For more than 30 years, chef David Drake has been a fixture on the New Jersey dining scene. Known for his French technique and originality with tasting menus, Drake first made his mark in his 20s at the Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick. He rose to stardom with Restaurant David Drake, opened in Rahway in 2006, and Daryl Wine Bar in New Brunswick in 2007. Then came 2008.
“The recession killed the restaurants,” says Drake, who exiled himself to Alice’s Restaurant in Lake Hopatcong. “I needed an escape from the recession and owning restaurants.”
After five years dishing out refined comfort food at Alice’s and distinguished, if brief, stints at Light Horse Tavern and Greene Hook in Jersey City, Drake resurfaced last year at Stone House in Warren.
Stone House is part of Landmark Hospitality, Frank and Jeanne Cretella’s event-focused group that includes the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, Liberty House in Jersey City, and the Boathouse at Mercer Lake in West Windsor. The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association named Jeanne its Restaurateur of the Year for 2018. Observers have hoped that, by installing Drake at Stone House, the Cretellas would raise its à la carte game, much as they did by hiring Chris Albrecht as executive chef of the Ryland in 2016.
Since Drake arrived in May, he has changed Stone House’s Italian-themed menu to one more seasonal and modern. “I look at the architecture of the building and the way Frank designed it,” he says, “and it’s really an American restaurant.”
Stone House has an open kitchen overlooking a bi-level dining room with a soaring arched ceiling, wood beams, stone walls, and raw steel and copper finishes. A towering glass wine cellar holds more than 1,200 bottles. The restaurant suggests an upscale Lake Tahoe lodge, minus the skis.
On two visits, I experienced flashes of Drake’s potential, but also a nagging level of inconsistency. In the most successful dishes, ingredients were allowed to shine. An appetizer of burrata—mozzarella’s softer, sexier cousin, when at its best, as here—was bolstered with a stack of Lacinato kale and cubes of persimmon. I also loved the beef tartare. Enlivened with pastrami spices and fried capers, the dry-aged-hand-cut rib eye was almost buttery. Mustard crackers, which reminded me of Indian papadum, made perfect scoops.
Yet the kale Caesar was drowned in too much dressing, which happened to be overloaded with white anchovies (and I’m someone who likes anchovies). Pork belly was hit or miss. Drake confits the belly in duck fat, presses it for 12 hours, and fries each portion to order. The texture—unctuous and crackly on top—was pleasing, but the belly was devoid of taste. On my second visit, the same dish did have flavor, though predominantly salt. The fattiness was happily offset by the pork’s accompaniments: spicy spaghetti-squash kimchi and sweet-tart Asian pear.
Among entrées, cold-smoked short ribs, braised in red wine and beef stock, were undermined by polenta dispensed with a whipped-cream charger, an odd experiment that literally fell flat. The polenta, moreover, arrived lukewarm and runny.
On both visits, the fish entrées we tried—Faroe Island salmon and swordfish—were overcooked. However, skirt steak, marinated in salsa verde, was nicely grilled and served with a piquant Romesco sauce, crisp fries and a tasty shaved-vegetable salad.
Inconsistent execution also plagued desserts. On one visit, the apple and strawberry crisp was ice-cold in the center. The second time, it was properly heated, but soupy (and far from crisp). Better was custardy Nutella bread pudding layered with chocolate ganache.
Drake says he’s continuing to fine-tune the menu and service. When the patio opens this spring, he says he will add a bar menu. Drake is capable of much better food than this. Here’s hoping he regains the form that made him a star.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Brunch - Modern
Price Details:Appetizers, $12-$19; entrées, $22-$49; desserts, $9-$13
Ambience:Upscale, modern, convivial
Service:Friendly and attentive
Wine list:Creative cocktails; 14 craft beers in bottles or cans; wine list with 17 by the glass