The Hill at Closter stands tall as the homey summit for elevated dining in a casual setting. The comforting space aims to make delectable, quality-sourced food accessible for the everyday guest. From the toasty fire-side outdoor patio setting to the shining seasonally-themed cocktails poured over a crystal ball ice, the chilling realities of tomorrow fade into the long night. The Hill effortlessly redefines the scale of quality and comfort with an approachable style and intimate vibe.
Dinner highlights a unique rustic ambiance. The subtle tabletop candlelight glow immediately thaws the wintry cold that may have followed you past the door. Look above the mid-century blue upholstered chairs to gaze at the radiant chandeliers effortlessly lighting up the earth-toned interior like a family of stars. A snug outdoor deck accompanied with table-side heaters and a toasty, central firepit transports you to the timeless laughs, conversations, and warm memories with family back at home. Chef Ben Pollinger, a New Jersey native, opened up The Hill in 2018. The New York Times three-starred chef climbed the culinary ranks through his years. Pollinger graduated top of his class at the Culinary Institute of America, subsequently working in renowned kitchens like Le Louis XV with Chef Alain Ducasse and Oceana in midtown Manhattan.
Pollinger’s innate success brought him back to his “nest” in Bergen County, NJ, a populous neighboring suburb to the big city lights, to embark on a long-awaited passion project in his career. Years in high-stress kitchens shifted Pollinger to foster a culinary home of his own only a seven-minute drive away from his house in Oradell, NJ. The Hill became Pollinger’s token to redefining a standard of “quality” with a modest approach at elegant dining in a familiar place amongst familiar faces. A genuine dedication to hospitality makes The Hill less about flashy fads and more about genuine community engagement. “Hospitality is about how we made our guests feel and directly affects ‘how’ and ‘why’ people use our restaurant,” said Pollinger. “Naturally, we strive to provide a place of comfort, safety, and coziness just like a nest.”
Pollinger’s vision on accessibility and familiarity for the community is present in his world-class food, his committed team, and his comfy interior design. The menu centers around globally influenced, seasonal American cuisine, drawing on flavors from the South of France to Southeast Asia. Top-notch ingredients reach their highest potential in Chef Ben’s kitchen. And the Wednesday night dinner guest always finds a faithful reason to return. The restaurant also features a fully equipped bar backed by skilled mixologists.
The barn-like building, once home to a restaurant called Harvest, transformed into a style Pollinger most notably refers to as “Nordic minimalism.” The simplistic design features a natural palette of neutral grey, off-white walls, and black accents throughout. Upon entry, the vintage barnwood and sleek walnut panels instantly catch your attention. For dinner, choose among the cozy tables in the lounge by the bar, the windowed dining room, or, on a clear night, the heated outdoor patio. The exposed, custom oak table tops encourage guests to find comfort in a casual environment.
Before the first course, the staff kindly offered me a drink from an extensive list of fall cocktails, craft beers, and fine wines. I chose the seasonally raved Fall Sazerac after clear deliberation with the expert mixologist. The delicate sweetness from the vanilla bean syrup paired well with the bitter, yet fiery Remy Martin 1738 cognac, infused with cinnamon sticks. The glass perfumed a faint anise scent from the tiny dose of absinthe. Peychaud’s bitters lent the classic cocktail a dazzling scarlet glow, especially in front of the tabletop candlelight. A Sazerac at The Hill undoubtedly felt like dancing with the fiery colors of the late autumn leaves.
A warm basket of house-made focaccia made its way to the table. The traditional Italian bread achieved a pillow-like soft texture. A small pool of extra virgin olive oil immediately perfumed a fruity aroma. And together, the subtle sweetness from the focaccia and the authentic oil created a harmonious combination. The simplicity of the breadbasket was elevated to a Mediterranean picnic off the coast of Capri.
The first course introduced memorable flavors from land and sea. The wild arugula & peach salad demonstrated impressive finesse, highlighting the colorful flavors and intricately cut shapes of the freshly sourced produce. The tart thinly sliced peaches brightened the peppery wild arugula tossed in a quick coat of balsamic and olive oil. Goat cheese crumbles brought a light creaminess and balance and the added richness from the cubes of avocado seemed to dissolve into the dressing itself. The tiny slivers of almond introduced a crunchy texture and a nutty factor reminiscent of the fall.
The next first-course plate was a Mahi-Mahi Ceviche. Chef Ben, known for his expertise with seafood, presented the dish as a defined tower crowned with fresh cilantro. The zippiness from the citrus sauce brightened the natural undertones of the delicate fish while uplifting the status of the sliced tomatoes, onions, and green olives. The fresh cilantro provided a dreamy, aromatic balance to the sharp acidity. Like neighboring puzzle pieces, the citrus, mild mahi-mahi, and produce combined to paint a colorful sunset of coastal flavors.
The entrée’s main protein featured a tender Cedar River Farms 12-ounce strip loin as the prized centerpiece of the fall menu special. The grade-A steak presented a seared golden crust on both sides and a juicy interior. The earthy tones from the roasted fingerling potatoes complimented the natural flavors of the beef while the swiss chard and red peppers lightened up the decadence. A roasted shallot red wine sauce, as rich as melted butter, seamlessly married the whole plate together, bringing this seasonally inspired dish to an unquestionable victory for the night.
The indulgent array of flavor combinations from around the globe demonstrates Pollinger’s keen ability to read the room, fostering an experience tailored to every guest at a moment’s notice. From the comfort food-oriented menu to the seamless setting, The Hill operates to provide an escape, especially nowadays.
The COVID-19 pandemic closed the popular dining spot for nearly three months. But the well-developed relationship with the community put The Hill back on the map after reopening for outdoor dining in June. Pollinger’s rebound responded with an emphasis on comfort food and familiarity – a promising guide to these unusual times. His decadent Moroccan Style Lamb Tagine introduces a play on new flavors but delivers a homey stew as a means of escape. Pollinger says sales on the flank steak, strip loin, and porterhouse have increased recently. “While there is a space for creativity right now, it is more about comfort and the people who have supported us along the way. Our food is more than a means of sustenance, but a beacon of familiarity in an age of uncertainty.”
The Hill’s dedication to hospitality appears in every aspect, from the intricately planned seasonal menu to the familiar conversations with staff. Like the cliché Hallmark holiday homecoming, The Hill has become a destination for highly accessible comfort food with the timeless company of friends, family, and staff. If you are looking for a homey experience where quality ingredients reach their highest potential, visit The Hill at Closter.