By Kurt Epps
Twelve years ago, when I was just starting out in the beerwriting business (and when my waist size did not rival the new national budget), I visited Trap Rock Brewery and Restaurant—then just two weeks old-- in Berkeley Heights, NJ. I was mightily impressed then with this very special place, and reviewed the place once or twice thereafter. Never a hint of disappointment with anything—except a warning about parking.
From that April 1997 column:
Accordingly, Trap Rock's biggest problem down the road may be parking space. With parking spaces already at a premium, they will need to find ways for patrons to ford the stream that separates an adjacent parking lot from the main building.
No matter. Whatever you have to do to get to the place is well worth what you'll find when you get there. Trap Rock may have a longer brewpub honeymoon than most.
I am happy to report that TR is handling the parking very well, despite increased volume, and the honeymoon is, indeed, still going on. The brewer for the past five or six years now is Charlie Schroeder, and his beers—especially his Smoked Mammal Porter-- should guarantee an even longer tenure. I opened our session with a just-brought-on maibock though, and it was very drinkable and very true to style. Some subtly sweet notes and a nice hoppy finish make it a good choice, even as a session beer. Bob stuck with the award-winning Ghost Pony Helles Lager all night, but more about the beers as we go. The ladies drank wine--the wine list at Trap Rock is extensive—and both raved about their selection. I'll take them at their word, because there's no way any beer nut goes into a brewpub and orders wine.
I described the décor in that column as being reminiscent of an English Country Inn. In the time since, other reviewers, like the NY Times and the Star Ledger have respectively described it as a French Auberge and a European Ski Lodge. I've been to the former, but not the latter two, so I can't say which is the best description. All you need to know is it's all good. There are some places you immediately feel at home in, and this is one such for me. The place has always just felt "right." Must be from an earlier existence.
Two years later, in another column, I wrote:
Trap Rock's owners, Chip Grabowski and Bob Moore, know that great beer alone will not cause your three parking lots to be filled to capacity on a Wednesday evening. Food -- of the fine variety -- does that.
Still does. Trap Rock's food—an American Bistro style—is simply exquisite. On this visit, our party of four sampled a wide variety of food, from appetizers to dessert. I'm not a musselman, but Bob Sharkey is, and he said the Prince Edward Island Mussels ranked among the best he ever tasted. His wife Pam said things like, "Mmmmm," "Omigod," "This sauce!" and "More!"
The Crispy Calamari appy came out perfectly done, light and covered with a Curried Slaw and Pickled Red Onion mixture that was so good, my missus was stealing the slaw combo from off my calamari—and she normally won't go within ten feet of calamari.
My Caesar's Salad was fresh, crisp and with extra pepper added, absolutely delicious. I ordered a Kestrel IPA to accompany the appetizers and this 7.8% West-Coast styled IPA served the dishes admirably. Pam had a Pear Salad she lauded, though she delayed eating it, because she was rhapsodizing over the mussels. The Imperial Lump Crab Cake also got rave reviews. TR takes great care in both preparation and presentation of every dish, so each was as pleasing to the palate as it was to the eye.
The entrees followed with Bob declaiming that his Grilled Swordfish was "absolutely excellent," and Pam's Diver Scallops caused even more mouth-filled muffled sounds which I surmised was more rhapsodizing. The missus and I had the Sauteed Gnocchi with Gulf Shrimp—big tender, succulent Gulf Shrimp at that—swimming in a mixture of basil, pistou, olives and tomatoes. Simply outstanding, but problematic in that there was hardly any room for dessert.
Notice I said hardly. From my first visit to Trap Rock 12 years ago, I was completely smitten with the Crème Brulee. "Smite me again," says I. So they did. And this experience was even better than twelve years ago, because I matched the brulee up with the aforementioned Smoked Mammal Porter. This is a brew that, along with any smoked cheese, or a gouda or an edam, would make a meal in itself. Roasty and full-bodied without being overly "chewy," this porter was by far the star of the night, especially when its complex notes met up with the vanilla in the Crème Brulee.
Quality comes with a price tag, so don't visit Trap Rock expecting a tab from your corner bar. But every aspect of the experience is well worth it. Look, an Aveo and a Lexus will both get you to the same destination, but sometimes, especially for special occasions, it's the quality of the ride that counts. Where else would a beautiful Irish gal named Kelly sing "Stolat" in Polish to you on the way out? For a picture of Kelly (among others) click here.
I confess I did not try all of Charlie Schroeder's beers on the menu during this visit for a very good reason.
I will, by virtue of dedication to my craft, be forced to re-visit Trap Rock to complete my research.
It's a tough job….
©Kurt Epps 2009 All Rights Reserved
Cheers till next time!