Restaurant Review

Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen

Morristown’s majestic Vail mansion is transformed into a come-as-you-are party of earthy food and fine drink.

Braised octopus appetizer with tomato asopau.
Braised octopus appetizer with tomato asopau, a kind of Caribbean rice stew.
Photo by Laura Moss

Sitting down to my first meal at the newly opened Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown, the words “live scallop” on the menu stopped me. Dayboats haul some of the best ocean scallops in the world from the waters off Cape May and Barnegat Light, but virtually all shuck their catch at sea. On a dayboat once, I ate a just-shucked scallop. Its silky firmness and ethereal flavor made even a light sauté seem a sacrilege. At Jockey Hollow, the promise was scallops treated like oysters.

Served on the (wide-as-your-hand) half shell, the scallop was sliced thin and sprinkled with crunchy, better-than-bacon guanciale, slivers of mild Shunkyo radish and lemon vinaigrette. I consumed the $14 crudo in a few blissful bites.

The point of this story is that Chris Cannon—the veteran New York restaurateur and Mountain Lakes resident who created and owns JHBK, as he calls it—is a sorceror of sourcing. “You can get scallops in the shell,” he told me mildly after my visits. “I mean,” he hastily added, “you have to ask for it.” That’s the upshot: he knows whom to ask, and how to get to yes.

The resourceful sourcing doesn’t end there. JHBK offers $1 oysters at happy hour, 4 to 6 pm daily, because Cannon’s investment in Matt Gregg’s 40 North oyster beds in Barnegat Bay kept the fledgling farm afloat after Sandy wreaked havoc. Another investment, in Ralston Farm in Mendham, now puts fresh produce and Berkshire Duroc pigs on JHBK’s menu.

From those pigs, executive chef Kevin Sippel makes, among other things, ineffable headcheese (two words you rarely see together). Sippel folds the soft, ribbon-like slices on a single piece of superb toasted sourdough brightened with just enough mustard. Headcheese epitomizes the waste-not-want-not, nose-to-tail eating in fashion today. It’s peasant food, and proud of it. In Sippel’s hands, what the Italophile menu calls testa crostini becomes the stairway to heaven of open-faced sandwiches.

A Buffalo native with a blue-collar work ethic, Sippel, 37, graduated from culinary programs in Northern Italy and Southern France before helping Cannon and executive chef Michael White earn three-star New York Times reviews at L’Impero and Alto in Manhattan.

All the JHBK management and some others on the team have worked with Cannon before. Chefs respect him because he can cook with the best of them; sommeliers because his prowess at pairing food with wine is near legendary (“That’s why I’m here,” said co-sommelier Sam Doyle); and managers because he has run marquee establishments, including the Rainbow Room and Palio.

Over the last 20 years, Cannon, 53, has created a string of lauded New York restaurants, from Judson Grill in 1994 to his home runs with White at L’Impero, Alto, Convivio and Marea. Cannon’s partnership with White made the latter a star but ended in acrimony, with Cannon summarily squeezed out. He went home to Mountain Lakes and dedicated the last four-plus years to turning the long-vacant, circa 1918 Vail Mansion into the restaurant of his dreams.

A key to that dream is its name. I asked Cannon why it’s “Bar & Kitchen” and not the other way around. Isn’t the food foremost? “The entire ground floor and basement are really bars first, with great food,” he replied. “The emphasis on bar connotes a more casual, accessible environment. Conviviality reigns supreme. Above all, it’s supposed to be fun.”

Fun was what Theodore Vail, the first president of AT&T, never got to have with his Italian Renaissance palazzo. It was to be his home and art gallery, but he died in 1920, before he could move in. For years the building housed Morristown’s police, fire and municipal offices.

JHBK is the most ambitious restaurant to open in New Jersey in some time, as much for its four distinct dining spaces as for the transformation of the mansion. By the time you read this, the second-floor Dining Room (reservations-only, prix-fixe, fine dining) and the basement Rathskeller (a beer-hall-like event space with à la carte dining Friday and Saturday) will have opened.

The subject here is the two ground-floor spaces—the Oyster & Wine Bar and the Vail Bar. Both opened in early October and share the same casual, seafood-centric, Italian-influenced menu. Reservations are accepted but not required.

As you approach Vail’s patrician retreat, with its Versailles-like reflecting pool, you expect opulence, but that’s not in the game plan. You enter from a side door. The spare, rather austere Oyster & Wine Bar unfolds on your right, opposite the grand marble staircase, in the high-ceilinged space that Vail envisioned as his art gallery.

If you walk past the staircase and hang a left, you enter JHBK’s social sweet spot—the Vail Bar. Its beautifully restored marble fireplace and white-oak paneling mesh seamlessly with a handsome new wood bar.

You can dine at the bar or at cocktail tables (suitable for two or three people) by the floor-to-ceiling windows. A giant flat-screen showing sports brings the room up to date without breaking the mood of well-heeled bonhomie. A button-tufted red leather couch with matching armchairs strikes a jovial note, which a throw pillow reinforces with the message, “Be Nice Or Leave.”

Cannon patterned the menu after that of Marc Vetri’s Philadelphia flagship, Vetri. Choose from any category: raw bar, crudo, salumi, cheese (all U.S.; Jersey coming), appetizers, entrées, desserts. Everything, including cocktails and wines by the glass, is listed on an iPad Mini handed to each person.

The best thing about these devices is the home-page photo, taken in 1955 by the famed photographer Garry Winogrand, of Cannon’s father, John, a trusts and estates fiduciary, in a tiger-striped booth at El Morocco with his friend Mercedes Herrera.

Cannon defends the iPads as saving molto trees because the menu changes often. But there’s no way to tell which menu, lunch or dinner, is on the device until you order something and discover you’ve got the wrong menu. That happened a couple times. Add a couple of low-battery warnings; a graphic designer’s white stripe on the screen that obscures some of the print; and the need to flip through scads of screens (when servers fail to show you how to get back to the category page), and Cannon’s contention that response has been “100 percent positive” may be myopic. I’m no luddite. By press time, I was starting to get used to the damn devices.

It’s early yet. Until early December, desserts were limited and being made off-site because the pastry kitchen was still under construction. (Apple pie, thin-sliced biscotti and chocolate-hazelnut torte were nonetheless stellar.) Cannon is forthright that an enterprise with this many facets will take time to reach cruising altitude. Several dishes sound exciting but are just good, which in this setting isn’t good enough. That includes ho-hum Sicilian-style roast chicken; tough-skinned lamb sausage; and the Ralston kale salad with overassertive mustard vinaigrette.

Thankfully, many things were right, right away—like the greatest meatball I have ever eaten (made from veal, eggs and ricotta, but lunch only); the ravishing squid-ink pasta with grilled cuttlefish and crispy pork belly; the ethereal Arctic char with saffron mousseline and roasted fennel; and the CC Burger, a caveman crave of 100 percent dry-aged brisket—23.75 percent fat thanks to added trimmings. (But its pale, skinny fries taste mainly of salt.)

All the above except the meatball are entrées. Fact is, you can eat well without advancing past the raw bar, crudo and appetizer screens. Factor in the classic-to-creative cocktails of head bartender Chris James (late of the Ryland Inn, where he became a star); the 32 wines by the glass; and (if you wish) dish-by-dish pairings by co-sommeliers Doyle and Charles Prusik—and you can while away a merry, if wallet-denting, evening.

The exquisite fresh-shucked scallop, for example, was nearly equaled by the yellowtail crudo, its slices of plush flesh sprinkled with dandy bits of crunchy dehydrated chicken skin and slivers of green scallion tops. Raw littleneck clams dotted with Calabrian chili pepper and minced recao, a Caribbean sofrito, are steals at $1.50 each. Choose from five types of oysters ($2.50-$3.50 outside of happy hour). Everything is spanglingly fresh. Creamy scrambled eggs with chives on rustic toast with lardo and slices of black truffle were so gratifying they didn’t so much rock my world as rock my cradle, or at least some atavistic memory of its comforts.

Of the four salumi boards, speck (smoked prosciutto) with brussels-sprout leaves and caraway seeds was the luscious standout. The ultimate unction of a split marrow bone was offset by house-cured anchovies smeared on top and melted under the broiler. Octopus braised in red wine with capers and garlic in a tomato asopao put me in orbit like the whimsical figurine of a spacewalking astronaut you see suspended in an alcove the moment you enter the restaurant.

Asopao? It’s another triumph of simple, time-tested cooking. “My wife is Dominican, from the South Bronx,” Sippel told me. “She makes it all the time. You take long-grain rice and cook it in tomato and chicken stock until it puffs out like popcorn.” Roll over, Theodore Vail; they’re serving peasant food in your patrician palace.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    American - European - Italian
  • Price Range:
    Expensive

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