Each of our three visits to the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn was followed with thoughts of "well, we tried it, and won't be back." But something drove us back. I'm really having a hard time figuring out what that something was, but I think it's the hope that they can pull the place off. So far, I'm not convinced they have.
The Ho-Ho-Kus Inn makes promises of menus that change seasonally, with a focus on locally sourced ingredients where practical. They seem to be on track with that promise. But what ultimately ends up on your plate, and the experience surrounding that plate, hasn't earned them high marks in my book, and suggests to me that they haven't figured out how to successfully implement their vision. Yet. And let me note that I've eaten only in the Tavern Room; the fine dining aspect of the HHI doesn't interest me in the least, although it's a very attractive, somewhat transporting restaurant.
First visit data points
The burger gets a lot of positive press, but mine was dry, had a bun which was much too big, and was unexceptional overall. The fries were a steamy limp mess.
The steak suffered from an unfortunate array of brown components. The whole dish was brown. And the taste of those components was brown (potatoes, a reduced sauce, and probably something else brownish).
As I recall saying to someone at that point (early 2010), I've seen a better selection of beer at frat parties. It should be noted that there is now an IPA on tap, which appears to be a craft beer. At the very least, it's not one of the usual suspects.
Not a good first visit.
Second visit fish
On a subsequent visit, I had a Kindai tuna dish, which is a farm-raised sustainable fish from what I read. The 29 dollar fish was not much unlike toro (and looked more toro-ish than did the fella's next to me...so I have to wonder if my piece was exceptional). It was succulent and melted on my tongue. However I couldn't help but notice a vague fishiness. Should I have sent it back immediately? Of course. But I couldn't be bothered, knowing that I would never go back.
And then on our most recent visit (see, I went back again)...
We had an heirloom beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts, which was quite delicious. Fantastic, actually. Great balance, not overly dressed, and each element added something important to the dish. Nicely done.
The promise of the 3-week wet aged and then 28-day in-house dry-aged steak seemed empty once the plate hit the bar. I sensed no overtones of mineral and funk that I usually get from dry-aged steak. However, the steak was cooked very nicely. I'm guessing there's a slow and low process involved, as the untrimmed fat was very soft, and the steak had some subtle grill marks, but no "crust" (which isn't necessarily a criticism). The potato hash was very good, no doubt helped by the smoky bacon. They are apparently smoking their own meats at the HHI, and I saw the smoker with my own two eyes. That's promising.
Did we like the lamb dish, cooked two ways, with a mint/spinach pesto? You betcha.
On all visits, the bread was quite good.
So it's clear the food has been bit hit-or-miss.
But yeah so has the service
The bartender during one visit was uncaring and unfriendly, and I would have fired him on the spot, had someone bestowed that power unto me. Yes, bitters go in a Manhattan, and not after you're done stirring it.
During another visit, the bartender was a very pleasant young lady. She should not be fired.
The third bartender was a eager young man, who seemed to be into food himself. He had no problem talking the talk, and seemed genuinely excited about the kitchen, the menu, the ingredients and my interest in all of the above. He, also, should not be fired.
2 outta 3 ain't too shabby.
Unfortunately the Tavern Room has at least 2 TVs. Now, I'm a fan of having TVs at a bar. I have no problem with TVs in bars, in cars, at the office, wherever you want to put one. I don't think they cheapen the dining experience, and in fact they give you something to look at after you're done making notes of what types of whiskey, tequila, triple sec, and vermouth the bar stocks vs how many flavors of Stoli you see lined up in front (you all do that, right?). What I don't care for is entitled adults well into their 40's and 50's, screaming about sporting events at the top of their lungs, as if they are 25 years of age, hanging out at a sports pub. I would have fired them immediately, too. It's simply inappropriate, boorish behavior, generally seen in those who are starved for attention. To exhibit that type of behavior, others of us simply start up blogs about food, pretending we have superior taste and knowledge of all things culinary.
So where does all of this leave me and the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn? Looking at my past schedule of a visit once every 3 months, I guess I'm due for another meal before years' end. I'm crossing my fingers.
The Ho-Ho-Kus Inn : 1 East Franklin Turnpike : Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ : 201.445.4115