Editor’s Note: Crawford Koeniger is no longer at Washington House
Built as a grand residence in 1860, Washington House in Basking Ridge soon became a hotel and got through Prohibition by smuggling Jersey Lightning (applejack). Post-Prohibition, the structure soldiered on as a pub under various names and owners. Since reopening last May after a six-month gutting and renovation, the reborn Washington House has been winning converts at a fast clip.
“When we opened, some locals came in out of habit, others out of curiosity,” Marc Hudacsko, the general manager and wine director, told me on the phone after my visits. “We’re happy they gave us a chance, because the menu was all new, and the old place barely recognizable.”
Washington House serves what its executive chef, Crawford Koeniger, rightly calls “elevated comfort food.” His calamari, crab cakes, salads, tartares and wood-grilled steaks, chops, chicken and fish rise on the care and detail that goes into them, not on frills and squiggles. Easily recognizable, they win you over simply by being terrific examples of their kind.
Or, as Koeniger put it, “Technique is a wonderful thing. But it’s the background. What makes diners want to come back is delicious food.”
Another thing that brings people back is bang for the buck. Which is what the two-courses-for-$23 menu delivers Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fried chicken, served with delectable house-made biscuits, was brilliantly crisp outside, moist and flavorful inside. Sorry to demur, Chef, but that’s some proficient technique at work.
Hudacsko, 38, and Koeniger, 34, a 2004 CIA grad, were involved in every step of the redo. Mark Marrazza, one of the restaurant’s two owners, also owns the Tewksbury Inn in Whitehouse Station. The other principal, the Jepsen family, runs Scandic Builders in Morristown, which did the renovation.
Hudacsko, as assistant manager, and Koeniger, as sous chef, met in 2006 when they opened Roots Steakhouse in Summit. Koeniger has also cooked at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, Jocelyn’s in Maplewood and the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster. Just before joining Washington House, he was chef de cuisine at Eno Terra in Kingston under executive chef Chris Albrecht. “My pedigree is fine dining,” he told me. “But my aim at Washington House is to get to the essence of what people love to eat.”
The L-word recurred as Koeniger recounted his upbringing in Maplewood, “where my mom was an early organic cook. She made her own baby food and put incredible love into everything she prepared. Our family meals were a time of warmth and belonging. I want our Washington House diners to feel that way.”
Koeniger can definitely tug the heart strings. His deeply flavorful butternut squash soup is built from vegetable stock and squash from Cooperative 518 in Franklin. The key is that, before being puréed, the squash is “done three ways: roasted, sautéed and raw. Plus salt, pepper and the merest touch of cream.”
Koeniger’s standout calamari starts with a soak in buttermilk “to break down the muscle.” Then it’s drained, tossed in cornmeal with herb-infused salt and three peppers (black, white, and pink) and fried. It comes with terrific house-made “mojo aioli” (made from roasted guajillo peppers from Mexico). The crab cake combines five ounces of lump crabmeat with a house-made remoulade perked up with paprika, mustard, capers and lemon zest.
When Koeniger was with Chris Albrecht at Eno Terra last year, they represented New Jersey in a national seafood competition in New Orleans, finishing third overall. “I really got into the depth and heartiness of Southern cooking,” Koeniger said. One result is his shrimp and grits. He tops the title ingredients with Tuscan kale chips. (Tuscan kale, Koeniger said, is also known as “dinosaur kale, for its reptilian texture.” He tames it by tossing the leaves in olive oil and baking them until crisp.) To finish the dish, he adds a mushroom glaze.
A raw egg yolk tops Koeniger’s Pariserboeuf, a Danish version of steak tartare that translates as Parisian Beef. The Jepsen family “is Danish and wanted this on the menu,” Koeniger said. Beef shoulder is chopped, hand-shaped into a patty and seared just enough to caramelize the surface. The inside soaks up the yolk. It comes with capers, pickled beets, horseradish and raw onion. “This is play-with-your-food food,” Koeniger remarked. “Some of the kids like it, the ones who won’t look at our kids’ menu.”
Entrées at Washington House are just as rewarding as appetizers, which is not always the case. A prime example is duck confit garganelli (a ridged tubular egg pasta) combined with pulled, confited duck meat, butternut squash, kale, Brussels sprout leaves and a clever trace of honey from Bob’s Buzzy Bees in Mercer County.
DeBragga in Jersey City supplies the restaurant with all its meats. Koeniger grills meat and fish over a combination of hickory, cherry and white birch woods, adding a distinctive smoky note. Grass-fed sirloin steak, served with crisp fries, was as deeply flavorful as dry-aged beef. A naturally raised, Niman Ranch ribeye was lusciously marbled. A Duroc boneless pork chop was rich and a tad more smoky, all to the good.
The best-selling fish entrée is organic Scottish salmon. Preparations vary. Ours came with risotto cake, grilled scallions, delicata squash and romesco sauce, a satisfying bouquet of flavors and textures. It was moist and tender. But an oven-roasted cod was dry, with a hard Asiago crust.
Pastry chef Christine McGrath worked with Koeniger at the Pluckemin Inn and Eno Terra. Her high-concept chocolate-and-pretzel tiramisu exchanged traditional ladyfingers for sadly bland, leaden pretzel dough. I preferred her more home-style creations, like warm pumpkin-bread pudding with vanilla mascarpone, cranberry sauce and spiced caramel. Best were the house-made strawberry ice cream and the Washington House Sundae, studded with blondie morsels and toffee, topped with Callebaut semi-sweet chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
The sundae is big, so pass it around. Share the love. There’s plenty of it coming out of Koeniger’s kitchen.Click here to leave a comment