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 try 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 Casa 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 restaurant 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.
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.
So 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. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/04/pho_n_6084410.html
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 meatballs 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.
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.
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
YELLOWFIN TUNA RIBBONS – Avocado, Spicy Radish and Ginger Marinade
BUCKWHEAT CRACKLING GULF SHRIMP – and Silky Carrot Cocktail Sauce
ROASTED HAKE – with Basil, Crushed Tomatoes and Olive Oil
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.
BLACK SEA BASS CRUSTED WITH NUTS AND SEEDS – with Nuts and Seeds, Sweet and Sour Jus
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
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
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.