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Harvest Moon Inn
1039 Old York Road
Ringoes, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 806-6020

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

The building that is now home to the Harvest Moon Inn was originally constructed as the Amwell Academy, which dedicated itself to provide educational advantages beyond those available in the local district schools. Built in the year 1811, it is considered one of the finest examples of Federalist architecture in the state of New Jersey. But while the restaurant proper hearkens back to another era, the American cuisine, under the watchful eye of chef /proprietor Stanley Novak, is both creative and contemporary.

You enter through the tavern, a cozy and softly lit space replete with an attractive bar that provides a most suitable venue for preprandial libations. And, as this area features large, adequately spaced tables and comfortable Windsor chairs, you may also elect to dine here. A moderately priced "Tavern Menu" is offered Tuesday through Friday and Sunday; the regular menu, only on Saturday. Just bear in mind that, with the exception of Saturday evening when the entire restaurant is smoke free, puffing is permitted in this area.

While the tavern, which is usually quite bustling, is fine for a casual repast, the two Colonial-style dining rooms offer more sedate surroundings. There is nothing flashy here, just a homey, understated ambiance complemented by pleasant, unobtrusive service.

The flash, I would hasten to add, is in the food. Mr. Novak, A CIA graduate who has held culinary court in such illustrious Garden State kitchens as Fromagerie and The Frog and The Peach, brings a wealth of sophisticated international nuances to his decidedly innovative American fare. His presentations seem to have grown more complex over the past several years; but, be that as it may, flavors and ingredients, for the most part, continue to coalesce into a congenial whole.

Be forewarned, however... Unless you have the appetite of a ravening hyena, you will undoubtedly find the portions -- especially the appetizers -- more than generous, and nearly all are suitable for sharing. The duck pâté ($9.95) is comprised of two enormous, incredibly delectable slabs separated by a pâté à choux lattice and garnished with port wine-infused red & green grapes, port wine pickled red onions, fresh figs, and black bread croustades. Equally copious -- and delicious -- is a huge island of lamb sausage topped with red onion crisps and surrounded by bacon, sweet corn & scallion risotto, and a sea of roasted garlic demi-glace awash with crumbled goat cheese ($11.95).

Salads are mountainous and, once again, more than enough to satisfy two diners. The Boston lettuce salad ($10.25) is embellished with roasted peppers, sliced red onions, diced heirloom tomatoes, crumbled bleu cheese, and is consummated with an utterly irresistible bleu cheese dressing. A special of seasonal greenery and Belgian endive ($9.95) is dressed with roasted walnuts, Granny Smith apples, and bleu cheese; an invigorating walnut vinaigrette provides an exemplary finishing touch. The arugula and spinach salads (both $9.25) are equally agreeable.

While all of the aforementioned are worthy contenders, the grilled vegetable & goat cheese ravioli ($10.95) and the sautéed striped bass ($13.95), in my opinion, walk away with top honors. The former is enhanced with a rich and savory Parmesan cheese cream sauce; the latter swims to table in a heady broth redolent of leek and basil oil.

Among the entrées, the only disappointment in several visits was the special sautéed salmon ($28.95) surrounded by a pool of creamy white wine sauce. The fish tasted just a touch past its prime, and the unctuous sauce proved to be an all too heavy-handed accompaniment.

But this was certainly the exception rather than the rule, as other presentations acquit themselves with considerable distinction. And this is especially true with regard to matters piscatorial... The special scallops ($29.95), for example, are beautifully seared on the outside, giving way to a rich, meaty interior; and a tantalizing drizzle of tomato butter adds just the proper acidic counterpoint. The pan-seared tuna ($29.95) is wrapped in prosciutto and sage, served up medium rare (precisely as ordered), and embellished with haricots verts, white beans, grilled portobello mushrooms, and a mushroom sage vinaigrette... And the grilled swordfish ($29.95) enhanced with a provocative mango, peach and black bean salsa is also up to the mark.

And carnivores may revel in an equally interesting variety of menu options. I am particularly fond of the grilled marinated pork medallions ($26.95). Moist and delicate, they are served with a wonderful grilled vegetable risotto and finished with a smoked tomato vinaigrette and topped with red onion crisps.

In the red meat department, it is difficult to top the sliced pan-roasted loin of lamb ($33.95) accompanied by goat cheese whipped potatoes. Beef lovers may choose either the Angus strip steak ($32.95) or the grilled beef tenderloin medallions ($31.95). Both are highly recommended.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to this fine establishment -- and would return at the slightest provocation -- food-wise, I still have a short "wish list." I wish, for instance, that presentations were a bit less convoluted. Mr. Novak's cuisine is both stylish and sophisticated... but, at times, he simply seems to be trying too hard to impress. A few less ingredients and a touch more care with regard to preparation would go a long way toward ameliorating this situation.

Secondly, while I consider myself something of an addict when it comes to mashed and whipped potatoes, I do wish that Mr. Novak would vary his starches just a bit. As of this writing, "whipped potatoes" -- in one form or another -- is an item that appears in no less than seven of twelve printed menu entrées and numerous daily specials. Variety, as they say, could very well prove to be the spice of life.

Desserts are as prodigious as their predecessors, but the results are somewhat more of a mixed bag. The apple strudel and peach cobbler (both $8.95) are quite good, though I would not consider them exceptional. The special chocolate terrine ($9.25) -- consisting of a lavish fudge-like wedge incorporating dark, milk and white chocolate surrounded by a pool of crème anglaise -- on the other hand, is a decadent delight. Conversely, the rice pudding ($5.95) is strictly generic, and its phyllo shell repository tastes strangely salty. But the winner-take-all in the sweet denouement department is most assuredly the luscious warm chocolate bread pudding ($8.50). Dressed in milk and white chocolate shavings, dark chocolate sauce and vanilla crème anglaise, this is comfort food pushed to the max.

The wine list, as you would expect, is as cosmopolitan as the cuisine, holding a number of reasonably priced treasures as well as more extravagantly priced vintages. The service, also as you would expect, is personable, courteous and knowledgeable.

Apart from one or two minor faux pas, the Harvest Moon Inn remains a most civilized and satisfying dining experience.

Cuisine: Creative American
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 1:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Sharp casual/business casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the tavern only. On Saturday, the entire restaurant is smoke-free.
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License and extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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