When John Benjamin was executive chef of Restaurant Latour, the NJM Top 25 pick at Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County, from 2003 to 2013, he would serve fewer than 100 customers a night. As executive chef since 2014 of Park West Tavern in Ridgewood—also of owners John Halligan and Randy Carson’s other restaurant, the Park Steakhouse in Park Ridge—Benjamin has happily adjusted to a broader, more casual menu and a faster pace. “On a big night,” he says, “we can serve 400.”
The handsome, 80-seat tavern, open since 2011, is popular with locals, making reservations on weekends highly advisable. Prices are reasonable, and the food is fun and generally well executed.
Benjamin, 47, a Connecticut native and CIA grad, has a sterling resume. He worked for Charlie Palmer at Aureole in Manhattan and Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. “Chef Keller hired me to develop the cheese program, and I became a fromagier,” Benjamin says. “I learned a lot in the kitchen, too.” The latter includes a marinade for chicken that Benjamin now uses on his justly popular smoked pork-belly appetizer. Crisped under the broiler, it’s given an apple-cider glaze with a Brussels sprouts slaw, fried shallots and aioli.
Another don’t-miss starter is deviled eggs, each daubed with Caesar dressing and topped with a plump fried oyster.
The 8-ounce house burger, a blend of Angus chuck, hanger steak and brisket, is hefty, juicy and flavorful, topped with Wisconsin cheddar on a brioche bun (from Brooklyn Bakery in Garfield). It comes with ketchup and pickles, both made in-house, plus a basket of crisp, butter-drizzled fries.
The steaks are USDA prime, yet only the New York strip (12 ounces, $36) was aged—dry-aged 21 days at purveyor DeBragga & Spitler in Jersey City. A bone-in cowboy ribeye (18 ounces, $45) and a porterhouse T-bone (24 ounces, $45) bordered on tough; the ribeye, normally a well-marbled and flavorful cut, especially when cooked bone-in, was scant on beefiness. Guinness-braised short ribs were slouchingly soft and bland despite the stout braise. At least the accompanying roasted garlic risotto was assertive and properly textured.
On one visit, sprightly house-made gnocchi basked in a vegetable broth umami-charged with mushrooms, Parmesan and white truffle oil. On another night, the gnocchi were mushy, the broth thin and under-seasoned. A side order of roasted butternut squash was leathery outside, cottony inside.
Fish and fowl fared better. Tuna tartare, a starter playfully served in a crispy miso tuile, was lively and delicious in its accompaniments of finely diced papaya, soy sauce, sesame oil, peppery chive sprouts, and black and white sesame seeds.
Pan-seared tuna, an entrée rubbed with Chinese five-spice powder, was nearly as rewarding. Benjamin tops it with brown bubbles he calls soy caviar, a molecular trick made with soy sauce and agar gelatin. The salty little pearls burst amusingly on the tongue, enhancing the tuna. It comes with a slightly too-sweet sweet-and-sour slaw of Napa cabbage, jicama, mango and avocado presented, with a wink, in a mini Chinese takeout container, complete with chopsticks.
Organic rosemary-basted chicken breast and thigh was juicy and full flavored. With a butternut squash-and-brioche stuffing, grilled mushrooms, pearl onions and gravy, it blossomed into a table-pleasing hit.
“Northern fried” chicken (“Southern-fried in North Jersey,” Benjamin explains with a smile) is moist and rich under crisp skin seasoned with Old Bay. The pieces are stacked over cinnamon-cap nameko mushrooms on a delectable Belgian waffle. Two sauces double your fun: A tangy maple-syrup gastrique drizzled over a thick chicken gravy spiked with Jack Daniels.
Desserts run from trendy to traditional, none compelling. Ricotta zeppole were leaden; the caramel cap on a crème brûlée oddly leathery. Banana sour cream cake with Oreo crumbs was gooey kid stuff. Best bet? The sumptuous bourbon-and-vanilla-infused Chantilly whipped cream, which you can order on its own for $6 or over berries for $8.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$17; entrées, $22-$45; sides, $7-$9; desserts, $12-$14.
Ambience:Modern wood-and-stone lounge.
Service:Cheerful and efficient.
Wine list:Craft beers, cocktails, 25 wines (white and red) for $25/bottle, plus 40 "reserved" reds.