Chris Albrecht, who was appointed executive chef of the renowned Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station last fall, is a master of deception. Glance at his menu, and just about every dish—from his pickled vegetables to his flat-iron steak frites—seems straightforward and familiar.
An entrée like his pan-roasted cod—crisp and gorgeous on its pillow of fingerling-potato purée—looks elegantly simple. But one rapturous bite reveals its complexity. Uni, whipped into a beurre fondue drizzled over the potatoes, ties them to the fish with a hint of seaside tang. Tender bites of crab bolster that impression and also make zoological sense, “because that’s what cod eat,” Albrecht explains. As for those translucent green flecks on top of the fish? They’re diced celery that Albrecht vacuum compresses into crunchy little gems.
So much for simply browning fish in a pan. “The aim is for our food and our service to always be approachable,” says the CIA-trained Albrecht. “Rest assured, though, a lot of thought goes into everything we’re doing.”
Albrecht directs much of that thought into how he sources his food. He shies away from using the now ubiquitous “farm-to-table” term. But anyone who has followed the 46-year-old chef through his career—his early years under Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern and Craft in Manhattan; his 2013 victory in the New Jersey Seafood Challenge; his leading Eno Terra in Kingston to four straight NJM Top 25 lists (2010-2013)—knows that down-to-earth dining (in the most literal sense) truly is his obsession. “How you feed and treat plants and animals doesn’t just affect how nourishing they are. It affects their flavor,” says Albrecht. “And I am on an endless search for flavor.”
That search fortunately led him, after some culinary detours, to Jeanne and Frank Cretella, the powerhouse couple whose hugely successful restaurants and event spaces include Liberty House in Liberty State Park in Jersey City and Stone House in Warren. In 2012, the Cretellas rescued the Ryland from ruin. A devastating 2007 flood had shut it down and ended the reign of its James Beard Award-winning chef/owner, Craig Shelton.
The Cretellas painstakingly enlivened every inch of the 18th-century, white-clapboard structure, and expanded it, too, creating an adjoining space suitable for weddings. They hired chef Anthony Bucco, who vaulted it back into the culinary limelight. But after Bucco’s 2014 departure for Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs, the kitchen had been slow to regain its footing.
“When we sat down with Chris, we knew he was the one for this special place,” says Jeanne, who, like Albrecht, wants the restaurant to be more than a place for birthday and anniversary celebrations. Albrecht has delivered, upgrading the menu at the stunningly beautiful bar as well as the main menu. He brings in local purveyors to lecture, and last fall initiated communal Sunday suppers outside under the 110-year-old white oaks. He’s also prepared a 20,000-square-foot garden on site and has started growing some of his own produce (including six—yes, six—kinds of heirloom garlic).
The heart of the Ryland, of course, remains its side-by-side dining rooms, which seat 80. With their framed equestrian prints, pinstriped banquettes and cocoa-colored walls, the spaces (one of them with French doors fronting a leafy courtyard) seem a studied, almost corporate take on hunt-country elegance. Nonetheless, the rooms are quiet and comfortable, lovely spots from which to experience not only Albrecht at his best, but his simpatico partnership with general manager Thomas McAteer.
One of the most respected and astute managers in the business, McAteer arrived at the Ryland in 2014 from Agricola in Princeton. A native Scot with a background in acting and theater, McAteer understands dining as a form of stagecraft. His earlier posts included the Rainbow Room and the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan. He and Albrecht are making the Ryland again one of Jersey’s finest dining experiences.
I urge you to kick off your night with a couple of appetite-igniting items from the Snacks & Cheese list. Warm, salty-sweet slabs of black-peppered beef jerky (Niman Ranch, nitrate free) gave just the right chew to seduce and astound us. Albrecht’s crisp and sassy pickled veggies are equally magical. They are made with unique spice blends and a variety of vinegars.
“But the real complexity,” Albrecht says, “comes from fermentation. This gives them an added layer of flavor unobtainable without fermentation.” They certainly amplified the smoky, puckering tang of my mescal- and grapefruit-spiked Whiplash cocktail.
Appetizers were equally dazzling. To make his octopus carpaccio (a strange name for a dish that is neither thinly sliced nor raw), Albrecht rolls poached, still-warm tentacles into a plastic-wrapped log, chills it, then serves thick slices atop ribbons of green papaya, with warm peanuts for crunch. The tentacle mosaic that arrived at our table artfully evidenced just how tender and luscious octopus can be.
Grilled and fresh tangerines (with a glass of Sauternes, suggested by our intuitive server) raised seared Hudson Valley foie gras to ethereal heights. House-made squid-ink pappardelle with a gutsy venison Bolognese seemed out of left field, but the umami wallop of squid ink funk, woodsy game and a hint of dusky cocoa in the ragù was genius. More subtle but almost as delicious: gossamer pulled-chicken agnolotti in a Parmesan-scented broth.
Entrées featured a hit parade of proteins. A Griggstown roast chicken breast and thigh, crisp and moist where they needed to be, cozied up to crunchy poppy-seed spaetzle. New Zealand Ora King salmon, finished with bacon dust and salmon roe, was a stunner, its ebony skin fatty and crunchy against its buttery flesh.
A Niman Ranch flat-iron steak frites was beefy, rosy and tender under its mound of brightly dressed watercress. Albrecht’s riff on shrimp and grits was skate and grits: a browned, locally caught wing atop luscious red-corn grits.
“Bone marrow adds richness to the grits and I think helps hit the dish out of the park,” he says. It’s a home run, indeed.
Albrecht worked under famed pastry chef Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern in New York, so doing his own desserts shouldn’t be a stretch. But he’d be wise to hire a pastry chef, since his sweets, while fine, aren’t on-par with the rest of his menu. A carrot cake was tasty but spongy. Poached pears were too firm and overpowered by a rosemary garnish.
Best bet for finishing with a flourish: a warm, crisp-capped, chocolate quinoa brownie with beet-ginger ice cream and vanilla whipped cream. None of us could tell (or gave a hoot) that it was gluten free. We simply devoured it.
Slight imperfections do little to detract from a blissful alignment of place and players. McAteer is a team builder. Albrecht is blossoming in his new role. If everyone is lucky, the two will remain a team for a good long while.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Modern
Price Details:Snacks, sides, $6-$21; appetizers, pastas, $13-$28; entrées, $22-$54; desserts, $12.
Ambience:Elegant and relaxed in a polished, updated inn.
Service:Intuitive, genial, attentive.
Wine list:Creative cocktails; beers; 11 wines by glass, 220 by bottle (just 6 under $50)
The Ryland Inn111 Old Route 28
Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889
Hours:Tuesday-Thursday 5:00pm to 10:00pm;
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 11:00pm;
Sunday Brunch 11:00am to 2:00pm;
Sunday 4:00pm to 8:00pm;
Tuesday-Thursday 5:00pm to 11:00pm;
Friday & Saturday 5:00pm to 12:00am;
Sunday 3:00pm to 9:00 pm
Summer Fridays Happy Hour:
Every Friday 4:00pm to 6:00pm