Precious as a jewel box is a fitting description of the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and Tavern in Ho-Ho-Kus. This refurbished 18th century former home of Andrew Zabriskie is under new ownership and management and seems to have found its mojo. Beloved by its Bergen neighbors, the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn is filled with artwork donated by the community and wears its décor as a cozy, graceful shawl. It is many things to many people as indicated by the bustling bar scene on the main floor and the full dining rooms adjacent and upstairs on the second floor on a recent Saturday evening.
Having not been to the Inn for over 10 years, I was more than pleasantly surprised by my visit. My companion and I sat in the Zabriskie Room (the upper level dining rooms have four rooms which are inhabited by at least as many four tops and one larger room can accommodate up to sixty guests.) Décor is something taken seriously at the Inn, which does not, as its name implies, provide overnight accommodations to guests. Owner Laurie Hamm works with a local flower shop to adorn the Inn and all its charming mantel pieces and inviting nooks with, as befitting the crisp autumnal season, baby white and orange pumpkins, draped vines, candles and other natural finery. While two downstairs fireplaces roared invitingly, the upstairs dining rooms have fireplaces outfitted with wrong-iron candelabra supporting plump candles which flicker warmly and bring a homey, luxurious feel to each room. Paintings of pastoral and cottage scenes adorn the walls, creating a warm, balancing ambience, which keeps things from feeling too formal. The dining rooms at the Ho-Ho-Kus in have struck the perfect balance of charm that is both quaint and elegant.
The bar scene is vibrant with two separate dining areas and a large bar in the middle. Flat screen TVs are in abundance in this part of the Inn, explaining the mesmerized faces of fathers eating with families while watching ball games, tucking into burgers, roasted chicken and other family-friendly fare. The restaurant has recently opened a year-round blue stone patio with fireplace adjacent to the bar and 33-seat Tavern; California space heaters and blankets will work with the giant fireplace to keep guests warm.
This is part of the historic Inn’s $1.5+ million renovation overseen by its new owners; it officially reopened for business in December of 2009. This historic landmark features an updated classic American menu, with a focus on locally sourced, organic and/or seasonally sustainable ingredients (70% of the ingredients fit into one or all of these categories according to the website.) Today’s Inn and Tavern is a bold departure from the restaurant’s previous incarnations, and owners Laurie and Gordon Hamm have wisely ushered in a more family-friendly style, as well as a more relaxed dress code. The Hamms have successfully created five distinct dining areas, each with its own personality or commemorative tone nodding to a specific period in Ho-Ho-Kus’ history.
* The Crystal Room 28
* Washington Room 18
* Tavern 33
* Hermitage Room 20
* Chateau Room 40
* Zabriskie Room 20
* Outdoor Open-air Patio 40 (prearranged restrictions)
The menu and specials indicate an ambitious kitchen team headed by Executive Chef Bryan Gregg and supported by Pastry Chef Patrick Muller. Service was attentive. Our server Peter seemed vested in our positive experience and I will note that the restaurant knew of my visit in advance and provided the entire meal on the house, a welcome gesture. If bread and butter is an indication of the quality of the food to follow in terms of character, presentation and preparation, you know you are in good hands. Of the three varieties offered, whole wheat sour dough, white and whole wheat cherry (the latter baked with hydrated cherries and a hint of cocoa), I preferred the whole wheat cherry and admired the slabs of sweet butter sprinkled with coarse red sea salt. All baked goods (other than croissants offered at Sunday brunch) are made on premises, including a crispy, addictive flat bread or lavash topped with parmesan and loads of black and beige sesame seeds.
The wine list is extensive and features a welcome glossary in the back breaking down the offerings into well-define groups with detailed descriptions and pairing suggestions. Multiple local breweries’ offerings are sold, in addition to imports and others hand selected from Colorado, Vermont and Pennsylvania and draft flights start at $10. Over 340 bottles of wine are available, several by the glass and offerings are diverse and carefully selected to compliment the seasonal cuisine and flavor profiles. The spirits menu spanned whiskeys, tequila, port, rums, vodkas, dessert wines and more.
Appetizers we sampled include the lobster fritter ($15), roasted beet salad ($10) and onion tart ($10). All were good and straightforward although we would have liked the onion tart to be served warm as it was cool and flavors were not as pronounced as expected. This is food lovingly prepared and carefully presented. It shows. The fritter was, as our server Peter promised, simply lobster salad encased in a fried exterior, creating a crispy, Twinkie like form. It was served atop a delicately flavored mixed green salad with tangy tarragon sauce. The beet salad was our favorite, with paper thin shavings of roasted beets served atop mache with a delicate goat cheese alongside, toasted walnuts and Granny Smith apple match sticks.
Our entrees included Elysian Farms Lamb with Oak Grove Farms Broccoli, Mint, Almond Polenta ($30). The lamb chop nicely roasted served with a loin cut which had been cooked sous-vide style, the trendy slow water bath approach popularized recently by Top Chef. This style of preparation is used to avoid robbing flavors and fat content. I admit that I am not a fan of the technique, as I prefer the intensity of carmelized flavors available through grilling, roasting, braising and pan cooking. The latter did not bring out the rich flavors of the lamb. What was a standout was a delicious broccoli mint puree served with the dish in lieu of mint jelly.
New Jersey “Simply Grazin” Organic Dry Aged Ribeye with Potato Hash, Arrowleaf Spinach, in a Red Wine reduction ($32) was cooked perfectly, well-marbled and richly flavored. Black cod roasted with a honey citrus glaze atop a smooth root vegetable puree ($26) was delicate and tender. Side dishes ($8) were served in cast iron handled mini roasting pans, keeping contents piping hot. Roasted brussel sprouts were well-seasoned and nicely carmelized, offering a homey taste of autumn. A richly decadent macaroni and cheese, made with small shells and served under a buttery topping of fresh bread crumbs, was nuanced with a delightful tang of cheddar, greyer and goat cheeses.
Pastry Chef Muller prepares all dessert items a la minute or immediately in advance of serving. Our favorite was a whiskey glass brimming with miniature madelines, lightly scented with extra virgin olive oil. The flavor was reminiscent of Danish pancakes with a tender crumb. Pretzels and Beer consisted of Malted Milk Parfait, Chocolate Covered Pretzel Bites served alongside Defiant Porter Ice Cream – a lovely presentation, though less than assertive flavors. The Pumpkin Cheese Cake served with Pumpkin Seed Brittle (delicious) and Espresso Cardamom Ice Cream (also delicious) atop Hazelnut meringue was light and airy. Two sticky buns nestled in a cast iron pan were tasty, although better suited to the brunch menu. A Chocolate Soufflé, which must be special ordered, was precious in its ramekin and served with a quick pour of crème anglaise. Sadly, its interior was soupy in consistency, although the flavor was delicate and pleasing.
The Inn offers a Sunday brunch for $29.95 which includes an alcoholic beverage. The price for children is $19.95. The brunch includes an elaborate array of freshly baked pastry, traditional fare and hot carving stations.
This is a restaurant to linger at, whether you are enjoying watching a ball game in one of the multiple bar rooms, enjoying a burger (even buns are made on premises) with the kids or dining leisurely in one of the elegant upstairs rooms. The Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern is a lovely restaurant that works hard to please and does so thanks to thoughtful menu planning, very good execution in the kitchen, a staff that is invested in your quality experience and an ambience that is charming and warm.
Upcoming events worth noting:
Dinner Fri & Sat: 5:00—11 PM Sun—Thur: 5:00—10 PM Lunch Mon-Fri: 11:30 AM—3 PM Sat & Sun: 11:30 AM-5 PM Tavern Menu and Brunch Specials Only Library Bar 11:30 AM-2 AM Tavern Bar 11:30 AM-2 AM Tavern Menu Daily 11:30 AM-11:00 PM
Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern | 1 East Franklin Turnpike Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ 07423 | 201-445-4115
Heidi Raker Goldstein is our Bergen county regional editor. A locavore, cooking enthusiast, publicist and mother of three junior gourmands, Heidi is equally comfy in greasy spoons and high-end restaurants. When not visiting local farmers markets and farm stands in Bergen and Rockland counties, this New England native, former Manhattanite and Bergen county resident is busy running her PR and green marketing agency, Raker Goldstein & Co., buying food, planning menus, cooking food, writing about food or simply eating. To reach Heidi, email her at [email protected].