It’s the rare restaurant that inspires me enough to write a blog post, and through the years, readers of this blog know I’ve written about a few memorable restaurant meals, including those at Le Bernardin, Per Se and Del Posto. It’s been a long while since a restaurant bowled me over, but on my recent visits to “The Pass,” located in Rosemont, New Jersey, my dinner companions and I were pleasantly surprised — no strike that phrase — we were truly wowed by the delicious, inventive take on food presented there by the chef/owner Matthew Ridgway, including this pre-dinner offering of cured tilefish, caught off the coast of Long Island. It was like no crudo I’ve ever eaten – unctuous, with the unusual and deliciously melding flavors of black cardamom, cinnamon, thyme and salt.
When you enter the casual, homey place, (named for the space in a restaurant kitchen where the chef oks food ready for serving), the decor gives no hint to the excellence of the dishes that are served. It once was home to the popular Café at Rosemont, and looks much the same still – almost like an old-fashioned general store along a country road.
There are even artisanal products for sale in one section of the room.
A large meat grinder in another corner is apropos, since Matthew makes his own charcuterie (which he has sells at The Pass and to high end restaurants like New York’s Café Boulud.)
The wild boar’s head adds a touch of whimsy and serves as a reminder that aside from the excellent fish dishes, meat is also given due respect here.
Including this appetizer, which we didn’t order but happily gobbled in short order. At The Pass, two dishes — meant to be shared, and chosen by the chef — are placed in front of diners before the first course. They’re larger than the typical “amuse bouche” but smaller than a true appetizer course. What’s in this one, you ask? Well, it may look unappetizing, but it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve been lucky enough to place in my mouth this year. It’s ……. (drum roll) …. beef tongue, something I rarely order. But this unusual take on beef tongue… where have you been all my life?
I’m sure if beef tongue tasted this divine at all restaurants, we’d see a lot more mute steer. This was cured “pastrami style,” then steamed, rough chopped and tossed with nuc mom, or a Vietnamese fish sauce. It was like eating a Vietnamese hoagie on toast points and we only wished there were more.
Another night one of the freebie aperitivi was this tomato gazpacho with hot smoked steel head salmon that was cured with mug wart grappa, made in-house. Betcha you haven’t seen mug wart grappa in too many places, right? We licked every last drop.
These initial lagnaippes got better and better and were an auspicious taste of what was to come the rest of the meal. Take this, for example — (well, yes, thank you. We did and with pleasure) — fried shishito peppers with garlic in sweet vermouth and sherry vinegar, topped with ricotta salata cheese. Use some of the bread that’s set before you to wipe the plate clean. The bread — made in-house using a very wet “poolish” or “sponge”– and flavored with za’atar, is so deliciously addictive, you’ll be tempted to ask for more. But be warned, you must leave room for the rest of the wonderful taste sensations coming your way.
OK, now let’s go to the printed menu. It’s a small menu that changes every two weeks, with a surprisingly reasonable fixed price of $49 for three courses (four if you’re including the apertivo). The selection is slim, but there are usually two other “extra options” listed on the side of the menu that will add a little more to your bill, if you’re so inclined. Or, if you’re hankering for a Lucullan feast, The Pass offers a six-course chef’s choice menu too, for $79.
There are only two possibilities for each course, but that hasn’t been an issue so far, because everything has been excellent and highly creative. For example, here’s a first course of Maine sardines, that had been pickled for three days, then removed from the pickle and packed in oil. It’s topped with foie gras, and green raisins plumped with brandy. Who’d have thunk? Fois gras with sardines? Matthew Ridgway, that’s who, and the dish was a big hit at the table.
And how’s this for an unexpected combo? Local peaches from Manoff Market in Solebury, Pa., served with shaved truffle and a tumble of salad greens, plus a small toast smeared with uni, or sea urchin. I don’t know where Matthew comes up with these ideas, but this was another winner that left me wanting more.
OK, so on to the main event, which in this case is tile fish again, but this time roasted and served with thin slices of sweet and sour globe zucchini, floating in a pineapple vinegar broth. Slurping encouraged.
Another entree was this perfectly cooked tuna pavé, accompanied by fried haricot verts, and more of those sweet yet tangy shishito peppers, all sitting in a puddle of satay sauce. The sauces at The Pass are all so complex and delicious. This one was made with red curry, kaffir lime leaves, peanuts, coconut milk, coconut vinegar, garlic and onions, then finished with butter. Uh-huh. That’s why it tastes so darn good.
For beef lovers, this beautiful and succulent New York state braised beef shin did not disappoint. And that’s an understatement. It was served with heirloom tomatoes from Blue Moon Acres farm in Pennington and a pillow of burrata cheese imported from Puglia. The entire dish was surrounded by a sauce made from the meat stock, French vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
I loved the desserts too, but to me, the other dishes on the menu are really the stars. There’s a good reason that New Jersey Monthly named The Pass as one of the 25 best restaurants for 2014.
Still, The Pass knows how to create a delightful end of the meal course. This crème fraîche soufflé tart served with steamed plums in an olive oil and fennel jus, was ethereal and disappeared far too quickly.
For those who prefer cheeses to dessert, excellent offerings are an option from the always reliably delicious Bobolink Dairy in Milford, N.J.
One last thing — There’s no liquor license, so bring your own (a bonus for those of us who enjoy fine wines but don’t want to pay inflated restaurant prices.)
Thanks Matt, we’ll be back again — and again — and again.