Posts Tagged ‘Restaurant’

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’.

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.

Is my cozy Italian replaceable?

It happens, unfortunately, that the guy or girl you’ve been seeing almost every weekend for nearly six years just up and leaves one day without warning. The explanation is not satisfying nor does it help to replace the void you feel come Friday night. It did happen – Bocconi, who was hospitable, visually appealing and provided high quality food at most affordable prices, slammed its doors in my face unexpectedly. I did get a phone call after the fact, but it hurt. Where would I get those qualities again without traveling too far to meet up?

I admit; I wasn’t 100 percent loyal, but we all need a little variety from time to time. I always returned to my Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ, though. It was home in a sense – our Cheers. My friends would often visit us as well. Something about his landlord forcing him out with high prices touched my compassionate side for a day, until Friday came again. My selfish side scrambled to find a quick replacement to satisfy my social hunger needs. Hey, don’t judge: After all, he left me! How long does one have to wait before replacing the one who left you high and dry? And what about all the mutual acquaintances we developed because of our relationship?

It was only a couple months prior I had met La Cambusa in Garfield, NJ. “Very nice, very affordable,” I thought, “but where’s the Stracciatella Soup? What do you mean you’re not a byob? How come you’re not coming over to me and making friendly conversation? You’re nice, but I don’t feel like you appreciate me yet. I like the food you’re putting in front of me and you’re a little more polished looking than the last one.” So I gave him a second chance out of desperation. La Cambusa is a contender.

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

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Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

The Burrata appetizer ($9) with grilled zucchini and roasted peppers on mixed greens was comparable to Bocconi’s. Can you really go wrong with the natural creaminess of burrata? It’s about the presentation. His homemade pasta was the proper texture: a chewy al dente. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it reminded me of Play-Doh. Anyone who knows homemade pasta can relate to this as being properly cooked. The Fieno – straw & hay – ($17) with crabmeat, shrimp and peas in a pink cream sauce was actually not heavy and was dispersed with fresh seafood (yes, real lumps of crabmeat). It was one of the waiter’s recommended dishes after I asked for suggestions, along with an imported pasta dish of Pennoni with shrimp, clams and monkfish in a marechiaro sauce. Maybe I’ll dive into that on our next date. The specials were introduced to me, and while they were tempting, I really wanted to get to know the core of La Cambusa, since it was only our second date.

La Cambusa really deserves a chance. He doesn’t know my expectations from having been with Bocconi all these years, but certain things he just won’t be able to live up to (like the stracciatella soup). His dishes will obviously never be exactly the same. So in my mourning for the loss of my comfort-culinary companion, I am seeking a rebound place, not out of spite, just out of sheer need. If you decide you are able to come back, Bocconi, I will welcome you with open arms and return to you as well.

You’re a Shining Star, Batard

Every year, for the past five years, I select a Michelin two- or three-star NYC restaurant for my husband and me to celebrate our anniversary. It’s always a surprise to him, and I come off looking magnanimous and benefitting just the same. Having just returned from a California vacation, we needed to trim the expense this time, so I sought out a fine-dining establishment where we could experience high-quality, impressive dishes for maybe half of the cost.

Was this achievable? I was going to find out after securing a reservation at Batard in Tribeca. I had hope in that the restaurant received one Michelin star within its first year of business (opened May 2014). Additionally, Co-owner/Restaurateur Drew Nieporent has quite the resume in his Myriad Restaurant Group, including all the Nobus and Tribeca Grill. Chef and Partner Markus Glocker, of Austria, was most recently in the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay, which earned two Michelin stars during his time there. After doing my homework, I had comfortable expectations of the level of food we were going to consume. It was a different expectation than when we went to Jean Georges and Le Bernardin for example. With three stars, you walk in with one shining on you as the diner, who demands to get the best treatment, one on the server and one on the chef.

The menu at Batard posed some real first-world problems. We had to put a game plan in motion. First, there was the pre-fixe choices of two- ($55), three- ($69) or four-courses ($79)…now you see I’ve accomplished the price-cut challenge. We agreed to both do three courses, but now we had to decide which course..yes, you have a choice! After some algebraic equations, we figured the best combination would be if I ordered an appetizer, first course and entree and he ordered an appetizer and dessert. With this solution, we could share the first course and the dessert. After about 15 minutes – now you see why – we could rest our minds as two different warm, mini rolls were placed on our plates.image

I was torn between the pork belly and quail for an appetizer. When our waitress (is that a sign of a non-3 star?) answered, “No the pork is not crispy,” I was about to say “quail” until she said it was served cold. The pork belly was delectable! I would not have even known what I was eating. It was sliced like a paper-thin prosciutto with the center having a pressed cornbread and bits of blood sausage, happily draped over baby lentils. His OCTOPUS “PASTRAMI” had the appearance of head cheese without the gelatin. It was accompanied by bits of braised ham hock, pommery mustard and new potatoes.image

imageOur shared first course (are you keeping up with the plan?) was the scallops with leak confit, crispy potato strings, in a puddle of red wine sauce. During my first bite I felt both elated and guilty. I have always said my friend Rob Russo made the most tender and delicious scallops at the former Red Hen Bistro in NJ, but in that split second I felt bad to think these could even be a hair better. I absolved myself by believing it was imagejust because this was the more recent one. The “shared” course became 80% me, 20% him.

At a nice pace, and after a little time to process what we had, our entrees came. I was already completely convinced that this food was worth at least two Michelin stars in my book.

BRANDT BEEF SHORT RIB with grilled wagyu beef tongue, lovage polenta, pickled root vegetables. I had tongue only once before and in a Korean bbq style. I was a little nervous about rekindling that feeling of French-kissing a cow, but no; this tasted like a thin grilled steak. The short ribs barely required a knife.image

IMG_2059BRANZINO with roasted cauliflower, buerre noisette, and cannellini beans.

The fourth course rolled in with our shared dessert: DUCK EGG CRÈME BRÛLÉE spiced pineapple, verjus, yogurt sorbet. I’mIMG_2060 an extremely tough critic of desserts. It was good but not exquisite like every other dish. It wouldn’t have been my choice for dessert. I thank Batard for making a decent cup of coffee though…Your one star shines as bright as two!

Fresh from the Farm

When your mother guides you toward healthy eating habits through your growing years, it’s only proper to take her to a fine dining establishment that promotes fresh, local foods. Even though I broke my own principle of not dining out exactly on Mother’s Day, I made the reservation at Blue Hill in New York City’s West Village because the four-course prix fixe menu is standard there, holiday or not. Ingredients come from nearby farms, including the Barbers’ family-owned Blue Hill Farm in Massachusetts. While the already over-used term “farm-to-table dining” makes many eyes roll at the pretentious tone, it still evokes a health-conscious-good feeling in advance of the meal.

A short walk across Washington Square Park, and three steps downward off the sidewalk, we entered a private hideaway that could easily have been missed. The dining room was ordinary with some brick wall and didn’t have an embracing décor. With two items to select from for each of the four courses, the best idea was to order opposite dishes so we could essentially MothersDay15 003try the whole menu. The food that was presented before our first course was simplistic yet exciting – farm cheese that still looked like curd in cloth, butter rolled in toasted grains, and crusty bread (I wish I had written down the description of) preceded the complimentary whole carrots with edible tops and radishes with boursin dip. They were served on slate and appeared to have been plucked from the ground that day – to which my mother proclaimed, “I hope they washed them.”MothersDay15 002

The first course consisted of my Rotation Risotto: twelve local grains, legumes and seeds, and her Roasted Asparagus with beet yogurt and stinging nettles. When I asked the waiter about the risotto, he explained it was the rotation of crops used to consistently feed the farm animals throughout the year. The chef played with that concept to turn them into a creamy risotto. My mother then whispered something about us being guinea pigs.

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MothersDay15 007The second course delivered my Maine Halibut with currants, pine nuts, apple, fennel and chickweed, along with her Farm Egg, fiddleheads, morels and ramps. Are you feeling the flood of vitamins yet?MothersDay15 006

The main course for me was Roast Chicken, curried carrots and fighter spinach. Don’t sigh at the boring thought of chicken. This bird did not taste like Perdue. It was something far more flavorful. Even more scrumptious was her Grass Fed Lamb with eight row flint corn, Jerusalem artichokes and pea shoots.

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We finished with poached Rhubarb, goat cheese, quinoa and blue hill milk sorbet plus a plate of Chocolate Bread Pudding, blue hill milk jam and cocoa nibs ice cream. We joked that the coffee would be disappointing after that wonderful meal. They should grow coffee beans because this coffee was watery and contradicted all that we consumed.

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SUSHI: A Tall Tail in New Jersey

Sushi came to America in the mid-60s, first hitting that large state on the opposing coast. It wasn’t until the early 70s that this type of food began its popularity growth in our country; however, it was finding its appeal mostly among upper class citizens. It was a novelty among food connoisseurs. Besides, who dared to eat raw fish? Was it safe?

Today, in New Jersey, there is at least one restaurant serving sushi in most suburban towns. But in Ridgewood alone, I count 10 sushi restaurants. That’s a 5.8-square-mile town. So the cuisine still must be a favorite among the higher economic class. We middle-class people love it too, and it’s evidenced by the abundance of locations. You can find one in the mall, in the local business district, and a number of supermarkets, such as ShopRite of Paramus have their own sushi chefs serving packaged rolls. The kaiten style of serving sushi is popular among kids and those in a rush. A variety of plates of typically two pieces rotate on a conveyor system, and patrons can just grab what they like. The plates are tallied at the end of the meal. East in Teaneck is a prime example, and the international Japanese-brand restaurant, YO! Sushi just opened at the Garden State Plaza, also kaiten style.

It was around 1996 when I made my first foray into a sushi restaurant. I wasn’t as exploratory with food as I am now, and my taste buds were still maturing. Arirang (now closed) was located in East Rutherford. My boyfriend – now husband – convinced me to try a “roll”. Being protective of my stomach, I refused to try anything yet that wasn’t cooked. So, of course, as most people do, I started with a California roll.

SIDEBAR: Yes, I mentioned that other state but with all due credit. It was invented in Los Angeles when a chef decided there was a need to substitute the seasonal fatty tuna that is traditionally in the maki roll. He used the avocado to imitate the texture of the tuna and then added the crab stick for a fish flavor.

Back to New Jersey. I couldn’t possibly select one sushi restaurant to profile. There are so many good ones and even more just-average ones. Personally, I don’t care for eating cold dinners in general, so I usually have sushi as an appetizer, a snack or a light dinner. After all, it can get quite costly for the amount of food you need to order to feel fulfilled. Here are just a few that I frequent in Northern NJ:

Nihon Kai, Bergenfieldsushi1-300x226

I wouldn’t rate Nihon Kai in the top 10 of New Jersey sushi restaurants, but the fish is consistently good, and the chef gets an A+ for creativity. When you’re sick of the usual Alaskan, Philadelphia and Boston rolls, check out some of his special rolls, such as the Sunshine Roll, consisting of tuna, salmon, mango rolled in seaweed, with shredded king crab, mango sauce, mayo and red tobiko on the outside.

 

 One of his latest specials is the Mounir Roll (he tends to name them after the customer who requests something different):

spicy, crunchy yellowtail, avocado, chili pepper, masago on the inside, topped with seared tuna, scallion, potato crisps, and a spicy sauce on the side. It’s a great play on texture.

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Hachi, Fort Lee

The former owner of Nihon Kai, Mister Lee kept it in the family but opened his new place in Fort Lee’s Linwood Plaza. While he tends to stick to some of the more traditional rolls, the quality of his sashimi is outstanding. The hot dishes and bento boxes are worth a try in combination with some sushi.sushi3-300x225

Here is a simply delicious spicy tuna inside/out roll wrapped in salmon, avocado and roe.

Wild Wasabi, Norwood

This is one of the high-quality fish establishments. You can feel it in the texture and taste the freshness. I’m always impressed when I watch the owner, “Young”, clean the case at the end of the night, inspecting for any minute smudge. He may grumble if you ask for him to create something new, but then he can surprise with this spoonful of tuna tartar.

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Don’t count out some Chinese food restaurants either because some really great salmon sashimi can be found at Empire Hunan, Fair Lawn and Teaneck. Just remember: If it smells fishy, then something’s probably wrong.