Restaurant Review

For and Against the Grain: Grain & Cane in Berkeley Heights

The restaurant, which opened last May, is bringing excitement to its part of Union County, in an attractive faux-industrial space, with some appealing dishes. But overall it needs to execute dishes more consistently.

Fried chicken at Grain & Cane. Photo courtesy of Grain & Cane

Grain & Cane is connected to an Embassy Suites hotel smack in the middle of an office park off I-78. Not sexy. But that hasn’t kept this gastropub, opened last May in Berkeley Heights, from stirring excitement.

“People have been dying for a place for drinks and a great meal—it’s really been missing around here,” says Stephen Kilroy, vice president at Connell Company, the Connell family conglomerate that owns the office park and restaurant.

Themed around Connell’s 1926 origins in the rice and sugar trades, the capacious, faux-industrial space provides high tops and tufted leather couches in the bar, a banquette-lined dining room, and a patio with fire pits. Bar offerings are playful and plentiful, though specialty cocktails ordered on recent visits arrived tepid, with wimpy, half-melted cubes and meager garnishes. Better to request one of the king-size rocks that (surprise!) came with my generously poured Knob Creek rye Manhattan.

A bevy of design, marketing and culinary pros consulted with Connell on just about every aspect of the venture. That did not result in a buttoned-down launch. A month after opening, the chef quit. Soon after, Grain & Cane closed for a three-day reboot. During my first two visits, an interim chef from Hilton was heading the open kitchen. By visit three, German-born-and-trained chef Stefan Sabo, 46, most recently at the Inn at Millrace Pond, was in charge. Had I not been told as much, I wouldn’t have known. That’s the upside of menu formulation by committee: Most any skilled chef can take it on.

I’d happily return for several of G&C’s starters, including a remarkably flavorful rough-chopped steak tartare; a beet salad bright with oranges, goat cheese, pistachios and balsamic; terrific broiled oysters; and a hoisin-drizzled Peking duck sourdough pizza that was crisp and generously topped. Best was a thick crab cake, crisp and bursting with hunks of delicately seasoned meat. Its underdressed side of slaw and skimpy ration of tasty remoulade didn’t add anything.

G&C’s savvy team have picked up on America’s new passion for Canada’s gut-busting poutine, drenching their skin-on french fries and cheese curds in a sweetish demiglace.

A 44-ounce tomahawk rib-eye, currently the darling of committed carnivores, is the star of G&C’s family-style offerings. Our tentative but sweet server looked as though she’d faint when we informed her that our $72 steak, ordered medium rare, arrived virtually raw. But the kitchen returned a fresh one to us, a perfect medium rare, and expertly carved. (On our last visit, the steak was prepared flawlessly on first go). On both visits, we resisted picking up the ulna-length bone and gnawing away, but not for long.

On our first visit, the fried chicken (brined, then soaked in buttermilk) was dry, the skin flabby, the biscuit like hardtack. On our last visit, the same dish was juicy and tasty, though the skin was still not crisp. The biscuit was vastly improved.

The pleasure of a satisfying short rib, lightly smoked and tender, was doubled by dragging bites through rich gravy and buttery mashies. Equally good was a succulent chicken breast, enlivened by a Turkish spice rub and a side of quinoa with dried fruits and nuts.

Though our server praised the mac-and-cheese side, it was a snore. Worse was a gluey, bland bucatini with lobster sauce that has since vanished from the menu.

Save for a dry, cloying lemon cake, G&C’s pastry staff does a swell job with grain and cane. Strong suits included house-made coffee gelato, just bitter enough to give it sophisticated finesse, and two warm, fudgy brownie squares, served with a scoop of vanilla-bean gelato, chopped peanuts, whipped cream and a cherry on top. The brownies were a bit skimpy on the hot fudge. But after devouring the tomahawk steak, we felt restraint would be more becoming and didn’t ask for more fudge.

Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
  • Price Range:
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $10-$16; entrées, $12-$36; family-style servings, $36-$72; desserts, $6-$10
  • Ambience:
    Casual, spacious, with a mix of hotel guests, locals and people who work in the office park
  • Service:
    Tentative but eager to please
  • Wine list:
    Signature cocktails, eight craft beers on tap, wine list with 16 choices by the glass
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