Note to fans of chef Zod Arifai who have missed his acclaimed Montclair restaurants, Blu and Next Door: The mission of his latest venture, the Duke and Elephant, he says, is to provide Martinsville (an unincorporated section of Bridgewater, Somerset County) with what he calls “a neighborhood bar and grill.” Arifai and business partner Benne Mavraj turned Martinsville Taverna, an Italian restaurant, into a modern American tavern late last fall.
The result is farmhouse chic with muted-grey shiplap walls, a bar with solid cocktail, wine and beer offerings, and a menu that offers an eclectic mix of flavors.
Appetizers, such as battered, deep-fried cauliflower sprinkled with sliced almonds, chilis and garlic, paired nicely with one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, the Elephant, a vibrant blend of vodka, elderflower liqueur, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice and ginger beer.
It’s still early days at the Duke, and not all the appetizers were ready for prime time when we ate there. Chicken tacos were a little muted, with a few pieces of roasted chicken, some cabbage and onions gathered with a too-subtle chipotle mayonnaise. A bowl of sushi rice tossed with wasabi and soy and topped with raw salmon, cucumber and scallions was a deconstructed sushi roll in a bowl. It’s a clever spin, but served fridge cold, it lacked delicacy. More successful was avocado toast, the avocado topped with a morsel of creamy, briny uni (sea urchin), providing luxurious mouthfuls.
The salmon main course was perfectly seared and melting in the middle. The fish was perched atop a pile of snow peas tossed in a horseradish cream that provided lively contrast. The layer of warm sliced beets we discovered as we made our way to the bottom felt unnecessary and muddied the otherwise good balance of flavors.
Roast chicken, dry on our first visit, improved substantially on our most recent visit. Roasted brussels sprouts and puréed potatoes nicely rounded out the dish.
The cheeseburger may not win awards like its forebear at Next Door, but the result is still quite good, served with caramelized onions and sharp white cheddar.
There were two standout mains, including a mac and cheese generously studded with tender lobster in a creamy sauce. Seared short rib was also memorable, with its crisp, bronzed exterior yielding to an unctuous interior. It came with a sweet-potato purée and a sweet-and-sour sauce that formed the perfect foil for the crazy-good beef. (Boy, I wish there had been more than a drizzle of that sauce.)
Desserts range from a simple poached pear to some wild concoctions, including a peanut butter “Sunday”—a sweetness riot of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and a huge scoop of a confection that had the texture of dense ganache and was made by blending peanut butter, caramel and heavy cream.
Arifai has always been a playful chef, and you can see it in whimsical touches like the dessert served in a terra cotta flowerpot, complete with crushed chocolate cookies to mimic dirt and a large plastic flower sticking out of the center. Diners dig through the cookie earth to uncover a creamy middle with the disconcerting texture and flavor of unbaked cheesecake. My guests and I kept scooping away at it, trying to understand what we were eating, and uncovered sugary candy “rocks” at the bottom of the pot. It was cute, but even our waiter seemed confused by the dish. When asked to explain it, he summoned the hostess. All she offered was a smile and, “It’s cream cheese and vanilla and chocolate.”
The uneven service should improve with the recent hiring of Richard Spalding, an experienced general manager.
Despite occasional missteps, the Duke and Elephant, with its interesting cocktails and varied menu, makes a promising addition to the area’s dining scene.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Appetizers, $6-$14; entrées, $12-$26; desserts, $8
Ambience:Comfortable and inviting
Service:Initially unsure, but improving
Wine list:Inventive cocktails, limited beer selection, reasonable wine list with 16 choices by the glass