Lunch in the Country at Bell's Mansion

Last week I had the pleasure of being taken to Bell's Mansion in Stanhope, New Jersey for lunch. Accompanying me were food maven Arthur Schwartz (who knew he was also so knowledgeable about Polish food!), historian Bob Harned, and Brendan Fahy, my old boss at Lord & Taylor, when I was executive chef in charge of their 38 restaurants across the country. At that time in my life, right after my stint as Mayor Koch's chef at Gracie Mansion, I was hired by L&T's Chairman of the Board, Joe Brooks, to re-conceptualize the Bird Cage (do any of you remember those wonderful places?) with the task of making in-store dining more, well, fashionable. Mr. Brooks was fastidious in every way, and elegant as all get out. He anticipated the needs of his customers and satisfied fantasies they didn't even know they had. I remember the sheer joy, and terror, of cooking lunch for Mr. Brooks while he was entertaining Sophia Loren one day in the private dining room atop the Fifth Avenue store. I credit Mr. Brooks and Mr. Fahy as mentors in my life and for giving me the opportunities and education that were life-changing. I can't think of a better place to reminisce with old and new friends than at Bell's Mansion. The new friends are Jack and Maria Kaczynski who own the historic house and restaurant that have made Stanhope, New Jersey a destination. Their "garden-to-table" cuisine is glorious as is the environment and food offerings. "The best pierogies I've ever had," said the food maven, Arthur Schwartz. Homemade kielbasa with caramelized onions, ethereal stuffed cabbage in a wondrous beef broth, and "New American" dishes spice up the menu. Although the 170-year old mansion speaks of "special occasion" dining, as does the beef wellington that graces the menu, the atmosphere is casual enough to make you want to come everyday -- as several of their customers do! Despite the heavy rains this summer, the gardens, including fruit trees and grape arbors, were lovely and provided the prime materie (primary materials or ingredients) for our delicious meal.   During the course of the lunch, I found myself asking time and again, "Did you grow this?," "Are these your tomatoes?," "This parsley is so vivid, is it yours?," "Just look at that lovely purple basil." Not only was the refined stuffed cabbage made by Maria, the cabbage was also grown by Maria, who serves as head gardener of the property. Their executive chef, Thomas Wohlrob, is a local celeb who once owned his own restaurant, but now he is wowing locals with Duck Alexis (duck breast with sun-dried cranberries and shiitakes), rack of lamb, an enlightened eggplant rollatini. The kielbasa that I loved comes with house-cured sauerkraut and there are always pierogies-on-parade. We especially liked those stuffed with wild mushrooms and sauerkraut; those filled with potatoes and cheese, and a "new world" variety filled with cheddar and jalapeno.

The generous bar, originally built for the Palmerton Hotel in Pennsylvania during the 1880's, is all oak and mirrored and welcoming. I can't imagine anything better than a bucket of mussels and a glass of sauvignon blanc, or a large platter of those wild mushroom pierogies and a glass of cab, on some upcoming snowy evening. Before the season changes, however, you might consider Sunday brunch on their terrace, eating like a locavore, under the canopy of trees and flowers.  Save room for their lovely creme brulee, white chocolate mousse with raspberries, or...fresh fruit pierogies!

I am grateful to Jack and Maria for their hospitality and for the abundant offerings from their gardens:  Slender eggplants, sweet corn on the cob, pale yellow peppers, just-picked apples, juicy tomatoes, and tasty hot peppers. Love in a basket.

Bell's Mansion:  11 Main Street, Stanhope, New Jersey.  973-426-9977