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The Happy Apple Inn
29 Main Street
Imlaystown, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(609) 259-7889

By The Artful Diner
October 13, 2003

You slide off Interstate 195 at Exit 11 and head south. A few miles down the road you find yourself in a tiny hamlet that was founded in the late 17th century and is listed on both the National and State Register of Historic Places. But Imlaystown has seen some hard times. Its main street, currently embroiled in a profusion of environmental and political conundrums, is lined with vacant houses in various stages of deterioration.

And while your concerns at the moment are more gastronomic then either political or ecological, this significantly less than edifying sight does not enhance your cool. After all, you reason, if the community's main drag is in such a deplorable state, what horrors -- both architectural and alimentary -- may lurk at The Happy Apple Inn? You are, needless to say, somewhat skeptical with regard to your dining choice... Your spouse even more so. And she throws you a look that is enough to strike fear into the libido of any man. You sense that if the evening is an unmitigated disaster, a prolonged period of conjugal deprivation may very well be in the offing.

But then... there it is, just up ahead... And you take heart, as the 19th-century structure, originally built as a hotel for traveling salesmen, appears to be in an excellent state of repair. So you park the car at the rear beside a small lake and make your way to the front porch... But you can't help noticing that the restaurant looks infinitely more impressive from a distance than it does near-at-hand. Doubt still gnaws at your innards. An arched eyebrow from your ever-suspicious spouse. Definitely NOT a good sign.

"Oh, what the hell!" you mutter as you take the plunge across the threshold.

Once inside, you realize with considerable dismay that the jury is, euphemistically speaking, still out. Straight ahead is a rickety, rustic staircase leading to two small dining areas and the time-warped restrooms on the second floor; to your left, the bar/lounge; to your right, the main dining rooms decked out in cheesy paintings, which are also for sale, and deep red indoor-outdoor carpeting with the restaurant's moniker printed in large black letters in a random pattern upon the fabric... Another arched eyebrow.

You explain to the young hostess that you have a reservation for thirty minutes hence and quickly repair to the bar to weigh your options. Here the locals hold court, the jukebox blares out "The Boss," and an "out of order" coin-operated player piano sits forlornly in the corner. So while you slug down a generic Cavit Pinot Gringo ($5.00) and Vendage Merlot ($5.00), respectively, you and your spouse seriously discuss the possibility of a change of venue. Perhaps you might plead a sudden attack of peristaltic indisposition as a reason for an abrupt departure... Perhaps André at Chez So-and-So will be able to squeeze you in at the last moment.

But then you take a closer look around... The bar, you note, is constructed of beautifully restored antique wood and is squeaky clean, the glasses are highly polished, the munchies fresh. And the attractive female bartender, who has never laid eyes on you and your wife before, is exceedingly friendly and helpful, answering your menu queries and bestowing a list of the daily dinner specials for your consideration. All in the plus column. So after a bit more debate -- and another arched eyebrow or two -- you throw caution to the wind and make your way toward the dining room.

Apart from a bit of humorous literary license, this IS, quite literally, the story of our first visit to The Happy Apple Inn.

This quaint, out-of-the-way eatery is a pull-on-your-jeans-and-sneakers, throw-your-jacket-over-the-back-of-the-chair, bring-the-whole-family kind of place; it serves up prodigious portions of calorie-unconscious American vittles smothered in this and stuffed with that. This is comfort food taken to the max... and, unless you have the appetite of a ravening hyena, doggy bags are de rigueur.

... And you are certain, absolutely certain -- just as we were -- that the kitchen serves up a series of gastronomic nightmares to local yokels with less than discriminating palates and any hapless rube unfortunate enough to wander in off the Interstate -- but you'd be dead wrong.

Take the "Chicken Sauté James" ($18.95) -- boneless breast of chicken layered with eggplant and mozzarella, baked and topped with a mushroom/sun-dried tomato sauce -- as Exhibit A. The chicken could be dry and overcooked... but it has been pounded thin, perfectly sautéed, and is exceedingly tender. The eggplant, on the other hand, could be undercooked, tough-skinned, and gone to seed... but it is wafer-thin and none of the above. And the entire dish could be drowned in an insipidly wretched brown sauce whose only redeeming social grace is that it successfully camouflages a host of other ingloriously prepared ingredients... But the gravy is just the right viscosity; it is sensibly and engagingly seasoned; and it provides an ideal complement to this powerhouse presentation.

And "powerhouse" is surely the only word that adequately describes the "Nutty Pork" ($19.95), a long-running Happy Apple favorite. A monstrous pork loin is jam-packed with apple-raisin-nut stuffing, popped in the oven, and then flooded with an incredible pork gravy laced with Applejack. Immense of stature and immensely flavorful.

But not all entrées fall into the gargantuan category... some are merely ample. The shrimp and flounder francese ($19.95), for example, is one of the few main courses that does not necessitate the intervention of a doggy bag; and this particular presentation is also surprisingly delicate of disposition. The crustaceans and filet are lightly floured and then pan seared in a tart and tangy lemon-chardonnay sauce. While more generous in scope, the Maryland crab cakes ($21.95) are a tad on the greasy side and contain a touch too much filler. They are still quite good, however, and a zippy Dijon tiger (horseradish) sauce proves the perfect match.

Interestingly enough, while The Happy Apple Inn strikes you as a pretty straightforward meat, fish, and fowl establishment, one of the most engaging dishes to emerge from the kitchen is the "Vegetarian Delight" ($16.95). Delicate slices of sautéed eggplant are wrapped around sliced carrots, tiny broccoli florets, and diced red peppers; they are then baked in the oven and finished with a heady marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. Confirmed vegetarian or not, when this special is available, it is not to be missed... And I guarantee that it will be just as delicious heated up for lunch the following day.

Appetizers round up the usual suspects: New Zealand mussels with roasted garlic butter ($8.95); bacon-wrapped scallops ($8.95); shrimp cocktail ($8.95); oysters Rockefeller ($8.95); fried onion rings ($5.95); French fries ($4.50); fried mozzarella sticks ($5.50); and clams oreganata ($6.95) & casino ($8.95). However, since the restaurant also sports a salad bar, diners would be wise to fill up on the freebies and save themselves a few bucks in the process. And while I have never been an avid supporter of these often less than hygienic invitations to piggish palates, the exemplary representative encountered here offers up a variety of attractive, impeccably fresh items.

As you might expect, sweet endings are simple but satisfying... But you would do well to stick with desserts indigenous to the kitchen rather than those that are imported. The rice pudding ($3.95) is wonderfully rich and creamy and served in an old-fashioned sundae glass; and the individual apple crisp ($4.95) while a bit on the soggy side, is still quite recommendable.

The Happy Apple Inn is an appetizing haven for those seeking a trip down that nostalgic culinary lane. The cuisine may not be gourmet, but it is exceedingly well prepared, generously apportioned, and down-home delicious. This is one retro restaurant experience that is not only worthy of your hard-earned cash but your calories and/or Weight Watchers' points as well.

Cuisine: American
Hours: Tues - Fri, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sunday, 1:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: MC, V, Discover
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Several steps up to dining room and restrooms are on the second floor
Website: happyappleinn.com

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