Restaurant Review

Highlawn Pavillion

Whenever I’m asked to recommend a restaurant for out-of-town visitors, Highlawn Pavilion is often at the top of my list. This is partly because of its spectacular view of the New York skyline and partly because of its decor, which is either very elegant or over-the-top, depending on your taste. This is one of the Knowles family’s celebrated restaurants, along with the nearby Manor and the Ram’s Head Inn in Absecon.

The large building is at a high point within Eagle Rock Reservation. It usually hosts several events at once, so you may well bump into people in black tie as you arrive; although there is no official dress code, this isn’t the sort of restaurant at which you’d wear jeans and a T-shirt. Prices are high, but portions are ample and the quality is good—and of course you have that fabulous view. Along with a decent wine list, the offerings by the glass are quite extensive.

Highlawn Pavilion has always served food that’s more than acceptable, but now that Mitchell Altholz, former chef/owner of the well-rated Jocelyne’s in Maplewood, is the chef, it’s even better. But there’s a difference between cooking for a small, rapt audience and cooking in an open kitchen for a large crowd that often seems more interested in the view, the drinks, and the company than the menu. In any case, the food isn’t as good as when Altholz cooked at Jocelyne’s.

Service for the most part is attentive, efficient, and eager to please. One evening when we send back an overcooked rack of lamb, we’re served a small portion of delicious homemade shrimp ravioli and shaved fennel and caviar while we wait; the porcini-crusted lamb, accompanied by celery root purée, is returned perfectly cooked.

The lobster bisque—smooth, creamy, with an intense lobster flavor—is one of the best I’ve had in a long time. The poached-lobster appetizer, with black-trumpet mushrooms, asparagus tips, and beurre blanc, is excellent, as is an assortment of sea creatures—cold Maine lobster, lump crabmeat, giant shrimp, crab claws, and an oyster, all on one platter with seaweed, cocktail sauce, and shredded fresh horseradish. A slightly peppery lobster salad with mustard, cress, and paper-thin slices of beef is also good. I particularly like a special of crisp-tender sweetbreads with port wine sauce, wild mushrooms, and salsify. But the tuna tartare is bland.

Two main course specials are also recommended: red snapper with mushrooms, baby vegetables, and mashed potatoes, and attractively served skate wings with tiny haricots verts and asparagus. The grilled filet mignon features top-quality meat and tastes beefier than one might expect from this cut; topped with roasted shallots and a red-wine reduction, it’s excellent. Three huge shrimp and as many scallops, accompanied by a saffron risotto, are also good, but a pheasant special is bland and the pan-seared lemon sole with crabmeat is overcooked.

There isn’t a poor dessert on the menu: an individual warm apple tarte Tatin accompanied by homemade cinnamon ice cream; chocolate-caramel gâteaux (chocolate cake layered with a chocolate filling and topped with a caramel lattice); flourless chocolate cake that melts in the mouth; crème brûlée with raspberries; a crustless cheesecake; and the Chocolate Dome—a wedge of chocolate cake filled with mousse and coated with chocolate. They’re all well worth ordering.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - Modern
  • Price Range:
    Expensive
  • Ambience:
    Belle Epoque with spectacular views
  • Service:
    Very good
  • Wine list:
    Very good

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