Posts Tagged ‘Chef’

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”.

 

 

 

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LET YOUR PERSONAL NEW JERSEY CHEF IMPRESS

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.

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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.

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DAY BOAT SEA SCALLOPS
“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.”

www.redhenbistro.com