Update: Escape Montclair has closed. Check out Chef Gregg's current work with his small plates concept at Tastes By Bryan Gregg.
As much as I try to shy away from using overused phrases, no matter how much I like them, I will use one, right now: Escape Montclair is my jam.
One of the many very friendly readers of t:e brought this three month old restaurant to my attention. I took a look at the website and liked what I saw. Off I went for a lunch to see if Chef Bryan Gregg's new joint was worthwhile.
The minimalist decor and overall aesthetic struck me first. Exposed brick and HVAC, a few blackboards listing cheese and meat and food, funky retro chairs and neat table settings, prices all rounded to the dollar instead of the "95 cents" nonsense that you see at chains and restaurants that think people can't possibly understand that 20.95=21, all add up to clean and functional and practical. Characteristics I like in just about everything.
Escape Montclair is serious about the farm-to-table/local concept, making fools of other restaurants that have jumped on the bandwagon while serving what all too often tastes as though Sysco is the local farm. You'll have a very good idea of where your food is coming from with a quick glance to the blackboards or menu. New Jersey's Bobolink Dairy, Valley Sheppard Creamery, Cherry Grove Farm are among the cheese providers, and Branchville's Møsefund, is providing much of the cured meat.
There's a three course prix fixe offer at lunch, at the absurdly low price of $15 (there are now some items with supplements, understandably).
My first lunch included an appetizer of pork belly with a jam, and a bit of lettuce that was more than just a prop. I forget if they're making the curing the pork belly in-house, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are. Salty, porky, crunchy, luscious, bacon.
The second course was salmon, with, if memory serves, and it usually doesn't, grilled squash and polenta. An interesting combination, with a nod to the southern roots that the restaurant claims. The salmon's skin was crisp, but the fish was cooked a bit too much for my liking. I prefer my fish m/r, and this piece was approaching well. I suspect the fact that the portion was quite small could have contributed to the slight overcooking. Not a show-stopper by any means, however.
The portion size might be a problem for some people. In general, these are not enormous portions of mediocre food. These are reasonably sized portions of exceptional food. This is my preference.
A few weeks later I returned for a second lunch. It became apparent then that not only the food, but the service is above par. The manager remembered not only what I had ordered previously, but what wine I brought, where I live, and what my water preference is. Oh, and he also remembered that I prefer a white wine glass for prosecco, rather than a flute.
This lunch started with a dish of heirloom tomatoes, cheese, and celery. Fantastic, fresh, vibrant flavors all through this dish. I'm a sucker for celery and celery leaves, and they worked very well here. As with all of the dishes I've tried, this was seasoned nicely. You'll notice a very deft hand with salt at Escape. I get the sense they are seasoning every element, rather than the dish as a whole. No shortcuts here, and no ham-handedness. It's all grace and restraint on these plates.
The "EM Burger" is a tangy, hefty beast of a grass-fed burger, with local (of course) cheddar and perfectly sweet-and-salty bacon onion jam, on a brioche (house-made, IIRC). Excellent, excellent burger, with a great bun-to-burger ratio. Move over, Next Door, there's a new burger on Bloomfield Ave. If there was any flaw in the burger it's that one side could have used a bit more sear. The lack of sear left the large patty without the necessary support to stay intact during the gorging process. But I managed. Let's face it, I'm trying really hard to find flaws.
The steak fries were hot, crispy, and pillowy inside. While potatoes are too often an afterthought, these were actually worth a mention. Nicely seasoned as well, of course. A pickle spear rounded out the plate.
I had been praising the place to the missus since those meals, but wasn't quite sure if it was as good as I was thinking. Maybe I was just in a rare good mood those afternoons? Maybe the whole farm-to-table thing got me overly excited? Maybe the friendly service and relaxed vibe convinced me that it was better than it is? Maybe The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen on the sound system got me all sentimental and reflective? I dragged her to Escape for dinner to see if I was insane, or if we've really got something special here.
The missus was hooked after the house-made biscuits, cornbread and honey butter came out, and probably before. By the time the heirloom tomato and dish of Møsefund speck with cantaloupe hit the table, it was pretty clear that we were on the same page, and I was not insane, and hence we do indeed have something special here.
And here's where the photography takes an unfortunate turn.
When the scallops and monkish mains came out, the missus was already planning the next visit. I can't recall a restaurant in recent memory, in New Jersey, where I was eating a meal and couldn't wait to return.
The scallops were seared, just north of translucent, and as sweet as you could imagine. Served with foie gras and morels. This composed dish had some squash and corn, each lightly seared, adding a bit of a smoky flavor. A top 10 dish of this year, and it should be noted I spent 9 days in France a few months ago.
The monkfish seemed as though it was flash fried, lending a crispy exterior to a moist interior. I don't even remember what else was in this dish, but it was almost as good as the scallop dish, which is to say, it was very, very enjoyable.
For dessert we ordered chocolate and cheese, which of course reminded me of Ween. The manager was nice enough to choose a selection of three cheeses, so I didn't have to think. Served with a jam and some fresh berries and toasted bread. But I don't let bread get in the way of my cheese. The chocolate dessert, with a marshmallow (which until now I thought was spelled "marshmellow") cream, house-made by their pastry chef no doubt, was excellent. I don't know much about sweets, so I can't even tell you what it was called, or come up with much more than "excellent." But you are assured that it was very, very tasty. Rarely do we order dessert, but I get the feeling we'll be ordering dessert and cheese during every visit to Escape.
Chef Gregg and his team are not messing around here. The hints of southern influence, the commitment to the farm-to-table concept and sourcing local ingredients, the top-notch service, the level at which it's run, all set Escape Montclair apart from the competition. The end result is an excellent product and a very pleasurable experience. Unless me and the missus are both crazy. You tell me.
Escape Montclair : 345 Bloomfield Ave : Montclair, NJ : 973.744.0712 : BYOB