There are few restaurants in the state that have little to no affiliation with New Jersey. Usually it’s the owner who grew up just miles down the road or it’s the head chef who spent time training under the area’s most acclaimed restaurateurs. Willing to take a step outside the tri-state comfort zone is Common Lot in Millburn, owned and operated by Chef Ehren Ryan who hails from Australia and his wife Nadine, a native to Austria.
At Common Lot, you won’t find the traditional bread course to nosh on and there’s no pasta entrées in sight—although Chef Ryan expressed he’s toyed with the idea. And as far as restaurants with mixed-culture menus go, Common Lot’s dishes are reminiscent of its owner’s worldly travels, classical training and eclectic palates.
Chef Ryan, who revealed that he “fell into cheffing accidentally,” was on the path to getting his hotel management certification in Australia before discovering he favored the hands-on aspect of the curriculum. Knowing that he eventually wanted to move to Europe after qualifying as a chef, he went off to work first in Canada and later, Michelin-starred kitchens throughout London, in one instance under the supervision of French chef Pierre Gagnaire.
“That probably was the hardest part,” Chef Ryan admitted, referencing the earlier part of his career. “London at that stage was ruthless. I was pushing 90+ hours a week. If I caught the right buses, at the right time, I would end up getting home at one or two in the morning. Then I’d be back on the train heading to work at six. That was five days a week.”
In search of a slower pace, Chef Ryan moved to the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy where he described the lifestyle as “more forgiving.” That’s where he and Nadine met, before moving together to Austria and then back to Australia. Nadine, whose repertoire is equally as comprehensive, has traveled and lived throughout Switzerland, South Africa, England, Thailand and Indonesia earning her degree in front-of-house restaurant management in Austria, and later receiving her certification as a cheese sommelier and closely studying the art of tea-making—to which she lends her expertise to guests at Common Lot.
Between Chef Ryan’s kitchen cred and the two being known outsiders to New Jersey, Common Lot opened in 2016 with built-in buzz. In regards to how the couple ended up finding their bearings in Essex County, Chef Ryan explained that once they knew they wanted to open a restaurant together, the US (specifically the tri-state area) best suited their needs. “We decided to open Common Lot mainly because we hit a point where we thought we could take the next step and start our own restaurant. We would do our own food and our own service style without anyone above us.”
At the time, Chef Ryan and Nadine were co-managing a restaurant in Australia when they realized their vision didn’t quite align with the owners. Acknowledging that Austria and Australia would be too far away to set up shop permanently—Chef Ryan’s parents having immigrated from Sydney to Harding Township over 10 years ago—they considered settling down in New York. After running the numbers, it proved to be too risky (and expensive) a venture for the first-timers so they explored the suburbs of New Jersey instead, scouting places like Hoboken and Montclair before deciding on Millburn.
Today, the promise of Chef Ryan’s pedigree is fulfilled with big and small plates that marry traditional technique with globally-inspired flavors, applied but not limited to the “Smalls to Share” roasted cauliflower florets tossed with his version of a coconut-peanut massaman curry sauce and one of three “Mains for Two,” a 12-hour braised lamb shoulder served “san choy bow” style with housemade kimchi, sweet pickled cucumbers, shredded lettuce, soy caramel and bao buns.
The interior, not unlike the restaurant’s food philosophy, is far from stuffy. The two-story space contains referential nods to minimalist design with rustic and industrial finishes, lots of natural light, a larger than usual communal table and earthy dinnerware by local artisan Jono Pandolfi. Upstairs, guests will find the “Chef’s Library,” a private dining room adorned with the Ryan’s personal collection of cookbooks lining the walls. The first floor, although, is where you’ll want to sit for unparalleled views of the open kitchen and if you’re lucky, you can snag a spot at the countertop—though usually booked out at least 60 days in advance.
he four highly-contested chairs are reserved for what Common Lot calls the Kitchen Pass, where guests can purchase (for $105 per person) front-row seats and watch as the chefs on the line prep, cook and plate dishes right in front of them. There is also an exclusive eight-course tasting menu to go along with the Kitchen Pass dining experience, not available to those in the main restaurant.
“We don’t sugarcoat service whatsoever. So if it goes south, you’ll hear me swearing and those sorts of things,” Chef Ryan said. “You’re kind of almost blacked out from everything else because you’re purely focused on the kitchen.”
Due in part to Common Lot’s BYO policy, Chef Ryan places an enormous emphasis on the food coming out of the kitchen, solely focusing on developing interesting flavors that balance their artful presentations. When coming up with the restaurant’s concept, he turned to the way in which he and his wife like to eat when dining out, making an effort to try as many things as they can. “We never liked the normal structure of two or three courses, we always liked the apps—mainly because they’re more challenging in terms of texture and flavor combinations.”
Take the beautifully plated tuna tartare, for example, a clever nod to a popular sushi roll. A mix of rich, red-colored minced fish gets lightly tossed with tangy ponzu, accompanied by sesame seeds, dollops of creamy avocado mousse and sweet wasabi gel. On top rests a perfectly smooth quenelle of cooling ginger sorbet for contrast.
The interplay of Southeast Asian cuisine is evident at Common Lot in more ways than one, including the crowd favorite twice-cooked pork belly, a riff on a street food snack that Chef Ryan had in the East Village. The pork is first braised for six hours in order to render some of the fat and tenderize the meat before getting fried to order for maximum crispiness. The pork belly is then coated in a sweet chilli-soy glaze and topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and thinly-sliced scallions. The dish comes to the table with a side of chopsticks, both a gesture of whimsy and an attempt to will yourself to slow down and enjoy the nuances of the sauce. Which, Chef Ryan expressed, he’s worked very hard to replicate.
The menu, in its entirety, is a collaborative effort between Chef Ryan, his staff and the different life experiences each bring to the table. Chef Ryan, who didn’t grow up around fine dining or exotic ingredients, is simply cooking food inspired by the places he’s been, cuisines he’s tasted and the ideas his fellow chefs present to him. “For our standards, we want those guys in the kitchen to use their heads and think outside the box,” he explained. “We want them to think about the seasons, our suppliers, what ingredients they’d like to use and ones that they haven’t.”
Common Lot’s pastry offerings follow suit, each one familiar in concept but exciting in execution. The mango-coconut parfait is one of textural and geometric delight—a dome-shaped shell of tempered white chocolate waiting to be cracked open. Inside you’ll find layers of sweet mango gelée and luscious coconut cream that swirl together upon consumption and tucked away underneath, a crisp and buttery shortbread cookie. The dessert is finished with an arrangement of edible flowers, diced fresh mango and fruity, caviar-like finger limes.
If you had asked Chef Ryan about New Jersey’s food scene a decade ago, he wouldn’t have had much to say. Mostly because he was still living overseas in places like Hong Kong, India and the Philippines. But today, Chef Ryan is working to defend New Jersey’s culinary offerings which are often pitted against its stronger, more self-assured neighbor New York.
“I think it’s time New Jersey had its own identity. It’s slowly happening but we need more restaurants that are willing to break the norm.” What he hopes with Common Lot is to rebuild the state’s reputation by producing simple, sometimes adventurous cuisine that’s infused with traces of fine dining.