IN ONE OF MIDDLESEX COUNTY’S TOP FINE DINING DESTINATIONS, A SEASONED MIXOLOGIST REVELS IN FUN AND PUTTING NEW SPINS ON TREASURED STAPLES

BY GILDA ROGERS PHOTOS BY TOM ZAPCIC

Tucked within the heart of New Brunswick’s vibrant downtown arts and cultural district sits an oasis of elegance and fine dining, embellished by soft lighting, an intimate romantic environment, and a large replace.

The grandeur of the chic, spacious bar area beckons visitors to settle in, peruse the libation menu, and meet affable lead mixologist Lee Ellis, 37, who has been working his way up in the industry since he was a teenager. After getting his start bussing and waiting tables, Ellis ascended to bartending six years ago. He soon realized he aspired to elevate his game. Enter Steakhouse 85.

“As I matured, I realized I needed to make a move,” said Ellis. “I needed something else.” e romantic, upscale ambiance that attracts loyal patrons to Steakhouse 85 was precisely the advancement he sought. “There’s structure here,” he continued. “It’s family owned, which makes for a great relationship. I want people to have an experience, and for me to be more than just an order taker.”

In the eight years Ellis has crafted martinis behind the bar of Steakhouse 85, he’s watched industry trends rise and fall like waves, but certain elements remain constant. Cocktail ingredients, presentation, and taste are paramount, he said, adding he enjoys the aspect of interacting with guests.

“A drink should taste good, but I am a people person,” he observed. “I make an impression on people, and I remember their names and drink preferences.” Equally impressive are Steakhouse 85’s specialty drinks and expansive wine selection. A particular featured favorite is the Jacques, named for the famous French chef, and made with a robust blend of Woodford Reserve, Grand Marnier, B&B, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters. For each drink purchased, Woodford Reserve donates $1 to the Jacqués Pépin Foundation, which combats homelessness, helps the formerly incarcerated learn culinary skills, and supports community kitchens.

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“The drink became so popular we kept it on the menu,” noted the mixologist. e restaurant enjoys the support of its corporate and educational neighbors in the diverse community, (population 56,000), including Rutgers University, Johnson & Johnson, and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center, among others. Ellis said on weekdays “brown liquor” drinks are top choices to accompany menu items that range from steaks and chops to seafood, salads, burgers, and a fresh raw bar. A seasonal summer favorite is the White Negroni, made with Negroni Blanc and Lillet aperitif.

“We’re a classic steakhouse that serves patrons from ages 21 to 80,” said Ellis. “We put a twist on the classics.” For example, he cited a refreshing pineapple-infused Cosmopolitan’s wide appeal, particularly popular with younger patrons on weekends.

In addition to reading, watching movies, and playing video games, the mixologist spends his o hours with his wife of three years, Alida, a bartender at a different establishment whom he met at a party, and their two rescue dogs, Roxy and Gus

“We have fun together,” said Ellis. For his wife’s recent birthday, he sent her a singing telegram delivered by a woman dressed as Ariel from Disney’s Little Mermaid, singing Journey’s “Send Her My Love,” her favorite song.

“She’s Columbian and a good cook,” added Ellis. “She makes a lot of Columbian comfort food, but she also has a broad range, like adding Moroccan pineapple and butter under the skin of our Thanksgiving turkey, which adds depth to the gravy.” Ellis noted that as for the scratch-made Swedish meatballs, that’s his domain. Ultimately, the couple aspires to own their own restaurant.

Steakhouse 85
85 Church Street / New Brunswick / 732.247.8585 / steakhouse85.com