Before hiring an executive chef, restaurant owners often ask the prospect to serve them a tasting menu to show what the chef would literally bring to the table. For 30-year-old Mike Metzner—auditioning to replace Chris Albrecht as executive chef of Eno Terra in Kingston—that task had to have been daunting. Albrecht had opened Eno Terra in 2008, and under his leadership it repeatedly earned a spot on NJM’s annual Top 25. Metzner had to pass muster with not one but three owners (brothers Carlo, Raoul and Anthony Momo) and one legend—the Momos’ consulting chef, Craig Shelton.
After my meals at Eno Terra, it’s clear to me why this young chef was handed the reins last September, three months after Albrecht’s quiet departure. (No one is speaking openly about the reason, but the Momos have talked in the past about wanting to bolster the bottom line at Eno Terra, the most popular of their three restaurants, the others being Mediterra and Teresa Caffe in Princeton.) Metzner has maintained Eno Terra’s farm-to-table ethos and modern Italian identity, and his food is generally rewarding.
Metzner, who grew up in Cliffwood Beach in Monmouth County and still lives there, graduated from Johnson & Wales in 2005. His resume includes meaningful stints at Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank; with influential chef Dennis Foy at his eponymous restaurant in New Jersey; and with former Nicholas chef David Santos in Manhattan. Metzner returned to Jersey as executive chef of the short-lived Giovanni’s Bistro in Berkeley Heights, where his cooking received high marks.
At Eno Terra, carryovers include artisanal salumi-and-cheese platters, ground lamb Bolognese and an immensely gratifying starter of tender little neck clams in a lemon-thyme broth with roasted tomatoes, arugula and smoky diced bacon. Its broth is even better soaked up with crunchy slabs of baguette, smoky from a char in the wood-fired oven. The bread comes from Terra Momo Bread, the owners’ nearby bakery.
Metzner has put his own thoughtful stamp on several entrées, including sustainably farmed Black Pearl Scottish salmon with cannellini beans, sautéed escarole, and Metznerian touches of lemon and fennel pollen. In the past, I found Eno Terra’s whole-wheat gnocchi unpleasantly dense, but Metzner’s ricotta gnocchi are cheesy, springy, and tossed with shreds of soft, tomato-braised pork, caramelized cippolini onions, oregano and bits of bracing Castelvetrano olives.
Sustainably farmed rainbow trout from Bell Farms in Indiana is pan-seared and paired with lentils and pan-roasted root vegetables heady with butter and aromatic herbs and spices. A fluffy whip of yogurt, olive oil and lemon juice adds guilt-free richness.
One of my favorite dishes, potato-and-collard green soup, is not Italian, but an upscale take on a traditional Portuguese soup that Metzner credits to his two inherited sous chefs, Marco Santana and Patrick Tavares. Surprisingly delicate, its purée of potatoes is topped with lightly sautéed collard greens and drops of smoked paprika oil and olive oil.
In a phone call after my visits, Metzner told me that the 2015 winter menu is the first he can truly call his own. It includes perfect lamb meatballs over polenta smothered in the house’s bright, tangy roasted tomato sauce. That sauce also glistens on Metzner’s lobster cannelloni bursting with tender meat.
Several small but nagging shortcomings must be mentioned. In a starter of wild mushroom arancini, the mushroom flavor was muted. The lemon aioli with cornmeal-crusted fried oysters lacked the necessary zing. Pork osso buco on one visit was slightly dry and under-sauced. On another, the meat was cooked correctly, but the portion was almost all bone and fat. A ciambotta—an entrée of root vegetables in tomato sauce topped with a bird’s nest of spaghetti squash—was bland and monotonous.
Desserts, at least in winter, were mostly dense and very sweet. Two good exceptions were a fudge-like flourless chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream and lively cranberry-apple crumble, and a blessedly light and restrained maple budino with a crisp haystack of shoestring fried sweet potatoes.
The two-story space in a historic, wood-framed general store remains inviting, with its artful wall hangings of lichen and other living greenery. Metzner needs to smooth out some rough spots in service and execution of dishes. But I think he will do that. Eno Terra, I believe, is in good hands.
EDITOR’S NOTE, APRIL 17, 2015: Michael Metzner has left Eno Terra to be chef de cuisine of Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank. The new executive chef of Eno Terra is Terry Strong, who since 2011 had been executive chef of Mediterra in Princeton. Both Eno Terra and Mediterra are part of the Terra Momo Restaurant Group.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Italian
Price Details:Appetizers, $6-$27; entrees, $19-$32; desserts, $9-$12
Wine list:Extensive, largely Italian