Some old restaurants fade away, finally disappearing after decades of decline (Pal’s Cabin in West Orange, soon to be a CVS; or Lahiere’s in Princeton, now utterly reinvented as Agricola). Some suffer sudden traumatic injury, then are lovingly revived and updated (the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station). The Saddle River Inn has undergone a gentler metamorphosis, more an evolution than the creation of a whole new species.
In January, chef/owner Hans Egg, a septuagenarian ready for retirement, sold the old-school French restaurant he opened in 1981 to two handpicked successors—Jamie Knott and David Madison, Jersey boys who had proven themselves in high-profile New York restaurants under Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Tom Colicchio and Terrance Brennan.
Knott, 32, the executive chef, and Madison, 52, have nudged this beloved Bergen County institution into the present. Sensitively updating the premises, a handsome 1790 barn perched picturesquely beside the Saddle River, they have honored Egg’s French-Swiss legacy while deftly adding contemporary global influences.
The two met in 2010 at Brennan’s highly rated Artisanal, where Knott was executive chef and Madison was director of operations. On the phone after my visits, Knott told me that while working at Artisanal, the two started kicking around the idea of opening a restaurant of their own. When Madison—who grew up in Ramsey and lives in North Plainfield—heard that Egg was looking to retire, he and Knott—who lives in Nutley, where he grew up—decided to meet for dinner at the Inn. “Three quarters of the way through the meal, I said, ‘This is our restaurant,’” Knott related. “Six months later, we closed.”
Unlike the Ryland and Lahiere’s, the Saddle River Inn was still operating. It had retained much of its affluent clientele, although when I dined there four years ago, I found it a bit tired. Take the Maribar, for example—a Hans Egg signature still on the menu. When I appraised this dish in 2009, I bemoaned the cottony filet mignon and too-sweet chestnut purée, but swooned over the potato gratin. Now the filet is deeply flavorful and delightfully springy, and the accoutrements are seductive and well balanced. (Beef lovers note: The new sirloin, prime and dry aged 45 days, with truffle potato purée, asparagus and mushroom Bordelaise sauce, is even better.) That potato gratin remains perfect: golden and crunchy outside, buttery and oozing potato goodness inside. It can be ordered as a side dish, and I recommend doing so, despite the hefty $10 charge for a petite disc.
Speaking of cost, the Maribar, at $42, is the most expensive entrée; others range from the mid- to high-30s. (One night, a 16-ounce veal chop special was $50.) Yet I never felt ripped off, even on dishes that didn’t quite live up to expectations, such as the $16 Chinoise, another updated golden Egg. It’s a pretty salad of shredded Napa cabbage abundantly graced with jumbo lump crabmeat in a thin dressing with a hint of toasty sesame oil. Tangerine segments add an almost deli-case sweetness. Yet even sprinkled with toasted black sesame seeds and scallions, the dish seemed safe, mild, a bit too ladies-who-lunch.
More representative of Knott’s expertise is his signature tuna carpacccio. He pounds sushi-grade yellowfin into a bright circle, seasons it with salt and togarashi (a Japanese five-pepper mix) and drizzles it with soy mayo and lemon vinaigrette. Thin wheels of jalapeño add jabs of heat, while thin radish rounds, slanted like solar panels, add crunch. Avocado, micro basil leaves and black sesame seeds lift the dish into the realm of the wonderful. Knott puts his own welcome spin on classic French starters like seared Hudson Valley foie gras. I relished its shallot confit, chopped pistachios and drizzle of pistachio oil, but in particular its Nike-like swoosh of grape purée. Knott calls this purée, made from red grapes, red wine, red wine vinegar, port and verjus, “grapes five ways.” I call it the coup de grace.
Less lofty but just as good are escargot Café de Paris. In the six compartments of a blistering hot terra cotta dish, plump, tender snails loll in leek fondue and just-garlicky-enough garlic butter under jaunty caps of puffy buttered toast. I coerced two reluctant guests to give them a try, and they subsequently thanked me profusely. An intense wild-mushroom soup with truffle crème also won acclaim. But steak tartare, processed almost to a purée and overpowered with Dijon mustard, fell short.
The rustic-yet-refined space is more charming than ever. While some bemoan the loss of the lace curtains and swags of faux greenery, flowers and grapes, I see no place for fuddy-duddy fakery in the reconstituted inn. Knott and Madison closed the place for a month to, as Knott puts it, “bring out the best features.” The curtains, they felt, hid the view of the beautiful (real) greenery outside. They redid the lighting, adding antique barn sconces to the upstairs gallery and replacing the ornate chandeliers that hung from the peaked rafters with three big, rustic bronze ones. New burgundy leather chairs with curved backs provide decadent comfort. But even with more light streaming through the windows, reflecting off a collection of antique gold-trimmed mirrors, the space remains dark and dour. Touches of white—tablecloths, dishware, a couple of oversize flower arrangements—can’t overcome the monotony of dark walls, ceiling and carpet, even if the wood is from the 1790s. Nevertheless, the Inn remains popular for special occasions. Its total of 80 seats are often reserved for private parties by high-profile clientele, recently including Governor Christie.
Service is a bit more relaxed and approachable. (Jackets for men are no longer required.) Courteous servers attend to every need, whether it’s offering refills of the excellent bread with house-made strawberry butter or handing out the final grace note of the evening, a house-made triple-chocolate cookie to take home.
Knott tweaks the menu often to use local, seasonal ingredients. Big, bright-green favas added immensely to super-creamy risotto amply studded with knuckles of moist, sweet lobster and laced with roasted tomato, corn and creamy leeks. Likewise, favas contributed their toothsome flavor and texture to a rewarding lamb tenderloin with seasonal vegetables, truffled parsnip purée and a concentrated wine sauce. Dish after dish reflected this kind of complexity and nuance. Seared duck breast with morello cherries, redolent of Chinese five-spice powder, was paired with carrot-ginger purée and bok choy cooked in butter scented with lemongrass. The skin on the branzino was seared to a wonderful crispness that perfectly played up the plushness underneath.
Desserts—such as seasonal berries and cream, crème brûlée and warm chocolate cake—were an anticlimax, though well made. Peanut butter desserts are usually cloying, but I rolled the dice on the peanut butter mousse and hit the jackpot. Forging an unlikely marriage of earthy peanut flavor and ethereal mousse texture, the dessert was further enhanced by banana ice cream, dark chocolate ganache and salted peanuts.
The revived Saddle River Inn suggests that if you start with good genes, a gentle evolution can suffice.