Is my cozy Italian replaceable?

It happens, unfortunately, that the guy or girl you’ve been seeing almost every weekend for nearly six years just up and leaves one day without warning. The explanation is not satisfying nor does it help to replace the void you feel come Friday night. It did happen – Bocconi, who was hospitable, visually appealing and provided high quality food at most affordable prices, slammed its doors in my face unexpectedly. I did get a phone call after the fact, but it hurt. Where would I get those qualities again without traveling too far to meet up?

I admit; I wasn’t 100 percent loyal, but we all need a little variety from time to time. I always returned to my Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ, though. It was home in a sense – our Cheers. My friends would often visit us as well. Something about his landlord forcing him out with high prices touched my compassionate side for a day, until Friday came again. My selfish side scrambled to find a quick replacement to satisfy my social hunger needs. Hey, don’t judge: After all, he left me! How long does one have to wait before replacing the one who left you high and dry? And what about all the mutual acquaintances we developed because of our relationship?

It was only a couple months prior I had met La Cambusa in Garfield, NJ. “Very nice, very affordable,” I thought, “but where’s the Stracciatella Soup? What do you mean you’re not a byob? How come you’re not coming over to me and making friendly conversation? You’re nice, but I don’t feel like you appreciate me yet. I like the food you’re putting in front of me and you’re a little more polished looking than the last one.” So I gave him a second chance out of desperation. La Cambusa is a contender.

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook


Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

The Burrata appetizer ($9) with grilled zucchini and roasted peppers on mixed greens was comparable to Bocconi’s. Can you really go wrong with the natural creaminess of burrata? It’s about the presentation. His homemade pasta was the proper texture: a chewy al dente. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it reminded me of Play-Doh. Anyone who knows homemade pasta can relate to this as being properly cooked. The Fieno – straw & hay – ($17) with crabmeat, shrimp and peas in a pink cream sauce was actually not heavy and was dispersed with fresh seafood (yes, real lumps of crabmeat). It was one of the waiter’s recommended dishes after I asked for suggestions, along with an imported pasta dish of Pennoni with shrimp, clams and monkfish in a marechiaro sauce. Maybe I’ll dive into that on our next date. The specials were introduced to me, and while they were tempting, I really wanted to get to know the core of La Cambusa, since it was only our second date.

La Cambusa really deserves a chance. He doesn’t know my expectations from having been with Bocconi all these years, but certain things he just won’t be able to live up to (like the stracciatella soup). His dishes will obviously never be exactly the same. So in my mourning for the loss of my comfort-culinary companion, I am seeking a rebound place, not out of spite, just out of sheer need. If you decide you are able to come back, Bocconi, I will welcome you with open arms and return to you as well.

You’re a Shining Star, Batard

Every year, for the past five years, I select a Michelin two- or three-star NYC restaurant for my husband and me to celebrate our anniversary. It’s always a surprise to him, and I come off looking magnanimous and benefitting just the same. Having just returned from a California vacation, we needed to trim the expense this time, so I sought out a fine-dining establishment where we could experience high-quality, impressive dishes for maybe half of the cost.

Was this achievable? I was going to find out after securing a reservation at Batard in Tribeca. I had hope in that the restaurant received one Michelin star within its first year of business (opened May 2014). Additionally, Co-owner/Restaurateur Drew Nieporent has quite the resume in his Myriad Restaurant Group, including all the Nobus and Tribeca Grill. Chef and Partner Markus Glocker, of Austria, was most recently in the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay, which earned two Michelin stars during his time there. After doing my homework, I had comfortable expectations of the level of food we were going to consume. It was a different expectation than when we went to Jean Georges and Le Bernardin for example. With three stars, you walk in with one shining on you as the diner, who demands to get the best treatment, one on the server and one on the chef.

The menu at Batard posed some real first-world problems. We had to put a game plan in motion. First, there was the pre-fixe choices of two- ($55), three- ($69) or four-courses ($79)…now you see I’ve accomplished the price-cut challenge. We agreed to both do three courses, but now we had to decide which course..yes, you have a choice! After some algebraic equations, we figured the best combination would be if I ordered an appetizer, first course and entree and he ordered an appetizer and dessert. With this solution, we could share the first course and the dessert. After about 15 minutes – now you see why – we could rest our minds as two different warm, mini rolls were placed on our plates.image

I was torn between the pork belly and quail for an appetizer. When our waitress (is that a sign of a non-3 star?) answered, “No the pork is not crispy,” I was about to say “quail” until she said it was served cold. The pork belly was delectable! I would not have even known what I was eating. It was sliced like a paper-thin prosciutto with the center having a pressed cornbread and bits of blood sausage, happily draped over baby lentils. His OCTOPUS “PASTRAMI” had the appearance of head cheese without the gelatin. It was accompanied by bits of braised ham hock, pommery mustard and new potatoes.image

imageOur shared first course (are you keeping up with the plan?) was the scallops with leak confit, crispy potato strings, in a puddle of red wine sauce. During my first bite I felt both elated and guilty. I have always said my friend Rob Russo made the most tender and delicious scallops at the former Red Hen Bistro in NJ, but in that split second I felt bad to think these could even be a hair better. I absolved myself by believing it was imagejust because this was the more recent one. The “shared” course became 80% me, 20% him.

At a nice pace, and after a little time to process what we had, our entrees came. I was already completely convinced that this food was worth at least two Michelin stars in my book.

BRANDT BEEF SHORT RIB with grilled wagyu beef tongue, lovage polenta, pickled root vegetables. I had tongue only once before and in a Korean bbq style. I was a little nervous about rekindling that feeling of French-kissing a cow, but no; this tasted like a thin grilled steak. The short ribs barely required a knife.image

IMG_2059BRANZINO with roasted cauliflower, buerre noisette, and cannellini beans.

The fourth course rolled in with our shared dessert: DUCK EGG CRÈME BRÛLÉE spiced pineapple, verjus, yogurt sorbet. I’mIMG_2060 an extremely tough critic of desserts. It was good but not exquisite like every other dish. It wouldn’t have been my choice for dessert. I thank Batard for making a decent cup of coffee though…Your one star shines as bright as two!

Elvis Presley Movies… movies to dye for!

Elvis Presley Movies… movies to dye for!.

Fresh from the Farm

When your mother guides you toward healthy eating habits through your growing years, it’s only proper to take her to a fine dining establishment that promotes fresh, local foods. Even though I broke my own principle of not dining out exactly on Mother’s Day, I made the reservation at Blue Hill in New York City’s West Village because the four-course prix fixe menu is standard there, holiday or not. Ingredients come from nearby farms, including the Barbers’ family-owned Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts. While the already over-used term “farm-to-table dining” makes many eyes roll at the pretentious tone, it still evokes a health-conscious-good feeling in advance of the meal.

A short walk across Washington Square Park, and three steps downward off the sidewalk, we entered a private hideaway that could easily have been missed. The dining room was ordinary with some brick wall and didn’t have an embracing décor. With two items to select from for each of the four courses, the best idea was to order opposite dishes so we could essentially MothersDay15 003try the whole menu. The food that was presented before our first course was simplistic yet exciting – farm cheese that still looked like curd in cloth, butter rolled in toasted grains, and crusty bread (I wish I had written down the description of) preceded the complimentary whole carrots with edible tops and radishes with boursin dip. They were served on slate and appeared to have been plucked from the ground that day – to which my mother proclaimed, “I hope they washed them.”MothersDay15 002

The first course consisted of my Rotation Risotto: twelve local grains, legumes and seeds, and her Roasted Asparagus with beet yogurt and stinging nettles. When I asked the waiter about the risotto, he explained it was the rotation of crops used to consistently feed the farm animals throughout the year. The chef played with that concept to turn them into a creamy risotto. My mother then whispered something about us being guinea pigs.

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MothersDay15 007The second course delivered my Maine Halibut with currants, pine nuts, apple, fennel and chickweed, along with her Farm Egg, fiddleheads, morels and ramps. Are you feeling the flood of vitamins yet?MothersDay15 006

The main course for me was Roast Chicken, curried carrots and fighter spinach. Don’t sigh at the boring thought of chicken. This bird did not taste like Perdue. It was something far more flavorful. Even more scrumptious was her Grass Fed Lamb with eight row flint corn, Jerusalem artichokes and pea shoots.

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We finished with poached Rhubarb, goat cheese, quinoa and blue hill milk sorbet plus a plate of Chocolate Bread Pudding, blue hill milk jam and cocoa nibs ice cream. We joked that the coffee would be disappointing after that wonderful meal. They should grow coffee beans because this coffee was watery and contradicted all that we consumed.

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SUSHI: A Tall Tail in New Jersey

Sushi came to America in the mid-60s, first hitting that large state on the opposing coast. It wasn’t until the early 70s that this type of food began its popularity growth in our country; however, it was finding its appeal mostly among upper class citizens. It was a novelty among food connoisseurs. Besides, who dared to eat raw fish? Was it safe?

Today, in New Jersey, there is at least one restaurant serving sushi in most suburban towns. But in Ridgewood alone, I count 10 sushi restaurants. That’s a 5.8-square-mile town. So the cuisine still must be a favorite among the higher economic class. We middle-class people love it too, and it’s evidenced by the abundance of locations. You can find one in the mall, in the local business district, and a number of supermarkets, such as ShopRite of Paramus have their own sushi chefs serving packaged rolls. The kaiten style of serving sushi is popular among kids and those in a rush. A variety of plates of typically two pieces rotate on a conveyor system, and patrons can just grab what they like. The plates are tallied at the end of the meal. East in Teaneck is a prime example, and the international Japanese-brand restaurant, YO! Sushi just opened at the Garden State Plaza, also kaiten style.

It was around 1996 when I made my first foray into a sushi restaurant. I wasn’t as exploratory with food as I am now, and my taste buds were still maturing. Arirang (now closed) was located in East Rutherford. My boyfriend – now husband – convinced me to try a “roll”. Being protective of my stomach, I refused to try anything yet that wasn’t cooked. So, of course, as most people do, I started with a California roll.

SIDEBAR: Yes, I mentioned that other state but with all due credit. It was invented in Los Angeles when a chef decided there was a need to substitute the seasonal fatty tuna that is traditionally in the maki roll. He used the avocado to imitate the texture of the tuna and then added the crab stick for a fish flavor.

Back to New Jersey. I couldn’t possibly select one sushi restaurant to profile. There are so many good ones and even more just-average ones. Personally, I don’t care for eating cold dinners in general, so I usually have sushi as an appetizer, a snack or a light dinner. After all, it can get quite costly for the amount of food you need to order to feel fulfilled. Here are just a few that I frequent in Northern NJ:

Nihon Kai, Bergenfieldsushi1-300x226

I wouldn’t rate Nihon Kai in the top 10 of New Jersey sushi restaurants, but the fish is consistently good, and the chef gets an A+ for creativity. When you’re sick of the usual Alaskan, Philadelphia and Boston rolls, check out some of his special rolls, such as the Sunshine Roll, consisting of tuna, salmon, mango rolled in seaweed, with shredded king crab, mango sauce, mayo and red tobiko on the outside.


 One of his latest specials is the Mounir Roll (he tends to name them after the customer who requests something different):

spicy, crunchy yellowtail, avocado, chili pepper, masago on the inside, topped with seared tuna, scallion, potato crisps, and a spicy sauce on the side. It’s a great play on texture.


Hachi, Fort Lee

The former owner of Nihon Kai, Mister Lee kept it in the family but opened his new place in Fort Lee’s Linwood Plaza. While he tends to stick to some of the more traditional rolls, the quality of his sashimi is outstanding. The hot dishes and bento boxes are worth a try in combination with some sushi.sushi3-300x225

Here is a simply delicious spicy tuna inside/out roll wrapped in salmon, avocado and roe.

Wild Wasabi, Norwood

This is one of the high-quality fish establishments. You can feel it in the texture and taste the freshness. I’m always impressed when I watch the owner, “Young”, clean the case at the end of the night, inspecting for any minute smudge. He may grumble if you ask for him to create something new, but then he can surprise with this spoonful of tuna tartar.


Don’t count out some Chinese food restaurants either because some really great salmon sashimi can be found at Empire Hunan, Fair Lawn and Teaneck. Just remember: If it smells fishy, then something’s probably wrong.

Dinner with a Side of Entertainment

Tableside food preparation in restaurants has been mostly a novelty of the past, as in the 70s and 80s; however, there appears to be a resurgence in New Jersey restaurants. Owners are trying to give us ever-demanding diners more for our money without having to add too much to their cost. People, in general, are easily entertained: a little mixing, a little fire and personal delivery from the preparer turns patrons’ heads, leaving others wanting that same special attention.clem 008

Most of us do not aspire to achieve sensory stimulation when ordering a Caesar salad, but if a cart comes rolling to the table, and the server carefully cracks eggs and combines the visibly fresh ingredients (rather than bottled dressing) to construct your salad – you feel privileged! The meal just became tastier and more memorable.

There are numerous rodizio restaurants, such as Rio Rodizio in Union, Rodizio Grill in Voorhees and clem 007 clem 006 clem 005 clem 003Casa Nova in Newark. But by definition, their meat carving is delivered as in all-you-can- eat format. The added entertainment while dining is predictable at both these and hibachi restaurants. It came as a pleasant surprise, though, this past Friday, when I found out a 99-year-old piano/singer friend of ours was playing at Il Cortina Ristorante. I hesitated because the address read “Paterson”, but the owners clearly understood this would cause trepidation and printed (Hillcrest section) on the web site. Without knowing anything about this section, I knew it meant a “don’t worry” section, and it is.

We walked in to find out that the staff of the former Bonfire in Paterson had been transplanted, and there was Clem at the piano, singing old standards. The music began our evening of entertainment-enhanced dining. After ordering a lobster and asparagus risotto and cappellini frutti de mare, all were intrigued at the preparation of a bowl of Caesar salad center room for another exclusive table. I wasn’t envious, because our house salads were a sight to behold, wrapped decoratively with a long sliver of cucumber. When other diners were on dessert, a cart came rolling out again. The flames are a sure-fire way to get attention and to get a dessert order from a table of people thinking they might be too full. It was bananas flambé served with vanilla ice cream. We wanted to feel just as important and placed an order too. Bocconi in Hackensack is another clem 011 Bocconirestaurant that performs this spectacle. They also filet branzino tableside, as does Il Capriccio in Whippany.

Maybe this added service is making a comeback in New Jersey, stepping up the experience of not-so-expensive restaurants and making them feel expensive. I can vouch that they are not doing it to distract you from food that isn’t good. They’re doing it because they know how to appeal to all the senses of their hungry customers, not just their sense of taste.

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Just for the Pho of It

I often converse with a co-worker about New Jersey eating establishments, although, she loves food in a more Andrew Zimmern-daring kind of way. She had asked me if I ever ate Vietnamese food, and I told her that I was introduced to pho a few years ago and head to Pho 32 when I’m in the mood for it. She exclaimed, “That’s where I go too!” As we continued to compare notes about what we order, I addressed the décor as well: The front fully windowed wall (facing Lemoine Ave. in Fort Lee, NJ) and the industrial cement floor provide a sleek, New York City modern ambiance. She broke into my description: “What about the seashells on the wall?” Now, unless I was totally hypnotized by the vapors from these hot noodle soups, I had never seen anything on the wall but an interesting illumination. We quickly realized, there’s another location. She had been frequenting the Palisades Park, NJ, Pho 32. They also have a few NYC locations.

IMG_1431So what is pho? First, the pronunciation – I always say “fō”, as in the word “phone”. I felt a bit ignorant when a Chinese friend’s wife said they were going to have pho, but it sounded like she was going to say the F-bomb, “fuh…”, and I flashed on the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie curses. While it is one of the most commonly mispronounced food words, I still hesitate to say it correctly. It sounds silly to me, even though I pride myself on proper pronunciation.

The dish, pho, is a Vietnamese noodle soup with a beef broth base, rice noodles and several choices of meat such as beef brisket, tendon, chicken or even seafood. A side plate of bean sprouts, cilantro, lime wedge and jalapeno peppers accompanies the bowl for you to add in yourself as you choose. The bowls come medium and large. The medium (around $8) usually suffices if you select a couple appetizers, such us the fried Vietnamese egg roll, thinner than the Chinese one and meant to be dipped in a vinegar sauce, or the summer roll, which is cold shrimp, lettuce, vermicelli wrapped in rice paper and meant to be dipped in peanut sauce.

I cheat. There is a self-serve counter of dipping sauces that include: miso, lemon soy, cilantro soy, peanut, among others. It is meant for those ordering shabu shabu, which is actually of Japanese origin. There are special tables with heaters for these pots filled with broth. It is suggestive of broth fondue, where you cook your own items of corn, Chinese cabbage, meats, etc. in this bubbling broth and dip away in the sauces. But I take a spoonful of my brisket pho and noodles and dip into the different sauces for added flavor. The shabu shabu is more expensive but not equally more satisfying to me.


If you need to get your server’s attention, there is a button on the table you can press, and it buzzes with your table number (like on a plane). It’s too obnoxious for me. They have always been attentive enough.

There are other entrees to explore, but why, really? It’s called Pho 32 (all their locations are, so I’m not sure what the 32 represents), so order the pho, and say it right!

Here’s a fun, educational piece on pho.


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