When Ethan Oh opened Tenderhill in Whitehouse Station in 2015, he often held Wednesday dinners he called 8×10. These were eight-course tasting menus for a total of 10 people. (Singles, couples, foursomes, whatever; attendance at each of the two seatings was capped at 10.) The food was imaginative, eclectic and beautifully executed. The bad news is, he’s no longer doing them. Which is also, in a different way, the good news.
While adventurous diners may lament the passing of 8×10, there weren’t enough of them in that affluent but thinly populated part of Hunterdon County to sustain the concept. But Tenderhill’s regular menu gained fans. “As the business grew,” says Oh, “it just became impossible to cook both an à la carte menu and an eight-course dinner.”
He went with what you might call elevated comfort food, symbolized by the understated black-and-white sign out front, which Oh, who has a background in graphic arts, designed himself. Inside a silhouette of a curly-tailed pig are the hand-lettered words, “Tenderhill Family Table.” The name Tenderhill refers to the nearby foothills of Cushetunk Mountain and to one of the attributes of Oh’s food.
His veal osso bucco, for example, was braised to tenderness in a chicken and mushroom stock that formed the basis for the sauce. It came with a deft mushroom risotto and a narrow spoon for digging the marrow out of the shank bone. The sweetness of delicious sweet-potato agnolotti in maple-butter sauce was smartly balanced by sautéed kimchi.
Oh, 37, born in Korea, came to America with his family when he was eight. He infuses his food with Southeast Asian flair, but sparingly. “I personally like those flavors,” he says. “But it’s more about serving something familiar in a new way.”
A leading example is Tenderhill’s Korean BBQ burger, one of five on the menu. Flavorful and well-seasoned, the 7-ounce Wagyu patty on a brioche bun was topped with kimchi, bonito fish flakes and house-made Korean barbecue sauce. Accompanied by crisp potato wedges, it was terrific.
An appetizer we saw constantly emerging from the kitchen was fried brussels sprouts with roasted walnuts and pickled daikon radish in honey sriracha sauce. Once we tried it, we understood why, as Oh later told me, people call ahead to see if it’s available, even when brussels sprouts are out of season.
Oh marinates his coulotte steak (a lean part of the top sirloin) in a peanut sauce. It was a bit salty, but cooked medium-rare, as ordered. A buttery potato-and-onion millefeuille nicely completed the dish. On the other hand, a salmon fillet we were told would be cooked medium rare came out cooked through.
Rice-flour buns—filled with pork belly, pickled daikon, pickled red onions and soy glaze, or with spicy salmon, onion straws and pickled red onions—are rightly popular. Oh’s ramen bowl rivaled those I’ve eaten in Japan.
There are usually just three desserts. A s’mores tart topped with house-made ice cream (we subbed brown butter for the default vanilla) made a fine conclusion.
Tenderhill is a lean operation—just Oh and another cook in the kitchen. On weekend evenings, the 56 seats can fill fast. Oh recently started serving bread (which he bakes). That makes the wait for food a little easier. On our first visit, a Friday, almost an hour elapsed between appetizers and entrées. “When the tickets pile up,” he says, “we just push through the best we can and not compromise the quality.”
That makes the wait worthwhile. But it isn’t always crazy. A couple Fridays later, the restaurant was less crowded, and we were in and out in under 90 minutes.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Appetizers, $8.50-$13; entrées, $13-$34; desserts, $4-$12.
Ambience:Open, airy, modern.
Service:Friendly, informed, stressed at peak times.