Old-Walled Spanish Restaurant

NY Eater’s eblast popped up in my email, and it opened up with pictures of paella, yummy paella: 10 Old Fashioned Spanish Restaurants to Try. The visual is the first entryway to tantalizing my tummy, and I became very hungry and passed judgment quickly by the photographs. Spain restaurant had by far the most attractive-looking photo of paella Valenciana. So allow me to be a bit shallow and judge first by appearance with my food because I try not to with people.

This shallow food gal headed to 13th street, based on dish appearance alone, to meet her digestive dinner date. For all I knew, this paella could be an imposter; it could be all looks and no taste. I approached the address, and the canopy over the sidewalk made it easy to spot. A took a step down, opened the white door and was faced with a bar that looked all of its years old (since 1967). There were a few tables, but we were led to the back dining room, which had stark white paint-cracked walls with crooked paintings and prints of Spain positioned haphazardly. I was getting a mélange of granny’s basement and an old museum or back of a church hall. But I still had hope for my radiant dish of mixed seafood to brighten the room.

We barely sat on bench seating with worn springs underneath, when servers delivered three small plates of food: mini Spain 004meatballs in a slightly spicy gravy, cold plump mussels topped with chopped onion, celery and red pepper; and sliced grilled chorizo. That was a warm welcome and helped to block out the blah room. When we were close to finished with our tasty samplings, a server came over and picked up the plate with the one chorizo piece and rambled in Spanish as if he believed he was communicating with us, all well gesturing for me to take the last piece. It brought humor to the table because I felt like I did not have the option of turning it down. As if you couldn’t tell yet, there’s nothing fancy or serious about this experience.

Then the paella arrived. It was the same silver pot I saw in the profile picture mounded with shellfish. The saffron-stained rice sat beneath the shells. Like an online dating site, the photo on NY Eater was dolled up, and live, there were no lobster claws but rather small pieces of tail that looked more like langoustine. All-in-all, the seafood was cooked properly, and the rice below was moist. It was a pleasant meal, and even more enjoyable at $23.95 with plenty of leftovers.

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Perhaps the article I read, listing this as on of the Top 5, should be titled “old” restaurants instead of old-fashioned. Skip the cappuccino. It was hot water with a hint of coffee flavor. I expect more from a Spanish restaurant when it comes to coffee. I won’t be shouting olé, but it was an enjoyable evening. Next stop: Newark, NJ’s Iron Bound section for some “traditional” Spanish and Portuguese cuisine.

The Colors of Jean-Georges

A name like Jean-Georges Vongerichten connotes an air of fanciness – maybe even a bit pretentious – and preciseness. He delivered all of that upon our first approach to the entrance with the name in gold letters mounted upon a marble wall. It wasn’t easy to decipher that the restaurant was inside the Trump International Hotel and Tower, and we looked quite silly walking around the building trying to figure out where to enter.

After being greeted at the front desk, where it was reminiscent of checking into a hotel (oh right, we were in a hotel), we were seated at the bar since we were early and not primed to dine yet. The Nougatine room was sleek modern and offered a view into the working kitchen. I swiveled in my cushioned stool, bobbing my head left and right searching for a star-struck glimpse of Chef Vongerichten. ‘Is that him?’ I thought. It could’ve been, but my uncertainty brought my attention back to the pretzel sticks and spiced nuts on the bar. Something about the hard, tiled floor left me hoping we weren’t going to be seated in this area for dinner. It wasn’t $128/per person kind of nice, even though the front wall is entirely window looking upon Central Park across the street.

With relief, we were led into the carpeted restaurant and seated side-by-side on a curved couch-style bench, but our backs were facing the only decoration – the outdoors. It lacked color with the linens, window dressings, and chairs being mostly all white and taupe. Again, it felt a bit like a gala in a hotel. It having been September, it was getting to be dusk early, and so our outdoor painting was removed when the curtains were drawn. Optimistically thinking, the lack of color may have been intentional so as to let the true star of the evening burst decor…the food! All presented on white plates, each dish was an exploding art palette.

The prix fixe menu gave us each a choice of three items plus a dessert theme. And here were our selections.

SEA SCALLOPS – Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion

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YELLOWFIN TUNA RIBBONS – Avocado, Spicy Radish and Ginger Marinade

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BUCKWHEAT CRACKLING GULF SHRIMP – and Silky Carrot Cocktail Sauce

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ROASTED HAKE – with Basil, Crushed Tomatoes and Olive Oil

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CRISPY CONFIT OF SUCKLING PIG – Baby Beets and Ginger Vinaigrette

This was the whooah dish of the evening for me.  I vividly recall the crispy pork confit of ABC Kitchen. It’s branded in my tastebud memory. This was a larger tasting of heavenly crispiness.

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BLACK SEA BASS CRUSTED WITH NUTS AND SEEDS – with Nuts and Seeds, Sweet and Sour Jus

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I chose the FIG theme, and the following four desserts were brought out on a platter:

Concord Grape Sorbet, Fig Soda, Sesame Nougat
Fig Financier, Raspberries, Ginger Syrup
Warm Brioche, Port Poached Fig, Pistachio and orange Flower Glaze
Spiced Fig Jam, Soft Chocolate, Almond Milk Sorbet

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He chose the SUMMER theme, which rewarded him with:

Sparkling Plum Soda, Riesling and Raspberries
Frozen Apricot Parfait, Candied Corn, Orange Sponge Cake, Currants
Stone Fruit Gelee, Almond Crunch Ice Cream, Honey Whole Wheat Cake
Warm Pain Perdu, Blueberry Jam and Lemon Thyme Roasted Peaches

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I’m not sure where to rank Jean-George among my Michelin-starred male culinary lovers, but if I were rich, I’d certainly give him another whirl soon. He made the top 5 with Eric, Daniel, David and Mario, but he might have to duke it out with Bobby for that slot soon.

Stickin’ to the Ribs

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Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I can admit that all I really felt like having that day was barbecued ribs. It’s not weekly, and not even monthly, but when I want ribs – I want good baby back ribs. In New Jersey, until a few years ago, the options were not abundant; however, the list of places to fulfill that sloppy bone-cleaning hunger is expanding. My only nearby choice in Bergen County used to be Cubby’s BBQ Restaurant in Hackensack. While there is nothing to be said about the surrounding area with the jail diagonally across the street (no need for concern), owner Bobby Egan beautifies his property from spring to fall with beds of flowers bursting with color. It can’t help but to catch your eye, even more so than the sign, contrasting heavily with the grey backdrop of River Street.

For nearly thirty years, this mainstay with the pig caricature sign adorning a bib labeled “killer baby back ribs” has been known for living up to that moniker. I, for one, prefer to eat rib meat with nothing but a fork and am able to do so here. It should separate from the bone without a knife, and there ought to be no scraps left behind, unlike the Chinese-style spare ribs that tend to have to be gnawed upon to get all the pork into your mouth. While Cubby’s doesn’t define its style of ribs – only as “home-style”, I think it leans towards Kansas City with a tomato-based sauce, a little on the sweet side and visible chopped garlic. The full or half rack is served intact leaving the diner with the fun part of separating each rib and watching them fall apart one by one until finished. The order comes with garlic bread and a choice of side (i.e. salad to ward off guilt, mashed potato and gravy, sweet potato, etc.).

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Along comes another location of the Brooklyn-born Mighty Quinn’s (although the cook always smoked the meat in Hunterdon County, NJ). Now Clifton has a barbecue option. Mighty Quinn’s rests its bbq laurels on slow-smoked wood-fired meats, using both Texas and Carolina methods. Both Cubby’s and Mighty Quinn’s are cafeteria style, but MQ has communal tables, whereas Cubby’s has individual tables. The combination of spice on the dry rub and the infusion of smoke provide a bit more flavoring to the meat as a standalone. Here, the meat you order is hacked up at the front counter before your eyes. The ribs are divided with a cleaver, almost forcing you to eat them with your hands, since they are already separated. The sauce, which is not even needed and may steal away the smoking and spicing efforts, is served in a bottle at the table for those who can’t eat meat without slathering something on it. MQ tries to be a little more progressive with its sides. Although it’s hard to fancy up this southern food, items like buttermilk broccoli salad, burnt end baked beans and sweet corn fritters are all worthy enhancements.

There are other establishments now to tickle your ribs, and some may even be contenders in this growing fight for New Jersey meat eaters. While the core region for barbecue in America is the Southeast, New Jersey is beginning to represent for those states fairly well. I’m calling my friends the Flinstones, and we’re going to have a yabba dabba doo time eating ribs.

Don’t Leave the East Coast if You Love Italian Food

You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone (enter the 80s Cinderella song in the background). This adage has recently come to light regarding New Jersey’s and the Metro Area’s quality of food and abundance of, particularly, what we call Italian food.

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In the past couple of months, we have had friends visit from out of state – Texas, Oklahoma, California, Florida. Some were first-timers; some were original New Jerseyans who were wooed across the border for one reason or another. For the friends who left this state to avoid wearing gloves and scarves, they blissfully sat with us at Bocconi in Hackensack awaiting their simple dishes of linguini and red clam sauce and zuppa di pesce. The smiles overtook the room. While I thought it was partially our company, the confession came: “You can’t get good red sauce in California! Boy, do I miss this.” Who knew the combination of Jersey tomatoes and Italian-American cooks had such an impact on a New Jersey native’s taste buds?

 

OTTO 005In another instance, we ventured to New York City for a last minute invite on Fourth of July to meet with friends visiting from Oklahoma. We suggested Lupa. I offered to order the prosciutto for everyone to share. The woman with us asked, “What is prosciutto?” I nearly giggled, but politely assumed that she just never tried it growing up. Her husband, who has been to the East Coast, said, “You don’t understand. We can’t get prosciutto in Oklahoma or Texas.” Not that I eat it often, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept of not having the ability to have it when the craving came on. He admitted mostly everything was barbecued foods. Oh those sadly deprived people. They quickly understood what they had (in NJ) and that it would be gone as soon as they left.

 

Blind Pig Logo 006Our plans for the Floridian, original Jerseyan, involved a walk through Harriman State Park, just over the North Jersey border, after we were barraged with complaints of the lack of properly cooked pizza in the sunshine state. The plan was to rescue his long-lost memory of crispy, thin-crust Jersey pizza by stopping for an early dinner at the ever-popular Kinchley’s in Ramsey.

A phone conversation with a business associate in Southern California ended with a joke’s punch line being Italian ices. There was silence. He said, “I don’t get it. What is that?” I explained, and the response was: “Oh, we have Hawaiian shaved ice.” I proudly said in disgust, “That’s not the same. Our ice is smooth and blended; yours is hard and crystallized with dye poured on top. Who wants to see that process?”

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228409_1023274422337_2524_nOn any given night if I want to go out for Italian food in Northern NJ, I can easily head to Good Fellas in Garfield, Luka’s in Bogota, Sergio’s Missione in Lodi, and of course, Bocconi in Hackensack. You may have 75-degree sunny weather you transplants, but just remember what it was like to be able to get a fresh Italian meal or a slice of non-grease-dripping pizza within a mile of your house any day you desire! And there’s further proof – when we were in Venice, Italy, we had lunch in a restaurant off the beaten path, and Sammy Hagar and his family were the only others eating there. After a brief conversation, Sammy said to us, “You guys have better Italian food in New Jersey than this place. It rocks!”

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. (https://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.

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