Posts Tagged ‘Chef’

Restaurant Daniel without My Daniel

September 16, 2019 I set off on my yearly pilgrimage of culinary pleasure and pain since the loss of my dear Daniel in 2016. I revisit the Michelin-starred restaurants where we celebrated our wedding anniversaries, and I do it alone. In 2013, it was Daniel, which you can read about here. I’m not sure why I do it; it just feels right for my soul at this time. I admit, though, it also feels right for my palette.

As I approached, I recalled the steps of yesteryear, not sure exactly where it was until I saw the name glowing on the marquee. I was looking to recreate that approach, but the marquee was obstructed by a construction awning. Upon swinging through those goIMG_6760lden revolving doors, it felt like an eerie dream state where I had to walk this long corridor alone where four hosts stood behind a desk waiting and watching ever step. I was led into a mostly empty dining room at 5:15 p.m. It appeared the same as I recalled from our last visit.


Similar to the dating scene, it is only fair to IMG_6771give my top three guys an equal number of dates for proper comparison. Eric (Ripert) and David (Bouley) each took me on three dining dates; whereas I only had given Daniel (Boulud) one chance at 65th Street. So now was the moment for him to be able to pull out all the stops to win me over as his culinary lover. I am convinced that with a concerted effort, it’ always the one freshest in your mind that will seem the best.

Electing for the four-course menu, I begged for recommendations because there were too many choices, working backwards from my third-course immediate choice of Suckling Pig. Since it was brand new on the menu, I decided on the CRABE ROYAL – King Crab

Salad, Honeycrisp Apple, Kohlrabi, Sesame Tuile, Poppy Seed Gelee. But of course first comes the amuse bouche. The server listed too many ingredients in these mini works of art, but I know one involved eggplant and the other beets. I was immediately spared any thoughts of selection regret when out came another first course – complements of tIMG_6765he chef – (oh, he’s trying hard to impress). THE FLAGEOLET was enhanced with tableside pouring of the “soup”. I should have captured the deconstructed pieces before they were covered in the sauce. It was another masterpiece. The Flageolet Beans, Black Garlic, Confit Carrots and Maine Lobster at center with the Lemon-Thyme Cream were standing orderly in the bowl before the Artichoke Veloute was gently poured in.

Bread service came along to complicate matters. The three-seed roll was enough to sample, although I could have tried each kind but spared the space in my stomach.

The second course was grilled swordfish, which looked like a dollhouse of twin beds. The ESPADON was accompanied by summer squash, shallot marmalade, Thai basil with Le Cirque’s “Sauce Sottha Kuhnn” drizzled by the server.

And finally, the base of my other meal selections – the COCHON DE LAIT: Gaspor Farm Suckling Pig with Melilot, Ginger-Carrot Croquettes, Daylilly Buds and Sauce Robert. There was only one cringe moment; the server asked, “Are you enjoying the pig?” There was a drifting moment of guilt. And when the plate, as all the others were, was returned to its dishwasher-clean state, except for the bone, I flashed to a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode and hesitated to ask for a “doggy bag” for my dog. She deserved a remnant of that crispy, smoky/sweet tenderness.IMG_6774

Then came the moment that everyone unadmittedly waits for – the fourth and final dessert course. I asked my server to verbally walk me through the desserts and expand upon the written words. His personal favorite was the cashew something something, which turned out to be the NOIX DE CAJOU (now you see why I wanted interpretations). I wanted to defy him and get the FIGUE because simply any dessert with fig has to be the best. He was pretty emphatic about the cashew concoction, so out came this sculpture of Cashew Infused Opalys Chocolate, Salted Caramel and Praline, with Champaka Flower Ice Cream…..why can’t I find this in the supermarket?? And magically, “The Chef must have heard you and sent the Sil-timur Berry Scented Fig Compotee, Mascarpone and Coffee, a recreated version of creme brulee.”


It instantly dawned on me: This was a murder conspiracy. Death by Desserts! It became especially evident when one employee walking by offered the suggestion of breaking through all the layers at once rather than tasting the fig dessert from the top. This way I would need to consume more of it! If that didn’t do the trick, send over the guyIMG_6782 with a napkin basket of warm madeleines, and after she takes one, leave the whole basket for her on the table to be tempted.

But wait, she’s still sitting strong with her coffee. How about the box trick? It’s like the Russian Tea Dolls with one inside another. And to seal the deal of Dessert Overkill, send her home with a “gift” that she can ingest “later tonight or tomorrow”.

Truth be told, I would have sampled every dessert on that menu if that were humanly possible, but I didn’t want to leave uncomfortable. And in fact, half of each of them did come home with me. I was onto their little murderous plan, and I figured a way out!

Well Daniel Boulud, you’ve done it. You knocked out David and Eric with a single evening’s punch and are now my Chef Guy, and I am your Patron Girl. What really became a deciding factor was the keepsake at the end – a printed personal menu of all that I had personally eaten. Wow! So until my next visit to the other guys, you’re the man Daniel.


If you even just know me by name, you probably know that all retail desserts are measured against the quality of my mother’s desserts. Most don’t come close: too sweet, too many artificial ingredients, not baked enough, etc.  As a result, I am extremely selective – some label it snobbish – as to if and where I eat dessert elsewhere.

Most of you who do know me, know I’ve found the perfect competitor in Rocco’s, New York City, but that’s across the big river. I’ve written about two worthy contenders in New Jersey:  one in Ramsey, L’Arte , where I even dared to bring my mother once, and the other in Teterboro, Palermo’s. So when I saw a nearly full-page newspaper article (yes, I look at an actual printed newspaper), on a four-month-old French pastry establishment in Westwood, NJ, my eyes and mouth perked up. A panic rush of self-addressed questions comes over me – why didn’t I know about this, could it be as good as the pictures look, how soon can I try it? The first answer I don’t know. I was four months behind on this intel. Shame on me. The third answer was …this evening! And that would provide the second answer: yes!

20170920_214927Open until 10 p.m., which excites me by fitting into my late night schedules, I dashed to Westwood at 9:30. The space is tucked sideways, perpendicular to a strip center with another Korean-owned eatery, focused on bbq, called Kimchi Smoke, which moved from Bergenfield. The bakery case in front appeared nearly wiped clean, but there were a few desserts left. The Korean man (owner/partner) explained that these rectangles were called pallets. They are like mini-pound cakes that are warmed up and sliced, but they’re elaborate. One was pistachio, draped in white chocolate and another was milk chocolate and coffee with almonds. I ordered one of each to sit down and enjoy.


The back room is the open kitchen with counter and stools, along with a handful of tables. I was given a menu for separate plated desserts, which were more elaborate. At this point of the night, I had not eaten dinner. Dessert was destined to be my dinner because that’s what Ciel serves, and it’s served very well! Chef (and co-owner with her spouse) Jane’s resume sparkles in the pastry arts. Eleven Park Madison, Le Cirque and Nobu piqued my level of impression.  They both explained that they don’t and won’t serve savory dishes because they are doing only what they do best…..dessert! After all, you wouldn’t expect the pitmaster at Kimchi Smoke to serve up crème brulee.

When asked for a recommendation off of the dessert lounge menu, the gentleman suggested the chocolate soufflé as a first timer (a familiar French word of course). It is


baked to order in seven minutes and served with fresh made creme chantilly. The airiness and the gooey inside combined in a light and not-so-sweet marriage. That choice paired with the two “pallets” should’ve been a good enough first-visit tasting. But no; I had to notice the apple tarte tatin. I couldn’t  pass it up. It was the most beautiful looking of the desserts I had, but also the smallest portion. Here, Chef Jane’s artistic prowess was exhibited best. The “tarte”  looked like a large, square caramel filled with pieces of fresh apple. It was decorated with thin, dried apple slices, dabs of meringue and radish micro greens.


Remember, French pastries such as these are meant to be tasted meticulously and slowly with small bites because the portions are not large. The textures are meant to touch every side of your mouth. In fact, the tasting of such desserts, rather than shoveling, is celebrated with a distinctive offering….a dessert tasting menu experience. Ciel offers a 20170920_215724five-course dessert tasting that she serves at the counter. The unique experience with her personal explanations takes about 1.5 hours. There’s also a three-course version that would take about 45 minutes. Reservations for a tasting experience is required at least 48 hours in advance. The tasting menu option truly brings the quality and New York food experience across that river and into this Bergen County town that’s filling up as a foodie destination.

She is quoted in The Record: “I barely use sugar. Fruits — raspberries, mangoes, cherries — have plenty of sweet in them. I don’t use anything that isn’t good for your body.” Her partner told me he goes to the market every morning to select the freshest fruits.

Dessert you can feel good about consuming! She even offers some that are vegan and gluten free, so there’s no excuse for anyone not to try her creations.

UPDATE: This writeup tasted so good to my co-workers, we all decided to try the three-course tasting created by Chef Jane. The images will artfully and tastefully speak for themselves…



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”.





rrFor those who concur that food and music can determine a good time – most hosted occasions require more than a tray of penne marinara and salad from your local pizzeria. Now I’m not saying that New Jersey’s pizzerias can’t deliver good food because we New Jerseyans know we have some of the best pizza around. I am talking about the milestone life events, such as a first-year wedding anniversary.

In August 2002, I was trying to plan something special for our one-year September anniversary. It needed to involve really good food and really good music. The standards to be met were high. My husband, although not a professional chef by trade, is an excellent cook. He was also a musician, so I knew the quality had to be high for both. While we had often eaten at fine establishments, this had to be a little more personal. I came up with the idea of hiring a personal chef for the evening and a harp player (couldn’t get one to carry their harp up my front steps, so I wound up with a classical guitarist). I didn’t know anyone who did this at the time, so I researched and came up with Chef John Deatcher/Foodini’s Catering. He’s based in Neptune, but traveled to North Jersey. Unlike some others I had contacted, John did not just offer set menus. He worked with me to create personal dishes for each course with the entrée being Chilean sea bass. We enjoyed his food so much that I hired him to cater a 40-person birthday party. He was impeccable in cleanliness too.

429639_511561445556758_1698383510_nIn 2002, there was no Facebook, so I was not privy to Robert Russo’s journey into the culinary world. We grew up in the same town, and when I found out he had opened a small, high-quality restaurant in Hasbrouck Heights, we immediately made reservations. It was 4-star food and ambience. While the Red Hen Bistro had too short a life, it was even too much for Russo to handle on top of his flourishing catering business. As much as he and everyone who set foot in there loved the restaurant, he decided to put all his efforts into Robert Andrews Caterers & Special Events. While I have not had the need to hire Robert yet in this capacity, I have had the privilege of being served his food personally. His passion for cooking is evident and his desire to “serve only the best for the best” – in his words – has propelled him to go the path of all natural and organic and no GMOs. Robert caters all types of events and provides a personal chef service as well. Maybe Robert’s catering business was not born yet in 2002, and I would not have had this option, but if you want to impress your guests who are wooed by quality food, hire this New Jersey home-grown chef. You’ll understand what it’s like to eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant.


Chef’s Table is True to Its Name

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare is true to its moniker; It is not the guests’ table. This is Chef Ramirez’s house and his rules (that seem reminiscent of an undisclosed Seinfeld episode).

I had been looking fChef's Tableorward for months to this celebratory dinner and am ashamed to admit that I was not more educated about the restaurant when it was suggested. When I read what little description I could find about the potential dishes,  the princess awaited her chariot to set out for an evening of exquisite, perhaps unknown foods that the mouth could discover for the first time. With only 18 seats, no menu, and Chef Ramirez preparing each of the 20 or so plates in front of the patrons’ eyes, I was prepared to be part of an elite group. But something felt a little cold when we entered the small room: The shared “table”/counter is stainless steel; the stools are metal; the cooking apparatus was steel; and there was a cluster of copper pots over the cooking stage area. The glass door was locked behind us when the final eight were seated. My eyeballs rolled around rapidly without moving my head like a painting in a horror flick. I immediately understood there was a certain decorum that needed to be followed that was more stringent than anywhere I’ve eaten. It was a bit unsettling; I had never set foot in such a restricting environment and a fleeting second of prison whizzed by until the aromas corrected my train of thought. The following second, images of an operating room flew through my head and were reinforced by the surgical tweezers the professionals held daintily to decorate the presentations and precisely garnish with microgreens and edible flowers. One millimeter misplacement seemed it would cause trouble.

The Chef and his assistants were already delivering plate number six to the first group of 10 guests, so it offered us a sneak preview of dishes to come our way. It was not the workings of a typical commercial kitchen – it was a silent ballet with art being sculpted atop each white canvas. There was no speaking, just coordinated movement among the team. Chef Ramirez, with his shaved head and glasses blended into the environment – he looked cold, yet I observed him admirably, knowing that familiar intense facial expression of concentration geared for perfection.

I had been forewarned by a friend who had dined here recently that no photos are allowed. I asked disappointingly, “You mean no flash?” No – no photos, period. My dining experiences generally don’t end when I leave a restaurant (unless I want to forget); I like to recall what I ate and at least re-live the meal visually. How were so many courses going to remain in my memory when I relay the details of the evening to others? My friend had the idea of texting himself minimal details of each one when the woman in the moat between us and the “kitchen” placed down and described the dishes. Every ingredient was obviously not divulged; that was for our palettes to decipher. By the 9th course, the server leaned in and said, “I’m sorry; we have a rule of no note-taking.” While it sounded absurd, of course he abided  and put the phone away. Now, there would be minimal recall. I leaned back and forward hoping, twisting to see Marilu Henner with her H-SAM memory. It would be the perfect way to avoid this regulation.

At least 10 minutes later, Chef Ramirez creepily appeared behind and between me and my friend: “How are you?” directed at both of us. “Very good; thank you,” I replied. He faced my friend and sternly said, “Stop taking notes!” Words followed, but it was all a blurred mumble as I regressed to grammar school being reprimanded by a teacher. It was extremely rare. From that point on, the dining experience changed. In order for one to be ‘scolded’ for breaking a rule, that person needs to be made aware of the rule. It would have been a good idea at the beginning of the meal or at the time of reservation for the cruel rules to be provided. It was slightly embarrassing because the woman next to us asked what that was all about. She made the side-lips, nose-scrunched face I felt was my expression also.

Somehow the food gradually cleansed the growing irritation that moment brought upon us. Maybe it was the foam in many of the plates that soothed the beast. The tastings shot off with cucumber sorbet with cucumber foam resting atop to awake our tongues and let us know the epicurean journey was beginning. Next, served in an egg-shaped holder set on a magnetized, angled plate was raw island oyster with a granny smith apple custard and puffed rice pieces. My belly was just getting tantalized. I wondered if all these raw bites would satiate my hunger, as good as they were. Following was blue nose, a coldwater (fits the theme) fish from New Zealand with jicama and cilantro. The king salmon with trout roe was then claimed as my favorite thus far. The anticipation was growing. The star butter fish with pickled daikon and fresh wasabi would’ve normally been impressive but fell back a slot after the last dish. Then came two superb winners one after another: knife jaw fish with cucumber and cucumber blossom, and golden eye snapper with crispy kelp and shiso. My new bff (best food favorite) changed every few minutes. The new one was red sea perch with black vinegar dressing. My least favorite , and I had been avoiding sea urchin crawling into my life until this moment, but it was still good: Hokkaido uni with black truffle and…..the disciplinary moment hits.

I remember some cooked items being turbot, scallops with ramps and chewy abalone, and the homerun poached lobster with langostine ravioli. The desserts fell a little short for me starting with a three-cheese selection, followed by a plate of air, which was frozen melted chocolate, and a chocolate ganache with cherry sauce. Overall, the taste and presentation deserve an A+ for artistry. My tummy was comforably full with no buttons needing to be undone, but Chef Ramirez failed to make us feel welcome in his house. He walked out of there and hailed a cab – not a word to any of the diners who are filling his pockets.

Red Hen Bistro – Game for the Food Serious

It sounds like a quaint place; doesn’t it? Well it is. Social media brought me to this restaurant through a grammar school friend. It was a post from her ‘kid’ brother, who is now a chef. He’s opening a restaurant? It doesn’t make any sense to me. How could little Rob Russo be a chef? Oh yeah, he’s only two years younger than me, and we’re all grown up now.

I felt almost obligated to give it a try; after all, we grew up in a small town. That obligatory support for a new restaurateur turned into a suprising reward. Not only does this guy know how to cook, he honed his skills in the presence of David Burke! But alot of people can cook, you say. Yes, but not alot of people spill passion all over the plate. It’s evident that there’s been an ongoing love affair between Chef Russo and food (sorry to spill the beans). I don’t know when it began, but I’m certainly thrilled that I now have a chance to be the recipient of his skill and artful presentations.

IMG_4041There was discussion somewhere about the braised beef short ribs being a staple on the menu from the previous owner. So naturally I had to try them and immediately understand the hype. The thyme-infused  jus ran over the meat like warm lavaIMG_4036 down the side of a volcano’s soft core. It naturally blended with the ribs and the potato celery root gratin. But before all that succulence, we were presented with an amuse bouche – an eggshell filled with shredded beef (I forget), mushrooms and a ratatouille with a custard at the bottom. The tiny spoon forces one not to shove a heaping spoonful into the mouth as one would easily be inclined to do, breaking all rules of fine-dining manners.

We each tried one appetizer because they all sounded good: the French Onion Dumplings, the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake – which WAS jumbo and crab-intense with minimal binder – and wanted to order more, but the food is not inexpensive. It is well-priced, however, considering nothing is ever frozen here, and he is able to buy super fresh product for the only two days open for dinner.IMG_4037IMG_4038

 The entree choices do not read like a diner – there are about eight , carefully selected to cover every avenue: poultry, seafood, pasta/vegetarian, pork, lamb. And it has varied slightly with each of my visits, so I can’t get bored.


“Barley Style Risotto” / Shitake / Butternut Squash / Sweet Pea Emulsion /
Truffle Drizzle

Young Rob Russo has grown into a big food sensation on a small side street, not far from the small town we grew up in. It was impossible to leave without trying the dessert that rang sweet-nothings in my ear when it came off the waiter’s lips: croissant bread pudding with tempura bananas!  While bread pudding would never be my first choice for dessert, this one will always be my first choice here – of course until I hear one of his amazing new creations (yes, he makes his own desserts too).IMG_4043

How can you not want to continue this symbiotic relationship when the last thing you see before walking out the door is the chef’s ear-to-ear smile reading “Yeah, my food made them happy.”