Posts Tagged ‘seafood’

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.

 

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.

o-1

o-2

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.

20160219_205800

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.

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.

577860_511561342223435_183661571_n

Old-Walled Spanish Restaurant

NY Eater’s eblast popped up in my email, and it opened up with pictures of paella, yummy paella: 10 Old Fashioned Spanish Restaurants to Try. The visual is the first entryway to tantalizing my tummy, and I became very hungry and passed judgment quickly by the photographs. Spain restaurant had by far the most attractive-looking photo of paella Valenciana. So allow me to be a bit shallow and judge first by appearance with my food because I try not to with people.

This shallow food gal headed to 13th street, based on dish appearance alone, to meet her digestive dinner date. For all I knew, this paella could be an imposter; it could be all looks and no taste. I approached the address, and the canopy over the sidewalk made it easy to spot. A took a step down, opened the white door and was faced with a bar that looked all of its years old (since 1967). There were a few tables, but we were led to the back dining room, which had stark white paint-cracked walls with crooked paintings and prints of Spain positioned haphazardly. I was getting a mélange of granny’s basement and an old museum or back of a church hall. But I still had hope for my radiant dish of mixed seafood to brighten the room.

We barely sat on bench seating with worn springs underneath, when servers delivered three small plates of food: mini Spain 004meatballs in a slightly spicy gravy, cold plump mussels topped with chopped onion, celery and red pepper; and sliced grilled chorizo. That was a warm welcome and helped to block out the blah room. When we were close to finished with our tasty samplings, a server came over and picked up the plate with the one chorizo piece and rambled in Spanish as if he believed he was communicating with us, all well gesturing for me to take the last piece. It brought humor to the table because I felt like I did not have the option of turning it down. As if you couldn’t tell yet, there’s nothing fancy or serious about this experience.

Then the paella arrived. It was the same silver pot I saw in the profile picture mounded with shellfish. The saffron-stained rice sat beneath the shells. Like an online dating site, the photo on NY Eater was dolled up, and live, there were no lobster claws but rather small pieces of tail that looked more like langoustine. All-in-all, the seafood was cooked properly, and the rice below was moist. It was a pleasant meal, and even more enjoyable at $23.95 with plenty of leftovers.

Spain 005

Perhaps the article I read, listing this as on of the Top 5, should be titled “old” restaurants instead of old-fashioned. Skip the cappuccino. It was hot water with a hint of coffee flavor. I expect more from a Spanish restaurant when it comes to coffee. I won’t be shouting olé, but it was an enjoyable evening. Next stop: Newark, NJ’s Iron Bound section for some “traditional” Spanish and Portuguese cuisine.

The Colors of Jean-Georges

A name like Jean-Georges Vongerichten connotes an air of fanciness – maybe even a bit pretentious – and preciseness. He delivered all of that upon our first approach to the entrance with the name in gold letters mounted upon a marble wall. It wasn’t easy to decipher that the restaurant was inside the Trump International Hotel and Tower, and we looked quite silly walking around the building trying to figure out where to enter.

After being greeted at the front desk, where it was reminiscent of checking into a hotel (oh right, we were in a hotel), we were seated at the bar since we were early and not primed to dine yet. The Nougatine room was sleek modern and offered a view into the working kitchen. I swiveled in my cushioned stool, bobbing my head left and right searching for a star-struck glimpse of Chef Vongerichten. ‘Is that him?’ I thought. It could’ve been, but my uncertainty brought my attention back to the pretzel sticks and spiced nuts on the bar. Something about the hard, tiled floor left me hoping we weren’t going to be seated in this area for dinner. It wasn’t $128/per person kind of nice, even though the front wall is entirely window looking upon Central Park across the street.

With relief, we were led into the carpeted restaurant and seated side-by-side on a curved couch-style bench, but our backs were facing the only decoration – the outdoors. It lacked color with the linens, window dressings, and chairs being mostly all white and taupe. Again, it felt a bit like a gala in a hotel. It having been September, it was getting to be dusk early, and so our outdoor painting was removed when the curtains were drawn. Optimistically thinking, the lack of color may have been intentional so as to let the true star of the evening burst decor…the food! All presented on white plates, each dish was an exploding art palette.

The prix fixe menu gave us each a choice of three items plus a dessert theme. And here were our selections.

SEA SCALLOPS – Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion

Jean Georges 006

 

 

 

 

 

 

YELLOWFIN TUNA RIBBONS – Avocado, Spicy Radish and Ginger Marinade

Jean Georges 005

 

 

 

 

 

BUCKWHEAT CRACKLING GULF SHRIMP – and Silky Carrot Cocktail Sauce

Jean Georges 008

 

 

 

 

 

 

ROASTED HAKE – with Basil, Crushed Tomatoes and Olive Oil

Jean Georges 007

 

 

 

 

 

 

CRISPY CONFIT OF SUCKLING PIG – Baby Beets and Ginger Vinaigrette

This was the whooah dish of the evening for me.  I vividly recall the crispy pork confit of ABC Kitchen. It’s branded in my tastebud memory. This was a larger tasting of heavenly crispiness.

Jean Georges 009

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLACK SEA BASS CRUSTED WITH NUTS AND SEEDS – with Nuts and Seeds, Sweet and Sour Jus

Jean Georges 010

 

 

 

 

 

 

I chose the FIG theme, and the following four desserts were brought out on a platter:

Concord Grape Sorbet, Fig Soda, Sesame Nougat
Fig Financier, Raspberries, Ginger Syrup
Warm Brioche, Port Poached Fig, Pistachio and orange Flower Glaze
Spiced Fig Jam, Soft Chocolate, Almond Milk Sorbet

Jean Georges 013

Jean Georges 014

 

 

 

 

 

 

He chose the SUMMER theme, which rewarded him with:

Sparkling Plum Soda, Riesling and Raspberries
Frozen Apricot Parfait, Candied Corn, Orange Sponge Cake, Currants
Stone Fruit Gelee, Almond Crunch Ice Cream, Honey Whole Wheat Cake
Warm Pain Perdu, Blueberry Jam and Lemon Thyme Roasted Peaches

Jean Georges 015

I’m not sure where to rank Jean-George among my Michelin-starred male culinary lovers, but if I were rich, I’d certainly give him another whirl soon. He made the top 5 with Eric, Daniel, David and Mario, but he might have to duke it out with Bobby for that slot soon.