At Summit House in Summit, NJ diners are treated to front-row views of an open kitchen—pots of stock bubbling away on French top stoves, meticulous cooks individually peeling tomatoes and the chef in charge at the helm of the kitchen, guiding the staff throughout service. This open environment—along with brilliant cocktails, exemplary menus and delightful hospitality—has been one of the restaurant’s greatest draws since opening its doors in 2017.
Summit House has always been a treat in that it has consistently provided guests with a top-notch dining experience, all within a non-pretentious, yet contemporarily upscale atmosphere. The restaurant’s continued success landed it a spot amongst New Jersey’s 25 best restaurants in 2022.
Earlier this year, acclaimed chef AJ Capella took the reins as Executive Chef at the Union County restaurant, establishing what would become a new era for the popular restaurant. Summit House has steadily remained near the top of New Jersey dining. However, with Capella in charge, the menu has catapulted into a new age, with bold techniques and statement dishes in abundance, without any unnecessary gimmicks or over-the-top options.
Capella is no stranger to success, even being given the 2017 Garden State Culinary Arts Foundation’s Rising Star Chef Award. Some of his other past endeavors include stints at Jockey Hollow, A Toute Herre, Liberty House and most recently, as Corporate Chef for Montclair Hospitality Group, contributing to menus at Ani Ramen and the lauded Pasta Ramen. So, when I heard the news of Capella’s new role at Summit House, I felt obligated to make a return.
Not much has changed aesthetically at Summit House since my last time there about a year ago—and this is an objectively good thing. You are still treated to the beautifully-stocked bar as soon as you enter the restaurant’s red double doors, along with the cocktail lounge which provides a slightly more “city-like” atmosphere than the restaurant’s main dining room—which is spacious and inviting with its appropriate white table cloths, green accents and dark oak floors.
Sitting down for my meal, I promptly ordered a cocktail. The Summit House cocktail list boasts unique in-house creations as well as established, classic cocktails. An encyclopedic wine list and local beer offerings are also available. As a fan of cocktail history, I decided to opt for a classic in the Chrysanthemum—A pre-Prohibition cocktail whose first recipe dates back to 1916 in Hugo R Ensslin’s “Recipes for Mixed Drinks.” A portal to the drinks of yesterday, the Chrysanthemum features dry vermouth as its base, along with Benedictine (A French herbal liqueur) and absinthe. The low-ABV cocktail is stirred and served up in a Nick and Nora glass with an expressed twist of orange.
This light cocktail hits the perfect balance between spirit-forward and easy-to-drink. Good vermouth is key to its success as it is a majority of the cocktail’s makeup, but real absinthe and not some cookie-cutter replacement is just as important (although the glass is merely spritzed with it, the powerful liqueur comes through heavily on the back end). Summit House’s version of the classic opted for Dolin dry vermouth and hit the nail on the head in terms of accurately creating a portal to the turn of the 20th Century when cocktail culture was still in its infancy.
Shortly after my cocktail, it came time for food. First up was the freshly baked epi baguette with a butter-tasting flight. From the outside looking in, it seemed potentially like a gimmick. I was a fool to think that. Capella serves three farm-fresh butters—each one uniquely flavored. In French, “epi” translates to the flour that tops wheat stalks, so the baguette is fittingly shaped like a wheat plant, with points of bread spurting out of the sides. Capella portions the baguette for ease. The bread itself is well-flavored with an open crumb and structured chew. The butters that accompany it include a fresh chive butter as well as a simple Himalayan salted butter, but the star of the show was the quenelle in the middle, which was a caramelized shallot and crispy chicken skin compound butter. This combination lent a flavor similar to what one might find in French onion soup. Additionally, a small pile of crispy chicken skin on top of the butter acted as the seasoning, packed with roast-poultry flavor and salt. A simple spread was all I needed. I was hooked.
A corn gazpacho, finished tableside, was placed before me. The shallow bowl was decorated with crab claw meat, popcorn, pickled corn, coconut cream and green-hued herb oil. The gazpacho itself was deeply flavored with local summer corn, which is at peak quality at this time of the year. Corn and crab together are a no-brainer for me in the summer and the combination of the two made for a true show-stopper of a starter and one that highlighted Capella’s ability to riff upon seasonal classics in the best of ways.
Keeping the summer theme rolling was a beautifully presented tomato salad. The dish features multi-colored tomatoes in several sizes and shapes, along with a crispy tuile of sourdough, whipped ricotta and basil caviar, which my server explained to me as basil seeds that Capella rehydrates in tomato water—a byproduct of salting tomatoes and allowing them to sit. I have never seen a tomato salad with as much attention to detail as Summit House’s own. Each component of the dish was carefully selected with a defined purpose that became vividly clear the second you dug in. A standout detail within the dish was the peeled cherry tomatoes, which were left whole. Normally, peeling tomatoes is done by scoring the skin and blanching them in hot water before a quick shock in an ice bath, allowing the skin to peel off with ease. However, not wanting to compromise the texture of the tomato’s flesh through blanching, the team hand-peels each tomato with a paring knife—a tedious task that probably goes unappreciated by most. For me, though, these minute details are what catapults a dish to excellence.
There was an add-on to the menu the night I dined: Black truffle mafaldine—a hand-made, ribbon-shaped pasta, sauced with black truffle butter and a healthy shaving of fresh truffle. The pasta arrived glistening in a truffle-infused butter. No synthetic oils in sight, this was the real deal. An oaky and nutty aroma permeated the dining room as the other guest’s heads turned as to say, “What is that intoxicating smell?” It became clear to the others what was about to go down when Chef Capella—gargantuan black truffle in hand—arrived at the table and shaved a generous amount of fresh truffle atop the pasta. Anointing what was already a gluttonous offering.
I don’t need to say much, but in a world of fresh truffle pastas, this one still stands out. Days later and I still can’t totally nail down what set this version apart from the others I’ve had in the past. While many spots opt for more basic pasta shapes such as tajarin or tagliatelle, I found that the ruffled edge of the mafaldine made for the perfect companion to the savory sauce. Incredibly rich and layered, three bites was enough before I had to stop myself in preparation for the next course.
Entrees promptly arrived, sporting a healthy bowl of spaghetti carbonara with house-made bacon and a barely-cooked yolk to top it off, along with a Snake River Farms American Wagyu zabuton—a beef cut from the chuck primal sometimes called a Denver steak. The carbonara was proper, which is what I crave most in Roman pastas. I am very much over chefs taking excess liberties when it comes to the classics. Maybe I’m biased, but some things are best left as is. The sauce was a perfect emulsion of rendered pork fat, egg, black pepper and Parmigiano Reggiano. Though I typically prefer Pecorino Romano in my carbonara, Parmigiano absolutely does the job. The one liberty Capella takes is resting a raw yolk on top of the nest of spaghetti, which gently cooks from the residual heat and can be broken and emulsified into the sauce at the table. Maybe I played it safe ordering something as seemingly standard as carbonara, but anybody who knows pasta will tell you the same thing: Carbonara is as complex as it gets, putting technical prowess on full display. Summit House hits this classic out of the park.
The steak that accompanied our pasta was equally as imposing. Blanketed in a nest of thyme, rosemary and bay leaf, the sliced cut of beef revealed a wall-to-wall reddish-pink interior and a well-seared exterior. The dish was incredibly aromatic, with scents of brown butter, herbs and beef fat wafting through the air. A small ramekin of bordelaise sauce was served on the side. This was just one cut of steak offered on the newly introduced butcher’s menu at Summit House, which features single portion steaks as well as large format steaks for two. Depending on the evening, American Wagyu and even A5 Kobe beef are on the list. This is a welcome addition to the menu, giving guests the opportunity to feast on hard-to-get cuts of beef, prepared with excellence. Capellas’s simple preparation is key, allowing the strength of the protein to own the limelight.
Sides are no joke either, boasting options like stout-braised mushrooms with black garlic, fried artichokes with bottarga (cured fish roe), and one of my absolute favorites: Pomme Aligot. The simple side dish is made up of potato purée that is emulsified with a healthy dosage of grated cheese. When done right, they appear as simple mashed potatoes on the surface, but reveal a gooey and stretchy interior when scooped with a spoon. They are savory, buttery and, of course, cheesy. In my opinion, a proper side should be able to be enjoyed entirely on its own. Not to sound crass, but this simple dish was one of the best bites of the entire evening.
For dessert, a tropical guava and pineapple sorbet—tangy, sweet and smooth in texture. Ice creams and sorbets at Summit House are made on-premise by the pastry team. The menu featured black fig sorbet, peach ice cream and buttermilk vanilla ice cream, among others.
Additionally, I reveled in a Basque cheesecake. This Iberian-style, crustless cheesecake is purposefully burnt, lending a dark exterior and creamy texture. The caramelized top mimics a bitter-sweet flavor akin to crème brûlée. To accompany the cake stood baked apples that are rehydrated in caramel—candy-like and addicting in nature—as well as a quenelle of tangy, whipped crème fraîche. Basque cheesecake is currently seeing a surge, appearing on menus all over, and I, for one, could not be happier. If we are lucky, this superior style of cheesecake will be a mainstay at Summit House and beyond for the foreseeable future.
Summit House has rarely disappointed since its opening in 2017. The renowned restaurant has continually put forth exceptional and accessible menus for guests to feast on. Along with a killer bar program, refined wine list, remarkable service and breathtaking atmosphere, it is no wonder why it is consistently booked and busy. However, doing something well does not mean improving upon it is out of the realm of possibility. AJ Capella brings a breath of fresh air to Summit House, cementing it as one of Jersey’s best. His seamless approach to contemporary cooking is the perfect fit for the Union County restaurant, which I find to be in the best place it’s ever been in. Summit House reaches new heights with Chef Capella at the lead.
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.