When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, she probably didn’t expect her philosophy of supporting small farms and sourcing locally grown ingredients to turn into a national movement.  Nowadays, the “locavore” ethos is a huge trend.  It seems that farm to table restaurants are popping up everywhere and bringing their fresh and local gospel to would-be diners and there seems to be no shortage of people willing to pay for it.

Restaurants that provide F2T dining (yes, it even has its own abbreviation now) have been growing in popularity, enticing customers with names and addresses of local farmers on their menus and making sure that you know clearly that the vegetables are organic, the chickens are free range and the beef is grass fed.   With so many restaurants using the F2T buzzword, its tough to tell which is the real thing and which just added a few token green market ingredients to the menu.

So when my friends invited me to dine with them at Tillie’s, I have admit I was a bit skeptical.

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The slab bacon appetizer was the absolute star of the meal.  It was perfectly cooked and had a wonderful balance of smoke and salt, the fat was rendered properly, which helped bring out its unctuousness.  The accompanying slaw and grainy mustard was a smart addition that married the flavors well.  This was a very strong dish.

The coarsely ground meal in the corn bread stood up to the thick bacon nicely.  It was a good choice to go with something heartier than the usual finer grind.  It was moist and had a lot of structure to it, not mention taste. 

The braised short ribs was fairly tender but under seasoned and a tad stringy.  It also needed a glaze to give it a proper finish and reinforce the earthy flavors of the braising liquid. 

Serving any braised dish is difficult for a restaurant because it can’t be prepared to order and must be prepped well in advance of service.  Cooks have to pay particular attention because if seasoned too early, it becomes too salty as the braising liquid reduces.   If braised too long it becomes tough because the cellular structure of meat doesn’t allow moisture to be retained after a certain point.  I can’t say it was the best I’ve had, but it certainly didn’t suck.

The Caesar salad, however, was over dressed and the anchovy flavor was very pronounced, which overpowered the subtle taste of the underlying greens.  There was also too much grated cheese that when combined with the dressing made it too salty.

Aside from some textural and seasoning issues that could easily be adjusted, the more prominent issues were service and the dining room layout/lighting.  Upon arriving it would have been nice if the hostess got up from her chair and off her smart phone more promptly to greet us.  Also, our server didn’t refill our water glasses throughout the evening, even after having asked.

The dining room lighting is quite dark, to the point I had to us my iPhone flashlight to read the menu.  Also, the number of diners relative to the space made the room noticeably loud and uncomfortably crowded as customers began filling the restaurant.  As for seating, the tables with a banquette apparently are in high demand as we were denied seating even though no one was seated on any of them.  Apparently, they had all been “reserved”.  If you don’t care to be bumped by the person seated behind you, I highly recommend reserving a banquette table.

With a few tweaks in the kitchen and some realigning in the front of the house, Tillie’s could be a great restaurant.  They have a good concept, promising menu, and some bold flavors in their dishes.  It was also nice to see the chef/co-owner in the kitchen expediting orders. 

2.5 stars.

Tillie’s:            519 Millburn Ave.

                        Short Hills, NJ 07078

                        973.564.9700

                        www.tilliesonmillburn.com

Atmosphere:  Suburban, Upper Millburn Ave.  Noisy when crowded, good for families, street parking..

Recommended Dishes:  Slab bacon, short ribs, duck.

Drinks and Wine:  BYOB.  Wine Library is close by.

Price:  $$$ (pricey) for a 3 course dinner, about $40-$55 pp.

Open:  Call for hours, website is currently under construction

Star Ratings: 1 star  = fair (not bad, missed in a few areas)

                        2 stars = good (meets expectations in some areas, room for improvement)

                        3 stars = excellent (rock solid in all categories, a keeper)

                        4 stars = extraordinary (a memorable experience, unique qualities)

                        5 stars = OMG (far exceeds expectations in every way)