Whether we’re making fine dining reservations or meeting friends for tapas and cocktails, we’re always searching for a specific experience. At Jockey Hollow Kitchen and Bar, Owner Chris Cannon and his staff have created a space to experience (and taste) everything. Across three floors, Jockey houses four separate dining spaces, each offering a unique ambience and menu. This winter, we visited Jockey Hollow for a firsthand look at its versatile atmosphere.
Jockey Hollow is located in the heart of Morristown inside The Vail Mansion, the former home of AT&T’s first president, Theodore Vail. The 15,000-foot. structure, built in 1917, features 17-foot-tall marble columns which were inspired by Italian Palazzo style architecture. The mansion was originally meant to be Vail’s museum as well as his home, only he passed away before he could move in. In the years that followed, his daughter sold the property and it became Morristown’s city hall for nearly seven decades. Today, many have come together to restore the mansion to its former glory, including Cannon, who began working on Jockey Hollow in 2011 after falling in love with its history and stunning marble interior.
While the structure’s history will never be forgotten (Vail’s initials are literally carved into the Italian marble), the restaurant has made a name for itself since opening in 2014, and given the scope of Jockey Hollow, it’s no wonder it has become so popular. General Manager Ron Morgan, who has managed everything from tapas bars to Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City, oversees all four dining spaces. Requiring a talented (and massive) staff, Morgan recognizes the restaurant’s challenges, but has never felt so rewarded in his career. He explained, “I’ve overseen restaurants with one kitchen, one menu, and one dining room and between 30 and 50 employees. At Jockey Hollow we have two kitchens, three menus, three bars, and four dining spaces. We have 100 employees.”
The Vail Bar
We began our visit at Jockey’s Vail Bar, a 1920’s style cocktail lounge which was commissioned from the mansion’s first floor library. Jockey’s bar staff, who specialize in seasonally-inspired craft cocktails, started us with a few of their signatures, including the banana hammock cocktail which is comprised of Laird’s Applejack, Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, and banana liqueur among other things. With applejack in season, the rum cocktail was a great pairing with Jockey’s double tier of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp and lobster.
While Jockey’s Renaissance style facade may seem intimidating, sitting beside the fireplace in the The Vail Bar allows one to feel at home. The room itself echoes Morgan’s efforts to create a warm experience for his guests. “We’re serious professionals, but we want to create a fun and memorable experience,” said Morgan.
Oyster and Wine Bar
Adjacent to the Vail Bar, is Jockey’s Oyster and Wine Bar which catches one’s eye with its high ceilings and marble floors. Although the space was created from the mansion’s art gallery, accents like modern wood tables and leather banquettes make it ideal for a relaxed, casual dinner. The Oyster Bar offers a variety of raw foods, charcuterie, traditional entrees and fine wines which were hand picked by Cannon himself along with his sommeliers.
We started with a Peter Lauer “Barrel X” Riesling and a 2014 Navarro Rosé. The Navarro had more structure and color than a typical rosé, a direct result of it having more skin contact with the grapes, what the wine staff refers to as “Rosé with guts.” As a fan of raw bar, the pâté de campagne (with whole grain mustard) and hand cut sirloin tartare made for excellent starters. And while I am not an avid rosé and riesling drinker, I was surprised by how well their dry characteristics complemented the food, underscoring its meatiness.
The Dining Room
When you make your way up the main staircase, above the Oyster Bar, that’s when you truly appreciate the breadth of everything. At the top, overlooking the property’s 1500-foot reflecting pool, is the Vail family living quarters which has been transformed into Jockey’s fine dining room. The dining room is perhaps the most unique of the spaces as it exudes exclusivity and pushes the boundaries of common culinary ideals. Executive Chef Kevin Sippel explained, “Each dining room has its own food identity at this point, the Oyster Bar and Vail Bar, are very casual, everything is very approachable. The dining room is more hands on pushes the envelope without being pretentious.”
Sippel’s farm-to-table menu is deeply rooted in the classics of France and Italy, and utilizes the best of what New Jersey’s agriculture has to offer. “We are in the middle of the Garden State, we have such a wide variety of farms out here utilize. Cooking with local ingredients is pretty much how we’ve eaten since we’ve been on the planet,” said Sippel. Through strong relationships with Ralston Farms and Barnegat Bay, Sippel is able to source what is in season, and use wintered vegetables during cold months.
Our four course meal began with the grilled Spanish octopus, a delightful starter which was served with eggplant and black olives. This was followed up with hand rolled garganelli, which is made with braised veal and a lamb ragu. As a pasta dish, the garganelli stole my tastebuds and left me damn near mesmerized, that was until I tried Sippel’s kurobuta pork filet with parsnips and mushroom ragu.
Located in the mansion’s basement, the Rathskeller houses Jockey’s wine cellar and also serves as an event space that offers live music, wine dinners, sports and classes (depending on the night). Featuring brick walls and industrial metal beams, The Rathskeller is a great place to unwind at the end of the night (even though it once housed the city’s jail cells).
We enjoyed our final course and a housemade digestif in the Rathskeller, which was prepared by pastry chef Erica Leahy. The most notable of which was the blood orange sundae, and yes, it’s every bit as bloody good as it sounds.
In just over a year, Jockey Hollow has climbed to the top of the New Jersey food world and has become a cultural hub as well as a world class culinary destination. The restaurant itself is so dynamic that it cannot be duplicated anywhere, even in Manhattan. With the change in season, Morgan and his staff are excited about growing their events program and opening their fifth dining space on the patio (coming in May). “I hope that guests come here to relax after a long day or a long week of work and feel energized by a lively environment, great food, great beverage, and warm service.”