Chef Jamie Knott refers to his restaurants as “my babies.” Led by the upscale Saddle River Inn, which he purchased and updated in 2013, and the cheeky boite Cellar 335, which he opened in Jersey City in 2016 (both are on NJM’s 2019 Top 30 list), it’s a strong gene pool.
The Cafe, opened in 2018, is Knott’s latest child, located in a good-looking strip mall near the Saddle River Inn. Attention to detail raises the offerings above ordinary. Squares of comforting, warm focaccia arrived shortly after we sat down to dinner, along with a wee dish of garlic-herb oil, an inspired choice for dipping. Servers are quick with a genuine smile, know the menu, and offer good customer care, such as not removing the delicious coconut-curry sauce left from the Thai mussels so guests can obsessively dip their Old Bay–seasoned fries into it.
During the day, the cafe, bright with natural light, blonde wood and faux trailing plants gives off a ’70s California vibe. At night, the lights are dimmed and candles flicker on the tables. When asked why he started the cafe, Knott initially suggested insanity, but then said Saddle River needed a “local watering hole, where the water is coffee.” The original idea of a coffee-and-fresh-doughnut place quickly morphed into a breakfast-and-lunch place. Knott added dinner eight months ago.
I ate both dinner and lunch at the cafe. The menu offers something for every craving and level of hunger, from a quinoa-mushroom veggie burger to hand-rolled orecchiette with truffle cream. At dinner, we made quick work of crab cakes. Packed with crab, they were crusted in crushed cornflakes for a sweet nuttiness. The fried artichoke appetizer was a tad oily, but dipping the leaves into the lemon-caper aioli, my guest and I happily polished them off.
A chopped salad, although packed with interesting things (chunks of butternut squash, apples, cotija cheese), came with barely any of the promised pumpkin seed dressing and ended up a bit of a snooze.
A main course of black bass over bok choy was elegant and satisfying in an umami-rich shiitake broth enhanced with yuzu butter. The burger—sporting cheddar and bacon-onion jam and dripping with a house sauce of ketchup, mayo, mustard, capers and cornichons—challenged the brioche bun to contain it. Eating it was a full-body experience. I’d eat another right now.
The crispy, bone-in pork Milanese, with tomato jam and dots of melted burrata, seemed more posh parmigiana than classic Milanese. No matter; the pork was juicy, with a crunchy exterior. Lobster risotto was creamy and generously supplied with tender lobster, and the rice bit back, as it should. Yet for all that, the flavor was blah—rather like when you see a gorgeous person across the room at a party and work up the courage to talk to them, only to find out they have nothing much to say.
At lunch, the mood was bright and the air scented with welcoming smells of cucumber and orange, thanks to the freshly made smoothies and juice concoctions. I was surprised to find the BKT omelet (Bacon! Charred kale! Tomato!) was actually a frittata. It promised many flavors, including an inspired drizzle of green goddess dressing, but sadly was overcooked.
One mouthful of the Thai salad with spicy peanut sauce, however, banished all thoughts of the frittata. I topped mine with sautéed salmon. The lush mixture of julienned vegetables, mango and pineapple with egg noodles and a spicy, creamy sauce made me wish I lived closer to Saddle River, as I would happily eat that daily.
Every town should be lucky enough to have a place like Saddle River Cafe with a devoted chef/father at the helm.
- Cuisine Type:New American
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Dinner appetizers, $11–$16; entrées, $13–$33; sides, $1–$6; desserts, $7–$9
- Ambience:Bright and upbeat by day; low lit and upbeat by night
- Service:Smart and thoughtful
- Wine list:BYO