Ken Salmon, chef/owner of Upstream Grille in Lake Hopatcong, named his restaurant for the fish that shares his surname. “Salmon swim upstream,” he told me in a phone call after my visits. “It’s not the easy way to go. It means you can’t take short cuts.”
At the northern tip of Lake Hopatcong in northernmost Morris County, Salmon takes after his gilled namesakes. Upstream Grille makes almost everything from scratch, including its crusty bread, which Salmon learned to bake while working in Positano, Italy, in 2008.
Salmon, 42, grew up in Sparta, just north of Lake Hopatcong. He started in restaurants as a dishwasher, then went to the CIA. After graduating in 1995, he worked for two years in New Orleans. A stint at Commander’s Palace gave him the basis for Upstream Grille’s rich gumbo, one of its best-selling dishes. Credit for it belongs just as much, or more, with “my friend’s grandmother, who lived in Lafayette, Louisiana,” he says. “I picked up a lot of tricks and techniques from her.”
Before opening Upstream Grille in July of last year, Salmon was executive chef of Mohawk House in Sparta for 2½ years. He left in 2013 and did catering and consulting before taking over what had been the Wearhouse Grille. He, his wife, Dawn, and their crew reopened it as Upstream Grille. Last April they closed the restaurant for a month, repainted, added outdoor tables and a fire pit, and generally spruced up the place.
In its brief existence, Upstream Grille has spawned a cohort of happy customers who appreciate its tasty food, generous portions, reasonable prices, plethora of gluten-free, vegetarian (and vegan) items, and a kids’ menu a lot more appealing than most (for example, a $15 surf ’n’ turf of skirt steak and shrimp with zucchini and mashed potatoes). Salmon buys as much of his ingredients from local suppliers as possible. Ice cream, one of the few things not made in-house, comes from Windy Brow Farms in Newton.
Salmon loves appetizers, and the menu offers an array of them. One of the best is tuna tartare tacos: chopped ahi tuna in a lemon-ginger dressing with a bit of seaweed salad, sriracha aioli and avocado sour cream in crisp, gluten-free wonton wrappers. You get three for $14, with a soba noodle salad on the side.
Another winning app is the $14 lobster lettuce wrap. It’s simply 6 to 7 ounces of chopped lobster meat in a champagne vinaigrette, wrapped in floppy Bibb lettuce leaves. You can make a light meal of the $11 grilled, braised spareribs, which come with potato salad and a fantastic cole slaw studded with crumbled blue cheese. Same goes for the baby spinach salad with beets, cherry-sherry vinaigrette and two discs of pan-fried, pistachio-crusted goat cheese.
On our first visit, we ventured into the intriguing list of cocktails, trying the pineapple lemonade and the blackberry mojito. Both arrived right away, along with the house-made bread. The bread was warm and welcoming, but the cocktails were a bit wan in flavor. We next visited on a Saturday. The place was packed and the new computer system crashed; long waits ensued. The staff remained calm; our server apologized and offered us a complimentary drink.
When the entrées arrived, they were mostly excellent. A grilled rib eye was thick and juicy, accented by a tangy, herbal chimichurri sauce. Tilapia came with a crabmeat crust lightly drizzled with a lemon beurre blanc. Salmon’s Cajun influence surfaced in his blackened shrimp in mango sauce and his penne with crawfish, charred cherry tomatoes and baby spinach in lemon cream sauce. A zuppa di pesce of clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari and a few bits of lobster over linguine was under-seasoned. In contrast, pan-seared sea scallops in a lemon beurre blanc came with a buttery crab, potato and leek hash so tasty and well balanced it could have stood on its own.
Generous portions carry over to dessert. Fine vanilla ice cream from Windy Brow crowns a hot skillet of seasonal fruit under a crunchy crumble. One order was enough for all four of us.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Fusion/Eclectic
Price Details:Soups, salads, appetizers, $4-$14; pastas, $15-$26; entrées, $16-$29; desserts, $5-$10.
Ambience:Friendly bistro and pub.
Wine list:30 bottles, 27 under $40; 18 beers on tap.