September 13, 2012

Review: Stone House at Stirling Ridge

 As you may have realized from my last post, I was recently at a fancy-pants restaurant. One that had a cheese menu and where I spent the night talking about monkey poo. Well, it's not every day that I go to fancy places that induce me to be as crass as possible, so I took along my camera to review it for the blog.

(I want to apologize in advance for some of my photos; the lighting was weird, and I had my little point and shoot, which I'm not used to using. And these are the best after I cut it down by over half. *wince*)

 For my parent's 30th anniversary, the sister-in-law recommended Stone House at Stirling Ridge. Let me say this first: this place is pricey (of course, I didn't write down the prices, because I'm an idiot, but trust me on this). And not especially close to where we live. I was a little confused as to why they chose it, especially since we live within a stone's throw of a lot of really good restaurants. But the brother and sister-in-law were paying, so I held my tongue. Mostly.
The location was a bit remote, way up in the mountains (yes, we do have mountains in New Jersey. Smallish ones. But still mountains.) My old Squeaker van would have died halfway up the steep roads. As it was, the sister-in-law's Misty reminded me a little too much of the little engine that could. The trade off for the trouble of getting there? The grounds are absolutely stunning.
The Stone House itself is really just that-- a stone house. A lovely, rustic stone building, with this quirky wine room towards the front. It had a ladder inside, and I kept trying to urge one of the three drinkers at the table to find a bottle of wine near the top and order it, so I could watch the server climb up the ladder. They didn't.
Waiting at the table for us was a plate of crostini and veggies. A nice touch, I thought. A bit like the free chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant. One thing that really confused me was that everything was served on these very clean, modern dishes, with this weirdy modern silverware (my brother complained about the knives all night, which really weren't all that functional). The feel of the restaurant was overwhelmingly rustic, so these undeniably modern touches didn't really jive with me. The site says they meld rustic with modern, but it seemed fairly random to me.

Also, they were kind of stingy with the bread. A server came around with a platter of different kinds, asked us which we would like and gave us one slice each before taking away the tray. Umm, bread basket or none at all, thanks. That kind of behavior just seems cheap.
For appetizers, we ordered the cheese plate and the charcuterie (I'm always amused when that's on the menu. I feel like telling the servers, wow, you're going to bring out a whole pork store? (a charcuterie in French is a store kind of like a pork store or deli)).

For the cheese plate, we got chef's choice, although the server offered us a cheese menu. My brother and I were very tickled by the idea of a cheese menu, and a little disappointed that we didn't get it. Stone House uses all locally sourced ingredients, so the server was able to tell us exactly where the cheeses came from, which was kind of cool. He didn't know what kind of jam we'd gotten, which was not a plus on him, but since we got chef's choice, it's possible that different plates have different jams. It really wasn't all that important, except that my mom really liked it and was curious. We think it was fig. The cheese plate also came with fruit (figs, apples, grapes), assorted nuts, and truffle honey (which I thought was seriously gross, but I don't like mushrooms or honey, so that's just on me).

The charcuterie was rather like a cold antipasto (and I'd very much wish they'd call it that instead of a pork store). It came with grilled artichokes, olives, a selection of "cured meats" (cold cuts isn't fancy enough, I guess), and some toasted bread. They were a little stingy on the meats here, and never thought of telling us what kind they were (it wasn't on the menu, and the server didn't mention it; by the time we thought of asking, they were gone anyway). The artichokes were super yummy, though. This is a dish better suited to a party of two; any more people at the table, and it's really not worth it.
Special menus for a special couple!... I think it wasn't coincidence.
I was a little disappointed with the selection of main dishes, however. To be fair, in addition to more traditional menu items, they do have a really nice selection of sushi that's actually fairly reasonably priced (though I can't vouch for how big the rolls are). But they had the air conditioning on reeeeeaaaallly high, and I happened to be sitting under a vent, so I was rather chilly. The last thing I wanted was sushi, because it's cold. So cutting out the sushi slices down the menu by half. Now, I'm not much of a meat eater, especially when it comes to beef. The grand majority of menu items beyond the sushi have beef or steak in one form or another. They had grilled pizza, but other than the margherita, they were all weird ones like short rib pizza with Gruyere cheese. Also, with beef. So my selection was severely limited (and this is not the place for vegetarians; the only completely meat-free options I saw were the margherita pizza and the California roll).
By process of elimination, I went with the tuna loin (although, as I said after I ordered it, I wasn't aware that tuna had loins). The server asked me how I wanted it done, and I just kind of stared at him. I didn't know that tuna had doneness levels. Well, I knew it did, but I never knew you had to specify it. I went with rare, though I think I should have gone medium-rare, since it was such a thick piece of fish that it was still a little cold in the middle. But forget the tuna. The real star was actually the supporting cast. Cherry tomatoes, blanched broccoli, new potatoes and garlic in this thin, spicy tomato sauce. I wished I hadn't squandered my one slice of bread but had squirreled it away to sop up this sauce. The veggies were barely cooked, so they were still firm, just the way I like them, and that sauce. Oh, that sauce. I'll dream of that sauce. Just bottle it for me; I'll drink it with a straw. Oddly, I didn't really think it went with the tuna, but I'll forgive them anything for more of that sauce.
Dessert time! You know I had to get it. And I didn't have to look at the dessert menu long to know exactly what I was getting, either. Because second on the menu, I saw something unexpected...
Brownie s'mores. Brownies with vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and a homemade, toasted marshmallow. Oddly enough, I wasn't thrilled with it. The homemade marshmallow had that lovely, melt-in-your-mouth texture that you'd expect, but not a whole lot of flavor. Weird because it was homemade and toasted. I'm not sure if it got overpowered by everything else or what, but a little added vanilla in the recipe might make all the difference there. The brownies were actually a bit dry and crumbly, and I think over-cooked. It also had walnuts, which is not listed on the menu (dangerous for anyone with a nut allergy), and which I don't like. It was also next to impossible to eat in the weirdy modern plate with the weirdy modern spoon. A bowl would have made things much simpler. Also, no graham cracker. How do you have a s'more without graham crackers? S'mores have three ingredients. Chocolate and marshmallow does not a s'mores make.

I should have gone with the hazelnut gelato. That was bangin'.
And on our way out, we got free cookies, compliments of the chef. That, my friends, is good customer relations. Now only if they could be as free with their bread...

Stone House at Stirling Ridge

Pros: Locally sourced ingredients; for the most part, the food was very good; servers were very friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable; beautiful grounds; great ambiance; free cookies.

Cons: Remote location; pricey; menu selection not the best (few vegetarian options); some menu items should be explained further (i.e. walnuts in brownies); some theme confusion (very modern plates and silverware in an otherwise overwhelmingly rustic setting); stingy with the bread.

Overall rating: B+
While the food was very good, I wasn't quite sure if it was worth the price or effort of getting there. There's very little choice for me on the menu, and even less for someone who might have dietary restrictions. And to fail on a brownie, which is a pretty basic dessert, does not give me confidence in the other baked goods. I would recommend it for an event, but as a place to go out to dinner, I think I'd prefer to give it a pass.