Note: This is a column by food writer Devin Healey
I have never been affiliated with Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in any way, but due to my close relationship to some of its employees, I feel like I’ve been intimately connected with it since before it opened. Its renovation, its grand opening, its press, its success, its reviews. I followed its progress, shared news via social media, and gushed to friends about this culinary destination. When Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen opened in September 2014 I had just started to blossom into the discerning foodie I am today, and with one of my closest friends opening the restaurant as a sommelier, I made sure to visit early and often. I’ve drank and dined there on special occasions, with good friends and family, and over the years been honored to get to know a number of the employees. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Jockey Hollow helped incubate the intense love of food that I now get to share with you.
The building itself is breathtaking. Located in the heart of downtown Morristown in the meticulously renovated early twentieth century Vail Mansion, owner Chris Cannon worked with the city to revive and return the opulent structure and former home of AT&T president Theodore Vail to its former glory after it sadly fell into disarray. After an intensive $5 million renovation, four distinct experiences were born: The Dining Room, The Oyster Bar, The Vail Bar, and The Rathskeller, a German-style, Inglourious Basterds-esque beer hall located in the cellar of the mansion. Each has its own unique charm, and each is presented at a level that you would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the Garden State. However, I’m here to talk specifically about the Vail Bar, described as a “glam 1920’s-style cocktail lounge,” which has been the location of some hazy evenings and recently played host to a sampling of some of the best food, wine, and cocktails New Jersey has to offer.
Owner Chris Cannon is an empire builder. He spent the majority of his career rising to dizzying heights in the New York City restaurant industry, working with Chef Michael White (of New Brunswick’s own Due Mari) to open and run Alto, Convivo, and Marea, all part of the “Altamarea Group,” which have accumulated a total of five Michelin stars between them. But after a rough breakup with White and their business partner, Cannon decided to take his talents to South Street. He knows that surrounding himself with the highest caliber staff, in both the front and back of house, is a recipe for success. He has done this at every level of Jockey Hollow and the Vail Bar is no exception.
Helmed by Bar Manager and Head Mixologist James Gelmi, formerly of The Bernards Inn and understudy of cocktail industry maverick Christopher James during his time at Jockey Hollow, surrounded by talented staff like bartender Cody Blihar, Beverage Director Adam Weschler (who manages the wine program with Cannon), and a slew of equally talented individuals like Personnel Director Bryan Crocco, Rocco and Jordan Petriello, John Acosta, and AJ Sankofa, the Vail Bar is the perfect atmosphere to order a few signature dishes, a cocktail, and maybe a glass of wine or two from the expertly sourced wine list. Sit back, sip on your drink, and make conversation in a more laid back vibe than you’ll find throughout the rest of the sprawling estate.
When it comes to the staff at the Vail Bar, talented is an understatement. You’ll often find their mixologists at cocktail competitions like the Iron Shaker, and mentioned in write-ups by magazines like Esquire and New Jersey Monthly. Just last month they were named Best Northern New Jersey Bar Scene in New Jersey Monthly’s 34th Annual Jersey Choice Awards. On the very same day they were awarded this prestigious honor, I had the chance to sit down at the Vail Bar with my girlfriend Stephanie, former Jockey Hollow sommelier Sam Doyle, and his girlfriend Tiffany, while Gelmi and Blihar offered up a cavalcade of cocktails, coupled with tales of mixology and the restaurant industry.
He started us off with his signature “What the Dilly!” a peppery gin and cucumber based concoction, while Blihar countered with his own signature drink, “Vodka Not Too Sweet” which was exactly as advertised (and perfect for someone like me who prefers more spirit-forward creations). While we perused the menu, Cannon brought out a bottle of Saumur Blanc, while another bottle of Aglianico decanted nearby (both of which being grapes I’m embarrassed and astounded I’ve never sampled, as both were right up my alley). It’s selections like these that landed Jockey Hollow on Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 Wine Restaurants only a year after opening its doors. Just another notch on the belt of ever growing awards and accolades.
The drinks came fast and furious (Tokyo Drift). A smoke-infused take on an old fashioned called “The Game of Thrones,” a sazerac, another “What the Dilly”? I think...but I can’t be sure. By that point in the evening I was so happily surrounded by friends and loved ones, so filled to the brim with cheer, wine, and top notch spirits that even now I can barely decipher my very limited notes. There is no doubt that Cannon and his staff know how to show any and every guest a great time.
And that great time wasn’t limited to just cocktails and wine. We explored a deep and exotic menu of Vail Bar exclusives which played to each and every one of our discerning palates. A platter of oysters and chilled New England Mussels Provençal with roasted tomato, fennel, tarragon, rosemary, and thyme (everyone’s favorite). The Hand-Cut Sirloin Tartare with smoked beef fat, potato rosti, cornichons and egg yolk which checked every temperate and texture box. Braised Spanish Octopus with tomato asopao, and black olive gremolata, and Wild Mushroom Crostino with cow’s milk taleggio and caramelized onions which proves how much complexity a seemingly simple dish can achieve when you’re committed to using only the freshest ingredients. Sam opted for a particularly delicious wild boar agnolotti special, while his girlfriend went with the award-winning (literally award-winning) CC Burger with house-made potato roll, raclette, Nueske’s applewood-smoked bacon, and a side of salt & vinegar fries. A generous, varied, and locally sourced cheese board ended the meal on an even higher note.
Even though I’ve dined at Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen on a number of occasions, often as a guest of the staff or even Chris Cannon himself, I’ve taken note that they treat every guest and every dish with the kind of attention and meticulous care you’d find at some of the finest dining establishments in the country. The attention to detail, the sourcing of ingredients, the sheer perfection at every level and in every corner of this beautiful, mystifying food and drink dreamscape should be an aspiration for chefs and mixologists across the culinary world. I’ll put it as simply as I can: if this restaurant were in New York City, it would have a Michelin star.
Chris Cannon has created something magical in Morristown, NJ. Whether for a special occasion, a date night, or just a cocktail at the Vail Bar, it deserves a trip. Yes, even from Manhattan (God forbid, a trip to New Jersey!?). There were a lot of skeptics when Cannon announced his grandiose restaurant plans, but in the three years since opening Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen he has silenced all of them. As a lifelong restaurant maven and industry trendsetter, he knows that failure is not an option.