People had me convinced that I was supposed to know who Chris Cannon is. I had no idea. I read an article about this NYC restaurateur in the New York Times some months back, but didn't commit the information to memory. By the time I got around to sitting at one of the three bars at Jockey Hollow, I had forgotten that Cannon was a partner at L'Impero--one of my favorite NYC restaurants back in the day. Frankly, who cares. The restaurant is either good, or not good. While I can't judge a restaurant on one lunch visit (and not even in the dining room), I got the feeling that they're trying really hard at Jockey Hollow, are capable of producing some fine food, but have room for improvement.
How do you get in this place?
I don't know if it was the snow and the cold and the lack of visible signage, but the whole shebang looked desolate and closed when I pulled up. I knew there was a parking garage in the back of the mansion, so I figured that was a good a place to start as any. From the garage a quick elevator ride took me right to the Vail Bar, where I was greeted by a friendly bartender and a surprisingly bright and cheery space. My fear of dark woods and a clubby, stuffy bar melted away.
The Jockey Hollow complex has three bars. The front of the mansion, which is where the main entrance is, houses a dining area and the Oyster Bar--a sleek, modern space with a long bar displaying lots of wine (and oysters). The Vail Bar, just behind the Oyster Bar toward the back of the mansion, is a bit more casual, a bit more prohibition-era, with a long bar displaying lots of booze. I like looking at booze almost as much as I like drinking it, so I advised my girlfriend to meet me there. (The third bar, in the basement, is the Rathskeller, a space for private parties, which I'm told is also open to the public on Friday and Saturdays.)
Refreshingly, menus are presented on iPads. This means that everything you need to know is right in your hands. No dicking around asking for the cocktail list. No having the bartender recite the beer list (if I never have to sit through "Bud, Bud Light, Yuengling, Sam's Summer..." again in my life I'll be grateful). All of the information. In your hand. What a concept. Everything, with the exception of the quite wide and deep wine list. The wine list is printed and separate. The wines-by-the-glass, I would argue, should be on the iPad as well. Maybe they'll figure that out at some point.
While we're on wines-by-the-glass, I will note that the selection is long and varied. So much more than your too-standard three flavors of New World Chardonnay that most restaurants seem to implement (if I never hear the words "I'll have a Chardonnay" again in my life I'll be grateful).
The menu is broken down into sections, as you might expect, including crudo, raw bar, appetizers, entrees, salumi/cheese, and a prix fixe. Lots to choose from here, and more than a few things read really well. We landed on some crudo and entrees.
But first, a cocktail...
The cocktail list at Jockey Hollow includes I'd guess 30 or 40 cocktails. That's quite ambitious. This, in keeping with the entire place; Jockey Hollow is indeed an ambitious concept. The list contains the standards as well as some creations of their own. The booze in the cocktails is of uniformly good quality. No Jose Cuervo Gold in their tequila drinks. I'd much rather pay a premium and drink well, than save a couple of bucks and drink like a college student. And a premium you will be paying at Jockey Hollow. Cocktails range from $12-15.
The bartender recommended The Hollow Jockey cocktail. Who am I to argue. This cocktail includes Laird's White Lightening, clarified lemon juice, and simple syrup. I believe the Laird's product is more typically called Jersey Lightening. Either way, it's un-aged apple brandy. And it's no joke. I didn't realize what a boozy affair this drink would be, but thankfully there was a wee bit of a heavy hand with the simple syrup. The drink went down quite easily considering the base spirit is 100 proof and has the word "lightening" in its name.
A few other cocktails included a rum-based drink called Holy Terroir, which my girlfriend ordered because she loves cocktails with umbrellas. I didn't try this cocktail, but I'm pretty sure it was islandy.
Also, there were a few others, whose names I forget. They looked and tasted well-crafted. See for yourself. Excellent work here with the cocktail list. The cocktails alone would have me returning often if I lived closer.
Enough boozing. On to the food...
Yellowtail crudo is served with chicken skin. Fried chicken skin. I can't recall seeing this treatment, and I hope to see it again. Pristine fish with olive oil, scallions, and crispy chicken skin bits. Just super.
Better yet are the sardines with salsa verde. Served with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, ensuring that it will infuriate Italians everywhere. We were not infuriated. The dense meat of the sardines worked well with the nutty, earthiness of the cheese. There, I said it. This dish was the star of the show.
The steak frites dish was the big loser here. The strip steak, ordered rare by my girlfriend, because she's an animal, just wasn't very exceptional. I would prefer to see hanger or some other more interesting cut. The fries seemed to be of the standard food-service frozen variety. Summer fries: summer limp, some are crispy.
The other beef option turned out much better. The burger was a glorious hunk of no doubt freshly ground beef, with a coarse, masculine texture. The bun was an appropriate size, and overall everything was cooked well. A very good burger, I thought. It was billed as coming with salt and vinegar fries, although they appeared to be the same summer fries that came with the steak. It came with a ramekin of sauce on the side, which I can't help but think was supposed to come with the steak, which arrived without the advertised "O'Shea sauce." The sauce was quickly brought out when this oversight was mentioned.
Missteps and flops aside, I thought this was a good meal (although had I been eating the steak I would have been disappointed) and a better experience. It's not cheap, but I get the sense you're getting quality products overall. This, to me, is important. And that cocktail list. Boy oh boy did I like that cocktail list.
The menu for the proper dining room, available for viewing on their website, looks to be an interesting prix fixe. Four courses for $75 at the moment. I will certainly keep Jockey Hollow on my list in the event I'm in the mood for formal dining. But you'll likely find me at one of the bars.
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen : 110 South Street : Morristown, NJ : 973.644.3180
As always, I paid my own way, and received no special treatment. Also, I don't have a girlfriend. My date was a dude.