If you’ve passed Exit 138 on the Parkway in the last few years, you’ve seen it being built, slowly rising, a massive stone building looming over the southbound lanes, but equally visible from the northbound side. Wags say it looks like a mausoleum—and not just because golfers gather at the bar inside to mourn their missed putts and immortalize their best rounds. The imposing three-story building is, in fact, the new clubhouse of Union County’s Galloping Hill Golf Course.
The top floor houses the offices of the New Jersey State Golf Association and several large banquet rooms booked far in advance for weddings and meetings. The ground floor holds the golf pro shop, locker rooms and a restaurant, Red Knot, that deserves to be recognized as much more than a place to grab a bite after nine holes or review a round over drinks.
While every golfer lives for birdies, likely few Jerseyans know that Red Knot is named for a migratory bird that flies overhead twice a year. Union County deliberately chose a non-golfy name because it wants the restaurant to be recognized on its own merits, not just by hungry golfers. By hiring Ralph Romano as executive chef, they showed they were serious. Romano, a Westfield resident, brings more than two decades of experience running food and beverage programs at the Four Seasons in Mexico City and the Ritz-Carlton in New York.
Before opening Red Knot in May 2013, Romano launched the food and beverage operation at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “If you can make a great fish taco for 18,000 Nets fans, you can do anything,” he said with a laugh in a phone call after my visits. At Red Knot, he serves fine mahimahi tacos—the fish rubbed with a custom spice mix from Savory Spices in Westfield—with apple-cilantro slaw. Romano buys only fresh seafood and meat, never frozen.
A Bayonne native, Romano studied at Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute. “For me,” he said, “technique is a way to get to what diners want: simple food that tastes great.” That describes much of Red Knot’s fare to a tee, starting with its juicy, full-flavored, 10-ounce burgers cooked on a charcoal grill. “All steak—sirloin and other cuts,” Romano said. “No chuck, no short rib.” They come in five varieties, including the Jersey (with Taylor ham, egg, American cheese, lettuce and tomato, $13) and the Red Knot (aged Asiago, smoked tomatoes, mushrooms and onions, on a brioche bun, $12).
Romano calls his domain a “scratch kitchen, with everything made in-house except the pastas, pierogies and ice creams.” The 10-inch pizzas ($11-$14, extra toppings $2 each) are cooked in a wood-burning oven. Standouts included the ricotta and pesto pie with pine nuts; the fried calamari pie with arugula, chili flakes and lemon oregano; and the caramelized cauliflower pie with sharp cheddar, garlic and caramelized onions.
Red Knot’s empanadas rival those I’ve eaten in Argentina’s top parrillada grills. Beef, chopped in-house, is from Passaic’s Gachot & Gachot, which also supplies Peter Luger. The mushroom empanada combines cremini, shiitake, hotoke, button and other ’shrooms with smoked mozzarella from Lioni Latticini in Union. “By popular demand,” Romano said, he deep fries rather than bakes his empanadas, producing a rich, pastry-like crust. These sizable starters, two to an order, are served with a tomato-based Colombian salsa called aliño and an Argentinian parsley-garlic chimichurri.
Duck and jicama spring rolls with soy glaze and sesame seeds likewise met the “tastes great” standard. Lemon aioli pefectly accented crisp fried calamari.
On the dinner menu, a pot of mussels was skimpy, its white wine broth faint. But quick-seared sesame-crusted tuna—with green edamame dumplings, bits of Mandarin orange and squiggles of reduced soy and wasabi aioli—was as lively on the palate as on the plate. Moist black sea bass with fried calamari, lemon chive risotto and crushed tomato sauce crushes preconceptions of what to expect from “a golf course restaurant.” Bucatini pasta with a pan sauce of chicken stock, white wine, lemon, shallots, cauliflower, capers and saffron was crowned with grilled shrimp, powdered Mexican arbol chilies and mascarpone—which Romano calls “the greatest fat on Earth.”
Straightforward meat-plus-sides entrées are reliable here. Romano grills rather than pan sears duck breast “for a wilder taste and a meaty sear.” Skirt steak, served sliced with a chimichurri sauce, was admirably tender but not especially beefy in flavor. Bacon-wrapped kimchi meatloaf had an appealing handmade texture, with house-fermented kimchi mixed in. Topped with a spicy sambal ketchup glaze and served with wasabi mashed potatoes, baby bok choy and sliced carrots, it’s a signature dish.
Pork belly with a Bulleit bourbon glaze was flavorful but stringy. By contrast, the double-cut pork chop was superb. Cooked sous vide, then grilled for a nice char, it’s topped with a scoop of avocado gelato, which melts into a blissful sauce. Earthy, umami-rich farro risotto is Red Knot’s most flavorful entrée, and its lowest priced ($16). Romano cooks the farro (a wheat grain) in a mix of beef and chicken stock with butternut squash, celery root, mushrooms, truffle oil and a final shower of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Desserts, by pastry chef Cassie Carlstrom, aim to rekindle childhood pleasures. The Campfire Sundae is a witty and delicious elevation of s’mores, with graham cracker ice cream (full of crunchy chocolate-covered graham cracker bits) and a skewer of toasted marshmallows rising like an antenna. The toasted almond crème brulée recalls the classic Good Humor bar. Best is the Valrhona chocolate caramel tart with sea salt and crumbled pistachios—the culinary equivalent of sinking a 50-foot, downhill putt for birdie. The bird being a red knot.
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