Equus - Bernardsville, NJ
(I had this posted on the Mid-Atlantic board, but figured I'd add it here, too.)
My wife and I went to Equus Tavern in Bernardsville with two other couples this weekend, so I thought I'd post my impressions. This is pretty long, so if you want the quick and dirty review, it's "Food, great. Service, not so much."
For those who don't know, this is the previous Stone Tavern (or Freddie's before that). It was completely renovated and is now a much more upscale place.
Food: I didn't take exact notice of everyone's orders, but I know everyone was extremely pleased with their meals. Most of us just had some sort of salad to start, so nothing too extravagant to report there. They had a venison special which one couple had had on a previous visit. They raved about it and one person was ordering it again. I had never had venison so I gave it a try and I was *not* disappointed. They called it a "rack" of venison, which was two "chops" for lack of better explanation, and it was served with a port wine reduction. I've had port wine reductions before, and they're usually fine but nothing fantastic. This sauce was really delicious. There was also some sort of compote of cranberries that was nicely spiced with cloves and other spices. It had a nice "festive, holiday" taste to it and it went perfectly with the venison. My wife had the Pan Seared Duck in Fig and Almond, which was also quite good. Our "meat and potatoes guy" had what I think was called the drunken cowboy steak, which he also loved. The rest of the dishes were seafood dishes that I don't remember the particulars of (sorry), but I do remember seeing clean plates! The desserts were the pretty standard faire -- tiramisu, cheesecake, etc., but they did have some specials that were a little more inventive. My wife had what was essentially a lemon curd, but it was quite good and nicely presented.
Service: Here's where the "dining experience" really fell apart for us. Both of the other couples had been to Equus before and had commented that they felt very rushed, and they had heard that from other people. Well, apparently the staff got that message and took it too far. We had a 7:00 reservation (we got there on-time and were seated promptly) and we left around 10:45. This was a pretty standard one cocktail/appetizer/dinner/dessert meal. It shouldn't have been that long. I don't mind a relaxing, drawn-out meal (especially with good friends), but the service could only be described as "inattentive." I almost felt that they were short-staffed, which would be inexcusable for a restaurant of this supposed quality on a Saturday night. The person who sat us wore a suit and tie, so we assumed he was a maitre d' or manager or owner, but he ended up being our "waiter" for the evening. We were in the upstairs "loft" section of the restaurant, which has about a dozen or so tables -- some of them for parties of 6 or 8. Our waiter seemed to be the only one for this whole section. Being that it was upstairs and a also pretty decent walk from the kitchen, they should have had at least 2 waiters here. It was often very difficult to get his attention.
The restaurant's intentions of service are good: our water glasses were continuously filled, our napkins neatly refolded every time we'd go to the restroom, but our prodigal waiter left something to be desired. For example, at a fine restaurant I expect that the waiter knows that the main course is about to be served and should make sure that everyone has drinks. Those of us drinking wine were ordering by the glass, and three of us needed refills. We ended up eating for more than a few minutes before he finally came over to get new drink orders, and it was, of course, a few more minutes before we had the wine on the table. For those of us "foodies" who really enjoy having that great food and wine pairing, this was disappointing. Another problem was that one person in our party didn't order dessert, but did order an after-dinner Scotch, which he was never served. The dessert course itself took an extremely long time -- over an hour, I think. One other peeve is when there is a large gap between when desserts are served and when coffee is served. I've seen this at more than a few places, but never the 10 minutes we sat there nibbling at our desserts before coffees showed up. Oh, and the other thing that I would have appreciated was an after-dinner drink menu. Most nicer places have them, and my Scotch-thirsty friend had to ask what they had for 12 year-olds, which the waiter didn't know.
Ambience: If you'd been to the Stone Tavern, you'll remember that the exterior is a beautiful 150 year-old stone building. The interior, though, was somewhat dull. It seems that they completely (or mostly) gutted the place and refurbished. The results are fantastic. It's very warm and inviting. The bar area (which is now where the side dining are used to be) is very simple and comfortable. My only complaints stem from sitting in the loft area. It's very nice but very dark. And since the loft overlooks the main dining area, you are at eye-level with the 2 chandeliers, the resulting contrast was somewhat blinding for those seated in that direction. Others at our table were looking out the second story windows directly at the outside sconce lights, so they were also faced with having to shield their eyes when the person across from them moved! So I think maybe they need to frost the windows or something. Not sure what to do about the chandeliers.
So if they can get their service straightened out, I think this is a nice place to go for a celebration or holiday dinner with friends. The food was great and it's generally a nice atmosphere to be in. For the money, though, I'd expect a top-notch wait staff. And for the record, the bill for 6 people (before tip) was around $460.