Lawyer Jason Miller had been kicking around restaurant ideas for years before he finally quit his day job to open Montclair Social Club, an ambitious dining and entertainment venue he calls an “urban suburban project.”
“I’ve always loved Montclair,” says Miller, who grew up in Livingston and now lives in Short Hills. “It’s a dining and cultural hub with a wonderful, diverse demographic.” The space—vacant for a decade and previously home to Rascals Comedy Club—was gutted to create a bar and 115-seat restaurant featuring a vest-pocket stage for live music. The design is tasteful and modern, with Art Deco influences.
“Typically, when people hear about a social club, they think about an old mobster hangout from a bygone era,” says Miller. “Here, we’ve democratized the concept.”
When I visited, the bar buzzed with young professionals, while the dining room was filled with groups of women, couples on dates and families with kids in tow. A combo took the stage and played soulful covers of songs by John Legend, the Isley Brothers and Maxwell.
The kitchen is run by executive chef and restaurant partner Michael Merida, who trained at the CIA and worked at Park Avenue Café and Le Bernardin in Manhattan before spending nine years overseas, including stints at the Fat Duck west of London and El Bulli in Spain. He finally put down roots in Jersey, working at Green Brook Country Club in Caldwell before opening Montclair Social.
While Merida shows flashes of his haute bona fides—a foie gras parfait is influenced by a similar dish at the Fat Duck—he otherwise plays it safe. You’ll find a familiar playlist of proven hits that, while generous in portion and capably executed, has little focus or personality.
One of the best dishes I sampled was the simplest: hot corn bread topped with whipped ricotta and corn sautéed in brown butter. Anointed with a drizzle of honey, it was sweet, savory and delicious. And credit Merida with an unlikely feat: making that clichéd crowd-pleaser, deviled eggs, actually spectacular. He snips the tips off extra-large eggs, stands them on end, fills the interior with egg purée and smoked salmon, wraps the top in more smoked salmon, adds microgreens, and plants a flag of crisp bacon on top.
Merida won New York’s Meatball Madness Contest in 2010 for his recipe, but on my visit, his all-veal meatballs fell short on flavor. A better starter was the ricotta gnocchi. Served with clam mushrooms in a cauliflower sauce, they were light, airy, earthy and belly warming.
On to Hawaii. Über-trendy poke was reenvisioned as snack-size crispy sushi: raw salmon and tuna, in eel sauce on fried rice cakes provided a pleasing contrast of textures, flavors and temperatures.
Steaks are a strong point. A generous 14-ounce strip steak from Allen Brothers in Chicago, basted with a demi-glace and butter, was rich and tender. I also liked the marinated skirt steak, though I was bewildered by its coiled, snake-like presentation. Both steaks are served with a choice of three sauces. Avoid the chimichurri, which departed from the usual slurry of oil, vinegar and herbs with a spicy, smoothie-like purée that included the unusual—and unwelcome—addition of jalapeños and cilantro.
A roasted filet of salmon from the Faroe Islands was excellent—nut brown outside, luscious within. But the accompanying risotto, blended with butternut squash, was lukewarm, overcooked and gummy.
Merida also oversees desserts, which show his skill with artful compositions and layered flavors and textures. His Zeppole Tree, the ultimate in Instagram fodder, lays down a bed of ricotta zeppole under a cloud of cotton candy studded with edible pansies. The fried dumplings were delightful, but the cotton candy seemed out of place, except to my 8-year-old, who dug in gleefully with both hands.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:American
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $5-$17; entrées, $21-$36; desserts, $8-$14
- Ambience:Upscale, youthfully sophisticated
- Service:Friendly and attentive
- Wine list:Excellent cocktails, classic and new; eight craft beers on tap; wine list with 11 by the glass