A TASTE OF INNOVATION AT THE GALLERIA

tasteJanine Hillyer, left, and Ken Kruse, owners of The Melting Pot, are ready to titillate your taste buds with their new restaurant just next door, Taste. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

For years, Janine Hillyer would look over from her view at the Melting Pot, which she co-owns, and see a prime space she envisioned making her own.

She watched it change occupants a couple times — most recently, a restaurant, Savanna, and before that, a coffee shop called House of Coffee. Once Savanna moved out about a year ago, Hillyer and her business partner, Ken Kruse, pounced on the opportunity to make that space their own.

“We would constantly, longingly look over at this place and want to be here,” Hillyer said.

After a tedious year of designing a menu, reworking the interior and creating an inviting, lounge-type atmosphere, Hillyer and Kruse are ready to unveil their latest labor of love, Taste, with a grand opening from 6p to 9p tonight.

The midweek fiesta is merely making it official that there’s a new player on Red Bank’s dining scene, as the folks at Taste have been quietly letting people in to check out the innovative small-plate menu — as head chef, Hillyer cringes at the term ‘tapas’ — and its wide selection of beer and wine since the week before Thanksgiving. So far, Hillyer says there’s been an overwhelming response.

“We already have regulars coming to hang out and relax,” Kruse said.

The objective from the start was to create that relaxed atmosphere, he said, with the wine and beer drawing in the crowd and the food selection keeping them coming back. The 3,000 square-foot space has about as many couches as it does tables. There are four flat screen TVs at the bar, which features two of the most alluring beer taps that will instantly tempt you to double-dog dare your friends to recreate the infamous “A Christmas Story” flagpole scene. The chrome taps are covered in ice, not only assuring the beer is frosty cold but also making for an interesting conversation starter.

“That’s the first question everyone asks,” Kruse said. “No, you will not get your tongue stuck to the tap if you lick it.”

That’s just one example of Taste’s twist on simplicity. The other is the menu. Hillyer said she took some tried and true staples of dining and transformed them in a way that she thinks will open people’s eyes, like hot dog bruschetta and deviled tomatoes.

“We wanted to come up with things that we haven’t seen anywhere else that would be a big draw,” Hillyer said.

With a recent turnover in some of the occupants at The Galleria, Hillyer and Kruse said they’d like Taste help create a new sort of dining renaissance on Red Bank’s west side. The Melting Pot, they said, is still a popular destination restaurant and Taste, along with a new pizza restaurant and gelato shop set to open soon, can definitely set it off, they believe.

“We look at it as the more restaurants and businesses, the better for everybody. I think they’re going to feed off each other really well,” Hillyer said. “Instead of going to Broad Street, this side of town actually has a lot to offer.”