German in NJ

For 16 days from late September to early October, Americans have an excuse to walk around outdoor festivals with king-sized mugs of beer in hand without being labeled as party animals – it’s all in the name of Oktoberfest. New Jerseyans love to become pseudo-German for an excuse to revel in gluttonous amounts of liquid hops and stuff their bellies at this mostly carnivorous carnival.

One of the largest of these Munich reproductions I’ve seen in New Jersey is at Crystal Springs in Sussex County, rife with whole pigs, Vernon Oktoberfest 004chickens and rabbits roasting on an open fire. There were a few German orchestras playing a mix of polkas and American standards and many people strolling comfortably wearing lederhosen and dierndls. For the non-meat eaters, there are slim pickings with brezel (large grilled pretzels), potato salad and potato pancakes. But there are fun traditional activities such as wood sawing competitions and dancing. Such festivities can be found all over New Jersey at: Schuetzen Park in North Bergen, Germania Park in Dover, Historic Smithville and Deutscher Club of Clark, as well as every restaurant that never served German food before.

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Where does one sit down for a traditional German dinner when all this partying ends? Northern New Jersey had some popular Bavarian restaurants such as Blue Swan Inn in Rochelle Park, then the Casa Hofbräu in Emerson, then Triangle Hofbräu in Pequannock, but I’m biased because of the common chef and owner of the latter (my father). Now, they’re harder to find. Currently there is Black Forest Inn, Stanhope; Schneider’s, Avon-by-the Sea; Helmer’s, Hoboken; Kirker’s, Hawthorne; among others. But the list is not overly long, and I personally wouldn’t go to most of these if I had a craving for wiener schnitzel or the like.

According to a 2000 data census, German is the largest ancestry in the U.S., heavily concentrated in the north/central states and east to PA, but there are still German communities in NJ, such as in Clark. So why so few restaurants? With some people turning away from heavy meats and the carb-elimination craze, it’s no wonder that the meat and potato loving culture does not project a flowery image for those not familiar with the cuisine. Maybe that’s why newer establishments such as Zeppelin Hall in Jersey City focus on the likeness of a beer hall with long shared tables to create an interactive, party atmosphere while eating less serious food like bratwurst and fish and chips and salads. Maybe they can help bring the attention back to German food by starting with the fun. The relocated Kocher’s (to Fort Lee) is a German deli and butcher. You can try one of their own wursts (sausages) and eat outside on a nice day. But it’s bare bones deli-style eating – nothing fancy.  If I need a quick, good Bavarian-style lunch without paper plates and also with the option of sitting outdoors, I can head to Rockland County, NY. Sour Kraut in Nyack has some good wurst platters with three types of mustards to apply accordingly: like sharper mustard to counter the milder weisswurst.Sour Kraut

New Jersey has a bit of catching up to do with some of the fine German eateries across the bridge. Heidelberg in New York City is a classic example of a dining establishment that has preserved the authentic dishes representative of Germany. (http://dishingondining.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/whats-the-wurst/) Zum Schneider is respectable foodwise, but they have the added benefit of an entertaing party band. You’ll be swaying back and forth, holding your mug high.

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Visit one of these restaurants or partake in an Oktoberfest celebration, share a schweinshaxe (roasted ham hock) or rollmops (herring) or just some spätzle (noodles), grab a mug of Weissbier and toast the person sitting next to you on the bench – “Prost!”

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Korean BBQ in New Jersey

Even though summer slowly slides into its home stretch, it is always the season for some kind of barbecued food in New Jersey. Most of us in the Northeast start to strap on the covers to our grills in the fall, but there are some hardcore grill masters who brave the winter cold and step on their snowy decks all for the love of that smoky-flavored meat.

In the cooler months, for those of you who prefer to stay warm while the food is being prepared, try a different kind of barbecue – one you may not have been exposed to yet: Korean barbecue or Gogigui. In this style, diners are seated at a table with a grill (either gas or charcoal) built into it.

A friend first told me about these restaurants 10 years ago and said she went to one on Broad Avenue in Palisades Park. I remember trying to find the place she described and seeing BBQ after BBQ sign on nearly every restaurant façade on that street, and all were written in Korean. It should’ve been no surprise since 19 of the top 101 cities in the U.S. with the most residents born in Korea are in New Jersey: the top one being Palisades Park with 30.4%. I wound up at the “wrong” one but found it to be good anyhow. So I was encouraged by a number of Korean acquaintances to go to one of the better ones – So Moon Nan Jip – which I now guide people to by saying “the one with the red awning.”

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It can be a little discouraging to a non-Korean at first, as you wait for your table and almost everyone around you is speaking Korean. You know you’re thinking, “If Koreans are eating the Korean food, it must good.” I watched the busboys using large metal forceps to carry burning-hot metal trays filled with fiery wooden charcoal that create stray sparks. I cringed every time I saw them being placed in the table, hoping nobody would get burned or nothing would be dropped. This burning wood flavor, however, is what separates So Moon from some of the other places that use gas grills.

For the novices, open the menu to the “BBQ” page and select your meat of choice (Sol Moon also offers shrimp barbecue). The rest will just keep coming to the table. The waitresses generally know the basics of English and immediately guide you on how to eat: You are given heavier metal chopsticks, not the disposable wood ones; a basket of lettuce leaves are brought out and a number of small dishes, called banchan – kimchi, pickled radish, bean sprouts, spinach, potato salad, cucumber and more. I’ve learned anything with red color in it is hot, hot! But my favorite starter is the bowl of bubbling egg that is brought to the table. It resembles a scrambled egg soufflé and is eaten with a spoon. Get ready for some finger cramping if you’re used to eating with light wooden chop sticks!image

When the hot coals are dropped into the table, your meat selection is brought uncooked and cut into small pieces. I found it amusing to watch them cut food with scissors. It was also either funny or embarrassing to have the waitress turn our meat over for us, basically doing the cooking, while all the other tables of Korean diners were cooking the meat themselves. Every time I reached for the tongs, someone would come running to “rescue” me. The most popular dish to order for barbecue is Kalbi, which is marinated beef short ribs. Once cooked, put a few pieces in the lettuce leaf, throw some rice and grilled onions and spiced greens in there, wrap it like a burrito, pick it up and bite into it. I understand that in Korean culture, it is impolite to bite your food in pieces, so I was a bit taken aback watching some people shove their entire lettuce package in their mouths at once!

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In New Jersey, we are fortunate to be able to experience the foods of many cultures. So find a Korean bbq restaurant, especially in one of the highly populated areas listed above, and enjoy it in the winter particularly – it gets quite warm at the table.

*Photos by Joia Pisani

The Matriarch of Italian Food

“Lidia, oh Lidia; say have you met Lidia?” No, not the tattooed lady – I’m speaking of Lidia Bastianich. My answer is yes. Have I dined in her premier restaurant until now? My answer is no. After eating in nearly all of Mario Batali’s New York establishments, why would I delay dining at the matriarch of the B&B empire’s signature place?

My husband and I initially met Lidia in person when eating at B&B’s (Batali & Bastianich) Del Posto, the only four-star Italian restaurant in New York. She visited the tables as a gracious host asking if all was well. And of course it was. We glared at her in the center of the room as she hand-whipped and hand-delivered my husband’s zabaglione dessert. However, it was not until my birthday last week that we finally decided to respect the mother of this golden Hospitality Group and venture to Felidia for dinner.

IMG_6776 It was a Sunday 6:30 reservation, and the bar – the only thing you see when you enter – was empty. I looked to the right, and the silence was the product of a nearly empty dining room. Since I follow Lidia on Facebook, I already knew she was basking in the culinary delights of Croatia and Southern Italy the same time we decided to visit her home in NYC. Did everyone know that she wouldn’t be there? Is that why there were only four out of 15 tables occupied?

After a delightful conversation with John the bartender, who voluntarily recommended some of his favorite dishes, we tiptoed quietly to our table. The decor was simplistic and the furniture felt a bit dated, as if it hadn’t changed since opening in the 80s, but we were here for the food. The menu distracted us from the blah-red chairs. Four tasting menu options made the selections more difficult, so instead we just ordered a la carte.Felidia 003 The basket of mixed crispy-crust European-style breads was the first sign of quality. A spread of bean paste, olive oil and herbs was more updated than an 80s offering of just butter. After two pieces, I needed to push the basket out of reach so as not to fill up before my appetizer. I would have been easy to accomplish. The first plate to land, the Tutta Crudo, helped to ignore the bread. This first suggestion looked like a Jackson Pollack on a plate made of shaved raw tuna, salmon, branzino, vegetables, puffed rice and shaved horseradish to top it off. The bartender did mention that Executive Chef Fortunato Nicotra was also a painter, and it showed. Yet it wasn’t exorbitantly decorated (although I must mention that the pricing seemed a bit exorbitant for the not-4-star Italian restaurant). John stated that everything on Chef’s plates are meant to be there for texture, taste profile, color. It’s very purposeful, and with every forkful that I stole from my husband’s plate, it served me a great purpose while I simultaneously enjoyed a pasta special filled with rabbit meat, topped with carrot and rabbit jus and butter. Felidia 004   Felidia 009Not too long after came the grand dame platter of simplicity and flavor: the Gigliata de Pesce – grilled scallops, lobster, calamari, shrimp, octopus, razor clams ‘alla piastra’, string beans, green onion, sea beans. Felidia 008 Even though I knew I would not finish it, happiness abounded knowing I would have more for a second meal the following day. While alternating cutting small pieces from each different piece of seafood, I missed the description of the black sea bass special as the waiter poured a green herb sauce into that bowl. Felidia 006 We waited a bit before sharing a single dessert: the palacinke, which is like a caramelized crepe with poached peaches, local sheep milk yogurt, peach salad. Although Lidia was not present to greet us again, we experienced the essence of her style and felt like we raided the fridge in her home and had her personal chef cook for us.

Screaming for It

It’s summer, and I’m screaming! Where is the homemade ice cream?! For a quick fix, New Jersey has Baskin Robbins, which brings memories of my teenage years of scooping hard ice cream with my skinny arms, blending milk shakes, and constructing ice cream cakes by cutting the tubs of ice cream by pulling a metal wire that looked like a serial killer’s weapon. But back to happy, sweet, cooling treats: Unlike Manhattanites (until very recently when they opened their first), New Jerseyans have also had the option of soft ice cream and the indulgent concoction called a Blizzard from Dairy Queen.

photoWhen the warm weather hits, we foodies even get a little snobby about our ice cream. As with most delivered in mass quantities, quality suffers. With Baskin Robbins, some of those 31 flavors sit for a long time and harden, and the colors resemble a tie-dye shirt. I apologize to the lactose-intolerant, but I want my ice cream to have real cream in it and real nuts. Hold the preservatives please.

Because our East Coast state has limited ice cream-consumption weather, many of the stores that make their own are only open during this “season”. But, yes, some people still crave it in the winter regardless of temperature. So if you don’t have a homemade ice cream parlor near you, and you need to take your child’s softball team out after a game, by all means stop at your local DQ.

However, when it’s just you and your date, and you want to take the time to really enjoy your cone, visit one of these long-standing through-backs:

Denville Dairy has been around for about 32 years. While they offer soft-serve, diet, low-fat and sugar-free, the regular hard ice cream is most popular…and 32 flavors (they just had to top that other place that claims to have 31).

Applegate Farm has three locations –  Hoboken, Nutley and Upper Montclair. This farm has been producing fresh dairy products for Northern NJ families since the mid-1800s. It has become one of the largest retail outlets for ice cream on the East Coast, according to its website. They must be doing something right.

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One of my favorites is Bischoff’s in Teaneck. This confectionary staple just marked its 80th anniversary. It has the appearance of an ice cream parlor from the 50s with all the old-style candies to purchase, as well as counter stools. You can choose to sit with your friends in booth for more privacy. On a recent visit, my first of this year, I had to be sure and ask: “Do you still make your own?”

photo 3“Yes, we make all our ice cream in the basement.” It sounds so covert, but whatever the secret is, I just need to taste those ingredients, not know the quantities.

Van Dyk’s in Ridgewood is a close second, but it’s a bit hidden for those who do not venture to this neighborhood. There is no seating indoors, but most people sit down outside on the stone wall, if it’s not covered with melted drippings.

The Jersey Shore is rife with these gems, so find one, be a kid again, but this time taste the difference between home-made and mass-produced. You certainly will.

The Art of Italian Pastries

We all think of desserts in a different light. Some dream of deep-fried oreos, some envision a fondant-covered cake from Carlo’s Bakery. Me – I was brought up on good old-fashioned European-style Sunday desserts. We didn’t need colored sugar or a sweet toothache to get high off the delight of these desserts.

One could almost argue that they are the healthier version of desserts, usually laden with fruits. My mother’s signature is her pies/tarts: apple, pear, pecan, peach (see link above for more). Let’s just admit that Europeans are the rulers of desserts, and it could be quite a debate whether Italy or France would reign. When searching for special pastries that are American, we fall short in that we gear bakery items toIMG_6446ward children. When I close my eyes to get the connotation of “American bakery”, I come up with lots of unnatural colors, loads of sweetness, and icing – tons of icing – as in the no-textured messy dessert of cupcakes. Okay, so my connotation was extreme, but I think you will agree with my portrait of contrasts.

After taking my mother to an early Mother’s Day dinner at Bouley, I decided to take her the following week for a late afternoon dessert and coffee, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in New Jersey. Where do you take a woman from Europe who knows how to make some of the best classics and appreciates such high-end delicacies? I must ask another European who happens to own a restaurant, who happens to have worked at an upscale Italian restaurant, who happens to be Albanian (close enough). “Name two of the best places to sit down and have Italian pastries and coffee.” His response: “Roccos’ or Venerio’s.” So I drove her to Pasticceria Rocco on Bleeker.

We were seated in the back, which has an outdoor patio feel but is covered with a glass ceiling. Don’t look up because you will see dirt and leaves and sides of buildings. Just enjoy the natural light that peers upon you. Before our server came, we studied the cases up front to carefully make our selections. She couldn’t decide between the small lemon meringue pie and the multi-fruit and custard-filled puff pastry. Naturally, the only solution was to order both with a double espresso.IMG_6442 IMG_6443

Cheesecake is not usually my first choice, but the pistachio cheesecake whispered to me through the glass with its abundant chopped pistachio pieces. I watched my mother transform into a young child back at home, slowly consuming and savoring every bite as a rare treat. Time stood still for a little while as I glimpsed into the past.

 

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And Rocco’s passed her coffee test. Not only was the double espresso served in a small coffee cup, but the potency measured up to her standards. It is difficult to walk by all these desserts without taking some home “for Dad”. It was a good excuse to get another little taste the next day.

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Hot Dining without the Heat

My favorite “Iron Chef” thus far has been Mario Batali, but I am exploring the restaurants of his competitors and successors. Forgione (Marc) came first, and now I have finally tackled his fellow redhead; and being one too, I almost feel obligated to support the red-head chef club. But I must admit, I have avoided dining in a Bobby Flay establishment because heat emanates from his fiery red follicles and translates to his dishes.

Growing up with parents from Germany and Switzerland, my digestive tract never had the opportunity to be acclimated to spicy foods. Therefore, the association with Flay to chile, habanaro and any other peppers of that sort are directlIMG_6513y linked to discomfort rather than enjoyment. Tearing eyes, flushed skin and a burning hole in my gut are not the memories I’d like to conjure up from a dining experience.

Then, Bobby opens Gato recently – Mediterranean focused, and this opened the door for me. I immediately made a reservation three weeks out. This would be his opportunity to prove to me that not every Flay dish is laden with fiery spice. The design was a bit similar to Forgione, with the brick walls and exposed black pipes. There is bench seating along a wall of windows that frame the kitchen. Once I saw Bobby working, I chose the chair facing him and asked my husband to take the bench with his back to the kitchen. It’s hard not to become a little chef star-struck, but I gain a deeper appreciation seeing him actually cooking instead of hiding behind fancy camera work.

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We truly did want to order almost everything on the menu, but narrowed it down to the following:

SCRAMBLED EGGS ALMOND ROMESCO, BOUCHERON CHEESE, TOMATO CONFIT TOAST – I had read from a reviewer that this is a must, and boy was he right. When I ordered it, my husband exclaimed “scrambled eggs!?”. The server and I both said, “It’s not what you think.” It was better than what anyone could think.

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ROASTED OCTOPUS LEMON, BACON, BASIL – The smokiness gave the outside a nice grilled crackle, but the octopus was oh so tender.

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Chef Flay stepped out of the kitchen several times (standing right next to our table) and surveyed the dining room. My husband complimented him on the scrambled egg appetizer after realizing his pre-conceived notion was way off. He said, “I’d love to get that recipe, haha.” Flay responded in a humble yet secretive way: “It’s just eggs.” No, no; it is like eggs that were pampered and mixed with a silk spoon. And yes, there was pepper with the romesco (nut and red pepper sauce), but it was a mild heat – one that creates a contrast yet balance.

The waitress talked us into trying a vegetable side, and this may have been my favorite flavor profile of the evening:

ASPARAGUS & FAVA BEANS YELLOW ROMESCO, PECORINO, PISTACHIOS

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STEAMED HALIBUT SICILIAN OLIVES, MINT, ANCHOVY, SAFFRON-TOMATO BROTH,
COUSCOUS

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ORATA PIQUILLO PESTO, ROASTED LEMON OLIVE OIL, PINK & BLACK PEPPERIMG_6518

 

We were quite full as dessert approached and were debating since we kept dipping the bread in the olive oil from Sicily with a bit of sea salt. What the heck – let’s get the full experience:

MEYER LEMON TART PISTACHIO WHIPPED CREAM

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TARTE TATIN SALTED CALVADOS CARAMEL, VANILLA-BLACK PEPPER GELATO

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Field of Food Festivals in NJ

There must have been one time that an adult reprimanded you for eating while walking or running around. We all know now that it was done in our best interest, so as not to choke on food and to simply develop proper eating habits by sitting at a table and acting civilized. But let’s admit, it’s not easy to remain seated with the grill fired up and a hamburger, watermelon or ear of corn in hand.

Now that spring is in full swing in New Jersey, there are a number of opportunities to combine food and the outdoors. Here are a few that I try not to miss, mostly because the food goes beyond zeppoles and hot dog carts.

While the Hoboken Arts & Music festival does not denote food, it is a major component. The combination of music and food awakens your auditory, olfactory and gustatory senses all at once. Now that’s a way to feel alive. Hoboken offers this in both the spring and fall, so if you’re reading this after May 4, 2014, you have another chance this year to attend. The music performances are some of the best FREE acts you can see in New Jersey, including a headliner of high merit. This year it is Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, but in years past, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Joan Jett, Peter Noone, Mickey Dolenz, Roger McGuinn, Flo & Eddie, and John Eddie. Yes, I’ve been to a few. But before settling into the music, it is a priority to grab some lunch from some of the finer vendors or restaurants with stands. It is probably the only time I ever eat a gyro. Two of the most popular vendors are closest to the end stage: the crab cakes and the brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches. For those who prefer traditional fair food, there are plenty of fried oreos, cheese steaks, and potato chips on a stick to give an elephant arterial discomfort.

My absolute favorite festival, however, comes along in June. It is the Annual Seafood Festival in Belmar. For all of you crazy crustacean lovers, this is a weekend-long celebration of breaking legs and peeling shells. Many of the tents offer the same types of platters that can include a whole lobster, shrimp, clams and corn on the cob for a set price. Walk around the field and scout them all before you jump at the first claw reaching out to you. The lines tend to be long, and seating is sparse. I prefer to take a few steps across the street and sit cross-legged on the boardwalk, facing the ocean while dipping everything in a little clarified butter and lemon and making a mess on my hands. There’s the added benefit of a beer and wine tent for those who want to wind down with a cold one, but looking at the Atlantic Ocean is generally calming enough.

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Now begins the season of great New Jersey festivals. If your focus is food, there are plenty of others such as: Shad Fest in Lambertville, Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Festival in Augusta, Highlands Clamfest in Highlands, NJ Chili & Salsa Cookoff in Toms River, plus many more. Now is your chance to be that rebellious child – grab some food and eat while walking!

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