Back in March, a popular South Jersey restaurant shook up the dining scene when they completely revamped their operation. Hearthside, a wood-fired eatery located in Collingswood, NJ, announced that they would switch from their normal five-day operation, with a la carte offerings, to a four-day week of exclusively prix fixe menus, served family style.
Owners Chef Dominic Piperno and Lindsay Piperno revealed to me that the decision was made for a plethora of reasons, which can be read here.
A Cornerstone of New Jersey’s Dining Scene
Hearthside is a special restaurant—the BYOB even earned a spot amongst New Jersey’s best restaurants in 2022. I had the pleasure of eating there last year, but had yet to try the duo’s new concept—which aims to reduce food waste, provide a benevolent work environment and, of course, offer exceptional dining experiences.
Eagerly, I made the trek to the Camden County restaurant to try the revamped concept for myself. Was it the same great Hearthside, albeit donning a new, figurative outfit? Or, would the changes out-pace the simplicity of what made Hearthside so great in the first place? There was only one way to find out.
When you walk into Hearthside, which is positioned on the corner of a lively Haddon Avenue, the aroma of burning wood immediately infiltrates your senses. The fire illuminates the room, making it clear from early on that the star of the show burns bright.
The Journey Begins: Amuse Bouche
Shortly after sitting, the first bites of my meal arrived. An amuse bouche of sorts. Bite-sized cups of corn custard were placed before me, each one topped with a pile of pickled peppers and housed in a delicate pastry shell. It had an overwhelming flavor of fresh, summer corn—quite early in the season, might I add. The peppers provided a delicate heat, as well as a burst of acidity. This became crucial to the rest of the bite, as both the custard and pastry were understandably rich. Not only a perfect precursor to the meal to follow but also to summer produce—which will be here in full swing soon enough.
Course 2: Tuna Tartare
Then came a tuna tartare. I indulged in a hamachi ceviche the last time I was at Hearthside, which instantly became one of my top bites of 2022. The tuna tartare was no different. For a chef who centers much of his concept around a live fire, the guy sure knows how to serve raw fish. Cubes of tuna were dressed with a sweet, soy vinaigrette and served alongside pickled ramps, fried shallots, sesame, thinly sliced jalapeño and a healthy dosing of pungent micro cilantro.
Almost poke-like in nature, the tartare was incredibly balanced, making stops at each of the five main flavor sensations: Sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami. I was elated with this course to say the least, licking my plate clean of any sweet, soy glaze that might have missed my fork.
Course 3: Charred Octopus and Beans
The char-grilled octopus was next on the list. Our server explained that the octopus was cooked confit—a far cry from the traditional simmer in water with lemon and wine corks. Instead, it was slow-cooked in fat, presumably olive oil. Confit acts as a delicate cooking method that accentuates flavor and texture. Following the confit process, the tentacle is flash grilled to order, charring near all the odds and ends, with each suction cup rendering into a chip-like crisp. To go with the tender, sweetly-flavored cephalopod was a white bean purée and pepperoncini. Again, a liberal amount of microgreens and herbs, which, contrary to popular belief, are not just for aesthetics. In fact, I find micros to be incredibly pleasant when used correctly, and Piperno knows how to use them as a means to enhance a dish to completion. The white bean purée was velvety, almost textured like a hummus. Flavor-wise, it was the perfect compliment to the smoky and sweet octopus.
Course 4: Tagliatelle with Duck
Following the octopus, a bowl of handmade tagliatelle was placed in the center of the table. The accompaniment? Duck braised with lavender and long hots and convoluted pink peppercorn butter. This was, at its core, a simple pasta. However, past the initial facade of simplicity was layers upon layers of complexity. Rich duck, spice from the variety of pepper and perhaps most importantly, flavorful noodles with a proper chew. With a name like Piperno, I knew pasta wouldn’t disappoint, but I think what I truly underestimated was how impressive it could be. “This is the peak,” I thought to myself. Idiot.
Course 5: Crispy Skate With Agrodolce
As I reveled in the last of the pasta and the remaining morsels of tender duck meat, a golden-brown, crispy skate wing was placed dead center of the table. If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying skate fish, I cannot recommend it enough. It has undoubtedly become one of my favorite proteins over the years with its tender flake and sweet flavor. Of course, Hearthside’s version was no different.
Pan-fried skate was laid alongside a mound of eggplant agrodolce. Swirls of sun-dried tomato purée dressed the entire plate. The skate itself was incredibly crisp and held its crunch for the entire time it sat before me. On its own, the fish was seasoned quite liberally, even approaching “too salty,” but when combined with the sun-dried tomato purée and electrifying agrodolce, the flavors melded into what one might call a showstopper. The agrodolce was just that; sweet and sour, studded with cubes of cooked eggplant and plump golden raisins, which rehydrate into candy-like orbs in the condiment. Though a simple dish, the combination was expertly done and like many of the dishes served at Hearthside, the complexities can be found in the flavors rather than the makeup.
Course 6: Wood-Fired Pork Loin
The final savory portion of the meal was set to arrive: Wood-roasted pork loin with bacon jam and hearth-cooked asparagus. A dish that showcases the full story behind Hearthside’s name. By all accounts, this was a plate of food that represented Piperno’s concept beautifully. The pork loin was roasted whole and sliced to order, leaving you with a pink-hued interior and a mahogany-colored outer ring. The meat was juicy and seasoned throughout.
The bacon jam was sweet, salty and smoky, with tangible lardons of bacon dotted throughout. The asparagus alongside it was unapologetically barebones, showcasing the excellence of nearby produce this time of year. Again, a dish that becomes increasingly more convoluted the more you dive in—seems to be the Hearthside way.
Dessert: Earl Grey Cake
The savory portion of the experience came to halt, but the meal was not over yet. There were still two courses to go—one being a composed dessert and the other cocktail of sorts to close out the evening.
The dessert was a celebration of all things Earl Grey tea. A circle of Earl Grey cake was donned with tart apricots and Earl Grey semifreddo—a frozen mousse-like concoction, infused with floral tea flavor. On the side was a quenelle of kaffir lime and white chocolate ice cream. The entire plate was showered with shards of white meringue and kaffir zest. Earl Grey appears more than once on the plate, each way defined and practical, making for a dessert that made sense and satisfied my wrenching sweet tooth. Earl Grey has become a popular central ingredient in desserts and in a world filled with thousands of versions of it, Hearthside’s still stood out. The cake was moist and both the semifreddo and ice cream played off one another’s subtleties. Kaffir lime was the flavor that drove it all home.
Digestif: Key Lime Milk Punch
To conclude the meal was a beverage. A healthy shot of key lime pie milk punch is poured for each guest. The server explained that it was essentially a key-lime-flavored margarita—clarified, of course. Clarified milk punch is an intriguing style of cocktail. To make it, your drink is prepared in bulk before milk is added to it. The milk then curdles and is allowed to sit overnight. This sounds crazy—or even gimmicky—but I promise there is a purpose. As the curds settle, they clarify the drink, stripping most of the color and any opaqueness from the liquid. Once ready, the entire mixture is strained, usually through coffee filters. This is a tedious process but results in a crystal clear cocktail that is smooth around the edges.
Method aside, the key lime pie milk punch was nothing short of mindblowing. By all means, it tasted like a slice of key lime pie—tart, sweet, creamy and with a tinge of baking spice. All of these flavors and complexities stemmed from a liquid that appeared no different than water. It was a memorable bite (or sip) to close out a memorable meal. Just masterful.
Flourishing Through Change: Hearthside
When Hearthside announced changes to its overall concept late last year, many were eager to see if a new concept would crumble. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Of course, it didn’t crumble, it flourished. Truth be told, there was never a doubt in my mind that whatever Piperno conjured up would be anything other than breathtaking. That’s because Hearthside has nothing to do with the menu and how it’s structured. It has nothing to do with how many days a week they are open. But instead, Hearthside is a product of its environment, staff and products. The Hearthside team builds an experience from the inside out—starting with the hearth, then the staff and design, then the menu and so on. It doesn’t matter if it’s prix fixe or a-la-carte, five days or four, what matters is that it’s served to you at Hearthside—one of New Jersey’s finest restaurants both before and after the changes.
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.