Why Two Jean-Georges Alums Opened a Restaurant 'in the Middle of Nowhere'

The founders spent years perfecting their craft and have set out to bring their own ideas to the table, in a less conventional setting.

The Circle
Photo: Tom Vanderbilt

When Brendan Ullman and Tyler O'Toole met in 2017 as young chefs at Jean-Georges, the two-Michelin-star namesake restaurant of Jean-George Vongerichten, they soon fell into a post-work ritual. After an intense shift that ended at 3 a.m., says Ullman, "we didn't have anywhere local to get drinks, because the bar across the street had closed down." The best they could do was a 24-hour drugstore that sold beer.

"We'd go to Duane Reade, get some Miller High Life and get drunk in the middle of Columbus Circle," says Ullman. "We'd say to other team members, 'Hey, do you guys want to go to the circle?'"

As they swigged their beers, the two would fantasize about what they'd cook someday in their own restaurant.

Then in 2020, Ullman, who grew up in rural Fredon, New Jersey, was alerted by his folks that a 1720s farmhouse with slanted floors on a country road in town was for sale. "I went to see it," says Ullman, "and then called Tyler and said, 'I have this [wild] idea. Just hear me out. What do you think about moving to the middle of nowhere in New Jersey and opening up a restaurant with me?'"

The Circle
Tom Vanderbilt

In honor of their late-night hangout, they named it The Circle. After a quiet opening last spring, the word is out that transportive, Jean-George-level dining is offered "literally between two cornfields," says Ullman, 27.

"It's kind of turned into a destination, almost," he adds.

Ullman is being modest: a stream of visitors with New York and Connecticut plates is now filtering in, enticed by The Circle's boldly inventive six-course chef's tasting menu, which changes weekly.

Everything is made in house — from pastas to the kimchee that they serve with duck — reflecting the duo's engrossingly exacting technique (Ullman also gigged at high-end Manhattan restaurants such as Lincoln Ristorante and A Voce, while O'Toole, 29, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, cooked under April Bloomfield at the Breslin).

The tasting menu may start with Cape May Salt oysters crowned with strawberry granita, bracing pickled green strawberry, and wild elderflower plucked from the nearby garden the pair planted, or fluke crudo with buttermilk nasturtium vinaigrette, Asian pear, shiso, and green peppercorns. On the day I visited, it ended with a "reverse" Birch beer float made with O'Toole's homemade vanilla cream soda cream, along with soda flavored with birch root sourced from local forager Sarah Berman, dusted with a brown sugar crumb, and topped with American wintergreen. ("Don't eat the wintergreen," implores O'Toole, hurrying over, "just chew it to get that blast.")

It's an homage to childhood, whose grandfather owned a hot dog cart. "When I helped him out, I was paid in root beer floats," says O'Toole.

The two are taking local to the next level. One pasta dish contains stinging nettle grown by Ullman's fiance's mother, the delicate curly pea tendrils supplied by a guy named Georgie who lives nearby and grows microgreens in his basement.

The Circle
Tom Vanderbilt

The two are still adjusting to rural life after the anonymity of the city. During my visit, several people knock on the restaurant's door, just to say hello.

"People are taken aback by how young we are," says Ullman.

"Sometimes they'll stop one of us and ask if they can meet the chefs," adds O'Toole.

While many of the duo's New York City colleagues have made pilgrimages to The Circle, one has yet to make the trip. "We're still waiting," says Ullman shyly, "for Jean-George."

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