Archive for the ‘Dining Out’ Category

In a Sicilian Kitchen

I admit it – for the most part, I don’t like when a friend recommends a restaurant.  That’s a facet of my entertainment life I’d like to hand pick. Maybe it’s because I love to explore and research and dive into the “About Us” of the restaurant before dining there. I want to go in feeling confident that the food is going to be good and I will thoroughly enjoy it. Everyone has different tastes and preferences; some are food discerning and some are quantity satisfied.

So when my friend Eddie suggested a New York City restaurant to me for casual Italian food, I almost ignored his recommendation. First understand Eddie. He loves to eat and does it as often as I do, but he finds a favorite dish at a restaurant and orders it every time. He literally licks the plate clean. He appreciates food like I do but within his own confines. I see the pleasure run from his mouth, through his body and settle warmly in his belly. I understand it. We used to enjoy Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ and have been hit and miss finding similar home-cooked-feel restaurants with quality food and family-like hospitality. It wasn’t until Eddie said, “They serve your food in the pan it’s cooked in, and there are only about 10 tables,” that I knew this had potential.

I made a lunch reservation (I wasn’t ready to fully commit to dinner) at Piccola Cucina on Spring Street, NYC. Mind you, it’s not Italian; it’s Sicilian food. The servers all have an accent; although one has a South African accent – it all sounds good. Okay ladies, they do hire for eye candy appetizers it seems.

Without a reservation, I’m not sure how you get in or where you stand. It’s small, and I’ve come to find out they have a larger location with a different type of menu around the corner on Prince Street. But with small comes personal. From the moment the servers and bussers approached our table, I felt like we were friends in another country. A birthday celebration was happening and all the lights were turned out as dessert was brought to the birthday child (not in an Applebee’s manner); everyone was singing and the kitchen staff rhythmically was hitting the pots and pans with utensils. It was a momentary party at someone’s house. Aside from the welcoming staff, let’s get down to the food.

Lunch and dinner are listed as separate menus on the web site, but I can’t see 20170513_173841the difference. Highly recommended by me now, and at the original suggestion of server Misha, the Eggplant Parmigiana Rivisitata is a fun and delicious “revistation” of the traditional dish. Served with grilled toasts and mixed green salad, the glass jar is layered with a pureed eggplant/basil mixture, topped with a creamy tomato sauce and finished off with a fluffy ricotta. We were instructed to reach from the bottom with the small spoon and scoop up, then spread it on toast. Delicioso! Close your eyes, and it’s a lighter, deconstructed version of eggplant parm coming back together in your mouth.

Another appetizer worth trying is the Polpette della Nonna con Caponata Siciliana  -Homemade grilled MeatbIMG_3990alls. But the apogee of appetizers was the special Grilled Octopus delivered on a cloud of burata cheese with olives and cherry tomatos. It was tender and smokey, and it turned a non-octopus-eating friend into a fan. The visual alone drew her in.

 

For the main course pasta dishes, these were all easy home run hitters:

  • Tagliatelle verdi con ragu’ di cinghiale aromatizzato alle erbe di campagna e scaglie20170319_142111 di tartufo  – Green Tagliatelle in a wild boar ragu’ with fresh herb aroma topped with black truffle shavings
  • Ravioli agli spinaci e ricotta con ragu’ di salsiccia – Spinach and ricotta ravioli with sausage sauceIMG_3931
  • Linguine all’astice 25 Lobster linguine served with half grilled lobster and tomato sauceIMG_3930

The only Second Course entree that made it in front of me was:

  • Composizione di crostacei al vapore  – Steamed Shellfish with vegetables

My only gripe might be that the same basic sauce is seen among several dishes. That might get boring after the love affair loses its luster.

The Prince Street location right around the corner is a bit roomier (larger) and focuses more on the fresh seafood displayed in a case but has similar dishes just IMG_3986as wonderful. While the servers tend to run back and forth between the two, sometimes to grab a cup of cappuccino or espresso from Prince St. for the customers at Spring St., my allegiance is now to Spring St. and my friendly waiters.

Their coffee rocks, but I admit I walk the .4 mile to Pasticceria Rocco‘s for dessert and a visit with my other fairly new hard-working Italian ‘friends’.

Hush Hush I Smell It Calling My Name

Aumm Aumm means “Hush Hush” in the Neapolitan dialect. Well, I’m letting this secret out. I never find myself in North Bergen, but I’ll be visiting frequently now. A friend who works at the elite Le Bernardin – need I say more – had been posting photos of dishes from Aumm Aumm quite often in the last six months. I trust the culinary opinion of someone who is employed at a number one New York restaurant. So back in December, with no reservations accepted, a group of us tried this self-proclaimed “wine bar and pizzeria”…which neither descriptive piques my gustatory sense.

It’s name it was: Aumm Aumm the surprise. I dislike the name; I dislike the tagline. Neither of them provide the golden key to this restaurant – fresh food! Because we waited 20 minutes, our hunger was building. It was best to order a cold throw-together dish to share. The Tagliere is a chef’s selection of 20161216_201942imported cheeses, imported coldcuts, olives, nuts and fresh fruit. It’s the perfect traditional way to begin.

Another cold dish followed: the Insalata Aumm Aumm. A signature dish should be the popular one, and it was among us, as far as a salad can be. Baby arugula, endive, raddichio, artichokes, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, cacciocavallo cheese was all dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.20161216_201312

I’m not one to dine out and order pizza, but with a bunch of people sharing food, one is tempted to try it, since it’s claimed in the name and you sit facing the opening of the large brick oven stove. Choices 20161216_200701are red or white pizzas, round or the larger oblong. We went with a round, red one – the Cappriciosa. It was topped with tomato sauce, ham, mushrooms, Gaeta olives, artichokes and mozzarella. The flavors popped, but as is often with brick oven pizzas, the dough has that lovely charcoal crisp on the outside, but is soft and chewy on the top side. I am a crispy bread freak too, so I was a bit disappointed to get strips of pizza dough in our bread basket for starters.

They carry 150 types of wines. Several primi pasta dishes were ordered, and all were cooked al dente. On the first visit, we tried the Sciallatielli allo Scoglio with fresh pasta, baby clams, shrimp, octopus, PEI mussels, calamari and cherry tomatoes. The second time we went with their new frequent patron, my friend, and the same dish was twice as large and came out inside a pizza dough crust to absorb all the seafood flavors.IMG_3902

Seared pork chops, fish of the day, grilled octopus, among other second courses are worth exploring. Now that Aumm Aumm is no longer on the down low, they may need to change the name…please.

 

What’s in a Restaurant Name?

Merriam has been telling people who speak the English language that the noun “tavern” is ‘an establishment where alcoholic beverages are sold to be drunk on the premises’. By that definition, I always picture a bunch of locals enjoying libations together and perhaps snacking on some simple food items that can quickly be grilled or fried, all in the most casual of atmospheres.

Either Tavern 5 in Pompton Plains, NJ, picked the wrong name for its restaurant, or Merriam needs to get with the times. It’s not exactly around the corner from me, so I
might not have even given the menu a look if it were not for my familiarity with the food styling of Executive Chef Anthony LoPinto, whose food I tasted long ago in a cooking class.

It was a Friday night, a packed house, and it’s a reservation-free zone. My preconceived notions were quickly put aside as I took in the wood and brick textures, which felt like a modernized farmhouse. The large bar area with high-top tables was full of friendly chatter, chewing and sipping beneath the copper-tiled ceiling. The dining area consists of two rooms, one with bench seating against the wall and booths. The back room leads to an outdoor dining area, but it was winter, so we only saw the potential of the garden.

I knew we were in store for a little more than typical pizza and burgers when I gimg_3739rabbed hold of the leather (-like?) menu cover with a logo-stamped copper piece inlay. Sure, the recognizable pub-food words popped off the page: meatballs, wings, tacos, and one’s eyes start to sarcastically roll until the eyes catch a glimpse of the heightened descriptions that change these routine food items into something desirable to order:

SPINACH & MEATBALL – rich meat broth, veal meatballs, spinach, egg

WINGS – Jim Beam maple glazed chicken wings, fresh chives

TACOS – Steak tacos, avocado, queso blanco, champagne img_3742vinegar slaw, chipotle aioli, tortilla chips

All the elaborations were so flavor-enticing, the four of us each ordered something different so we could share in the exploration. For the first round, we tried the Crab Cimg_3743akes with noticeable jumbo lump crab, citrus aioli, baby greens. There was a special stone-fired Clam Pizzimg_3741a with clams out of shell, arugula and garlic. The dough had an intentional chewiness and was laden with too much garlic for this vampire. Garlic lovers would devour it though. The Arrancini was not the baseball-sized fried rice balls; they were five bitable munchkin-sized balls with bacon, cheddar, sweet corn, on a sufficient smear of chimichurri sauce. The New England Clam Chowder was nicely flavored with the typical potato, bacon, cream and clams, with the addition of carrots. The chowder was not predominantly potato, as some can be.img_3748

The main courses were near faultless. The generous six seared scallops were plump with a little breadcrumb crunch, nestled in butternut squash risotto, surrounded by a moat of greeimg_3746n apple broth. The Linguini Bolognese consisted of three different meats that are braised separately, so each is cooked perfectly: veal, short rib, pork. The pasta was fancifully presented, almost stacked like a pyramid. The Chicken Tacos may sound boring, but they three soft tacimg_3747os sit in a holder, filled with blackened chicken, pico de gallo, slaw, avocado and cilantro crème. They order different components with the steak and fish tacos.

The prize dish of the evening, though was the Braised Short Ribs, braised with red wine and coffee. The meat was cooked to tender, but herein laid the near faultless: there was a slight heavy hand on the salt, which we all agreed upon. Otherwise, delicioso. (I’m not sure why reminiscing on those ribs just turned me Italian.)

 

I was full enough at the point, but I needed to try the coffee they boasted about on img_3750Facebook, directly from Toca roasters up the road. And of course,
this had to be accompanied by ice cream from a small batch shop in the Hudson Valley.

It may be difficult not to judge an eating establishment by its name, but unfortunately, in this fast-paced world, we dismiss quickly on the glance of a label. Don’t dismiss Tavern 5; if you put your glasses on, the logo on the web site has a tagline of “Neighborhood Restaurant”.

 

 

 

Middle Class Menu; Upper Class Value

My husband and I learned of a restaurant in the late 90s on Hamburg Turnpike in Riverdale, called Rosemary & Sage. It was small and blended on a made road between houses. We drove past it, trying to find it the first time: pre-GPS. The interior was simplistic – solid colored walls with a few splashes of color in paintings. The establishment is owned by husband and wife CIA graduates Brooks Nicklas and Wendy Farber. Wendy’s brother Bruce served most of the tables while Wendy conducted the entire front of the house. It’s a family affair with a loyal customer base.

One of the draws was the constantly changing menu. Customers didn’t want to miss out on one of Brooks’ new creations. Some recent examples included: fish du jour – sautéed medallion served with seafood beggar’s purse, tarragon sauce, broccoli and roasted potatoes (28) and blackened pork chop with mango salsa, bbq Israeli cous cous and butternut squash (27). So even though it was about a 25-minute drive, we would treat ourselves; however, like for many other people, the cost became prohibitive for us. Still, I was extremely disappointed to learn that after 23 years, Rosemary & Sage’s story was ending. I would have liked to eaten there again.

In the same sentence; however, I was ecstatic to read that Brooks and Wendy were just changing the formula. Serving the 1% was no longer their target. They decided to appeal to a larger customer base…the middle-class. What more could I ask for? I knew the quality of the food would be as high as it was before. The menu items would just be restructured to allow them to reduce their prices.

I immediately made a reservation. The only seating expansion was the addition of an actual bar with high-top tables, and they now have outdoor seating, albeit on a busy Hamburg Turnpike. Wendy’s friendly face was still roaming table to table. Although she hardly remembered me (it had been over five years), I fondly remembered the basket brought to the table were her mini muffins, pepper jelly and butter. It’s always a surprise as to what type of muffins. This time they were poppy seed and carrot. Every time they are good.

Between two visits, the following dishes were sampled, and all ranged from $20.95 to $22.95. The portion size was not reduced and all the dishes were composed with CIA quality. Just listen:

Shrimp Pineapple and Cashews with Thai curry coconut sauce

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Tilapia in Phyllo, crab and pecans stuffing with spring onion vinaigrette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They now also offer fancy pub fare such as pulled pork on a brioche roll. This will certainly expand their customer reach, making if more tempting for those who think Phyllo is a musical instrument. And for those who still think it’s too highfalutin, they added a takeout menu as well.

The desserts are still made in-house too. My one disappointment in the change is the name. I loved the sound of Rosemary & Sage. It sounded classy and culinary. It has been changed to Brookside Bistro, which I think understates the type of food here. I believe in brand recognition and would like everyone to recognize it’s the same ownership, the same high standards.

IMG_3222IMG_3223All you New Jerseyans who appreciate four-star quality but have two-star pockets, this place is made for you.

Hot for Ice Cream

I’ve written before about my favorite local ice cream shop: Bischoff’s in Teaneck, NJ. https://dishingondining.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/screaming-for-it/. It’s been a summer (and other season) staple for more than 80 years. I bypass the supermarket when I crave some all-natural maple walnut ice cream. After all, it’s difficult to get ANY maple walnut ice cream pre-packaged. Tell me oh all-natural Breyer’s – what is so challenging with a little maple syrup and some chopped walnuts? You do my right by your white-colored Mint Chocolate Chip….or as it sounds more natural to me: Chocolate Chip Mint.

I don’t want green or blue or pink-colored ice cream! I don’t want that poisonous-looking food coloring. For some reason, it’s been three years since Ice Cream by Mike has been churning its homemade ingredients into delectable cold desserts on Main Street in Hackensack, and I am just learning of it now! I must attribute it to poor marketing. I could not be so out of the loop when it comes to a glacier, as Mike’s card is titled, being only about two miles away from me. I would’ve smelled it. I should’ve heard it. I could’ve been eating it all this time!!

Tonight, closing time was 10 p.m., and I made it in the door at 9:52. I got a visual sneak preview on the Facebook page of Mike making his own caramel, of caramelized vanilla beans, of his own hot fudge. It doesn’t get more from scratch than this. He has about eight flavors at any given time, and they change daily.

My friend ordered a cone of the Valrhona Chocolate. Mike knew it was great; why? Because, “I use the best chocolate.” Valrhona is a French premium chocolate manufacturer based in the small town of Tain-l’Hermitage in Hermitage, a wine-growing district near Lyon. They claim to produce the world’s finest gourmet chocolates. Me being half Swiss, I might ask them to prove themselves.

I looked at the board and looked in the freezer case. I wasn’t matching the name on the board with any of the tubs I was seeing. But my poor Baskin-Robbins brainwashed eyes didn’t recognize it, even thought I don’t eat that ice cream. It’s the way we see it growing up; it’s the way we see it in every horribly processed carton of store bought ice cream. Do you know what this is?

icecream

I’ll give you a moment. Coffee? Caramel? No! It’s pistachio with whole pistachio nuts that taste like they were just popped out of the shell. And the ice cream tastes like…oh, real pistachio. Imagine that. Well you can do more than imagine. You can go taste it yourself.

Mike gets creative with flavor combinations. He mentioned he would be making a batch of peanut butter honey tomorrow. Maybe this was his subtle way of getting some quick repeat business.

For sit-down atmosphere, I may still opt for my guaranteed availability of maple walnut at Bischoff’s. If I’m open to any other flavor and need a quick fix, I’m heading to Hackensack. Mike’s place has a few iron tables and seats on the sidewalk, but they’re facing a construction site on the other side of Main. I will give him major points, though, for the music being piped outdoors – some Nat King Cole, Bennie Goodman, Louis Armstrong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food that Floats Your Boat in NJ

I recently had the pleasure of having a business lunch with a client I’ve known for years but never met face-to-face. He’s out of Toronto and has come to New York City but has never spent any time in New Jersey. He asked me to make the arrangements, but it needed to be near the Lincoln Tunnel for him to get back to Midtown.

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This would be an easy task. It had to be waterfront dining in my mind. New Jersey is fortunate to have lots of waterfront, especially from Middlesex County south. But let’s focus on New Jersey’s Gold Coast for this purpose – or the sprawling Hudson Waterfront as most of you know it. I picked Edgewater.

These days, you can count on an increase in prices at any establishment that’s located waterfront, be it residential, commercial or retail. Dining waterfront on a beautiful spring day is unbeatable for the view, including the NYC skyline – and the calming nature of water. I made a reservation at the young restaurant Haven, which is at the edge of yet another mixed-use development that is still in progress. It already is surrounded by functioning residential and retail spaces. Its modern look offers indoor or outdoor seating and a bar.

oThe waiter was among the top friendliest and respectful servers I’ve encountered. This was lunch, so we skipped appetizers, and since nobody was sure which party was footing the bill yet, we all ordered conservatively. There’s no item, be it main entrée or sandwich, under $18 (remember, prime waterfront space equals prime rent for the landlord). When asked, the waiter suggested the Marinated Hanger Steak Salad with arugula, blue cheese, pickled red onions, avocado, croutons and red wine vinaigrette (the most expensive lunch item at $22) and the Fried Fish Po’ Boy made with Atlantic skate, sweet cucumber, tomato, romaine and garlic-lime tartar sauce. I don’t prefer a deep fried dish usually, but I love New Orleans-style food and went with his recommendation. I chose the side of mixed baby greens, rather than fries, to balance it. The fish was fried perfectly crispy, not greasy, flakey and moist on the inside. The roll was perfectly sized to its contents and was bakery fresh tasting.

If you want to impress, always land a window seat or sit outdoors at a waterfront restaurant in New Jersey. There are a number of great newcomers in Edgewater alone, including Pier 115 and Orama, and some older staples like Le Jardin and Crab House. Just drive up and down River Road from Fort Lee to Weehawken – even the non-water side of the road has the new Lobster Shack and the established La Vecchi Napoli. You’ll find something that floats your boat along the river.

The Recipe for Italian Restaurants in NJ

I couldn’t even guess how many restaurants in New Jersey classify themselves as Italian. They run the gamut from pizzerias that serve simple Italian dishes to cafes or casual, to upscale dining. It comes as no surprise since New Jersey has the second highest number of Italian Americans in the country at 1,503,637, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

I tend to lose interest quickly when I hear that a “new” Italian restaurant opened. Our market is saturated, but we all have a few favorites, and it’s often based on proximity. For some, quantity is a factor; others weigh quality heavier when comparing. I lean toward the latter, but location definitely plays favor. When my preferred casual Italian restaurant shuttered recently, a number of people I know were distraught – not because there is a lack of other choices, but because it had the formula for somewhere you can enjoy frequenting twice a month or more… quality food, hospitality, inexpensive and 10 minutes from home in Bergen County. I mentioned in a previous column that I may have found my rebound with La Cambusa in Garfield. Less than a month ago, however, a new Italian restaurant opened in Bergenfield, called The Recipe, on the corner of S. Washington and E. Clinton avenues.

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A repulsive feeling came over me – “oh, another glorified pizzeria serving lots of low-grade-cheese parmigiana dishes to try to qualify as an Italian restaurant.” But a coupon lured me in along with dangling carrots of location and cute appearance (the full-size windows allow you to see through as you drive by). My second foot in the door, and I was greeted with a warm smile and a “good evening.” That got off on the right foot. The menu is not extravagant but has basic pastas, veal, chicken, seafood and steak dishes, along with a creative list of specials, which only averaged $24.

20160219_204721The menu items were less. My first real taste of The Recipe came after the warm bread and the soup (choice of minestrone or chicken noodle that comes with an entrée) was the eggplant stack appetizer with beefy tomato slices, fresh mozzarella – the top layer slightly melted – thick breaded eggplant slices and a bed of mixed greens, all drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Thumbs up!

I usually test an Italian restaurant with a veal dish or a pasta/seafood combo. The first visit scored an 88 with a veal francese and artichoke hearts ($19). The second visit scored an 89.5 with the Linguini Del Mar red sauce (also $19), large butterflied shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari. The calamari was slightly overdone but not enough to detract from the rest of the goodness. More importantly, I requested very little garlic, and they listened! Finishing the meal with a decent cappuccino was equally important.

20160219_210831When one’s expectations are low or none is when the gems are discovered. I hope this passes the initial five-year business test because it has a solid B++ in my book. That could definitely go up as I order more.

Another recent Italian restaurant opening is Rugova in River Edge. It reopened the vacant building that housed Dinallo’s. Let us know how you grade these newcomers. Rugova is owned by the same people who have Dimora and Sear House, so they should be good at this.