salad in my future will be measured against this one.
The tuna crudo appetizer is likewise exemplary, enlivened with avocado chunks, spunky mâche leaves, and sliced, pickled Fresno red chilies. The roasted pork belly starter, perched on arugula and shaved Jersey asparagus, has shed its cold-weather blanket of too-sugary reduced maple syrup and lately flaunts a hedonistic hood of its own crackly, caramelized fat.
Gregg grew up in nearby Chatham, “where my parents loved to throw big family dinners,” he says. “We’d all talk about the food.” After earning an associate’s degree from the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts, he returned to North Jersey with a reverence for food that is “fresh and local, the way humans were meant to eat.”
Gregg quickly rose to executive chef, honing his locavore approach at Domaine Laurino in Berkeley Heights, then the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn, Michael Anthony’s in Jersey City, Escape Montclair (which Gregg owned), and most recently, Café Chameleon in Bloomingdale.
Justin Guthrie, Blue Morel’s general manager and ardent sommelier/mixologist, says his clientele seem evenly divided between “hotel guests, who hope for a good meal, and locals from the I-287 corridor, who are used to good food and expect excellence. To become a neighborhood destination with a regular crowd, we have to aim high.”
For that, he has the right chef. Though there are just eight main courses, Gregg says, “you can count on a scallop entrée, a fish or two, a chicken, our dry-aged strip steak, another meat, a vegetarian dish and the burger.”
Gregg’s pillowy yet toasty-skinned halibut is what you might call comfort fish, its mildness welcoming the complexity of velvety grains and umami-rich mushrooms. Plump, toothsomely seared Barnegat sea scallops, basted with butter and thyme, are dependably delicious. In summer, the scallops’ ocean sweetness is compounded by local corn and zucchini. They form a palate-pleasing chorus line.
Gregg’s $42 lamb loin—actually, a rarely seen lamb-o-rama of loin, tenderloin, breast and neck—is delectable. The meat is dry aged on premises 21 days, deepening its flavor, and the breast, as well as the tender, deboned neck meat, are splendidly applewood smoked. Dainty lamb chops these are not.
The half-pound burger ($18), a lush blend of Angus chuck, short rib and hanger steak, is topped with aged New York cheddar and Gregg’s own bacon-onion jam. Served with a basket of crisp fries, it quells any burger jones. Sides and sauces come and go with the seasons, though round butterball potatoes, which are baked, fried, and amply buttered, beckon year-round.
Blue Morel’s summer desserts spotlight New Jersey fruit like peaches and strawberries, transformed by Gregg into cobblers, crisps or clafoutis (French custard). He calls fruit “nature’s candy,” but cacao comes from nature, too. His chocolate marshmallow banana involves feuilletine (buttery wafer flakes) drenched in Valrhona bittersweet chocolate, forming a crunchy chocolate brick he lavishes with banana brûlée and torched marshmallow. It may sound like a TikTok craze, but it’s bewitchingly urbane.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:New American
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $12–$24; entrées, $18–$47; sides, $10; desserts, $10
- Ambience:Soothing (with bursts of laughter from the bar
- Service:Welcoming and professional
- Wine list:Full bar, compact wine list focused on France and California