I eat a lot of great meals. Still, I never take for granted the ones that leave an indelible mark in my mental food journal, the meals that I will call back to years down the line when even the littlest thing reminds me of them. I had the pleasure of enjoying such a meal just recently at Common Lot in Millburn, NJ.
Common Lot first opened in 2016 and is the product of husband and wife duo Chef Ehren Ryan and front-of-house expert Nadine Ryan. In that time, it has collected several accolades, including a spot amongst New Jersey’s 25 best restaurants.
Let me get one thing straight. I didn’t walk into Common Lot to “test” acclaimed Chef Ehren Ryan’s chops, nor did I go in there looking for something to critique. I made a reservation at Common Lot, knowing damn well that it would impress me and yet, my expectations were still shattered. To be completely candid, I didn’t plan on even reviewing my experience, instead wanting just to enjoy a great meal—but, sometimes, duty calls. Millburn’s Common Lot combines a relaxed and unpretentious ambiance with exquisite fare and presentation to bring guests a breathtaking experience that exceeds even the highest expectations.
When you walk into Common Lot, you are met with an intimate dining room that is defined by the open kitchen concept at the restaurant’s rear. The kitchen is an intricate part of the dining experience, blanketed by wrap-around windows looking over downtown Millburn to create an unparalleled backdrop. No matter where you are sat in the main room, you are treated to a front-row view of kitchen excellence. I sat mesmerized as Chef Ryan directed the kitchen, each cook meticulously working around one another. There were no wasted movements or disagreements—just a crew of workers who were dedicated to putting forth mind-bending food.
Cooking is already a difficult profession and it becomes even trickier when you are expected to do it right in front of the guests. The stereotypical loud chef who yells profanities isn’t possible in this setting. Instead, the entire kitchen staff has to remain relaxed and confident no matter what issue(s) may arise—leaving the shouting matches and kitchen antics for after the guests depart.
And though I could sit there for hours and just stare at the kitchen staff work, it was time to get down to business. I ordered a decent spread of food that I thought would cover the different areas of Chef Ryan’s vast expertise. To start, I delighted in a salmon sashimi. The plate was beautifully decorated with plenty of slices of lightly-cured salmon. Around the dish were dots of vibrant avocado purée and shingles of crisp radish. Adorning the entire offering was a large rice cracker, which I promptly shattered into pieces to eat with the fish. This dish was light, with a bright kick of acidity and a smoky backdrop. The fish was showered with togarashi—a Japanese spice blend containing dried chiles, sesame, seaweed and orange peel, among other things. Though light, this raw display of fish was incredibly convoluted, making a stop at all five of the tastes: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami.
Then came a true show-stopper: The charcoal-grilled Thumbelina carrots, which were on special that evening. Thumbelina carrots are an incredible ingredient—they are sweet, with an amazing texture and can be enjoyed raw or cooked. Their almost-lacking core makes them perfect for serving whole. The carrots were grilled on a Japanese binchotan grill—a staple in the Common Lot kitchen and a tool that seems to get a ton of use. They were cooked whole and then halved for presentation purposes, laid atop a bed of tangy yogurt dressing. There was a tinge of chili in the dish as well as a crispy allium on top, but the central idea, the carrots, is what was so amazing to me. They were sweet and earthy, with a smoky flavor from the char on the outer skin. Additionally, the carrot itself was perfectly cooked, easily cut with a fork, but not overcooked to a miserable mush. Beyond the fact that I adore carrots, this was a dish that perfectly exemplified Chef Ryan’s respect for ingredients. It was simple and delicious. Better yet, it highlighted a seasonal ingredient.
As a diehard fan of charcoal-cooked food, I was more than happy to see someone constantly tending to the box-shaped Japanese grill. From the moment service opens at Common Lot, you can’t go more than five minutes without seeing a piece of meat or vegetable being cooked on that grill. Lucky for me, more charcoal-anointed dishes were on the way.
I’m mostly over octopus these days. It’s not because I don’t like the cephalopod, but more so because I have had too many bad experiences with it. I felt Common Lot was a great place to take me out of my anti-octopus tirade even if only for a night. So, I ordered it, and thank God I did.
First off, Chef Ryan has a plating style that is instantly recognizable and for me, the best way to describe it is that he maximizes eatability. The sashimi, carrots and now the octopus were all cleverly shingled around the plate with the guest experience in mind—not just the visuals. “Is this easy to eat? Are all of the components able to be experienced in every bite?” These are the questions that great chefs ask themselves. And because these are typically appetizers and therefore, more likely to be shared, this mindset becomes even more important.
The tentacle was grilled whole but then sliced into bite-size pieces, which is essentially the only way I want to eat octopus anymore. No more sawing at a full tentacle or stealing the sought-after crispy bits all for yourself either. The plate was evenly spread with pieces of octopus and yellow potatoes studded in between them. Marinated peppers, pickled onion petals and chorizo oil finished off the dish. The octopus was sweet and incredibly tender, with a profound smokiness from the grill, while the fragrant oil added aroma and body. Additionally, the potatoes and octopus pieces were identical in size—a small detail, but one that proves yet again that Common Lot is dedicated to perfection. Octopus, potatoes and chorizo are obviously not a revolutionary combination, but it is one that is popular for a reason. Still, Chef Ryan found a way to make a dish that has been done a million times his own.
A freshly roasted roll was put in the middle of my table. The server explained to me that it was a milk bread glazed with beef fat and Vegemite. Yes, Vegemite (Chef Ryan is from Australia, after all). It might seem ridiculous or like one of those dishes that a Chef will do just to be different and not because it’s actually good, but stay with me here.
For those unfamiliar, Vegemite is made from yeast extract, which is then cooked down into a deep, brown sludge. It was developed in the early 20th century to utilize the excess of leftover brewer’s yeast that the Australian continent found itself with. It is not pretty and, on its own, is incredibly pungent and salty. But, beyond its infamous reputation, Vegemite is filled with glutamates, the compound that makes up the flavor of umami. Chefs use it to fortify sauces and stocks, and its meaty character makes it an incredible flavor enhancer. Here, Ryan emulsifies roasted beef fat, beef jus and Vegemite to create a luscious and velvety brown liquid. The freshly-roasted roll shimmers with the glaze, which becomes tacky on the surface. This was a playful dish, allowing you to get into the sticky bread with your hands. A spread of good butter was all it needed to instantly become one of the best bites of food I’ve had this year. It was incredibly complex, with a sweet flavor from the milk bread and an undeniable steak-like flavor from the glaze. Ever since I was little, I’ve always been someone who preferred the gravy-doused dinner rolls to the actual roast beef. It’s like Chef Ryan could read my mind as he tapped into what was a deeply nostalgic eating experience.
For the mains, I went with a meat and fish. The sous-vide cod was first up. Perhaps the most beautifully presented dish of the evening, the sous-vide cod featured nori, ikura (salmon roe), bok choy, shitake mushroom, and a light shoyu broth. The fish involved a labor-intensive prep and cooking process. Filets of cod are wrapped in the deeply black seaweed, then arranged atop one another and wrapped in plastic wrap. The log of fish is then tightly torqued into an elongated circle and delicately cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath.
To order, the roulade of fish is sliced, revealing a moist white fish that is divided by veins of black seaweed. Because of the rolling and cooking process, it stands as one, comprehensive piece of protein rather than the 10 some-odd pieces of fish that it started as. The cod was well-flavored, with a texture that flaked off with a simple press of the fork. Underneath it, the clear, brown broth combined to make what was an incredibly fragrant dish. With plenty of soft components, the crunch of the barely cooked bok choy was much needed for textural contrast.
The final entree was a poached chicken. Poaching chicken is a high-risk, high-reward type of deal. Done right, the chicken retains moisture and flavor, but if done poorly, you risk bland chicken that is overcooked with flaccid skin. At least with an overcooked roast chicken, you still get crispy skin, right? Therefore, poaching a chicken requires finesse and attention. It is seen best in Hainanese chicken—a Southern Chinese preparation of lightly poached chicken with rice and plenty of accompaniments, usually including crisp cucumbers and chili oil. Common Lot’s version of poached chicken brought sweet corn, coconut, yuzu and oyster mushrooms to the table. My server explained to me that they poach the chicken breast the day before and then rest it in the poaching liquid. This is a method that can be used for a variety of proteins and vegetables to preserve flavor and texture.
Even when poached, cooked proteins release moisture, but as they rest, the capacity to hold liquid increases. So, resting in its own cooking liquid allows the chicken to reclaim lost moisture and retain its flavor. The meat was incredibly moist and complemented greatly by the earthy mushrooms and sweet corn. I love chicken and order it a lot, but rarely ever poached. For the reasons mentioned before, the risks of poached chicken usually outweigh the reward for me personally. Chef Ryan, again, broke me out of my eating norms.
By now, I was beyond full, but I never skip dessert, and Common Lot was not going to be where I started. I reveled in a Tiramisu-inspired dessert playfully donned “Not Tiramisu,” as well as a coconut sticky rice with mango. The former brought a circular coffee cake topped with a dome of deep, chocolate mousse. The entire concoction was covered in a blanket of mascarpone and a dusting of cocoa powder. It was rich, with bitter and sweet flavors marrying in a way that made it difficult to put the spoon down. It teetered the line of something nostalgic and something totally different, being both reminiscent and unlike a classic tiramisu.
The sticky rice with mango was truly unreal. The rice itself was cooked with coconut milk, lending a sweet flavor and porridge-like texture. It tasted almost like a Kozy Shack rice pudding, which is a compliment. Atop it was syrupy mango and lychee with a cloy coconut caramel and a showering of toasted coconut flakes for good measure. The Southeast Asian-inspired dessert was a standout and served as the perfect end to what was a truly special dining experience.
In the seven years it has been open, Common Lot has wowed both Millburn locals and outsiders alike. In that time, the restaurant has seen hundreds of different menus and concepts, which have all stayed true to the core of Chef Ehren Ryan’s cooking—excellent produce, excellent proteins, and excellent preparation.
The open kitchen atmosphere and non-pompous vibe make Common Lot a place that is welcoming to all walks of the dining universe. If you are someone who has yet to dip your toes into the world of upscale dining but are weary to do so, Common Lot is a perfect place to start. In contrast, if you are someone well-versed in high-end cuisine, Common Lot challenges your knowledge of food and shows you new ways to enjoy ingredients and concepts.
Millburn’s Common Lot shines in ways that other NJ restaurants can only hope to. Technical prowess, an unrivaled ambiance, the finest ingredients and a truly skilled staff add up to create what is undoubtedly one of New Jersey’s best restaurants.
Photos by Peter Candia
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.