I t's a pleasure to go to a well-established restaurant and find that instead of fading into mediocrity it has improved. Such is the case at the elegant, historic Bernards Inn, co-owned by Alice and George Rochat and Chef Edward Stone. The inn will charm you from the moment you enter the lobby and see the comfortable sofas, large bouquets, warm fireplace, and winding mahogany staircase leading up to the quaint guest rooms. Damask drapes, gilt-framed oil paintings, and soft, flattering lights lend an incomparable air of romance. You may choose from two dining rooms--one adjoining the bar, and the other, which I prefer, tucked quietly in the back of the restaurant.
Service is very good, except for on one night when our otherwise charming and efficient waiter clears our dishes while we're still eating and delivers the check before we finish dessert. Despite this quibble, I would visit the Bernards Inn anytime, particularly for a romantic evening.
The inn has an extensive, award-winning wine list that has improved greatly over the years. Though a bit pricey, it offers the top names, the right vintages, and several selections by the glass. Half-bottles, however, would be a nice addition.
The small menu, which changes frequently, is supplemented by daily specials that are printed with prices. Dishes are classic in preparation rather than inventive for the sake of novelty. The briny Wellfleet oysters are a good starter, either chilled or served warm and topped with wilted spinach and a saffron beurre blanc. Seared foie gras served with a sauterne beurre blanc and resting on an individual pear-and-date tart is good though a bit sweet. Whole calamari stuffed with crabmeat and vegetables is creative, tender, and delicious. An excellent creamy, pungent wild-mushroom risotto with enoki mushrooms and cheese croutons is worth ordering, as are the ravioli with mushrooms and truffles. The delicious duck consommé special with watercress and bamboo shoots is rich enough to gel. The wonderful lobster salad comprises half a lobster tail curled around a vegetable-enhanced tabbouleh with a hint of mint. Notably, the chef agrees to serve Maryland crab cakes, an entrée special one evening, as an appetizer; they're plump, spicy, and delicious.
The appetizers here are a hard act to follow, but a wonderful Chilean sea bass, sautéand layered with grilled vegetables in phyllo pastry and topped with a sherry-flavored sauce, is up to the challenge. So is the seared Atlantic salmon with a glaze of foie gras, which rests on a bed of celery-root purée. Also outstanding are the veal medallions with truffle-flavored mashed potatoes; the tender, well-flavored venison steak; and the tenderloin of Argentinean beef with a Roquefort-flavored potato pancake and roasted eggplant. But a thin-sliced duck breast, though beautifully arranged, is served on a plate so hot that the meat continues to cook and ends up gray and tough.
As for dessert, homemade ice cream or sorbet served in cookie tuiles is refreshing, as is the peach terrine. The banana napoleon with coconut-chocolate-truffle ice cream, chocolate triangles, and sautébananas proves to be a great idea. The trio of crèbrées, for which flavors change daily, is also great, as is the cheesecake topped with tropical fruit. It's a letdown to order the Bing-cherry dumpling and find a cobbler-type base topped with cherries. The boring cheese plate also disappoints. -- V.S.
27 Mine Brook Road (Route 202), Bernardsville (908-766-0002). Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2 pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 pm. Wheelchair access easy. American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two without wine averages $100.