Turtle + the Wolf
It started with a bomb cyclone, followed right behind by a polar vortex. In other words, it was winter in New Jersey, so suck it up buttercup. We committed to a monthly dining experience with my wife’s cousin and her husband, and this was the maiden voyage of this culinary adventure. With much fanfare and anticipation, we made our way to Upper Montclair for our first experience with a two year old gem, Turtle + the Wolf. The culmination of chef Lauren Hirschberg’s lifelong dream, the setting was perfect for the evening. The warm lighting and inviting staff left the chill of the arctic air outside far behind. Dark wood with an industrial feel, lit primarily by the open kitchen to our right. Audible under the hum of a lively crowd was music that would make Alt Nation on SiriusXM proud. Our table was at the mid point of the long narrow restaurant, perfectly situated for the meal to come.
Our server, Ben, met us with a smile, opened our wine, and gave us a minute to peruse the menu. This is not an extensive menu, but that is a thing of beauty. If you do it right, you don’t need endless options. Also, as a BYOB, the wine list started at home, and it was a selection we would not have otherwise found on a wine list anywhere. This is a strong nod and shameless plug for our friends at Vincent Arroyo Winery, and their 2014 Winemaker’s Reserve Petit Sarah. Make your way to Calistoga and get acquainted with them now.
Now, there are restaurants who have daily specials, or the catch of the day, but I can’t say I’ve seen the Berkshire Pork selection of the day. Pork equals happiness, so sure, I’m in! What, pray tell, is the pork of the day? Ben revealed that today it was pork belly, and all was right in the world. Additionally, there was a sea bass crudo, as an alternative to the yellow tail crudo on the regular menu. A few more minutes, plenty of laughs, and we were ready to order. One of the lessons we teach my children is that we try new things. Looking at the appetizers, that was necessary for all involved. Ordering for the table is a pleasure, and this was no exception. The sea bass crudo, chicken liver mousse, seared fois gras, and the steak tartar made the cut. Upon arrival, these appetizers clearly stole the show. The sea bass was a clean and refreshing departure from the other rich dishes, topped with sliced jalapeños and a citrus and oil drizzle. The chicken liver mousse was firm to slice, but spread on the accompanying crostini with ease, accented by a mustard seed relish. Topped with a perfectly placed egg yolk, the steak tartar was creamy and delicious. And, oh, the fois gras! Seared to perfection, with a concord grape reduction and roasted peanuts. Our wine cut the richness perfectly, with not a single morsel remaining on any of the plates. This was a glorious beginning!
For our entree selections, we cast another wide net. Clearly the pork belly had to happen, as did the duck pot pie (DUCK.POT.PIE), short ribs, and the roasted butternut squash. There was nothing low calorie about this meal (well, maybe the squash) but with a proper glass of wine, who’s going to complain? All were cooked perfectly. For me, the pork belly was a contrast within itself. Crispy on the outside (I mean like cracker crispy) and tender and juicy below the perfect crust. The duck pot pie, tucked inside a pillow of pastry, was creamy and rich (thank you duck heart gravy). The short ribs fell off the bone and the accompanying potato purée made each bite a symphony of flavor. The squash was also tender and flavorful. Now, these meals were delightful, however we had one consistent observation. Each could have been enhanced with some salt. The flavors were begging for a punch, to jump off the plate and explode. A heavier hand with the salt would have put them over the top. No one left disappointed however.
Ben was a perfect host, great personality and just enough attention paid to our table. He arrived with dessert menus in hand, and clearly this was not a crowd who knew how to say no. We went with the appetizer approach and selected an assortment of treats. We limited it to three selections; the Zeppole with fig preserves, Maple pot au creme, and the Chocolate – Peanut Butter Tart. Thank God for coffee, because these desserts were decadent! The zeppole were surprisingly light, the others not so much. This is not a complaint. After our plates were cleared, we lingered and talked, never feeling rushed. It was another excellent culinary experience with wonderful ambiance. On an otherwise cold and dark winter night, Turtle + the Wolf provided a memorably warm experience.