Every August I fly up to New Jersey to search for good things to eat.
Sounds odd, I know, in the state that's sometimes referred to as "the armpit of the nation." And having spent my entire adolescence imprisoned in the northeast Jersey suburb of Livingston, where the epitome of fine dining was a fatty corned beef sandwich garnished with a garlic pickle, you'd think I'd avoid the state like spoiled tuna salad. But even after escaping to the more food-friendly locales of California and then Florida, I still had to visit my parents every once in a while.
For a time, when I honored my obligations I'd have to pack a ton of Maalox. But then my folks bought a house (an old Arabian horse farm, actually) in western New Jersey, and all that changed. Just a few miles from the Delaware Water Gap, the northwest region of the state is impossibly rural, all rolling hills and pine forests interrupted by expansive horse, dairy, and produce farms. The towns are small enough to be called villages and cobblestoned enough to be called historic, and each one has a lovely, junky antique shop. Now when I go home to visit, my father and I shop at the produce stands -- he's on a lifelong quest for the perfect tomato; and my mother and I rummage through antiques and lunch at the charming little inns crammed with decorative collectibles (usually for sale). In the evenings, after a Mom-prepared feast of fresh fare from the nearby farms and (admittedly acidic) wine from the local vineyards, I watch the deer sneaking bites of my mother's roses and the wild turkeys ambling across the corral and anticipate Thanksgiving.
Though nowadays I usually can't wait to get to Jersey to stuff my face, this year Karetnick's Folly (as my mother named the farm) has received a grave challenge for my holiday culinary attention: the year-old Surrey St. Station, located right down here in Jupiter, on the less-traveled, two-lane Jupiter Farms Road (where Burt Reynolds has his ranch). This quaint restaurant, which sprung up from a general store, has all the amenities of western New Jersey with none of the required flight time. Next door to a feed-and-tack store and an equestrian facility that hosts regional horse shows, the peaked-roof Station stands among pine trees; the four dining rooms, country to the hilt, are chock full of collectibles that owner Stephanie Hiles scouted from nearby consignment and antique shops. And the chef, her husband Kevin Hiles, procures the juicy, ripe tomatoes my father has been looking for.
The Hileses, who used to run an inn in Vermont, call this place an American bistro. But the lace tablecloths, wood-paneled walls, unmatched antique dining room sets, and credenzas covered with knickknacks have a vaguely Victorian tearoom feel and say "country inn" to me in no uncertain terms. And the recipes, which cull influences from the Mediterranean to the Americas, announce themselves as contemporary and accomplished.
A crock of crab-and-corn chowder, for instance: The chunky broth, redolent with shreds of crab, kernels of yellow corn, and bits of red bell pepper, was thickened with wild rice, rendering it rich and hearty without being heart-threateningly creamy. Likewise, another appetizer, a grilled portobello mushroom with Gorgonzola, was lighter than it sounded. A large, earthy mushroom cap dripping juices was blanketed with the melted, blue cheese and set on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Quartered red tomatoes -- real beauties -- and pitted kalamata olives garnished the dish, with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette to unite the musky and acidic flavors.
Appetizers take a Southwestern turn with a creamy spinach-artichoke dip served with blue corn tortilla chips dusted with Parmesan cheese and chopped tomatoes. Looser and cooler than I had been led to expect (the dip was grouped with nine other hot appetizers), this verdant concoction was nonetheless delicious if a bit powerful, tasting mostly of garlic.
On the soothing side of things, a starter of fried sweet potato spears was wonderful. Hefty hunks of the mellow tuber had been lightly deep-fried; inside their crisp skins, the sunset-colored potatoes were moist and steamy, fitting partners for the paler remoulade that accompanied them.
House salads are served with every entree, and one of these could easily suffice for an appetizer: A large, chilled plate held a plethora of mixed greens, quartered tomatoes, sliced red onions, shredded carrot and red cabbage, and alfalfa sprouts. The salad's best attribute, however, was the choice of freshly prepared dressings. Creamy Gorgonzola was a table favorite, mild and pungent at the same time; green goddess, a blend of avocado and garlic, was also a beautifully balanced creation; and the aforementioned balsamic vinaigrette was nicely done too, especially with the addition of a few twists of freshly ground pepper, courtesy of the server.
Chef Hiles roams the globe for main courses, highlighting Spain with paella valenciana (which he'll make in less than 30 minutes and in individual portions), Thailand with prawns tempura with satay sauce, and Jamaica with Kingston shrimp sauteed in rum. We opted to start in the Mediterranean, testing out a pair of pastas. Penne Carmel was a huge bowl of the tubular noodles tossed with tender white-meat chicken, slices of a zesty andouille sausage, and fresh mussels. But despite the slices of sauteed onion, bell pepper, and mushroom that had been mixed in, and the presence of garlic, Parmesan, and a light bouillabaisse sauce, we found the dish a little bland.
Zuppa di pesce, a special on the night of our visit, was vastly more flavorful, the garlicky tomato-seafood broth that soaked the huge pile of fettuccine an aromatic treat. Still, it wasn't the garlic that took our breath away: An Alaskan king crab leg and an entire buttery half of a good-size Maine lobster were perched over an ample sea of perfectly steamed mussels, with hefty portions of succulent shrimp and sea scallops hiding underneath.
Veal rollatini, another special, was a lovely preparation as well. Two fillets of veal had been breaded and stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella, then baked in a Marsala wine-and-mushroom demi-glace. The veal was savory and rich, the mozzarella oozing from the interior and blending with the dark, rich sauce. Only one quibble: The wine didn't seem to have been cooked off completely.
The same was true of the sauce that was served with the filet mignon au poivre. The filet was perfect, a supple example of top-quality, medium-rare beef. But while I usually find the cracked black pepper in this dish too potent, here even that strong spice was overpowered by the brandy, not to mention the cream and demi-glace that made up the rest of the sauce. Fortunately the server had suggested trying the sauce on the side, and we'd taken her advice. Still, a little fine-tuning here would go a long way.
We stayed in France for chicken breast with 40 cloves of roasted garlic, a variation on the famous recipe (which calls for a whole chicken to be roasted with massive quantities of garlic). At Surrey St. Station the appellation is something of an exaggeration, but Hiles managed to get close to the actual number. The pan-fried chicken breast, skinless and boneless, was juicy as a steak, complemented rather than overpowered by the roasted garlic cloves, which added a surprisingly gentle touch.
South Florida and France both got a nod with a main course of grilled dolphin. A fresh and flaky fillet was served over a slightly creamy key lime buerre blanc that had a terrific tartness to it. Delectable. But the color, an unnatural green, was a bit off-putting; I've rarely seen key lime this vivid.
The staff and kitchen were amenable to our request to make substitutions for the "vegetable of the day" and "house potato" side dishes served with meat, poultry, and fish entrees. (And that was a good thing: The vegetable of the day turned out to be a soggy julienne of zucchini, squash, and carrots, an enormously dull dish and unrepresentative of the kitchen's creative effort.) We liked the sound of fried tobacco onions, a side dish served with a New Orleans-style veal chop, and the chef was happy to make a switch. The same went for the house potatoes, "smashed," skin-on red bliss potatoes accented with garlic; horseradish mashed potatoes sounded -- and were -- just that bit better.
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Surrey St. Station makes its own desserts. Though the list -- apple pie, key lime pie, key lime fruit tart, and chocolate fudge torte -- might sound a little mundane, I can vouch at least for the worthiness of the chocolate cake, a moist devil's-food layered with cocoa butter cream.
Stephanie and Kevin Hiles have a goal: establish their restaurant as a destination, then think about turning it into a bed-and-breakfast. As far as I'm concerned, that's two strikes against spending time with Mom and Dad. Maybe I'll just write them a letter. Or better yet send them a plane ticket. Who really needs a Jersey inn when there's one right here in Jupiter?
Surrey St. Station. 16891 Jupiter Farms Rd., Jupiter, 561-746-2331. Lunch Tuesday-Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m.
Fried sweet potato spears
Zuppa di pesce