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.

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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

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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