Posts Tagged ‘eating’


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.


Dinner with a Side of Entertainment

Tableside food preparation in restaurants has been mostly a novelty of the past, as in the 70s and 80s; however, there appears to be a resurgence in New Jersey restaurants. Owners are trying to give us ever-demanding diners more for our money without having to add too much to their cost. People, in general, are easily entertained: a little mixing, a little fire and personal delivery from the preparer turns patrons’ heads, leaving others wanting that same special attention.clem 008

Most of us do not aspire to achieve sensory stimulation when ordering a Caesar salad, but if a cart comes rolling to the table, and the server carefully cracks eggs and combines the visibly fresh ingredients (rather than bottled dressing) to construct your salad – you feel privileged! The meal just became tastier and more memorable.

There are numerous rodizio restaurants, such as Rio Rodizio in Union, Rodizio Grill in Voorhees and clem 007 clem 006 clem 005 clem 003Casa Nova in Newark. But by definition, their meat carving is delivered as in all-you-can- eat format. The added entertainment while dining is predictable at both these and hibachi restaurants. It came as a pleasant surprise, though, this past Friday, when I found out a 99-year-old piano/singer friend of ours was playing at Il Cortina Ristorante. I hesitated because the address read “Paterson”, but the owners clearly understood this would cause trepidation and printed (Hillcrest section) on the web site. Without knowing anything about this section, I knew it meant a “don’t worry” section, and it is.

We walked in to find out that the staff of the former Bonfire in Paterson had been transplanted, and there was Clem at the piano, singing old standards. The music began our evening of entertainment-enhanced dining. After ordering a lobster and asparagus risotto and cappellini frutti de mare, all were intrigued at the preparation of a bowl of Caesar salad center room for another exclusive table. I wasn’t envious, because our house salads were a sight to behold, wrapped decoratively with a long sliver of cucumber. When other diners were on dessert, a cart came rolling out again. The flames are a sure-fire way to get attention and to get a dessert order from a table of people thinking they might be too full. It was bananas flambé served with vanilla ice cream. We wanted to feel just as important and placed an order too. Bocconi in Hackensack is another clem 011 Bocconirestaurant that performs this spectacle. They also filet branzino tableside, as does Il Capriccio in Whippany.

Maybe this added service is making a comeback in New Jersey, stepping up the experience of not-so-expensive restaurants and making them feel expensive. I can vouch that they are not doing it to distract you from food that isn’t good. They’re doing it because they know how to appeal to all the senses of their hungry customers, not just their sense of taste.

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Screaming for It

It’s summer, and I’m screaming! Where is the homemade ice cream?! For a quick fix, New Jersey has Baskin Robbins, which brings memories of my teenage years of scooping hard ice cream with my skinny arms, blending milk shakes, and constructing ice cream cakes by cutting the tubs of ice cream by pulling a metal wire that looked like a serial killer’s weapon. But back to happy, sweet, cooling treats: Unlike Manhattanites (until very recently when they opened their first), New Jerseyans have also had the option of soft ice cream and the indulgent concoction called a Blizzard from Dairy Queen.

photoWhen the warm weather hits, we foodies even get a little snobby about our ice cream. As with most delivered in mass quantities, quality suffers. With Baskin Robbins, some of those 31 flavors sit for a long time and harden, and the colors resemble a tie-dye shirt. I apologize to the lactose-intolerant, but I want my ice cream to have real cream in it and real nuts. Hold the preservatives please.

Because our East Coast state has limited ice cream-consumption weather, many of the stores that make their own are only open during this “season”. But, yes, some people still crave it in the winter regardless of temperature. So if you don’t have a homemade ice cream parlor near you, and you need to take your child’s softball team out after a game, by all means stop at your local DQ.

However, when it’s just you and your date, and you want to take the time to really enjoy your cone, visit one of these long-standing through-backs:

Denville Dairy has been around for about 32 years. While they offer soft-serve, diet, low-fat and sugar-free, the regular hard ice cream is most popular…and 32 flavors (they just had to top that other place that claims to have 31).

Applegate Farm has three locations –  Hoboken, Nutley and Upper Montclair. This farm has been producing fresh dairy products for Northern NJ families since the mid-1800s. It has become one of the largest retail outlets for ice cream on the East Coast, according to its website. They must be doing something right.

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One of my favorites is Bischoff’s in Teaneck. This confectionary staple just marked its 80th anniversary. It has the appearance of an ice cream parlor from the 50s with all the old-style candies to purchase, as well as counter stools. You can choose to sit with your friends in booth for more privacy. On a recent visit, my first of this year, I had to be sure and ask: “Do you still make your own?”

photo 3“Yes, we make all our ice cream in the basement.” It sounds so covert, but whatever the secret is, I just need to taste those ingredients, not know the quantities.

Van Dyk’s in Ridgewood is a close second, but it’s a bit hidden for those who do not venture to this neighborhood. There is no seating indoors, but most people sit down outside on the stone wall, if it’s not covered with melted drippings.

The Jersey Shore is rife with these gems, so find one, be a kid again, but this time taste the difference between home-made and mass-produced. You certainly will.

The Art of Italian Pastries

We all think of desserts in a different light. Some dream of deep-fried oreos, some envision a fondant-covered cake from Carlo’s Bakery. Me – I was brought up on good old-fashioned European-style Sunday desserts. We didn’t need colored sugar or a sweet toothache to get high off the delight of these desserts.

One could almost argue that they are the healthier version of desserts, usually laden with fruits. My mother’s signature is her pies/tarts: apple, pear, pecan, peach (see link above for more). Let’s just admit that Europeans are the rulers of desserts, and it could be quite a debate whether Italy or France would reign. When searching for special pastries that are American, we fall short in that we gear bakery items toIMG_6446ward children. When I close my eyes to get the connotation of “American bakery”, I come up with lots of unnatural colors, loads of sweetness, and icing – tons of icing – as in the no-textured messy dessert of cupcakes. Okay, so my connotation was extreme, but I think you will agree with my portrait of contrasts.

After taking my mother to an early Mother’s Day dinner at Bouley, I decided to take her the following week for a late afternoon dessert and coffee, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in New Jersey. Where do you take a woman from Europe who knows how to make some of the best classics and appreciates such high-end delicacies? I must ask another European who happens to own a restaurant, who happens to have worked at an upscale Italian restaurant, who happens to be Albanian (close enough). “Name two of the best places to sit down and have Italian pastries and coffee.” His response: “Roccos’ or Venerio’s.” So I drove her to Pasticceria Rocco on Bleeker.

We were seated in the back, which has an outdoor patio feel but is covered with a glass ceiling. Don’t look up because you will see dirt and leaves and sides of buildings. Just enjoy the natural light that peers upon you. Before our server came, we studied the cases up front to carefully make our selections. She couldn’t decide between the small lemon meringue pie and the multi-fruit and custard-filled puff pastry. Naturally, the only solution was to order both with a double espresso.IMG_6442 IMG_6443

Cheesecake is not usually my first choice, but the pistachio cheesecake whispered to me through the glass with its abundant chopped pistachio pieces. I watched my mother transform into a young child back at home, slowly consuming and savoring every bite as a rare treat. Time stood still for a little while as I glimpsed into the past.




And Rocco’s passed her coffee test. Not only was the double espresso served in a small coffee cup, but the potency measured up to her standards. It is difficult to walk by all these desserts without taking some home “for Dad”. It was a good excuse to get another little taste the next day.

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Craving for Tapas

Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque

It’s 4 p.m. Friday, and my body is starting to perform the no-dinner-plans shake. The easiest remedy is to rely on one of my staples like Bocconi, but this evening I was craving for something different with friends. I went into a Google and Yelp research frenzy. This was the night that tapas and I were meant to become acquainted. Not to sound cheap, but I always like to get the value of what is being paid, and the notion of spending $10 or more on “small” tasting plates never seemed favorable to my belly or my purse.

Cravings in Ridgewood, NJ, eradicated that stigma. Parking limitations in downtown Ridgewood can be a deterrent, but this place is located across from the train station, where cars are coming and going often, opening up spaces. The restaurant was bustling, yet we managed to get a 7:30 reservation with a few hours’ notice. The menu offered tapas portions and entree portions, but it wasn’t clear which was which with prices varying from $12 to $25 or so.  The waiter explained without us asking that items priced under $15 were tapas.

Lobster Sandwich

Lobster Sandwich

Anything “lobster” usually flashes loudly on the menu, and my friend heard and saw it clearly. He ordered the lobster bisque and the lobster sandwich, described as, “Maine lobster, buttered white toast, sunnyside egg, pickled onion salad”. The bisque was bouncing with lobster flavor, but any evidence of even bits of lobster meat swimming in that bowl was gone. I searched high and low for chunks of lobster in the “lobster” sandwich but could only see some orange flecks. The descriptions are a bit too promising. Maybe if they said “lobster-flavored”, the expectation would be lower and the dish would be very enjoyable just the same. The sweet/sour onions married beautifully with the arugula and fried egg.

The tapas portion sizes were generous.  They say pork fat rules; I say crispy pork fat rules. I was secretly clapping when my friend ordered the chicharones with clams and cannellini beans. We couldn’t decipher the difference between some of the white beans and the hunks of garlic. That’s a positive for some people like my other friend who collected them on her plate and ate them all like candy. Oh, but that crispy pork was predominately mine. It was a great trade. The ahi tuna tartare with cucumber and toasted sesame dressing was just the opposite, being a lighter, refreshing tapas. It was delicate and a bit hard to take off the plate, as the the thin slices of cucumber were too flimsy to hold the tartare. But once it hit your mouth, it didn’t matter how it fell apart.

Chicharones with Clams

Chicharones with Clams

Ahi Tuna Tartare

Ahi Tuna Tartare

My favorite, though, and surprisingly so, was the gnocchi topped with lamb and fresh thyme. The gnocchi wasn’t too dense, and the lamb added a bold taste to a normally bland pasta. However, I think it was an entree.

One of the other entrees we tried was the sauteed branzino with tomato, roasted fingerlings, kalamata olives. This was another winner for the crisp category.



The meal felt like an eating frenzy for my first tapas experience because there were a number of dishes coming out at once, and I didn’t know what order to go in. Each time a new plate arrived, it felt like the new kid striving for my attention. I now am proud to have a tapas stripe on my foodie belt and am ready to advance to Casa Mona in NYC.

Lemon Tart w/Blueberry Compote

Lemon Tart w/Blueberry Compote

Same Food, Different Name: Former Red Hen Showcases its Golden Egg – Chef/Owner

The Red Hen flew the coop..well not really. Red Hen Bistro just has a new name – Robert Andrew’s Kitchen, which is more suitable because it’s all about Robert. I’m not bragging about him; it’s just that he handles his kitchen all by his lonesome self. Why, because he’s a perfectionist at his craft and doesn’t want any dish going out beneath his standard of excellence.

flatbread with tomato and white bean dip

flatbread with tomato and white bean dip

And so we returned to the same location with only a different name on the door and some updated selections on the menu for spring. I don’t always like change, but this change is sublime. Quite honestly, my meal is not affected by the name on the door. We were seated at the table in the front window that faces all the other diners, feeling like we were looking upon our people. These were not ‘my people’ for sure. What has happened to eating etiquette?

Two tables in front of and perpendicular to us, there was a man in his 50s who received the succulent-looking pistachio-crusted rack of lamb. I ogled as he shoveled all of the vegetables forkful upon forkful into his gaping mouth. Echoes of my childhood filled the air: “Chew what’s in your mouth before putting more in.” It was like observing an eagle landing in a field with its wings spread to prevent a predator from stealing its food. Then, he began to attack the bones, picking them up and gnawing on them like a dog in training for a street fight. These were not ‘my people’.

We felt like we were hosting our own dinner party, and we were the guests of honor or royalty. The other diners glanced our way from time to time. I had fun pretending they were the peasants, but even jesters would have better manners. My attention was immediately pulled away from the savage beast when our appetizers floated down from the heavens onto our table: seared day boat scallops/fennel vinaigrette/parsley oil/blood orange salad/buttermilk foam/snow pea shoots (yes, that was one dish) and African adobo spiced tuna, seared/mango and avocado salsa/champagne cucumber noodles/crispy plantain chips. All the components played nicely together and were harmonious in color and contrasting textures. The hostess stopped in mid-question when she saw the enjoyment worn upon my facial expressions: “how is….” I said I hoped I wasn’t too loud with my mmmm’s.Day Boat Scallops

Spiced Tuna

Spiced Tuna

  My preference is to order a different entrée than my dining partner so I can sneak a taste of more than one. But the description of the new Chilean Sea Bass dish (pan roasted/caramelized shitake mushrooms/shaved asparagus with shallot and pancetta vinaigrette/crispy potato dumplings) hooked my selfishness to explore every morsel on that plate without having to share a bite and to be able to steal more of it if he couldn’t finish. During my last few bites, I glanced up to now see a 60-something couple directly in front of us, texting and playing games on their phones as their food is being placed in front of them. Really? I overheard the woman comment earlier on the amuse bouche (mushroom flan with vegetable ratatouille and braised short rib meat in an egg shell) how it tasted like rice pilaf! She was so immersed in her video game, she didn’t even taste or know what she was eating. It actually took some effort not to tell her that there was no rice in there. It was slanderous and disrespectful to Robert’s artful and carefully crafted creation. She was not worthy.

Chilean Sea Bass

Chilean Sea Bass

It took every spoonful of the banana croissant bread pudding to ease my mind and distract me from the kingdom of dining criminals before us. Oh, where has the honor gone for the culinary arts? I swear I am not a food snob; my mother just taught me how to respect and appreciate food and eat like a human.

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.