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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Saddle River Inn
2 Barnstable Court
Saddle River, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 825-4016

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
September 10, 2001

Some restaurants are blessed with an incredible view or a particularly pleasant ambiance... yet serve up an array of comestibles that are beneath contempt. Others boast simply marvelous food... but a wait staff that should be collectively shot a sunrise. On the other hand, an eatery that manages to parlay a charming atmosphere, excellent cuisine, and professional service into an exceptional dining experience night after night, year after year is a rare bird, indeed. Rare??? It positively qualifies as an endangered species! Consistency, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, may very well be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it is precisely that which separates truly first-class restaurants from a host of pretentious, overpriced pretenders. The Saddle River Inn, let me hasten to add, is consistency personified.

If you have a decided aversion to the usual brand of decorative glitz and glitter, the setting will surely strike just the right chord. The converted 150-year-old barn is authentically rustic (as opposed to some highly polished, overwrought monument to the ingenuity of antiquarian fakery), spruced up with lace panels, fresh flowers, and an interior balcony overlooking the main floor. The dining room seats a scant 70 diners, which seems exactly the right number: neither too large nor too small. One finds it easy to visualize former President and Mrs. Nixon dining here, as they often did... or, perhaps, Peter Mayle and Stuart Stevens quietly discussing their foodie and travel adventures in a quiet nook.

Be that as it may, when an establishment has been around for a solid two decades -- and has succeeded in garnering a plethora of well-deserved accolades -- it is inevitable that the culinary iconoclasts will begin firing off a fusillade of complaints. I've heard the word "stodgy," for example, bandied about with regard to the food of late, implying a decided lack of creativity on the part of the kitchen.

But I strongly disagree... not only with this faulty and deceptive conclusion, but also with the spurious methodology upon which it is based. A given restaurant may be properly evaluated only on the basis of how well it brings to fruition its own specified culinary goals... NOT on the basis of an artificial agenda imposed upon it by some disgruntled hired belly with a burr under his/her saddle.

Chef/proprietor Hans Egg has never aspired to be wildly innovative. His approach to cuisine is definitively French, but he has updated certain classic themes and integrated a variety of Asian and Italian touches just to liven things up a bit. His limited menu, augmented by several daily specials, is inventive without being aggressively avant-garde, his offerings attractively presented without being self-consciously fussy. Mr. Egg's particular genius lies in the impeccable preparation and orchestration of the freshest possible ingredients. Both traditionalists and those with more adventurous palates will feel at home here.

His swordfish ($27.00), for example, is simple yet seductive. Perfectly grilled, it rests on a velvety seabed of puréed potatoes and is adorned with shallot butter and finished with a touch of savory veal stock reduction. The special halibut filet ($27.00) is pan-roasted with just a splash of white wine and butter. The fish is utterly pristine, firm of texture yet moist & delicate, and is consummated with a colorful crown of sautéed red peppers and chanterelle mushrooms.

Meats, which make up a majority of the menu options, are every bit the equal of matters piscatorial. The chateaubriand ($52.00 for two) -- embellished with sautéed mushrooms and roesti potatoes -- is positively benchmark, as is the roasted rack of lamb ($30.00) accompanied by a luscious potato gratin.

Infinitely more opulent are the veal tenderloin ($29.00) and the roasted filet of beef ($30.00). The former is dressed with portobello mushrooms laced with Cognac and cream, the latter with a hedonistic chestnut purée, béarnaise and port wine sauce. Needless to say, these entrées would hardly qualify as diet food... And yet, it is the chef's masterful restraint that keeps these extravagantly rich accoutrements from running amuck and completely paralyzing the palate.

And preludes exhibit an even more pronounced sophistication. Lump crabmeat ($12.00) luxuriates on an island of corn kernels surrounded by a sea of Dijon mustard/lemon sauce dotted with atolls of cantaloupe and cucumber; foie gras ($19.00), sumptuously seared in port wine sauce, is a study in dignified decadence; cannelloni ($9.00) are filled with ground veal & spinach and bathed in a delightfully creamy béchamel/tomato sauce; a fabulous potato/leek soup ($7.00), long on flavor and, thankfully, short on heavy cream is certain to awaken even the most lethargic of taste buds.

While every element of your dining experience demonstrates this establishment's outstanding commitment to quality, desserts ($7.00) are particularly noteworthy. Three meringue wafers are interspersed with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. An armada of fresh Maine blueberries then surrounds this diminutive epicenter, resulting in a mellifluous marriage of colors & textures and a delightfully tumultuous interplay of sweet-tart flavors. Fresh apricot slices that have been marinated in sweet Alsatian wine circumscribe a citron madeleine, while a smattering of raspberries and blackberries completes the exquisitely delicious scenario.

There is one additional factor that sets this restaurant apart: the impeccable service. Far too many eateries labor under the delusion that any misanthrope with the appropriate number of appendages is qualified to wait at table -- and Garden State diners continue to reap the horrendous benefits of this feeble-minded casuistry. So if you've had it up to your asparagus with the overly familiar "Hi, my name's (fill in the blank), I'll be your server this evening" school of restaurant deportment or the equally obnoxious pseudo-obsequious approach, you will be more than pleased with the professionalism exhibited here. The service is proper yet personable, attentive yet not offensively loquacious. The waiters are mature veterans who have been properly seasoned in the crucible of personal experience; they know their menu and their customers... And this is a savvy mix that is extremely difficult to come by these days.

One final word... Many restaurant critics -- or so it seems to me -- have become little more than gastronomic gadflies, flitting from one glitzy, glamorous, artsy-fartsy cubbyhole of cutting-edge cuisine to the next, while viewing with disdain the venerable establishments that continue to serve up what they, the critics, consider to be less adventurous and, therefore, less honorable fare. When it comes to matters gastronomic, I am far from a traditionalist. However, is it not a truism that, while culinary fashions may come and go with the drop of a fork, the classics -- and classic restaurants -- will always appeal to the knowledgeable and sophisticated diner?

In his most recent book, French Lessons, Peter Mayle remarked: "There is an air of confidence about these restaurants that comes from three or four decades of practice. They know what they do, and they do it, ignoring the fads of the day."

Not only does the Saddle River Inn "do it," I might add. This is one restaurant that continues to do it all... and do it extremely well.

Cuisine: French with interesting variations
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Sat, 6:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY & MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Jackets required for gentlemen
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Essential
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Difficult

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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