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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

Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery
279 Springfield Avenue
Berkeley Heights, Union County, New Jersey
(908) 665-1755

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Since food critics rush in where angels fear to tread, often descending like vultures upon a new restaurant within months (sometimes weeks) of its opening, panning or praising, and then riding off into the sunset never to darken the eatery's door again, it seems to me that now might be a propitious moment to pay a call at Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery.

I say this for two reasons: First of all, when Trap Rock opened for business in 1997, I had not yet assumed the mantle of professional "hired belly" (only making the scene in '98, thus missing the opportunity to add my two cents to the initial rush of culinary computations); and, secondly, since the original chef, Bruce Johnson, has long since departed and is currently cooking up a storm at 3 West in Basking Ridge -- yet another highly successful Chester Moore Associates' enterprise -- and other hands are now at work in the kitchen, I thought this popular establishment might be long overdue for another critical incursion.

Trap Rock is, of course, a microbrewery and, as such, turns out some first-rate handcrafted ales and lagers ($4.50 pint; $5.50 23-ounce). I must confess that beer has never been quite my thing; but, in the interest of pure research, I took advantage of the house "Sampler" ($7.95). In addition to the Munich-style Ghost Pony and Ghost Pony Helles, two excellent light lagers, I also very much enjoyed the Hathor Red Lager -- named for the Egyptian goddess credited with the invention of beer and made with all German malt and hops -- and the Linder Rye, alive with the sweet spicy taste of rye bread. Cascade and centennial hops give the Kestrel's Joy IPA a spicy, floral aroma, which wine aficionados will recognize as reminiscent of a fine gewürztraminer; and for those with hearty palates, the Yorkshire Stout is a smoky, full-bodied brew packed with the rich roasted flavors of coffee and chocolate.

Lovers of the fruit of the vine, however, need not despair, as they will find a commendable catalog of vintages from which to choose. By the glass, you might want to sample the 2002 Lyeth Estate "L" Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma ($7.50) or the 2003 Castle Rock Pinot Noir from the Russian River district ($8.50), both quite nice. Whites include an oaky 2003 Silverado Chardonnay ($9.95) and herbaceous 2003 Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($7.50). By the bottle, the 2001 Charles Krug Cabernet ($40.00) is a perennial favorite, as is the 2001 Chalone Chardonnay ($52.00).

In addition to the previously mentioned potables, the bustling, convivial (and often smoky) bar also features an intriguing list of martinis, ports, scotches, and liqueurs. Given all this libationary high jinks, you would naturally tend to harbor the sneaky suspicion that Trap Rock's cuisine might be something of an afterthought -- but this is surely not the case. Chef Josh Fryer, the current power behind the stove, continues the establishment's tradition of offering outstanding New American fare with provocative French and Asian subtitles.

When you're ready to settle in at table, just one cautionary note: Given this restaurant's population density and acoustical affectations, the dining areas, like the bar, tend to suffer from a kind of obstreperous reverberatory overload. My advice is to prevail upon your hostess to seat you in the "Garden Room," a semi-sedate rustic residence replete with great stone fireplace and large plate-glass windows overlooking the greenery. Don't expect to escape the cacophonous commotion completely; but, within these precincts, it will, thankfully, be somewhat muted.

And you are immediately put at ease by a basket of assorted breads and rolls -- raisin, crusty French, perhaps a slice of moist cornbread -- and butter or herbed olive oil for dipping, harbingers of the good things yet to come... Very good, indeed.

Among the appetizers, gifts from the sea play a leading role. The Maryland jumbo lump crab cake ($13.95) tempts the palate with sweet leek-encrusted crabmeat garnished with apple-fennel slaw, shallot aîoli, and basil oil. You may also indulge in plump Prince Edward Island mussels ($9.95) swimming in a broth awash with ancho chili-spiced pork and plum tomatoes or the "Oysters of the Day" ($1.95 each) accompanied by a zippy house-made cocktail sauce and Champagne and cranberry mignonettes.

The two stars of the show, however, are undoubtedly the Asia seafood trio ($14.95) and the lobster spring rolls ($12.95). The former -- an artistically arranged tower of tuna tartare, incredibly tender marinated calamari, and perfectly poached shrimp -- arrives in the company of crunchy wontons, a pungent ponzu dipping sauce, and dab of fresh wasabi (see photograph); the latter, two sumptuously crisp cylinders cut on the diagonal, is presented with a tempting triptych of spicy mustard, chili-lime marmalade, and coconut curry dipping sauces.

Non-seafood starters also have a great deal to offer. The Trap Rock salad ($8.95), for example, is a lovely amalgam of baby field greens, Applewood smoked bacon, grilled red onions, segments of portobello mushroom, and morsels of Maytag bleu cheese gently tossed with a complementary toasted walnut vinaigrette. I would also highly recommend the special soups of the day ($5.95). On one occasion, a cream of mushroom tweaked with basil purée; on another, a provocative, perfectly seasoned pottage of spicy Tasso ham replete with white beans and diced carrots and celery.

Entrées continue on the same superlative course... The special pan-roasted red snapper ($27.95) arrayed with grilled asparagus, roasted shallots, chive & tomato gnocchi, and finished with a tangy lemon pan sauce is a succulent success. Other piscatorial pleasures include a beautifully seared salmon filet set on a seabed of herbed spätzle and crowned with a spicy mustard drizzle ($19.95) and nori-seared tuna ($25.95). This latter presentation is particularly striking. Thick, sensuous slices are arranged in a semi-circle around a pool of lusty Thai chili sauce and bolstered by a fabulous soba noodle salad and crispy shrimp wontons.

In the meat department, I would heartily endorse the grilled pork loin ($21.95). Moist and extremely tender, it reclines on a robust white bean and chorizo ragoût and is finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Another personal favorite is the grilled flat iron steak ($24.95). Developed by research teams at the University of Nebraska and the University of Florida with funding provided by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, this beef cut is actually a top blade steak derived from the tender top blade roast. The roast is separated into two pieces by cutting horizontally through the center to remove the heavy connective tissue. Once this has been accomplished, the result is two tender, flavorful filets ready to be grilled as flat iron steaks.

And Trap Rock's rendition of this reasonably priced entry in the bovine sweepstakes is particularly pleasurable. The grilling is done to a mouth-watering medium rare; the steak is then surrounded by roasted Yukon gold potato halves and sautéed shiitake mushrooms and finished with a heady veal reduction. Excellent on all counts.

Desserts ($6.95) will also not disappoint. The inside out German chocolate cake is incomparably rich, accompanied by Heath Bar ice cream on a crisp coconut tuile, and finished with a fabulous toasted coconut anglaise; moist pecan pound cake is topped with sweet Fuji apples, vanilla ice cream, and garnished with chilled ginger anglaise; and the creamy lemon cheesecake is just that, crowned with warm caramel sauce and candied almonds and garnished with almond macaroons. But if you really want to go on a caloric bender, just sink your teeth into the special hot pecan sticky buns adorned with hot chocolate and fresh whipped cream ($9.95).

One of the things I like about Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery is the fact that it also does its best to accommodate those who might be in the mood for a more casual chow-down rather than a complete dinner. So consider settling in with a brew and ordering from the limited (and decidedly less expensive) menu available in the lounge. The Vermont cheddar burger ($8.95) and fish and chips -- ale-battered cod, pommes frites, chipotle slaw, and roasted onion tartar sauce ($12.95) -- are both worth the price of admission.

Cuisine: New 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.; Sun, 4:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Lounge menu available all day
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Neat Casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License; microbrews; excellent wine list
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.traprockrest.com

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