Note: Our writer was invited to this event and received a complimentary meal.
Chef Zod Arifai is back at it, to the delight of his loyal fans, including me. If for some reason you’ve not heard of Arifai, he spent over 10 years at the top of the New Jersey food scene with his award-winning Montclair restaurants, Blu and Next Door. After closing the two popular restaurants in 2015, and after a hiatus where he cooked at some of the best kitchens around the world, Chef Zod has returned to New Jersey, specifically in quaint Martinsville.
Chef Zod has partnered with restaurateur Benny Mavraj, who also owns Cafe Azzurro in Peapack, to reinvigorate the historic Martinsville Taverna space.
About the Space
The Duke and Elephant, named to “invoke the best British and Irish taverns, the grandeur and seasonality of nearby Duke Farms and the outsize whimsy of the pachyderm,” is a casual, come-as-you-are restaurant with vibes of both a pub and a bistro. The main dining room features reclaimed barn wood walls, a covered and heated patio area, and a semi-private room ideal for small events. The new place offers something Chef Zod wasn’t able to offer at his previous restaurants: booze. The bar area will appeal to locals and loyals with its affordable happy hour specials and well-made drinks. A cocktail already garnering accolades is Washington’s Mule—Laird’s apple brandy, apple purée, lemon and ginger beer.
About the Food
For those who associate Arifai with Blu, this place will be a departure. Gone is the fine-dining atmosphere and menu. For those who were fans of Next Door, the diverse, interesting menu will feel more familiar, as it highlights food reflective of a commitment to exceptional casual cuisine. There are even some signature dishes from the Montclair restaurants featured at the Duke and Elephant, including the Napa cabbage salad with snow peas, crispy wontons and spicy peanut dressing, and the linguine with cauliflower, pecorino, chili flakes and toasted crumbs.
The waitstaff greeted us with baskets of absolutely delicious, properly made crusty bread, sourced from Balthazar Bakery in Manhattan. If you’re not going to make your own bread (and who really wants to?) Balthazar is some of the best there is.
Our large group shared several solid appetizers including the crispy spring rolls burger with sriracha mayo, the fried cauliflower with chilies, lemon and almonds, the brined and fried chicken wings with spicy sauce and house-made blue cheese, the octopus, chickpeas, fennel and olives, meatballs, ricotta, spicy tomato, grilled bread, and avocado toast with sunflower seeds and sea urchin. Many casual restaurants serve fried appetizers but get them wrong in terms of sogginess and old oil flavors. Chef Zod and his team, however, presented us with perfectly crisp, flavorful starters worthy of further tastings. The octopus was nicely cooked to a tender texture and great acidity. The meatballs were a hit with our group and I’d expect client pressure might entice the kitchen staff to include them in an entrée pasta version.
In a throwback move, Arifai offers the infamous burger with white sharp cheddar, caramelized onions, and rosemary aioli, which he served at Next Door, but I know that dish well so I opted for a new entrée on his menu: fettuccini with wild mushrooms, goat cheese, and pine nuts. At first glance, the dish seemed to lack the appropriate amount of sauce to fully coat the pasta, but, the fettuccini was cooked perfectly, featured woodsy roasted mushrooms and slightly crunchy pine nuts all combined with the very light sauce that proved rich and in the right amount for the dish. This entrée was a winner, with earthy mushroom flavors that paired beautifully with the glass of pinot noir I’d ordered.
My tablemates sampled the beef short ribs with sweet and sour sauce, the mac ‘n’ cheese with lobster and truffle oil, and the salmon pistachio, butternut squash puree, cranberry, and endives and all enjoyed their dishes thoroughly.
Desserts were also very good and the favorites in the group were the mousse and the sundae.
When I return to the Duke and Elephant, I endeavor to try the Family Feast—shareable dishes on an enticing separate menu featuring Angus beef, linguini with cauliflower, and Pecorino—and some starters, sides and desserts. The feast is well priced, at $36 per person.
The staff was welcoming and helpful with recommendations and warm service, something not always the case when large tables of guests are being served.
The Duke and Elephant is open daily for lunch and dinner and on weekends for brunch.
The Duke and Elephant
1979 Washington Valley Road
Prices and days open subject to change.