Archive for December, 2014

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.

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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.