So surely has the Pluckemin Inn taken its place among the best restaurants in New Jersey that it is easy to forget it is only four years old. You might say its roots are older in that its husband-and-wife founders, Carl and Gloria LaGrassa, honed their vision of hospitality through many years of travel and frequenting favorite restaurants like Bouley and Il Mulino in Manhattan, where they had an apartment, and the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station near their home in Far Hills.
This has been a year of profound change for the Pluckemin. In January, Carl, a wine connoisseur and dynamic financial entrepreneur, died at 80 after a long illness. In April, executive chef David C. Felton left to become chef for the Natirar Resort being developed by Sir Richard Branson in Somerset County. In the background was the recession, and Gloria had her own health issues. As she says, “It was all at once.”
The Pluckemin seems to have steered surely through everything, thanks to a combination of continuity and new blood. The continuity begins with Gloria, 72, who has lunch or dinner at the restaurant nearly every day, introduces herself to customers and solicits their suggestions, meets weekly with top management or the entire team, and makes the big decisions. One of those was the hiring of a new executive chef.
The winner of an extensive search, Juan Jose Cuevas comes with an impressive résumé. A native of Puerto Rico, Cuevas graduated with honors from the CIA before working at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York. He later became sous-chef at Lespinasse, then executive chef at Blue Hill, both in New York; the latter restaurant was in the vanguard of the “locavore” movement.
Cuevas, who arrived in late May, brings this passion for the local to the Pluckemin. He buys a lot of produce from Three Meadows Farm in Bedminster and supplements it with three or four trips a week to the Union Square Greenmarket in New York, plus frequent cuttings from the inn’s own herb garden. “Nothing will be better for you than food that comes from close to you,” he says. “It’s a chain reaction. We buy from the farmer so the farmer can keep taking from the land.”
At the height of tomato season, Cuevas served one of the tastier heirloom tomato salads around, presenting it with snipped basil, melon broth, a deliciously tangy tomato sorbet, and the wild card that sealed the deal—plump, fresh red currants. Another summer winner was wild Arctic char on a juicy base of firm, finely diced zucchini, tart purslane leaves, and tender cockles in a basil vinaigrette. Equally good was Alaskan halibut over an herb minestrone of peas, pole beans, favas, and pancetta. Cuevas has a knack for aggregating subtle flavors and textures into something special. You see it in his salads as well. “You have to approach vegetables as if you are meeting a person,” he says. “It takes patience to draw the most out from them.”
Eschewing wine, butter, and cream sauces, Cuevas amplifies his vegetable-based sauces so they mate well with fish and meat. He likes to cook meat slowly, sous vide, at lower temperatures. “I don’t like a big heavy sear on the outside,” he says. “It dries out the meat. Everything on the inside gets overpowered by the char.” The technique produced a terrific boneless veal chop special and a dinner menu entrée of juicy and flavorful boneless Berkshire pork chop with a memorable layered “pizza” of white eggplant confit, mozzarella, and roasted red peppers.
Lunch at the Pluckemin does not play second fiddlehead fern. Longtime favorites like the excellent fish and chips; the hand-rolled pasta with tomato, basil, pecorino, and olive oil; and the tuna tartare with wontons, wasabi tobiko, and ponzu sauce have been retained. Generously portioned duck-confit salad—made with frisée, watercress, chopped egg, bacon, and sherry vinaigrette topped with a hefty quarter of rich, crispy-skinned duck—is a starter that weakened my resolve to save room for later courses. (Another discipline derailer is the excellent bread selection, especially pastry chef Joseph Gabriel’s wickedly good herb-and-parmesan crostini, with their touch of Tabasco, drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkling of Maldon sea salt.)
The handsome tavern room, with its big fireplace, is the lunch locus, but it’s good to know that the dinner menu can be ordered in the tavern—and the lunch or tavern menus in the dining room. The only knock on the identical upstairs and downstairs dining rooms, which surround a two-story, glass-enclosed wine room, is that they are dark. Some will consider them romantic, but I like to see what I’m eating, especially when the food is this good and well presented. Adding a few more ceiling pinlights and training them on the tables would solve the problem.
Getting back to continuity, Brian Hider was sommelier of the Tewksbury Inn when the LaGrassas were regulars there, and Carl put Hider in charge of building and managing his personal wine collection even before opening the Pluckemin Inn. With Hider in charge, the restaurant’s list remains one of the deeper and more intriguing in the state, and features the reasonably priced “Pluckemin 100.”
Another realm of continuity is desserts. Pastry chef Gabriel has held that position since the restaurant opened. Like other accomplished specialists, his desserts are visually delightful. His happen to be a delight to eat, which is not always the case. A good measure of any chef is whether he or she can make you like something you thought you didn’t like. For me, in desserts, the no-thank-yous would include caramel and marshmallow, which happen to be components of Gabriel’s milk chocolate and peanut caramel tart with popcorn gelato, caramel corn, and toasted-sesame marshmallow.
Its name alone is a mouthful. In the eating, it becomes a suite of lavish, harmonious, sometimes unexpected flavors and contrasting textures. The caramel is cooked very dark, soothed with cream and butter, elevated with milk chocolate and peanut butter ganache, given irresistible hits of Maldon sea salt, and poured into a French sablé (crumbly chocolate shortbread) cup, which has much more personality than a pure chocolate cup. It’s a mind-blower, and it’s only one component of the dessert.
The subtle popcorn gelato is made with fresh corn and handfuls of popcorn steeped in milk, then strained. Perhaps most surprising—and transcendant—is the toasted-sesame marshmallow. It’s made with an Italian meringue (“There are all different styles of meringue,” Gabriel says) whipped with black sesame paste and bolstered with “a touch of gelatin for stability.”
I could spend another two paragraphs on Gabriel’s superlative vacherin of passion fruit buttons and mango sorbet with kaffir lime leaf, pink peppercorns, and exotic compote. But I won’t, because it will be out of season by the time you read this. Instead, look forward to pumpkin quark cheesecake with candied pumpkin and quince, and two desserts still in the works at press time: “Something with sweet potatoes and chestnuts together, and something homey, with apples, cheddar, and maple syrup.”Click here to leave a comment