The Happy Apple Inn
29 Main Street
Imlaystown, Monmouth County, New Jersey
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
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.
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
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Handicapped Accessible: Several steps up to dining room and restrooms
are on the second floor