“If you don’t try the salmon Franciscan when at Xocolatz, you’re missing the local favorite…It’s a dish with moxie.”
235 Elmer St., Westﬁeld. Phone: 908.232.3962
Open Sunday and Monday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Major credit cards. Reservations accepted. Prices: Appetizers: $7.95 to $15.95. Burgers: $10.95 to$16.96. Dinner salads: $8.95 to $16.95. Entrees: $15.95 to $26.95. BYOB.
Alex and Erin look a tad miffed. But mostly sad. We’ve scanned the menu at Xocolatz and their eyes have lighted immediately on the garlic shrimp starter. They want that; they really want that.
My response is immediate: “No!” I say, probably a little louder and more emphatically than I should, given that Xocolatz is a lovely restaurant in a lovely town (Westﬁeld) frequented by lovely families. “We eat garlic shrimp all the time. You’ve had garlic shrimp in every restaurant in the Ironbound. No kids have had more garlic shrimp than you two. You have to try different foods.”
They are good kids, mind you, and they do try new and different foods all the time. Their parents, my dear friends Daryl and Shawn, have made sure of that.
The thing is, Xocolatz, born as a dessert and coffee shop a good dozen years ago, has grown into quite the modern-day global-cuisine all-American eatery: As suburban New Jersey has diversiﬁed, so has the menu at this popular must-stop in the downtown district. It’s got a deﬁnite Latin beat to its eclectic cuisine, but it tilts Mediterranean now and again, and doesn’t stint on old-fashioned comfort foods—updated, of course.
There’s a lot to digest, in fact, on the menu, and Alex, 10, and Erin, 7, are willing to give it more than a look-see. I’m ﬁnding it hard to eliminate anything, frankly, from my own consideration. So I start softening my position regarding the garlic shrimp. They know it, it’s not something we need to try so we can understand a new food, a culture, a challenging ﬂavor—which is why we’re dining out, after all—but, gee, I think, it’s OK to repeat a repeat now and again.
Alex and Erin smile. And agree to try whatever new foods Daryl and I pass their way on this night of let’s-give-it-a-try dining.
I told you they were good kids. Very good kids.
The food at Xocolatz is very good, too. Including the garlic shrimp, which are moist, hopped up with garlic, brightened by smoky paprika and served with crunchy crostini that lap up the white wine sauce. We all love Bananas by the Beach, which sports sweet plantains layered with a snappy just-hot-enough chorizo and a chop of tomatoes. There’s a scattering of scallions to play with, plus a zippy mayo dashed with chipotle that keeps this app interesting.
Latin sliders are made with ground sirloin and that potent chorizo, so they’ve got more horsepower than your average mini-burger. The pickled onions and cilantro-ﬂecked dressing only add to the starter’s appeal. I personally adore the empanadas, which we get ﬁlled with chicken: The pastry patties have a freshness and spirit too often lacking in local incarnations. The catch-all nachos are crowd-pleasers, coming as they do with a ﬂourish of locally loved “campﬁre” chili, olives, scallions, avocados and chopped tomatoes.
Alex and Erin work hard at eating from all sides of the plate—meaning, we don’t push certain components of a dish to one side without giving them a fair try. In other words, every dish gets the It Could Be as Good as Garlic Shrimp treatment before it’s tried and judged.
BYOB…WITH A TWIST
Xocolatz is a BYOB but its menu is ﬁt for wine geeks. This is where you bring wines made from grapes that scare most folks. Gewurztraminer. Gruner veltliner. Tempranillo. Carignan. Mencia. Dishes here come full-ﬂavored, so don’t be shy or ordinary of vine and wine when you make a date for Xocolatz. Ask your wine merchant for a wine that’s spicy, fruit-forward and/or acidic. Break out of your box.
We’re told Bonnaire’s chicken is a signature dish here at Xocolatz, so we’re all over it. There’s a lot to devour: Chicken breasts get a dousing from a tropical-fruit salsa starring pineapple and peppers and sparked by nibs of pecans and dried cranberries. That’s layered with a coconut-passion fruit sauce, and all’s served with white rice and plantain chips. For a plate with a lot of ﬂavors, it was neither messy nor fussy, but controlled and focused. The chicken liked all its fruited companions.
I liked the ropa vieja, Spanish for “old rags,” which also intrigued Alex and Erin. Flank steak is shredded, kind of like pulled pork, and plied with piquant tomato sauce and slivers of onions. It’s my kind of comfort food, stuffed into ﬂour tortillas and eaten in turns with rice, black beans and delish fried sweet plantains. If you don’t try the salmon Franciscan when at Xocolatz, you’re missing the local favorite: It’s a dish with moxie, given that the seared salmon is served atop mini sweet potato cakes and a pile of sautéed spinach, then surrounded by tomatoes and mushrooms. The binder is a simple white wine sauce, made aromatic by herbs and garlic. Again, the folks at Xocolatz risk pushing the boundaries of too-much-going-on; but they make it work.
Alex is working so hard on the enchiladas Montes that I have to get a little aggressive to acquire my fair-share taste. No wonder: The pulled pork that stuffs the plump enchiladas is vivaciously seasoned and plays nicely with the accompanying queso blanco and avocado. The kicker? A terriﬁc tomatillo sauce that unites the ﬂavors exactly as it’s meant to do.
You’ve got to ﬁgure a restaurant born to ply the dessert trade wouldn’t stint on ﬁnales, and Xocolatz does not. They are not inventive, but rather standards served forth in generous portions. There’s a Key lime pie that isn’t quite as tart as it should be, and an Oreo cookie-chocolate mousse cake that taps into every possible chocolate on the planet (well, almost): Layered in this monster are its namesake sweets, plus fudge cake, dark chocolate, chocolate butter cream and cookie crumbs. Yup, mini Oreos sit atop the whole shebang. I’m thinking, as I watch Erin dive into the dessert, that the only thing it’s missing is a photo of Erin’s happy face as she eats it.
Bread pudding’s core is brioche, so it’s rich and a smidgen sophisticated. I like the freshness of the blueberries and strawberries as a counterpoint to the caramel-sauced confection. I also ﬁnd myself fond of the local take on ﬂan, infused as it is with passion fruit and more of that caramel. Didn’t think of passion fruit and caramel? Learn something new every day. Right?
At a good restaurant, it’s always right to eat with an open mind. Just like Alex and Erin do.
Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfeld has been shouldering the load on restaurant reviews since the second issue of EDGE. During that time, she was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize ﬁnalist in Public Service for her work exposing the ﬂaws, injustices and abuses in New Jersey’s property tax system. Andy also has published in-depth reporting on a range of topics, including criminal street gangs, agriculture, politics and the environment. A longtime member of the James Beard Restaurant & Chef Awards Committee, she is a specialist in artisan wines and recently was appointed Wine Director at Buy-Rite Corporation, implementing educational programs, coordinating special events and developing artisan wine sections for select stores.