Thursday, November 26, 2009

High-end chef adapts to new economy

Hat tip to Cheryl for this article from about how Craig Shelton, the chef/owner1 of what was once New Jersey's most expensive (and one of its best reviewed2) restaurants, The Ryland Inn, is now working in a diner. About nine years ago occasional commenter Y./TheRivers, who had won a $150-off coupon to the restaurant, treated me to dinner there for my birthday. If memory serves, he ended up paying $350+ out of pocket, even after getting the $150 off -- and we had ordered the less expensive of the two wine pairings offered for the tasting menu. We did get a couple of free cigars from the chef though, when he found out that Y. and him belonged to the same secret society/fraternal organization. From the article,

The Skylark Fine Diner and Lounge on Route 1, with its 60s airport lounge-meets-the-Jetsons interior — flying saucer-shaped lights, retro tables and chairs, and clocks showing the time in Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, London and elsewhere — is one of the more striking diners in a state that boasts more than any other.

But still, a top chef in a Jersey diner? What’s he going to do, offer $25 patty melts?

Far from it.

Shelton, the Skylark’s guest chef, has added dozens of eclectic, globe-spanning, reasonably-priced dishes to the diner’s menu since early September. Constantine Katsifis, the Skylark’s owner, says he and Shelton are "inventing a new category of diner."

"The restaurant business across America is a horror show — down 60 percent, down 40 percent," Shelton said.

The thought of working in a diner makes Shelton laugh heartily.

"But it’s a good idea for any chef ... to have a more diversified portfolio."

After a water line break shut down the Ryland Inn in early 2007, Shelton was working on his high-end coffee line and ideas for food-related TV projects when Katsifis invited him to a restaurant trade show in Chicago.

I remember Shelton's high-end coffee line, from articles about it a couple of years ago. He was offering two types of coffee, actually: one allegedly blended and roasted for enjoyment on yachts and the other for stables. $20 per lb. for each, I believe. Back to the article,

Over dinner, Katsifis outlined a plan for the Skylark that was still evolving in his own mind.

"(There are) 20 chefs as accomplished as he is in the country," Katsifis said. "We came back from that meeting and decided to take the Skylark to the next level."

A commenter on at wrote,

This is a welcome change. The French have bistros, the Italians trattorie and we have - diners.

NJ diners prove that anyone with a deep fryer, a can opener and a griddle can go into the business.

Well, not exactly. The most successful diners have loyal clientele who will only eat mediocre food from their favorite diner's deep fryer.

Edison is a little bit of a haul from here, but we'll have to head down there and check out the new Skylark diner.

1A commenter on writes that Shelton is no longer the owner of the Ryland Inn, having lost it to bankruptcy. I don't know if that's the case or not.

2From that link to the New York Times review:

Did I say words fail me? I seem to have gone on for five paragraphs about a tomato salad -- a dish you probably won't get to eat, by the way, for 9 or 10 months, the season having passed. But this is what it's like to eat at the Ryland Inn. You lose yourself in this food -- its colors, its textures, the way it works with the wine and the way the flavors seem to change and broaden with each mouthful.


Amid such riches it's easy to forget your surroundings. The 200-year-old inn, once a stagecoach stop on the road from New Brunswick to Easton, Pa., is a fine white clapboard building with Gothic touches and a green awning. The garden, open for strolling, occupies 2 of the inn's 50 acres; the rest is rolling pasture shaded by ancient trees. On a clear weekend afternoon in the fall, watching hot-air balloons drift over the forested hills of Hunterdon County, you can imagine yourself in France.

Hunterdon County is old money horse country (unlike hardscrabble Sussex County, where this pony lives).

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