New Jersey’s most well known restaurant is back up and running – well, almost – with a series of preview dinners. Does Ryland Inn 2.0 measure up? Here’s a sneak peak.
Before I get down to specifics, clarifications are in order. In my capacity as restaurant critic I do my utmost to dine anonymously. If there’s even a slight chance that I may be recognized, I don a disguise. (During my days as radio talk show host I interviewed many chefs and restaurateurs face to face.) My disguise is so effective that even my brother-in-law who has known me for decades did not recognize me in it. (I sought out professional advice. It’s a great story that I’ll relate when my reviewing days are over.)
That said, I did not go to the new Ryland Inn in disguise. It wasn’t necessary – not because owners Jeanne & Frank Cretella and executive chef Anthony Bucco don’t know me. They do. I went in plain sight for the simple reason that there is no way I can officially review this restaurant. I am totally compromised because my husband, Bill, is the site engineer for the project through his employer, Van Cleef Engineering.
And that said, here’s my report on my preview dinner – as objective as I can make it.
In short, the Ryland Inn is poised to reclaim its rightful place among the Garden State’s best. Not because it recreates the old days – that would be a losing proposition. On the contrary, Bucco’s food is totally 21st century, totally his own, and totally exciting.
Yet the team has recaptured one important aspect from back in the day: the essence of what it felt like to dine at the Ryland. The place has been renovated inside and out – including the addition attractive new fittings and fixtures that mix traditional and au courant elements – but is still recognizable, and that sense of easy grace remains. This applies to the service, too, which is polished, informed, and correct, but also warm, natural, and as interactive as you want it to be – which is also reminiscent of the glory days.
We started with a drink at the bar, where mixologist Chris made this beautiful cocktail of pomegranate juice and reposado tequila topped with Champagne and garnished with a grapefruit twist.
The amuse – coins of spanking fresh, rose-red tuna and coral-pink salmon crudo in broth – was simultaneously bracing and luxurious. We downed it so quickly (as we did the Asiago sourdough bread) that we neglected to snap a photo.
All pistons are firing in this dish, the toothsome pillows the perfect the canvas for slivers of rich, salty duck and earthy mushrooms. Ditto for the pistons in this
creamy chilled celeriac and potato soup with smoked trout, Swiss chard, and horseradish creme fraiche. The textures and flavors of both dishes have nothing in common except that the elements of each are exquisitely attuned and harmonious.
This seared tuna blew us away: It arrived in one piece, looking for all the world like a block of pork belly. But a gentle nudge with my fork revealed these pre-cut slices. Among its elements are pickled watermelon, Asian pear, miso vinaigrette, and truffle. Sesame shows up in the form of black seeds, toasted oil, and – see the white stuff by the fork tines? – sesame powder. Yes, Chef Bucco plays with chemistry (maltodextrin in this case) and the latest technologies, but never just for effect. If you have never grasped the concept of umami, this dish will enlighten you. If it were an IPO, I’d invest in it.
About this horseradish-crusted organic Irish salmon:
my husband declared it the best textured salmon he has ever had. It’s encrusted with horseradish crumbs (not as dark as it appears here) and that’s horseradish creme anchoring it. Pickled fennel adds a note of anise; arugula one of pepper. It’s hard to see, but resting in the cream sauce are red quinoa, cucumber balls the size of peas, and mushroom balls even smaller. All intensely flavorful. How is this accomplished?
This photo doesn’t do justice to the tasting of lamb with smoked polenta, braised endive, and romesco sauce. In addition to the rosy seared loin medallions shown, it includes meltingly tender chunks of braised shank, a rib bone (which, I’m embarrassed to say I picked up with my hands and gnawed), and – wait for it – sweetbreads.
Here are before and after shots of the cheesecake “truffle” with Graham cracker sponge and strawberries (they looked like wild ones):
Our photography skills lapsed again as we dug into a moist cake made with Terhune Orchards apples accompanied by fig-balsamic puree, raisin chutney, and creme fraiche ice cream, as well as fresh figs and nasturtium leaves. Another showstopper is panna cotta made with Valley Shepherd sheep’s milk yogurt with a puree of local basil seeds and bits of tropical fruits – fresh and manipulated – including star fruit, kiwi, and pineapple.
The coffee service shown reminds me of other elegant appointments, which included a Laguiole steak knife for my lamb course, world-class wine glasses, and ultra-luxuriant napkins. You can end your meal with one of 7 French press coffees. If tea is your thing, among the loose leaf choices are a biodynamic one and City Harvest Green, for which 20% goes to that worthy organization.
Snagging a Reservation
There will be at least another week of preview dinners at the Ryland, with reservations now being accepted on OpenTable for October 1 and beyond. Keep in mind that the menu and much else are being tweaked, so the dishes I enjoyed may or may not be what you encounter. Rest assured, though, that they will be of that caliber.
Wondering about prices? Well, these also may fluctuate, but here’s some idea of what to expect: a la carte starters range from $10 (that celeric soup, for instance) to $16 (grilled Spanish octopus with cranberry beans, feta, pine nuts, salsa verde). Entrees, $27 for Amish chicken breast with roasted root vegetables, hazelnut puree, and tarragon jus, to $36 for the tasting of lamb. Desserts, $9 to $12. During previews a 7-course chef’s degustation is $85.
Wines are, to my mind, similarly reasonable. We ordered two reds by the glass, to go with the salmon and lamb respectively. Our lead server, Marc, made excellent, knowing choices for us after asking about our wine predilections.
In conclusion, welcome back Ryland Inn