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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

New Jersey Restaurant Review

Bernards Inn
27 Mine Brook Road (Route 202)
Bernardsville, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 766-0002

(Note 6/2/2004 - Corey Heyer, formerly of Nicholas in Middletown, is now the executive chef.)

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
March 8, 2004

Printable Copy of this Review

Food critics of every size, shape, and gastronomic persuasion have penned reviews of the Bernards Inn over the course of the years. But somehow, as I prepare to add my own critique to this rather formidable culinary corpus, it is Fran Schumer's January 1998 appraisal that springs most prominently to mind.

Ms. Schumer, then restaurant reviewer for the New Jersey section of the New York Times, composed, in my opinion, a rather convoluted communiqué, a curious literary oddity that was, if you will pardon the pun, neither fish nor fowl, but rather a type of peripatetic weekend "travelogue" that told us infinitely more about her personal life and preferences than anyone would care to know.

And even though she rated the restaurant "Very Good" -- in my opinion, it deserves an "Excellent" in the New York Times' taxonomic scheme of things -- she still couldn't resist launching a few sardonic salvos at the local flora and fauna. She felt the need to comment, for example, on the number of visitors adorned in fur and cashmere coats... and wondered if the hotel stocked Forbes and Wimbledon magazines for their benefit. She also noted that the lobby, while more corporate than country, still had charm. "At least," she went on to say, "no one dares to pull out a cell phone." A backhanded compliment if ever there was one. Not even the cozy dining areas escaped her condescending eye: "The alcove-like settings recall Dilbert as much as they do the pages of Yankee magazine," she intoned sarcastically.

But the most astounding anomaly of her curious sojourn was yet to come... Having duly deposited their progeny with the grandparents, Ms. Schumer informed her readers that she and her husband were looking forward to a weekend getaway sans children, a rare event in their marriage. She then went on to relate that after dinner they adjourned to their room and proceeded to watch "a completely depressing hour of In Cold Blood." Uhh... My wife and I recently enjoyed an overnight stay at the Bernards Inn and, given the amatory environs, never once felt the need to flip on the TV, let alone tune in to such a gruesomely distressing flick.

Would anyone ever accuse Ms. Schumer of being an incurable romantic? I have my doubts. However, should you and your spouse/significant other be both romantically and gastronomically inclined, the Bernards Inn is an ideal and idyllic destination.

Your visit will commence with valet parking and a walk through the tastefully appointed European-style lobby replete with a bevy of comfortable couches, magnificent flower arrangement, and cozy fireplace. And, just to your left, you will discover the clubby piano bar, the perfect venue to enjoy a few quiet moments while sipping one of the inn's specialty martinis or a glass of wine.

Following this pleasurable diversion, you will undoubtedly be escorted to the rear dining room, an elegant but understated accommodation that will immediately begin to console your restless spirit with its classic coffered ceiling, discriminating collection of oil paintings, large stone fireplace, meticulous selection of greenery, and sea of snowy white napery. The moment you enter its precincts, you sense that this is a welcoming space, a room dedicated to fine dining, to good conversation, and to the amorous affairs of the heart.

And you need not fear, in the midst of such ambient amenities, that the kitchen's reach will exceed its grasp. Chef Edward Stone's contemporary American cuisine is, like the sophisticated surroundings, stylish but decidedly understated. You won't find a profusion of superfluous exotic ingredients or a great deal of architectural razzle-dazzle in the offing here. Both the eye and the palate are pleasantly assuaged without being unduly assaulted. Indeed, this is culinary artistry without the self-conscious trappings of an over inflated ego.

You begin, of course, with a delightful gift from the chef... On one occasion it may be a morsel of tea-smoked pork tenderloin with a touch of braised red cabbage and cider reduction, on another, a miniature grilled vegetable terrine with goat cheese or, perhaps, an Asian caponata with a subtle hint of spice. Whatever the amuse-bouche may be on a given evening, however, it is quite apparent that Mr. Stone knows precisely how to tantalize your taste buds for the extraordinary pleasures to come.

Among the appetizers, the beautifully grilled marinated shrimp ($14.00) are set on a slightly pungent seabed of fennel and jicama salad, which is then seductively counterpoised via the ministrations of a sensuous sweet/tart blood orange reduction. Earthy escargots and perfectly textured lobster meat ($17.00) are commingled with wild mushrooms and roasted peppers, locked in a flaky puff pastry's gentle embrace, and consummated with a light and delicate parsley sauce.

True culinary hedonists, on the other hand, may be drawn to the more sensual delights of Hudson Valley foie gras ($18.00). Two silky pillows of duck liver are sequestered between sweet corn pancakes and drizzled with a provocative quince sauce that offers the perfect balance between sweetness and acidity.

Even presentations that might be considered merely mundane in lesser establishments rise to stellar heights in Chef Stone's capable hands... A classic Caesar salad ($10.00), for example, or peppery arugula ($12.00) tossed with an outstanding Champagne vinaigrette and surrounded by roasted beets and discs of creamy goat cheese. And the special wild mushroom soup ($9.00) is yet another exquisite prelude. Ethereal of disposition but alive with flavor, it literally dances upon the tongue and will surely soothe the soul as well as the palate.

Entrées, in my opinion, are somewhat more robust in nature, with piscatorial presentations demonstrating a tad more finesse than their meaty counterparts...

A pristine East Coast halibut filet ($32.00) is beautifully pan seared and ensconced on a rösti potato pillow surrounded by an intriguing lobster and potato salad. The consummate finishing touch, however, is provided by a zesty Dijon mustard sauce that exhibits just enough passion to gently embrace rather than smother the object of its affection. The sea scallops ($32.00) are also perfectly pan seared, set on a bed of parsnip purée, and crowned with a plantain basket filled with warm artichoke and mushroom salad. In this case, the gastronomic coup de grâce is administered by a superlative sea of apple bacon pan sauce. The ahi tuna ($34.00) adorned with foie gras, caramelized pears, and mango coulis is also an excellent choice.

The magret (breast) of duck ($34.00) arrives medium rare, precisely as ordered, its sumptuously thin slices arranged on a butternut squash and Saga bleu cheese risotto. My only quibble here is that the term "risotto" is something of a misnomer, as its consistency is faintly reminiscent of ultra-crispy hash browns and any discernable flavor of bleu cheese is conspicuous by its absence. The venison medallions ($36.00) are incredibly tender with just the proper hint of gaminess and are thoroughly invigorated with a complementary roasted garlic demi-glace. Featherweight pesto gnocchi and a scattering of diced red beets add enormously to the festivities, but the vegetable pavé (from the French, meaning "tile," tiers of grilled vegetables crowned with melted cheese) is rather dry.

Should you be incurably carnivorous by nature, I urge you to sample either the chateaubriand ($40.00), which puts in frequent guest appearances among the daily specials, or the luscious dry-aged New York sirloin ($42.00) replete with a rustic potato galette, Vidalia onion confit, and sensuously sweet shallot demi-glace.

For dessert, you will find the apple tart tatin with cinnamon ice cream ($9.00) to be absolutely benchmark... ditto the lemon meringue tart ($11.00). And the house-made ice creams ($7.00) -- a trio of coffee, rum raisin, and cherry vanilla sampled one evening -- are also quite recommendable. However, Stilton cheese with fresh strawberries and raspberries ($14.00) suffers from an overdose of cloying balsamic syrup, which completely obviates the earthiness of the Stilton. It would have been far more efficacious to offer up this presentation au naturel with a few slices of crusty French bread.

The tuxedo-clad wait staff at the Bernards Inn is precisely what you would expect in such a sophisticated establishment... consummately professional yet ingratiatingly personable. And no one epitomizes this adept and affable approach to service more than wine director Terri Baldwin. Under Ms. Baldwin's direction, the inn's approximately 8,000 bottle wine cellar has received the prestigious Best of Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator for the past five consecutive years.

Her methodology is disarmingly didactic but never intimidating; she encourages her customers to ask questions and make pointed inquiries. On one occasion, for example, we ordered an excellent 2001 Meursault "Les Charrons" from J.M. Boillot ($75.00). Subsequently, I wondered if she might suggest a California chardonnay of similar disposition, unencumbered by the oaky excesses of malolactic fermentation. She quickly recommended a lovely 2000 Château Montelena from the Napa Valley ($16.50) per glass), which we proceeded to order on our very next visit. At more modest prices, you might consider Oregon's ever-reliable King Estate Pinot Gris ($7.50 per glass) or California's Smoking Loon Merlot ($7.00)

The Bernards Inn provides diners one of the most romantically imbued culinary experiences the Garden State has to offer. And it will be infinitely more rewarding should you and your spouse/significant other elect to spend an overnight in one of the lovely guestrooms. This would, of course, up the ante considerably. Be that as it may, this is one of the very few New Jersey restaurants that is surely worthy of its patrons' not insignificant expenditures.

Cuisine: Contemporary American
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Jackets preferred
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar/lounge only.
Reservations: Recommended; required on Saturdays
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License; award-winning wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web site: www.bernardsinn.com

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