Archive for January, 2012

A Stranger’s Seafood Chowder

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I’m very organized and probably a bit too regimented – I like recipes…good recipes. So I want to start by thanking Brenda for helping me have a delightful dinner. I don’t know who Brenda is, or if her name is really Brenda, or if Brenda is a “she”, but let’s say she provided me with the tools for a very delightful seafood chowder. It’s exactly what my stomach desired on this cold evening – the smoothness of the cream, the different textures of the meat (seafood), the crunch of the chopped celery and the warm bread, and the bite of the cracked pepper. Okay, so I embellished on it ever so slightly. http://www.cooks.com/rec/view/0,1748,134176-240199,00.html
 
The chowder was so good that I spread the love and snuck out takeout containers filled with it for friends to have. Either they were just being kind or they enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks Brenda, wherever you are.
 
 
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New York-style restaurant without paying to park – oh, because it’s New Jersey

Restaurant ads usually don’t catch my eye, but this one was full color in the town newspaper. The photos were stunning from a restaurant design perspective. It looked very trendy, very NY City. Ridgefield Park, NJ, doesn’t have anything like that. Question was, did the menu measure up? I checked out the web site: http://www.mkvalenciarestaurant.com/ and made reservations.

When we walked in, the front room and bar seemed bright and very white, like I stepped into an igloo somewhere in Eastern Europe. We were told a Latin Jazz band was setting up. Around the corner was the dining room with warmer lighting. The tiled floor, metal accents and white textered walls could’ve left this room feeling cold, but a designer warmed it up with thin sheer curtains hanging to section off the room. The tables were all backed with curved coach-like seating. Unfortunately, it was a cold evening, and we sat next to the back glass wall, leading out to a nice patio that will do well in the summer. The high ceiling didn’t help to make us warmer.

Our waitress, while very friendly, was extremely green around the gills. I was happy to see “half portions available” on the pasta dishes, so I requested for an appetizer a half portion of Cavatelli with baby clams, shrimp, mussels, scallops and calamari – a good test for the chef’s abilities. I asked what kind of sauce, and the waitress said affirmatively, “white wine”. The dish came out with a flavorful red sauce, which is – not white wine. The seafood passed the tenderness test with flying colors. In between courses, a Korean man in a suit with a tapemeasure on his belt told us he was the architect.  Was he fishing for compliments? We couldn’t understand why the architect would be hanging around – to make sure nothing fell apart? It turns out he’s a partner.

The entree of short ribs with polenta was good but a little less exciting. The polenta flavor reminded me of nothing more than farina I had as kid and the “fried leeks” were thin pieces of shredded paper. I wanted to taste it more.

It’s a good alternative for those who want New York dining and maybe hang around for some music afterwards but don’t want to spend the money to cross the river. However, you will pay much more than the bridge for a Cosmopolitan at $13. They really make you feel like you’re in New York.

Swiss Twist on Tubers

I stop into her house for a cup of coffee, and there, on the kitchen counter are about five idaho potatoes. The skins are still fresh with dirt from their previous home. The filthy sight of the tuber evokes a beautiful memory – past and fairly recent – of what these tubers can transform into.

Visions of two dishes flash alternately before my eyes, like a disco strobe: her warm potato salad and rösti. I blurt out, “potato salad?”

“No,” she says, “Rösti“. I couldn’t wait for the finished product. I was definitely coming back to pick some up for dinner, breakfast, whatever. After all, where else am I going to get rösti??

It’s a simple dish, but so much love needs to be put into it, or if you’re Swiss, it just comes naturally. It can be made by shredding raw potato (I think the Swiss Miss W pats it with a paper towel to absorb the moisture), or the potatos can be par-boiled and shredded. Butter is preferred in a non-stick pan, some salt and pepper, and it’s fried until golden brown on both sides. Now, there’s a standard Swiss brown that must be achieved for perfection (every photo you see will have the same hue). This leaves you with the dual texture of crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

If it really gets Swiss’d up, to turn it into a meal, bacon, onion and cheese (Swiss naturally) are mixed in with the shredded potato. Want more? Fry an egg on top. Oh yeah!…..I got the call – “It’s finished. Do you want to pick some up?” Silly question.

Two days later, there must have been some extra potatoes sitting around because I was able to realize that other photo that was flashing when I was handed a small portion of……….potato salad! Double jackpot.

Succulent Soup Dumplings at Petite Soochow

It was a casual conversation about two years ago with my Chinese friend (yes, this is relevant). He told me he was going for “Chinese” food. I conjured up an image of the takout place on Main Street and dismissed it as boring. After all, who really gets excited about Chinese food? Okay, I do now if you tell me we’re going to Petite Soochow in Cliffside Park, NJ, which is where my friend was heading.

He continued talking about it, and I wondered why he thought I’d be interested in chicken and broccoli and the like. Well there was no mention of such an Americanized dish, but something caught my ear when he said, “It’s the only place in New Jersey to get soup dumplings..and they’re really good.” My right eyebrow rose up, and my head turned an inch to the left with my eyes peeking out the corner toward him. Did he say ‘only place’ and ‘really good’? But my Chinese-food cynicism clicked in and drew a picture of broth with mass-produced wontons like anchors at the bottom of a pool. I had to ask — “soup dumplings?” He described it as steamed dumplings with a pork meatball and ‘soup’ inside. So I had to try it. (A week later, this showed up in NY Times, and the wait line for a table tripled: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/nyregion/02dinenj.html.)

I, not being Asian, was in the minority at this restaurant tucked sideways in a parking lot. This has to be good – Chinese people in a Chinese restaurant! And there at the entrance was the co-owner behind plexiglass, a woman rolling, stuffing and twisting these “steamed buns” (as they’re called on the menu) all night long. It’s almost an assumption that every patron wants an order (8) to start. Ten minutes later the pot is brought to the table and uncovered, revealing the hot gift-wrapped surprises.

Fortunately, my friend forewarned me not to just bite into it. You will probably burn your mouth. So I followed the acceptable procedure of using chopsticks to gently pick one up and place it in my soup spoon. You don’t want it to break and lose the liquid. You can dip it into the vinegar with ginger provided and then bite off the twisted top of the dough while holding it in your spoon with chopsticks. This lets some steam out. Then you can go to town. It was like tasting Fresh ‘n Up gum as a kid for the first time. Hey, that liquid’s not supposed to be in there, but it’s goooood.

They offer a version with crab, but it’s sea legs on top of the dumpling, and you can’t taste the difference. If you want sesame chicken, you should probably just go to Empire Hunan in Teaneck or Fair Lawn. If you want Chinese food that hasn’t been bastardized, come here. If you have a friend that speaks the language – even better. You’ll get to try items not on the menu. For a closer look at some other dishes, the Off the Broiler blog did a nice job: http://offthebroiler.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/nj-dining-petite-soochow/. I’m just all about those warm, neatly sealed packages today. Even though I know what’s inside, it’s like opening a gift every time.

The Swiss Miss W’s Baking Creations – Black Forest

What makes a good Black Forest cake? For me, it’s either great or it’s not a black forest. Foremost, the cake must be moist! After the layers are baked….here’s the winner…..Am I supposed to give this away in America?………..mix one shot of kirschwasser (if you have the means, get the real stuff from Switzerland) and some sugar water, and brush the layers using a pastry brush just until absorbed. Don’t worry. It’s not enough to impact your BAC too much, but it does give the cake a nice little kick.

Now there’s always the decision of raspberry or cherry filling in between the layers. Traditionally, the cherry complements the kirsch, but raspberry pairs oh so nicely with the chocolate.

For heaven’s sake, fresh whipped cream is so easy and quick to make! Don’t use that stuff that is exactly like the foamy mousse hair product in a can. The final touch — get a knife and make the chocolate curls on top.

Le Bernardin: the Epicurean Apex

Let me just warn you that my initial blog begins at the summit, and it’s all downhill from here. My gastronomic love for everything Eric Ripert sprouted at Chef Central in Paramus, NJ. It wasn’t just his hypnotic French accent; it was his answer to my question on how he manages to remain at the top – in short, “train my staff well and treat them with respect.” (At 8:19 YouTube link

And so my tryst occurred less than a month after Le Bernardin was renovated. When dining out, I am generally lenient with my personal critique of a restaurant. I am forgiving and understanding of certain errors, so I let my taste buds and my standard of work ethic and respect decide whether I will return. This time, however, I went in wearing a Gael Greene hat. If Michelin is going to flash three stars and national publications are going to splash “best” (I dislike pretentiousness), then by-golly, it better be just that.

We decided on the 5-course prix fixe and made sure to each order a different selection. Once the amuse bouche came out, there was very little conversation. It was mostly hushed orgasmic-like “mmmm”s and “wow”s as each forkful of flavor danced along our palettes.

I then knew that I wouldn’t find any fault from the kitchen, so I looked toward the server – was he hovering? No. Was he rushing us? No. He had an inviting French accent (almost as charming as Eric’s) and offered us every bit of menu knowledge he had to help us in our decisions. The one thing that I thought was a bit over the top – and wasteful – was the changing of our silver butter dish every 10 minutes or so with merely a small dent in the surface. It was really unnecessary and didn’t contribute to the royal treatment for me. Alas, I found a flaw. There were a few pulls in the brand new carpet already. It’s ridiculous I had to resort to that to find any demerit. I glanced at my slightly worn boot heels to make sure I was not to blame.

Describing each dish would be an injustice, so the photos will have to speak for themselves. If you click on a specific photo, hit Permalink, and you’ll receive the full menu description.

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