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Vineyards Restaurant and Wine Bar
Restaurant Closed
3619 Route 94
Hardyston, Sussex County, New Jersey
(973) 209-0500

By The Artful Diner
January 14, 2008

Restaurant Now Closed

Can a restaurant location be jinxed? Perhaps. It is certainly no secret that a number of establishments have tried -- and subsequently failed -- at this very same site. Be that as it may, with Vineyards Restaurant and Wine Bar, the Sussex Restaurant Group appears to have a definite winner on its hands.

And there are a number of interesting factors at work here. First of all, despite previous faux pas, the venue is primo, rife with golf courses and ski resorts with incredible potential for attracting summer and winter visitors, as well as a slew of residents from the posh Crystal Springs compound just across the road. Secondly the former Hayloft and Big Red Barn underwent five months of intensive reconstruction before its November 14th (2007) debut and now boasts not only Vineyards, but also the chic and romantic New York-style Shadow Lounge, which offers 50 signature martinis and an exciting array of tapas fusion fare. Thirdly, in contrast to the expensive and, in my opinion, overrated Latour at Crystal Springs, Vineyards prices are mouth-wateringly moderate.

(Note: August 2008--New executive chef is Peter Case.)
But the major component in this restaurant's future success scenario is surely the presence of the power behind the stove, Executive Chef Patrick Yves Pierre-Jerome. As many will undoubtedly recall, Mr. Pierre-Jerome was the chef/proprietor of the four-star Yves in Montclair before moving on to consistent critical acclaim as the exec at Stage Left in New Brunswick and, subsequently, a successful stint at the Mountain Lakes Country Club.

Mr. Pierre-Jerome, of course, is famous for his exquisitely innovative American cuisine with French accents; at Vineyards, however, the emphasis is somewhat different. The menu is more eclectic in nature, ranging from simple American bistro fare to a number of more creative international offerings. As Mr. Pierre-Jerome noted in a recent interview: "We are trying to be all things to many people."

But that is not to say that his recipes are "dumbed down" in any sense of the word. His presentations are as intensely flavorful as ever; indeed, even with the simplest of dishes, he has the uncanny ability to take his ingredients to the max.

You may, for example, enjoy the sublime simplicity of meatloaf ($14.00), the ultimate American comfort food. But no slices here. The chef's conception is individually circular, a generous patty finished with an extraordinarily savory bacon-wild mushroom demi-glace and crown of crispy fried onions. And just as deliciously down-home is the individual Texas Shepard's pie ($14.00), a rich and robust chili topped by a layer of luscious mashed potatoes sprinkled with melted cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses. On the other hand, you may not be able to resist the house favorite, a decadently juicy 10-ounce Kobe burger ($11.00) aided and abetted by blue cheese, cheddar, and/or apple wood smoked bacon ($1.00 per).

And Mr. Pierre-Jerome's creative fare is totally beguiling. By the chef's own admission, his signature dish is the presentation of diver scallops ($22.00). The bivalves are pan-seared to a golden brown and marvelously meaty. Artistically placed on a diminutive pillow of lobster quiche, they are surrounded by a sensuous sea of orange-ginger sauce.

Continuing in the seafood vein, the special tilapia ($17.00) is adorned with a light potato crust and circumscribed by an armada of ethereal shrimp pillows and roasted shiitake mushrooms; the crispy red snapper ($18.00) is kissed by an enticing tomato-tarragon sauce; and the sesame-crusted salmon ($19.00) is finished with a pungent hoisin vinaigrette.

In the red meat department, the braised lamb shank ($15.00) is without peer. The succulent, tender flesh literally falls off the bone, and the entire affair is consummated with a superlative rosemary sauce. This particular herb can be a mighty tough customer, fragrant enough, in a culinary sense, to bury anything. But here it is applied with such discretion that it lovingly caresses rather than smothers the object of its affection.

As I mentioned at the outset -- and as you have undoubtedly noticed -- prices here, especially given the superior quality of the cuisine -- are a comparative bargain. And what makes them even more attractive is the fact that soup or salad and two sides are included with your main course. The house salad, for example, is an obviously freshly tossed mélange of mixed greens anointed with a lively Champagne vinaigrette; and the soup we sampled on two occasions was a sumptuous, perfectly seasoned ham-lentil. Even these relatively simple items, mere throwaways in lesser establishments, show unusually special care in preparation and exhibit a decided touch of class.

... As do the side dishes. The mashed potatoes are lumpy and luscious; the creamed spinach puts steakhouse versions to shame; and the coleslaw, embellished with dried cranberries and honey, is uniquely flavorful. The polenta is beguilingly crisp; the risotto tinctured with herbs and delightfully creamy; and the garlic bok choy just garlicky enough. Tender broccoli rabe, sweet potato fries, glazed carrots, ratatouille, potato puffs, and house-made fries round out the possibilities.

With so much food in the offering, appetizers appear almost superfluous. However, should you be so inclined, and the possessor of a hearty appetite, I highly recommend both the French onion soup laced with sherry and topped with Gruyere ($5.00) and the ethereal gnocchi companioned by pesto, grilled portobello mushrooms, and roasted peppers ($8.00/as an entree, $15.00).

Desserts, all homemade, continue with style. The apple spring rolls are perfectly crisp and adorned with a decadent caramel sauce and dollop of vanilla ice cream ($7.00); and the baked cup of hot malted milk chocolate ($7.00) more than lives up to its description -- part gooey/part chocolate -- crowned with toasted mini marshmallows. The bananas Foster ($7.00) is an innovative takeoff on the New Orleans classic: an armada of sliced bananas and rich buttery sauce surrounding a chocolate brownie topped with a tiara of vanilla ice cream.

In keeping with the Vineyards theme, you will discover a very nice wine list. A supple and elegant 1/2 bottle of 2002 Estancia Meritage ($35.00) -- a blend of cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot -- is particularly recommended; and Esperto Pinot Grigio ($8.00) and Rocca Della Macia Chianti ($9.00) are both excellent choices by the glass.

There is absolutely no question that Vineyards Restaurant and Wine Bar is poised to become a major player on the Sussex County restaurant scene. And I also have no doubts whatsoever that Mr. Pierre-Jerome will continue to hold locals and visitors alike under his magic culinary spell.

Cuisine: International/American Bistro
Hours: Open seven days: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Shadow Lounge: Weds - Fri, 8:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m.; Sat, 8:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.vineyardsrestaurant.net

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