RANDOLPH, NEW JERSEY
Friendly teamwork seems to be the focus at Randolph’s MORRIS TAP & GRILL. An ambitious American gastropub opened during 2011 in a majestic natural stone edifice (run by a few motivated young restaurateurs), the roomy confines convey a refined splendor further defined by the rustic charm of its warm interior. Geared more towards family fun than previous tenant, Stone Fire Grill, this sylvan mid-Jersey watering hole contrasts its casual folksy dining with formal elegance.
Led by head chef, Eric LeVine, a gourmandizing Brooklyn-bred culinarist made famous as Food Network’s Chopped champion, Morris Tap & Grill is determined to conceive the greatest food and beer pairings for their ever-growing customer base. Working at his grandfather’s butcher shop at age eleven gave LeVine the primordial training he’d need to develop into one of the Garden State’s finest cooks, building a solid reputation at prestigious eateries such as Times Square’s Marriott Marquis, Harvard Club Of New York and Brooklyn’s River Cafe.
“I also owned catering companies and restaurants over the past eighteen years,” the confident LeVine informs. “Luckily, I wound up in Jersey. (General Manager) Mike DeSimone brought me in as a partner in January after I was at this stuffy private country club realizing I’d die there as an old fossil or move on and be creative and love what I do.”
Given a lot of space to devise various seafood, beef, poultry and game dishes, the enterprisingly modernistic cuisinist gained subsequent plaudits for the Baconeater – a deliciously hearty burger CBS-TV voted one of the state’s best. LeVine’s also made noise with lamb T-bone, filet mignon and roasted duck dinner items as well as an expansive Banquet Menu. Combining fabulous original dishes with appropriate craft beers became a major priority from the start.
“Beer gives so many different elements to the food,” LeVine declares as an MGMT tune sounds off in the background. “The challenge for me, since I can’t drink beer (due to allergies), is to rely on beer profiles given to me.”
Trusting his sixth sense and DeSimone’s palate to create imaginative pairings, the shrewd Culinary Institute of America grad combines just the right ingredients in a delectably complementary manner. The bulky Baconeater counters bacon-stripped caramelized onion sweetness with tangy bleu cheese bittering, heightening the spicy hop bittering of citric-bound Kane Overhead Double IPA.
“It’s like drinking a good wine. Sometimes the flavors build as you go along and the wine sits, developing on your palate,” the diligent LeVine divulges as one of his favorite artists, Bjork, emanates from the speakers.
Broken into three separate sections, Morris Tap features the family-oriented Lodge (a right side focal point extending to the orange lantern-adorned rear area), the sportsbar-derived Tap Room (with copper tin ceiling, opposing TV’s and tidy wood furnishings) and the upscale Tree Room (a specialized table-clothed banquet space with cozy fireplace). Burnished amber earth tones provide ample rusticity. Plus, the wonderful draught and bottle selection confirms the pub’s earnest commitment to craft beer, drawing an escalating congregation of beer geeks, connoisseurs and neoteric enthusiasts.
“Craft beer is crazy right now,” the Sparta-raised DeSimone admits. “And the owners are great people. I thought I fit in well here. It’s a worthwhile experience. I had worked with (newly hired) mixologist Andrew Longshore in Charlotte at Crave Dessert Bar. It was a martini lounge and dessert boutique with hookah pipes. We were right in the middle of Charlotte, where the service industry is everything.”
Though direct competition for handcrafted artisan brews in Morris County lacks right now, there’s a surging local buzz for inventive food contests. A Twitter account follower offered a seriously difficult Chop Box challenge to LeVine recently. Researching what items had never been used on Chopped, the valiant contestant brought python, ostrich sausage jerky, green rice and hops to commingle.
Then, there’s LeVine’s famous gummy worm incident on Chopped. In the final round, desserts were to include gummy bears, pistachio butter, corn melon and rice puffs. A sushi roll was to be made out of the ingredients, but the gummy worms never solidified so he made a lemonade nougat and wound up winning.
“We have a very cool kitchen bar. It has a private table with private server and special menu at a premium price,” he says while I down fruity cinnamon-toasted summer ale, Epic Sour Apple Saison. “You get to experience the kitchen without a filter. If there’s yelling and screaming and shit breaking, so be it. It’s part of the deal. There’s a bit of the entertainment factor.”
There are also a load of specials to attract tentative customers, such as Thursday’s endless happy hour, Wednesday’s half-price growler fills and affordable Sunday brunch (featuring bottomless Mimosas, Sangrias or Bloody Marys). The ever-changing tapped beer assortment could be bought in seven, ten or twelve-ounce servings, with the smallest seven-ounce size hopefully assuring skeptical purchasers to try variegated libations if the first one doesn’t quite suit their taste.
In May 2012, Morris Tap & Grill teamed up with Civilization of Beer founder, Sam Merritt, for a Cicerone Certification Class that educated interested beer geeks on flavor profiles, styles, history and proper storage. Expect many more of these profgrams.
As I sip coconut-centered digestif, Kona Koko Brown Ale (with its toasted almond, praline and vanilla notes caressing sharp hop spicing), Longshore joins me at the bar to promote Cooking With Class. It’ll gather curious brew hounds for uniquely exquisite beer and food pairings.