The Duke and the Elephant, Martinsville, NJ – A Review

by artfuldiner on May 25, 2018

in Artful Diner Review, Breaking News, New Jersey, Review, Wining and Dining

The Duke and the Elephant

1979 Washington Valley Road

Martinsville, New Jersey

(732) 1717

As of this writing, I’m reasonably certain that the New Jersey’s culinary cognoscenti are well aware of the story… After making a major splash on the Garden State’s dining scene with Montclair’s upscale Blu and more casual Next Door, chef Zod Arifai closed up both shops in 2015 to pursue other interests.

Duke & Elephant - InteriorFollowing a suitable period of mourning, devoted foodies have been champing at the bit, eagerly anticipating the next Zod sighting. Well, with the debut of The Duke and the Elephant in Martinsville, the wait has finally come to an end.

I freely confess that I have visited neither Blu nor Next Door… nor have I darkened the door of Chef Zod’s various other establishments (Juniper in Lyndhurst, Ten Square in Morristown, Crisci in Brooklyn), which, for reviewing purposes, I consider a distinct plus. For no matter how impressive a chef’s culinary curriculum vitae or his/her collection of rave reviews, each individual restaurant must be judged on the basis of its own merits and demerits rather than the chef’s previous successes or failures.

Which brings us, of course, to Chef Zod’s most recent venture, in partnership with restaurateur Benne Mavraj. Housed in the space formerly occupied by the Martinsville Taverna, The Duke and the Elephant is billed as “a neighborhood bar and grill,” a come-as-you-are eatery that is, at once, both pub and bistro. The remodeled interior, replete with rustic wood accents and vintage lighting, has a decidedly tavern-like feel. And the menu, like the ambiance, is meant to be as casual and appealing as the ambiance – whether it actually succeeds is, in my view, somewhat problematic.

Duke & Elephant - SalmonSeveral of the entrées, for example, suffer the deleterious effects of an eccentric assortment of traveling companions. Some of these combos work fairly well; others fall far short of the mark. Take the Salmon, for instance… It is beautifully pan seared, moist and meaty at the core. Unfortunately, it’s teamed up with a rather innocuous black bean purée and a downright weird onion & jalapeño relish. When it comes to matters piscatorial, in my opinion, the less gussied up the better.

Duke & Elephant - ScallopsThe Cod and Pan-Seared Scallops (a daily special, pictured) fared somewhat better. Once again, both items are extraordinarily well prepared and utterly delicious by themselves… I’m just not particularly thrilled with the choice of accompaniments. The former is companioned by wild mushrooms and a tiara of limp asparagus; the latter by mushrooms and cauliflower. For some reason, Chef Zod seems fixated on those embellishments that are prone to smother rather than gently caress the objects of their affection.

And this form of culinary overkill isn’t just related to seafood presentations. The Chicken Paillard, has its own unique problems. The scallops of chicken, which had been pounded thin and quickly sautéed, were slightly on the dry side and then smothered beneath a rather peculiar combo of gem lettuce, cauliflower and onion.  The real issue, however, was the marinade and and/or sauce, which had a faintly odd vinegary taste and aroma. The following evening, when the leftovers were reheated, the smell was so off-putting that the remainder of the dish had to be thrown out… Your guess is as good as mine.

When it comes to opening moves, my advice is to keep things as simple as possible. Go with items like the Meatballs garnished with ricotta, spicy tomato and grilled bread, or the Chicken Tacos replete with chipotle, cabbage, onions and cilantro. Mussels in Spicy Coconut Broth also makes a first-rate starter.

Duke & Elephant - Quinoa SaladWith the coming of warmer weather, salads assume a more prominent role as appetizers. My dining partner and I recently shared the Quinoa (pictured), which, despite the accompanying greenery, cucumber, fall squash, mint, and lemon, was neither a feast for the eye nor the palate. Other members of our party who tried the Kale and Arugula, respectively, reached the same conclusion… The plethoric variety of ingredients notwithstanding, “It needs something.”

Duke & Elephant - Peanut Butter SundaeAmong the desserts, the more straightforward, the greater your chances of success. For my money, that means either the Poached Pear with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce or the marvelously decadent Chocolate Truffle. The over-the-top Peanut Butter Sundae (pictured) – a dense dollop of peanut butter “ganache” (blending of peanut butter, caramel and heavy cream), caramel ice cream, peanut brittle, and chocolate & caramel sauces – is a nice try but proof positive that you can have too much of a good thing.

Duke & Elephant - Dirt CakeThe Dirt Cake, on the other hand, is something of a culinary anomaly – or is that culinary oxymoron? This is a dessert served in a terra cotta flowerpot replete with crumbled chocolate cookies to simulate dirt and a large plastic flower. One digs through the dirt… only to be disillusioned by the discovery of a creamy middle that sports the taste and texture of soggy cheesecake. Not the chef’s finest hour. This is one dessert that should have remained “buried” in the kitchen.

There is absolutely no question that Zod Arifai is an accomplished chef. That being said, however, I find the cuisine at his current enterprise somewhat baffling. Chef Zod “wanted to create a menu that would offer something for everyone along with a casual ambiance that would make people feel comfortable coming here more than once a week”; unfortunately, his culinary creations strike me as more eccentric than eclectic. And, except for the Burger and Mama’s Sicilian Pan Pizza, the items I’ve sampled don’t represent the kind of easy-going casual fare that are likely to keep diners coming back on a regular basis.

On the other hand… sporting happy hour specials, list of nifty contemporary cocktails, intriguing selection of wines by the glass, and yummy snacks like Fried Cauliflower and Made-to-Order Guacamole, the Duke’s comfortable, friendly bar is always worth a return visit.

Bon Appétit!


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