Head to Essex to experience the multiple joys of Scotch Plains Tavern
Just walking into the Scotch Plains Tavern in Essex caused an overload of impressions, reactions and thoughts in my cheesecloth brain.
The building, after all, is pretty familiar to most folks in the area. For years, it was a popular place called Oliver's Taverne, which was a giant, two story barn-like structure establishment with the casual roadhouse atmosphere you'd get if Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott were bouncers and the Jeff Healey Band was playing.
Now, other than the geometry of the exterior structure, it's almost hard to imagine Scotch Plains is the same place. The interior makeover is extensive and impressive. As a New Londoner, I wish the Scotch Plains investors/design crew would come to the Whaling City and, oh, I dunno, renovate Bank Street and, while they're at it, take over Fort Trumbull.
Dazzling, that Scotch Plains Tavern.
There's a bipartite set up: the massive second floor loft is like a very clean and rustic sports bar with polished timber, a high, pitched ceiling, plenty of big screens, comfortable tall-top tables and a sizeable billiard room. Also, hard to the stairway and overlooking the bottom floor dining room, is a sort of "fenced in" bullpen where a large dinner party might request seating on a festive occasion.
About that main floor dining area: It's like a gorgeous ski lodge. The hip lighting is presented in several clever designs, including an extended series of lamps perched atop a deadfall of interlocking tree branches. Set high up on the far wall is a wide-slung fireplace, the sort positioned behind Al Pacino's desk in "Devil's Advocate." Again, there's plenty of gleaming planks, shiny brass and exquisitely welcoming ambience.
It is a small dining room, relatively speaking, which is why, particularly on a weekend night, I'd recommend reservations.
Though the large menu works on either floor, the lower dining room seems to encourage selections from the higher-end entrees — "Steaks and Chops" — while the upper bar area is perfect for tavern fare such as burgers and sandwiches, flatbreads and comfort foods. There are also plenty of creative appetizers, soups, salads and desserts.
Seated downstairs, and given the sheer variety offered, we decided to focus on "fine dining." It's worth noting that our service was excellent throughout, and the plating and presentations — two restauranty words I learned watching "My 12-Year-Old is a Michelin Chef" on the French-language Food Network — were lovely and imaginative.
Four of us decided to split two appetizers. It's always fun to see fried green tomatoes ($13) in this part of the world. The Tavern's version was a clever take on this southern standby. Sliced to a perfect thickness, the greenies were delicately fried in a light breading that never overwhelmed. They were topped with a rich pesto and a perky fig drizzle. Astonishing — and if you won't tell Alabama about the fig drizzle, neither will I.
Also wonderful were the cheese curds ($14), which were small pillows of greatness nestled in a silver cone. The crispy curds were filled with chewy, mellow white cheddar and, when dragged through what seemed to be a light but velvety vodka sauce, proved an irresistible balance.
Entrees weren't as uniformly successful, but there was a lot to enjoy. "A lot" is intentional, by the way. The Scotch Plains folks don't hesitate to give enormous portions.
From the red meat section, a fire-grilled, boneless 14-ounce ribeye ($24)sprawled across a platter, extending over the edges, lightly painted in butter, and snuggled up against twin helpings of steamed cauliflower/broccoli and a mound of butter and bacon mashed potatoes. Both of the veggie components were superb. The steak, however, was bland and a bit tough. Granted, $24 for a big piece of beef is reasonable, but maybe a smaller cut of better quality might work better.
Fresh Atlantic Salmon, seasoned, grilled and topped with Maître Di butter ($26), was eerily similar to the steak in its lack of flavor. The fish was fresh and properly cooked, and the accompanying carrots and broc were beautiful, but the "seasoned" part was absent.
But two other entrees were excellent. Wild mushroom risotto ($19), was a carnival ride of taste. At first bite, a deep smoky flavor coated the tongue, then segued to a smooth finish accented by cream, butter and truffle oil. The 'shrooms were toothsome and woodsy, and the delicately perfect rice provided the optimal counterpoint.
And a pan-seared fillet of trout ($24), punctuated delicately with buttery bread crumbs and nuanced with a white wine and citrus pan sauce, was also very good. Fresh trout has that pristine "white fish" texture and taste with just a riverine touch I associate with catfish, and this was a treat.
A pyramid called chocolate layer cake ($8) — plenty for four — fused delicate, rich and moist accents in a delicious end to our visit. Next time, we're going upstairs to focus on the tavernesque possibilities, fully expecting to be well-pleased.
Scotch Plains Tavern
Cuisine — ambitious menu offering fine dining as well as tavern comfort food
Atmosphere — gorgous, creative and totally comfortable
Service — we were in excellent hands throughout our meal
Prices — moderate to expensive
Hours — 11:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (bar open till 11 p.m.), 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (bar open till 12:30 a.m.)
Reservations — recommended for dining room on weekends
Handicap access — very negotiable including elevators to second floor
Credit cards — all major
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