The Chef Recommends

EDGE takes you inside the area’s most creative kitchens.

 

Sonny’s Indian Kitchen Sonny’s Butter Chicken

225 Main Street • CHATHAM (973) 507-9462/9463 • sonnysindiankitchen.com

Sonny’s butter chicken is one of the best, delicious, smooth buttery and richest among Indian curries. It is made from chicken marinated overnight and baked in a clay oven then simmered in sauce made with tomatoes, butter and various spices.

— Chef Sonny

 

The Thirsty Turtle Pork Tenderloin Special

1-7 South Avenue W. • CRANFORD (908) 324-4140 • thirstyturtle.com

Our food specials amaze! I work tirelessly to bring you the best weekly meat, fish and pasta specials. Follow us on social media to get all of the most current updates!

— Chef Rich Crisonio

 

The Thirsty Turtle Brownie Sundae

186 Columbia Turnpike • FLORHAM PARK (973) 845-6300 • thirstyturtle.com

Check out our awesome desserts brought to you by our committed staff. The variety amazes as does the taste!

— Chef Dennis Peralta

 

Common Lot Wagyu Beef Tartar

27 Main Street • MILLBURN (973) 467-0494 • commonlot.com

Our wagyu beef tartar is paired with a Singapore style pepper sauce, summer herbs and flowers and sea beans.

— Head Chef/Owner Ehren Ryan

 

The Famished Frog • Mango Guac

18 Washington Street • MORRISTOWN (973) 540-9601 • famishedfrog.com

Our refreshing Mango Guac is sure to bring the taste of the Southwest to Morristown.

— Chef Ken Raymond

 

PAR440 • Chilean Sea Bass

440 Parsonage Hill Road • SHORT HILLS (973) 467-8882 • par440.com

It’s pan seared and served over corn, black beans, peppers, celery and pineapple, with a corn coulis sauce.

— Chef Pascual Escalona Flores

 

Galloping Hill Caterers

Galloping Hill Road and Chestnut Street • UNION (908) 686-2683 • gallopinghillcaterers.com

Galloping Hill Caterers has been an incredible landmark for over 70 years. We pride ourselves in delivering “over the top” cuisine, impeccable service and outstanding attention to detail. That is the hallmark of our success! Simply, an unforgettable experience. Pictured here is one of our crepes flambé that really creates lots of excitement!

— George Thomas, Owner

Welcome Back!

The restaurants featured in this section are open for business and are serving customers in compliance with state regulations. Many created special items ideal for take-out and delivery and have kept them on the menu—we encourage you to visit them online.

Do you have a story about a favorite restaurant going the extra mile during the pandemic? Post it on our Facebook page and we’ll make sure to share it with our readers!

Flavor Profile

There’s a lot going on in Indian curry dishes… but maybe not as much as you think.

Indian food is difficult to cook unless you own an Indian restaurant. In places like New Jersey, where this cuisine has become increasingly popular, even the most intrepid diners still operate under this assumption. Home chefs who have mastered the intricacies of Vietnamese Pho, Thai stir fry, Jamaican jerk chicken and Brazilian barbecue not only tend to be intimidated by the thought of diving into Indian curry, they find the thought of navigating their way through the aisles of places like Patel Brothers utterly terrifying.

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Granted, if you’re new to cooking Indian curries at home, you might feel a little overwhelmed. Curry is all about subtlety and complexity, after all. But once you stop to take it all in and begin to learn the differences in the food of the wonderful country of India, things will start to fall into place. Your journey into Indian cuisine will be easy and enjoyable, and change any preconceived ideas that Indian food is difficult to cook.

With 29 states and seven union territories, it is said that the language and food of India changes every 50 miles as you travel the subcontinent. Each state has its own regional specialties, and then there are sub-cuisines that reflect religion, caste, the climate and availability of local ingredients. For example, a lentil stew called sambar—known throughout the country’s southern states—will be made slightly differently wherever you visit.

Not surprisingly, everyone claims that their version is the best. Sound familiar?

It would be impossible to put all the curries of India in a single book. Great tomes have been written, and still none can be considered truly comprehensive; such is the nature of a cuisine that caters to almost 1.4 billion people—and where the ingredients used in a dish can change from village to village and even household to household (all without recipes to guide them!). It is testament to Indians’ love of food that a recipe will be refined and perfected over time to suit personal tastes: a little more spice here, a different vegetable there, and then passed down through the generations to create family favorites.

Despite these subtle differences, there are, of course, popular dishes that everyone cooks and for which India is famous, and last year I collected 50 of the best (and easiest) vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes to make from scratch in 50 Easy Indian Curries. I also included simple instructions for pastes, rice and breads to complete an Indian meal. With a few essential Indian pantry staples and fresh ingredients—all of which can be found at any decent supermarket—each curry can be made in an hour or less, or thrown into a saucepan and left to slow cook on the stove while you get on with something else. The keys are ease and speed (plus some fun shopping adventures).

Make A List

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On your next trip down the GSP to Patel’s (or another of New Jersey’s growing number of South Asian supermarkets), bring this list along. It’s what you’ll need to stock your “Indian Pantry” and execute every curry recipe in this article.

Asafoetida • Pure asafoetida (or heeng) has a strong, almost off-putting smell that dissipates when cooked and is used as a substitute for garlic and onions by Indians who avoid these ingredients. Just a pinch of asafoetida is enough to flavor a dish. You will find it in small plastic containers, diluted with rice or wheat flour to dull down the pungent smell.

Cardamom • Cardamom is a perfumed spice that is much loved throughout India. It is equally at home in baked treats and confections as in curries. You’ll notice the recipes in this story and in my book use both green and black cardamom pods, so buy both.

Chillies • Indian food is almost incomplete without chillies yet, ironically, the chilli plant is foreign to India—arriving with the Portuguese in the 15th century. Indian cuisine uses green and red fresh chillies, along with chilli powder, the most famous of which comes from Kashmir.

Cinnamon • Whereas cinnamon is often reserved for baking in the U.S., in India it is part of a collection of whole spices that are added to curries. Often confused with cassia—which comes from China and has a slight amount of heat—real cinnamon only grows in Sri Lanka.

Cloves • Cloves, which are not native to India, have a strong, astringent flavor profile and should be used sparingly in dishes.

Coriander • Coriander seeds are used extensively in Indian cuisine for their warm, nutty flavor. Lightly toasted, they become even more fragrant and, when powdered, they tone down other strong flavors, such as chilli. Coriander leaves (aka cilantro) are commonly added as a garnish and never cooked in order to retain their vibrant green color.

Fenugreek • The whole seeds are used as a tempering in dals, as well as being added to Indian pickles. Fresh fenugreek leaves are used extensively in cooking and their dried form—known as kasuri methi—is sprinkled on top of cooked dishes for its aromatic quality. It’s a true wonder spice.

Garam Masala • A powdery blend that roughly translates to “hot spice,” it actually doesn’t contain much heat. It is made by dry-roasting different types and quantities of spices and then blending them together. Garam masala is typically added at the end of cooking, the purpose being to add aroma and flavor, without overpowering the final dish.

Turmeric • Indian kitchens would be colorless without this wonderful spice. Known not just for its culinary use but also for medicinal and antiseptic qualities, turmeric is also the only spice that Hindus use for devotional purposes. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which is known for its healing properties. Once you gain confidence, you may even find yourself adding your own twists and flourishes. Indian food, after all, is more than an explosion of flavors, colors and spices. Like all the great world cuisines, it is a form of personal expression. Here are a half-dozen relatively simple curry dishes—each serving four—that you can make in your own kitchen and, ultimately, make your own…

Eggplant Masala

Eggplant is a popular ingredient in Indian cuisine. Roasted, grilled or fried, it adds a “meatiness” to vegetarian curries. This eggplant masala is simple and quick to make and goes perfectly with other curries. The yogurt adds a delightful fresh touch.

You’ll need…

2 large (about 2 lb.) eggplants (aubergines), cut into (3/4”) chunks

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

3 Asian shallots, sliced

2 (3/4”) pieces of ginger, finely grated

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 long red chilli, chopped

14 oz. canned crushed tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

pinch of ground cloves

1/4 cup of natural yogurt

Cilantro and papadam (Papadam is a deep-fried crunchy dough that can be purchased pre-packaged or made at home.)

Place the eggplant in a large bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Toss to combine and set aside for 30 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry with paper towel. Heat a large heavy-based non-stick frying pan over high heat. Working in batches if necessary, add the eggplant to the dry pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes per batch, until lightly browned all over. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Heat the ghee or oil in the same frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds and sizzle for a few seconds. When the seeds start to crackle, add the shallot, ginger, garlic and chilli. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden. Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and 125 ml (1/2 cup) of water and return the eggplant to the pan.

Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes, until the eggplant is very tender and the sauce has thickened slightly. Season with a little salt, if necessary. Spoon the yogurt over the curry, garnish with coriander leaves and serve with papadams on the side.

Goan-Style Vegetable Curry

The state of Goa on the southwestern coast of India is known for its delicious fish curries, beer and a very chilled-out approach to life. But Goa also has many vegetarian dishes in its culinary repertoire, and this vegetable curry is one of the best. Coconut grows abundantly in the region, and here it adds a subtle, creamy flavor that elevates the dish.

You’ll need…

2 tablespoons coconut oil or vegetable oil

10 oz. cauliflower florets

1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1/2” pieces

1 onion, chopped

1 tomato, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ginger and garlic paste

2 small green chillies, sliced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

8 fl. oz. coconut milk

1 large carrot, chopped

5-6 oz. green beans, trimmed and sliced

1/4 cup freshly grated coconut, plus extra to serve (You can also use frozen grated coconut, which can be purchased at most NJ grocery stores.)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

A handful of cilantro, chopped, plus extra to serve

1-2 teaspoons tamarind purée, to taste

Steamed basmati rice

Heat a large frying pan over medium heat and add half the oil. Add the cauliflower and potato and sauté for 4-5 minutes, until lightly browned. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Add the remaining oil to the pan along with the onion and sauté for 5-6 minutes, until softened. Add the tomato and cook for 2 minutes or until softened, then add the ginger and garlic paste and cook until fragrant. Add the chilli and spices and cook, stirring, for a further 2 minutes or until fragrant.

Add the coconut milk, along with 1 cup of water, all the vegetables and the grated coconut, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, season with the salt and cook (covered) for 10-12 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the chopped coriander and tamarind, to taste. Garnish with extra coriander and/or extra coconut and serve with steamed basmati rice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Goan-Style Prawn Curry

Goans are particularly proud of their prawn curries and when you make this you’ll see why. The key to this dish is to ensure that the prawns are not overcooked. Served with lime wedges for extra zing. Like all of the dishes in this story, it serves four but be warned: Everyone will probably be going back for seconds.

You’ll need…

1 tablespoon peanut oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 small tomato, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ginger and garlic paste

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

10 fl oz. coconut milk

2 lbs. raw prawns, peeled and deveined, with tails left intact

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1-2 teaspoons tamarind purée, to taste

Cilantro for garnish

Steamed basmati rice

Lime wedges

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-8 minutes, until softened and starting to brown. Add the tomato and cook for 2 minutes, or until softened. Add the ginger and garlic paste and cook until fragrant.

Add the spices and cook, stirring, for a further 2 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and add the prawns, salt and tamarind purée. Stir and cook for 4-5 minutes, until the prawns are just cooked through. Scatter with coriander leaves and serve with steamed basmati rice and squeeze the lime over the entire dish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tandoori Chicken

A tandoor is a clay oven set into the earth and fired with wood or charcoal. It can reach eye-watering temperatures of up to 900°F, allowing marinated meat to cook very quickly. Alas, not many of us have a tandoor in the backyard, but you can still rustle up a reasonable facsimile of this dish using a domestic oven. The trick is to spatchcock (aka butterfly) the chicken— a technique that will change your culinary life if you don’t know it already, even if you never cook a single Indian meal.

You’ll need…

Whole chicken, about 3 1/2 lb.

3/4 cup natural yogurt

1/2 cup Tandoori curry paste (see below)

Cilantro

Lemon wedges

1 package/4 pc. of naan

First, butterfly the chicken. Using kitchen scissors, cut along both sides of the backbone and remove. Turn the chicken over and place on a clean work surface. Using the heel of your hand, press down firmly on the breastbone to flatten. Score the chicken about 1/2 in. deep through the thickest parts of the breast, thighs and legs. Combine the yogurt and tandoori curry paste in a bowl, then rub all over the chicken, rubbing well into the scored areas. Transfer to a baking tray lined with baking paper, then cover and marinate in the fridge for 2-4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 465°F, using the convection option if you have it. Roast the chicken for 30 minutes or until it starts to char in spots. Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F and continue to roast the chicken for 5-10 minutes, until cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest, covered loosely with foil, for 10 minutes. Scatter the coriander over the chicken and serve with lemon wedges and naan on the side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malai Kofta

Everyone in New Jersey seems to have their own family recipe for meatballs. Well, since kofta is basically an Indian meatball, this may be your initial comfort zone. Malai kofta is an excellent dish to make when entertaining because it never fails to wow everyone. You can either serve the koftas on their own with the sauce on the side for dipping or stir the koftas through the curry at the end of cooking and serve with rice.

You’ll need…

14 oz. floury potatoes (low in moisture, high in starch)

Sea salt

1 cup grated paneer cheese (you can substitute tofu for vegans)

1 tablespoon finely chopped cashew nuts

1 tablespoon finely chopped raisins

3 tablespoons corn starch

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon chilli powder (optional)

Vegetable oil for deep-frying

1/4 cup of cream

Steamed basmati rice

Malai kofta sauce…

1/3 cup of vegetable oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon ginger and garlic paste

2 cups puréed tomatoes

2 tablespoons cashew nuts, finely ground

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 fresh or dried bay leaf

1 cinnamon stick

4 cloves

3 green cardamom pods, bruised

1/2 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves, crushed

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

Peel the potatoes, then transfer to a saucepan, cover with cold water and add a good pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and cook until tender. Drain, then mash and set aside to cool. Combine the potato, paneer, cashews, raisins, corn starch, garam masala, chilli powder (if using) and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a bowl. Knead the mixture into a soft dough, then divide into 12 portions and roll into smooth balls. Set aside.

To make the sauce, heat three-quarters of the oil in a frying pan over low heat. Add the onion and ginger and garlic paste and cook for 10 minutes. Add the tomato purée, ground cashews and 1 cup of water and simmer for 5-7 minutes, until slightly thickened. Season to taste with salt. Transfer this mixture to a food processor and blitz to a smooth sauce. Wipe the pan clean. Heat the remaining oil in the pan over medium heat and add the cumin seeds, ground coriander, turmeric, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, cloves and cardamom pods and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until fragrant. Pour the sauce back into the pan and add the fenugreek leaves and garam masala. Gently warm through.

Back to the kofta…Heat enough oil for deep-frying in a saucepan to 375°F. Working in batches, deep-fry the kofta for 2-3 minutes, until well browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel to drain, then gently stir through the sauce. Transfer the malai kofta to a serving dish and drizzle the cream over the top. Serve with the steamed basmati rice on the side.

Lamb Rogan Josh

A famed dish from the beautiful state of Kashmir, the fiery red color of rogan josh comes from the chillies that are added in generous quantities. Rogan josh is usually cooked with tomatoes, but they are omitted here to allow the flavor of the lamb to shine through even more.

You’ll need…

2-plus lb. boneless lamb shoulder or leg, cut into 1” pieces

1 1/2 cups natural yogurt

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 oz. ghee (Indian clarified butter)

1 cinnamon stick

2 teaspoons green cardamom pods, bruised

4 brown or black cardamom pods, bruised

1/2 teaspoon cloves

3 onions, chopped

2 tablespoons ginger and garlic paste

1 tablespoon Kashmiri chilli powder

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

Large handful of chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon garam masala

4 pc. Paratha (Indian flatbread)

Combine the lamb, yogurt and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a large bowl. Cover and set aside to marinate. Heat the ghee in a heavy-based saucepan over medium heat. Add the cinnamon, cardamom pods and cloves and cook, stirring for 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the onion and remaining salt, reduce the heat to medium–low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 20–25 minutes, until golden brown.

Add the ginger and garlic paste and cook, stirring for about 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the lamb mixture, chilli powder, paprika and turmeric to the pan. Mix well and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, for 80 to 90 minutes, until the lamb is tender. Stir in the coriander and garam masala and season to taste. Serve with paratha on the side.

 

Editor’s Note: In her 50 Easy Indian Curries (Smith Street Books, $29.95), Penny Chawla covers restaurant classics—such as dal makhani, pork vindaloo and saag paneer—and lesser-known regional gems, including beef Madras and Bengali fish curry. “There is a curry here for everyone.” After watching Bend It Like Beckham, many wondered what was so special about making a “full Punjabi dinner.” Find this story at edgemagonline.com and look for bonus content that clears it all up!

Common Lot

“Waygu beef tartare is, in its elegant simplicity and focus on flavor, divine.”

Two curries, a carbonara and a cassoulet, plus plancha’d fluke, pastrami’d salmon and a pudding of sticky dates are on Ehren Ryan’s always-evolving menu on this night at Common Lot, world tour and tour de force colliding at the two-storied epicenter beloved by fellow chefs and home cooks.

I break into the light crust of breaded paneer, swiping the milky cheese in its curry, a wash of sienna and olive green with dots of tangerine and lime. The colors are retro 1970s, but the tastes are fashion-forward. Ryan’s singularly clear-eyed abracadabra refreshes the roles of ginger, mustard seeds, cinnamon, turmeric and their comrades, allowing them to add warmth and depth and a mysterious range of emotions to a dish gone stale. Fried paneer, the mozzarella sticks of South Asia, is no longer the equivalent of bar food; it simply raises the bar on what to do with a staple whose frequent modifier is bland.

Its tangle of greens, leaves of emerald, forest and hunter veining rich cordovan, tango with a chiffonade of pale, crunchy cabbage and puffed rice kernels. You’ll want to make the effort to get some of everything on your forkful—paneer, curry, leaves, crisped things—so you can understand what Ryan has orchestrated: peak culinary confluence.

In the six years since Ryan, who hails from Australia, and his wife Nadine, born in Austria, opened Common Lot in Millburn, they have been influencing those open to exploration of new foods as well as forever-there foods in need of a re-set. More than any other Garden State restaurant serving forth in this century, Common Lot has presented the next big thing. And when it’s done with it, typically well before it’s run its course, it’s gone. To be replaced, we soon learn, by chef’s sorcery, a combination of whimsy, whim and, always, wisdom.

I may miss the dish I always thought of as bo ssam lamb, but I’ll never believe I’m settling for an also-ran in the meat department with Waygu beef tartare, showered with salty parmesan that rather looks like flakes of sea salt, near-translucent wisps of pickled onion and capers, fried until beautifully bloated and pricked open so they, too, can add their rush of salinity to the plush beef. It’s all encircled by a puree of arugula that brings more than a spot of pepperiness to the dish. If Ryan wanted to play cute, he could call this Salt & Pepper Beef. But he needs no gimmicks, not in title, not in concept. His Waygu beef tartare is, in its elegant simplicity and focus on flavor, divine. Similarly, he’ll cure salmon with pastrami seasonings and present it with carved petals of ginger, a subtle crème fraiche and dabs of salmon roe. The result: equal parts restraint and reverie.

There are occasional missteps. Risotto is brushed up with crab bisque, but its sauce is out-of-whack acidic. I’m guessing the lemon employed was the culprit, either inherently lacking acid-to-fruit balance or too liberally applied. I love the idea of creamy crab with sturdy Italian rice and ate up every shred of lump crab and micro-leaves of celery garnishing the dish. Maybe use Meyer lemons here?

They’ll figure it out, I think to myself as I bust open a fillet of plancha-seared fluke. I’m skeptical about this dish, not because I haven’t had expertly cooked fish here many times before, but because it’s billed to come with a truffled brown butter as well as a celeriac-truffle puree. Pretty much anything with truffle oil obscures the taste of what it comes in contact with. Yet no aggravated assault on an innocent ingredient here, but rather a minuet between the mash of oniony-celery-sweet-garlicky root vegetable and its controlled musky-nutty partner—and a nifty pas-de-deux of lightly briny, faintly sweet fish and woodsy truffle. Learning is good, isn’t it?

Speaking of woodsy and musky, the star of duck leg confit cassoulet is the refined duck jus, which penetrates the preserved leg, the white beans, the slivers of sausage, nibs of carrot and what appeared to be a few teeny cubes of an ivory root vegetable so smitten with the duck juice that it went Zelig. Quite the entertaining mimic.

A pale green curry, with coconut milk as its base and Thai basil as its muse, is invigorated with chili oil and, in turn, invigorates a stew of shellfish and finfish. I don’t want to ruin the Pollock-like speckles and drips of oil that give the plate the kind of eye-candy appeal I personally shun, but once I swish the chili oil into its honeydew-hued broth, I know it’s all meant to be. A lemon cake that was to be soaked with vanilla was too dry to mean much to its plate mates of yuzu curd and mascarpone, let alone crumbles and grains of pistachio. But a sticky date pudding given the surround-sound treatment of a sleek caramel made from prunes and brandy was topped by a blot of clotted cream that seemed too generous until I demolished it all and wanted more, please. Ryan and his kitchen crew may seem all over the map, but when they go cheeky with an old-school dessert like this, I’m glad to be gobsmacked.  Is that the carbonara? Passing right by me is something I’ve not ordered on this night at Common Lot. My, it looks fine. I smell smoky and I feel my gastric juices start to flow again. That’s what Ehren Ryan, the maestro of this worldly-yet-welcoming kitchen in staid, sedate Millburn, will do to you. If you’ve been to Common Lot before and thought you’d seen it all, go back, now. See what a visionary can do, pandemic in play, but in all ways that matter to his mission, a never-no-mind. Taste today what others may attempt not tomorrow, but in a decade. Or longer.

 

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfeld is the founder and editor of The Peasant Wife, an online culinary journal all about and only about the Garden State’s foodways. Find more of her stories, as well as those from other leading culinary journalists, at www.thepeasantwife.com.

 

The Chef Recommends

Grain & Cane Bar and Table • Grilled Chocolate Cake

250 Connell Drive • BERKELEY HEIGHTS
(908) 897-1920 • grainandcane.com

A chocolate lovers dream – our Grilled Chocolate Cake is made with moist devils food cake, layered with chocolate fudge and iced with chocolate buttercream. Grilled to order, this process creates a crunchy caramelization that adds a unique texture to this crowd favorite.

 

 

 

The Thirsty Turtle • Pork Tenderloin Special

1-7 South Avenue W. • CRANFORD
(908) 324-4140 • thirstyturtle.com

Our food specials amaze! I work tirelessly to bring you the best weekly meat, fish and pasta specials. Follow us on social media to get all of the most current updates!

 

 

 

The Famished Frog • Mango Guac

18 Washington Street • MORRISTOWN
(973) 540-9601 • famishedfrog.com

Our refreshing Mango Guac is sure to bring the taste of the Southwest to Morristown. — Chef Ken Raymond

 

 

 

Arirang Hibachi Steakhouse • Wasabi Crusted Filet Mignon

1230 Route 22 West • MOUNTAINSIDE
(908) 518-9733 • partyonthegrill.com
8 oz. filet mignon served with gingered spinach, shitake mushrooms and tempura onion ring.

 

 

 

 

Arirang Hibachi Steakhouse • Japanese Tacos

986 Route 9 South • PARLIN
(732) 525-3551 • partyonthegrill.com
Crispy wonton taco shell, Asian slaw, topped with spicy mayo, togarashi and our famous teriyaki sauce.

 

 

 

 

PAR440 • Chilean Sea Bass

440 Parsonage Hill Road • SHORT HILLS
(973) 467-8882 • par440.com
It’s pan seared and served over corn, black beans, peppers, celery, pineapple, with a corn coulis sauce.

 

 

 

 

Ursino Steakhouse & Tavern • House Carved 16oz New York Strip Steak

1075 Morris Avenue • UNION
(908) 977-9699 • ursinosteakhouse.com

Be it a sizzling filet in the steakhouse or our signature burger in the tavern upstairs, Ursino is sure to please the most selective palates. Our carefully composed menus feature fresh, seasonal ingredients and reflect the passion we put into each and every meal we serve.

 

 

 

 

Welcome Back!

The restaurants featured in this section are open for business and are serving customers in compliance with state regulations. Many created special items ideal for take-out and delivery and have kept them on the menu—we encourage you to visit them online.

Do you have a story about a favorite restaurant going the extra mile during the pandemic? Post it on our Facebook page and we’ll make sure to share it with our readers!

 

 

EDGE is not responsible for any typos, misprints or information in regard to these listings. All information was supplied by the restaurants that participated and any questions or concerns should be directed to them.

Skins Game

Turns out you can judge a wine by its color.

Although wines have myriad and complex properties, perhaps the most obvious can be attributed directly to the skins of their grapes. The basics of wine-making are well known…grapes are picked, then crushed, and the skins either stay in contact with the crush or have little to no contact. Wines can be grouped into three primary categories relative to the skin of the grape: white wines, red wines, and rosés wines.

WHITE WINES are wines that contain little or no red pigmentation. These wines have had little or no interaction with the skins of their grapes as they are processed. White wines are almost always made from white grapes, but they can be made from black grapes as well, because the juice of most black grapes is actually clear. White wines can be sweet or dry, or somewhere in between. Popular white wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

RED WINES are made from black grapes and have a red or blue tint. Since most grapes have colorless juice, red wine needs its grape skins, which contain nearly all of the grapes’ pigmentation, to remain intact along with the juice during all or part of the fermentation process. Tannins, also found in the grape skins, are transferred into the wine while the skins are in contact with the juice. Besides the difference in color, the primary difference between red and white wines has to do with their respective tannins.

Found mainly in red wines, tannins provide a dry, puckery sensation in the mouth and in the back of the throat. They also help preserve wine, allowing most (but not all) red wines to be aged longer than white wines. Popular red wines include Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

ROSÉ WINES are pinkish in color, so they are often referred to as pink or blush wines. Rosés are made from black grapes, but they do not fully turn red because the grape skins are removed from the juice mere hours after initial contact. This brief exposure to the skins gives the wine its signature color through the slight transference of red pigments. Rosés can also be produced by blending white and red wines. This technique also involves brief skin contact, which ensures that a minimal amount of tannins enters the blush wine. Many rosés are sweet, with White Merlot and White Zinfandel serving as typical examples.

The best and most traditional vintages, however, are the European rosés, which tend to be bone dry. Given today’s high-tech instant information resources, grape skin and its extracts have been getting a lot of attention in terms of potential health benefits. Antioxidants, called pycogenols, are present in grape skins. The darker the grapes, the greater concentration of pycogenols, hence the media’s infatuation with the healthful properties of red wine. In the 1950s, these compounds were isolated from grapes and used in the treatment of cirrohosis, varicose veins, and retinopathy (an eye disease attributed to diabetes). As scientific discovery progressed, the researchers were able to isolate reservatrol, the most hyped compound on the market associated with grape skins. Studies have shown reservatrol’s benefits to include: • High potency anti-inflamatory properties • Blood thinning capabilities as good or better than aspirin • May interfere with the development of cancer • Natural anti-fungal agent • Helps to reduce bad cholesterol (LDL) • Can increase good cholesterol (HDL) • Reduces blood pressure.

Now before we all go out and drink massive quantities of red wine to saturate ourselves with reserves of reservatrol, there are some offsetting side effects. In order to enjoy most of reservatrol’s positive health benefits through red wine consumption, we would have to drink red wine practically all day long, every day. Perhaps not a bad idea to some, but our livers would undoubtedly have something to say about this. A further, consideration is that reservatrol is a plant estrogen, which has received much attention as contributing to the proliferation of certain breast cancer cells. Grapes, once an innocent treat we all enjoyed as youngsters, now provide us as grown-ups with the fruit of the vine in its fi nest form—wine, complete with all its trappings, some good, some bad. We can now appreciate that wine is more than just grapes and their juices. It’s got some real skin, too.

Mike Cohen owns the Wine Concierge (www.gourmetwc. com). He specializes in locating hard-to-find wines for customers in New York and New Jersey.

 

Rack ’Em Up

Four Cornerstones Make a Great Wine Collection

A solid foundation relies on its cornerstones. Webster defines cornerstone as a physical stone, often ceremonial in nature. According to Wikipedia (which, as we know, is infallible) a cornerstone can also be “a concept which provides the basic tools for understanding or manipulating a larger intellectual edifice.” The edifice here is your wine cellar, and its cornerstones are the basic elements that provide a fi rm foundation upon which to build—or extend—a great collection. Making cornerstone selections for your wine cellar can present a formidable challenge, since the choices are many and the costs can be considerable. But fear not, brave oenophile. Get squared away on these four building blocks and the heavy lifting can begin: A well-rounded white that does not need to age, but stands ready to deliver outstanding taste right now and for the entire year ’round.

An age-worthy red that does need some years to soften its tannins and firm the structure indigenous to the grape and the region.

A delightful boutique wine, whether red or white, which is a special personal discovery and will enhance your status among your cellar’s guests.

A prestigious trophy wine, one that commands respect both for itself and for you, and which endows you with extensive bragging rights among your peers. Feel free to bask away in such a venerable wine’s reflected glory. While these cornerstones are only guidelines, they certainly give you lots of room to indulge in personal preferences while expanding your collection. Your cellar is limited only by your own investment of time and money…and, of course, by the size of the cellar itself.

White Wines for Now The choices here are huge and include grape varietals such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and chenin blanc. Focusing on reliable regions such as Napa, Burgundy, Stellenbosch, and Vouvray can help to optimize your search. I personally find the white Burgundies the most versatile and satisfying in this cornerstone category. These wines are a chardonnay grape, which particularly in the subzone of the Côte de Beaune, have made wine connoisseurs sit up and take notice. The soil and the climate—predominately clay and benignly temperate—work together to bring a steeliness to the wine without compromising its unctuousness or creaminess. One particular producer in the Côte de Beaune region, Sylvan Bzikot, produces some of the most amazing white Burgundies at several different sites. Bzikot’s wines can range some in price. Since this is a wine to be enjoyed right now, I would definitely choose his Bourgogne Blanc, a stunning stainless steel vinified juice punctuated by stone fruit and lively acidity.

Red Wines for Later This category probably evokes the most controversy among serious wine enthusiasts. The battle rages over whether the best are Italian, French, Australian, or our own domestic reds. In all cases, the grapes of these wines (for example, the cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, syrah, and malbec) have thicker skins and possess innate properties that lend themselves to the aging process. By laying down the wine, time allows a new set of aromas and tastes to develop that differs from the wine’s inauguration. A velvety soft structure and complex fruit flavors evolve within age-worthy wines, hence the fatal attraction for red wine lovers. My favorite among the age worthiest is a really big red, Dal Forno Amarone. This is a wine comprised of several grapes indigenous to the Veneto region of Italy that are known for their power, structure and tannins. After a decade or more of aging, the other irresistible qualities of this wine are the amazing taste and aroma that spring forth from each glass to caress your senses. This beauty may be hard to come by, but it is certainly worth the effort.

Boutique Wines Whenever Boutique wines by definition are small production, hard to get and typically not very well known or popular… at least not at the time of your purchase. In fact, that is most of their charm. Wines in this category can tickle your fancy and sing to you like no others. The romance begins with the chase and blossoms with the wine’s delightful character and taste. My recommendation here has been one of my favorites for years. It is from the Brogan Cellars, a winery run by Margi Wierenga in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma, CA. Margi is the daughter of Burt Williams of William Seylem fame. By virtue of her father’s contacts, Margi has secured grapes from some of the most exalted vineyards in the U.S., recognized for their pinot noir production. Each year, she makes perhaps 25 cases from each of several different locales, the best of which I believe is the Russian River Valley, an area famous for the incredible strawberry and raspberry notes of its pinot noirs.

The Trophy Wines Forever Herein lie the Monsters, the Bad Boys, the true Princes of your wine cellar! A trophy wine will cost you, but if you choose wisely it will always be worth the price. After fl aunting your pride of ownership and you are finally sitting in front of a glass of this divine nectar, you will understand why it is called a trophy. Although such a wine might technically qualify in some ways as a boutique wine, most boutiques will never command the ratings and recognition of these masterpieces. A true trophy wine is a pride-filled selection, one that should be reserved to celebrate only the most auspicious occasions… perhaps a wedding, a birth, a market rally or even a hard-earned bonus (no matter how diminished in these trying times). My unrivaled selection here may surprise many, since it is not on the popular wine buyers’ radar. I nominate Chateau d’Yquem, the ultimate dessert wine produced by French wine-making masters. The wine is made only in spectacular years and consequently garners accolades from the moment it is mis en bouteille. The price is commensurate with the quality. Having had the privilege of imbibing this delicately sweet perfection after an especially memorable dinner, I can still recall my reaction to the very first sip: There was a pregnant pause and then I slowly lifted my glass to the heavens in heartfelt thanks. Nothing could have been more perfect. The trophy wine, whatever your selection, will always be the ultimate cornerstone and the crowning glory of your collection.

Mike Cohen owns the Wine Concierge (www. gourmetwc.com). He specializes in locating hard-to-find wines for customers in New York and New Jersey.

 

The Ryland Inn

“The menu divined by Bucco is a coming together of contemporary cooking. He trends seasonal, adds a little local, and comes up with American Med as a core.”

It’s the late 1970s and there’s a small crowd at the bar of the venerable Ryland Inn, tucked back off the whoosh of cars on Route 22 in the Whitehouse Station section of Readington, in suddenly populated eastern Hunterdon County. There are fellows just in from jobs in New York, the long commute to their new five-bedroom homes on two acres over for the day, there’s a smattering of casual dinner-seekers finishing burgers, there are journalists like me, in between night meetings, stopping in to catch the local gossip in a homey, low-key setting. That Ryland’s a roadhouse, a pitstop on the outskirts of suburbia. By the time it was purchased and re-imagined as a fine-dining destination, with Dennis Foy briefly installed as the name chef—a front man for then-little-known Craig Shelton—Readington and eastern Hunterdon had sprawled confidently into suburbia and many of the denizens in the immediate ‘hood (not to mention surrounding hunt country) were well-heeled and world-wise, ready for haute cuisine in an atmosphere to match, right in their backyards. The 1990s Ryland Inn delivered it all. Soon Shelton was on the cover of Gourmet magazine and the recipient of the food world’s equivalent of an Oscar, a James Beard Award. Ryland catered to the food cognoscente and captains of industry in a seamless operation that defied anything New Jersey had seen. Though its last years were rocky—and the flood that six years ago forced the inn to close was tragic—Ryland had made restaurant history in a state once better known for red sauce joints and boardwalk grub. The rebirth of the Ryland Inn a year ago, a vision realized by new owners Jeanne and Frank Cretella, with chef Anthony Bucco, gives us a very shiny new dining toy.

Today’s Ryland is posh, suave and ready for parties. The outdoor entryway that leads to the indoor entryway just about shouts “Have your wedding here!” Once inside, vaulted ceilings, chandeliers that look like they were recycled from Liz Taylor’s diamond booty, fabrics and appointments hardly from the off-the-rack collections, and an air of mission accomplished set the scene for rarefied dining. Rather than a pretty charger plate that will be swept away shortly after you’re seated, there’s a framed picture at your place setting. Something old to add to all the new, I suspect. The Cretellas clearly wanted to bring every aspect of Ryland’s past to its high-toned present, and so there’s a sense of history in the artwork as well as in the Old-World graciousness of the well-orchestrated service. Come to Ryland to be pampered, once again.

The menu divined by Bucco is a coming together of contemporary cooking. He trends seasonal, adds a little local, and comes up with American Med as a core. You can expect pears and pumpkin in fall, Jersey staples such as birds from Griggstown Farm and fish from Barnegat, and also luxe ingredients the revived Ryland wants attached to its name: foie gras, Berkshire pork, uni. The cavalcade of chi-chi ingredients punctuates the menu, some of them a tad out-of-date (squid ink, white anchovies), some of them more current (red quinoa, shishito peppers). You can go a la carte, you can go tasting menu; you will spend. All entrees are in the $30s, the least expensive starter a salad at $12. Indeed, the wine list struggles at the value end of the spectrum and could stand to be updated at the three-figure range as well with a smarter selection of artisan bottles. But we enjoy our splurge, cosseted as we are in the grand Polo Room, and dispatch a complimentary uni-custard with smiles. I’m feeling quite at home with the Jersey’d version of pasta carbonara, a tangle of squid ink chitarra with ultra-smoky Mangalitsa bacon, spirited Fresno chilies and a dot or five of uni.

It’s mod and classic at the same time and, most importantly, it’s delicious. So is the stately torchon of foie gras, swaddled with pears braised in vanilla and an onion jam I’d be happy to have for dessert. There’s even a dusting of chocolate crumbs to make my case for this starter as a most grand finale. The octopus done Spanish style is terrific, an assemblage of tender meat with crumbles of warming chorizo, those vivacious shishitos, real-deal black potatoes and a kick of zesty chimichurri. Bring it on, anytime. By contrast, the mild purée of fall vegetables is a bland option, but that isn’t to say this take on a stylish soup is uninteresting: with twirls of fennel fronds, a smack of fig jam and a sprinkling of pumpkin seed oil, it’s both comforting and appropriately warming. Our server tosses in an extra, a black olive cavatelli that strikes me as pure Sicily with its dressing of golden raisin puree kept in check by good, salty capers and buttery pine nuts. Just when I think Bucco is too reliant on sweet, he proves his mettle with a shot of the right balancing agent. The harissa-stoked tomato jam is as fine a friend as grilled swordfish can have, the sweet-hot condiment giving a needed tickle to the rich fish steak. I don’t think the red quinoa or eggplant on the dish did as spirited a two-step with the meaty sword, however.

But I love the way the chickpea panisse and riffs of white anchovies play off the steamed red snapper, and thought the spark of lemon basil and snap of skinny string beans kept pace with the plate. Pork belly, especially Hudson Valley Berkshire, took a liking to the cheerful crumb-like topping the folks here dub “granola,” and the tart apple and mild butternut squash accompaniments were just-right sides. Desserts trip the globe, but need reining in at times. The yuzu curd “truffle,” with astringent Asian pear, a sultry black sesame cake and green tea ice cream works a Far East theme nicely. But flavors warred in the frozen cranberry parfait, with pecan streusel, toasted marshmallow meringue and cloying pumpkin pie ice cream proving too much that’s too sweet isn’t a good thing. The central taste of cranberry was lost. Tamarind, however, was a uniting element in the peanut butter mousse ensemble that allowed specks of banana and dabs of Nutella to compliment, not cover up. Ryland, rebooted for an era that knows both unbridled luxury and forced restraint. Wow, I think as I leave the space I first set foot in 36 years ago. Lots of bucks have been put into this ol’ gal, and she’s looking mighty fine. Over the top? Maybe. But not out of sight.

Ursino

“I am definitely stealing that pancetta vinaigrette for a dozen different dishes I cook at home.”

Ursino’s executive chef, Peter Turso

Back there,” my friend said, pointing to his left as we walked across an expansive parking lot at Kean University to Ursino, a restaurant set in a science building amid classrooms and common spaces. “That’s where the farm is. Four acres. You don’t expect it, but it’s there.” He continued to describe the produce he saw growing during a summertime tour—how the farm was laid out, and the enthusiasm for the percolating crops displayed by Ursino’s executive chef, Peter Turso, and the farmer-in-residence, Henry Dreyer. Four lush, green acres are cloistered in crammed-full Union that are mined to the max by the farm-to-table team of Turso and Dreyer. As he detailed the operation, I envisioned similar campus farms sprouting at any one of New Jersey’s institutions of higher learning. I’m glad for the overview my friend provided because, once inside Ursino’s thoroughly modern, multilevel dining areas, that was the only mention of the mere-yards-away, oncampus farm I heard. Not one member of the service staff took a moment to tell us of the unique relationship between Kean and Ursino, the reasons for its existence and how Turso’s menu reflects what’s grown by Dreyer and his farm crew. The menu descriptions, while referring to the origins of ingredients such as Barnegat scallops and “local” oysters, all but ignored this extraordinary plus. For instance, Liberty Hall beet salad, with its richly colored baby carrots, nibs of honeyed walnuts and sparks of sharp Valley Shepherd cheese, was a rousing harbinger of autumn on this latesummer night. Yet nowhere is it explained that Liberty Hall is both the name of one of Kean’s campuses and a history museum, originally the elegant home of New Jersey’s first governor. (You’d think an education would be part of the dining package.) We had to ask about almost everything, and waits between questions and answers often were long. On the other hand, Turso’s focused, uncomplicated food doesn’t need a promotional boost. Slice into the smoked swordfish, smartly partnered with shavings of crunchy fennel and perky pea tendrils, and you’ll quickly be distracted from service flaws by flavor rhythms of the rich fish as it intersects with a smack of anise from the fennel and the engaging rawness of the shoots.

With the grilled octopus, also a starter, a taut, charred crust yields to a softer center as harmonious riffs of accents enhance the fundamentally bland but meaty sea creature. There’s the silky puree of Marcona almonds, the sweetness of roasted red peppers and the spirited heat of chimichurri. All prod more from the octopus than typical treatments with lemon and garlic. We asked for spoons to help us get all we could out of the coconut-curry mussel pot. It’s a bountiful cauldron of large mussels in a rousing sauce that resonates with curry’s warming mix of spices tempered by the cooling sweetness of coconut milk. A bonus on the side: crunchy, spunky, slightly salty shrimp toast, the perfect sop-up agent. During the waits for wine and food, my dining companion offered the background the staff didn’t—on Turso (experienced chef, stints at Nicholas in Middletown and David Drake, now shuttered, in Rahway) and Dreyer (veteran farmer, renowned and beloved in the region), and why Kean U. wanted both a farm and an upscale restaurant (farm-to-table is on-trend and attractive to potential students, their parents, alumni and donors). In my mind, I added an introduction to the menu that said, “Your vegetables are grown on this campus. Please take a short walk and visit our farm.”

Those Barnegat scallops do have a ball, tossing tastes back and forth with Dreyer’s roly-poly turnips and bitter, but braised-to-sweet radicchio. As I swiped a scallop speared with a slice of turnip, a leaf of radicchio and a sliver of sweet apple through a wash of citrus-licked butter sauce, I tasted exactly why this farm-to-table thing has taken root: Fresher is better. But I did want to know where the “local pork” and its hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that star in one of Turso’s signature dishes come from. So even if the captains don’t care to connect, a little menu rewriting could serve as a bridge. Ursino’s expertly cooked, top-quality halibut has no problems connecting to an accompanying stew of leeks, red onions, fennel and potatoes. Uniting it all is a vivacious vinaigrette, punctuated by smoky-sweet pancetta that underscore for me why dining out and experiencing strong new voices in food is a joy. I am definitely stealing that pancetta vinaigrette for a dozen different dishes I cook at home. Terrific, and then some. Less than terrific was the cheese plate. I’d asked if any of the cheeses were from the revered Valley Shepherd, of Long Valley, and was told “maybe one,” without specifics, by a plate runner. He returned to say “all the cheeses” were Valley Shepherd’s, though still without much in the way of details. We gambled, and though my favorite nettle-streaked cheese made it to the plate, we were served just six paper-thin, inchlong slivers of cheese that looked lonely and wan on the large plate. And for $15. No price-to-portion quibble with the lemon ricotta ice cream sandwich, with almond sponge cake forming the bookends and raspberry, lavender and teensy sprigs of basil reminding us of that very nearby farm. I wasn’t impressed, though, by the heavy-textured banana bread pudding, laden as it was with too many layers of caramel, chocolate and hazelnut. As we walked out of Ursino and back across the parking lot, my friend says, “Food’s great here, but how would you know there’s a farm behind it? Shouldn’t that be all over the menu and the first thing the servers say?” Yes to both.

Ursino, as envisioned by its chef and its farmer, hits the mark with fresh-faced food that routinely tips its hat to its origins through inherent simplicity. It follows Rule No. 1 in cooking—don’t mess too much with fine ingredients—to the letter. But it’s incongruous, particularly in a university setting, that the educational component of farm-to-table is lacking. But this is an easy fix; basic menu-editing and staff instruction. By the time you read this, the team of chef Peter Turso and farmer Henry Dreyer will almost certainly have aced the test. 

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfeld has been an advocate of “buying local” in the Garden State since the late 1970s, so the burgeoning farm-to-table movement is hardly new to her. She writes the syndicated food-wine pairing column Match Point and has been covering everything New Jersey—from politics to crime to tax issues (and of course food!)—as a newspaper and magazine journalist for more than three decades. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010.  

Cucharamama

“Cucharamama is the image of its chef-owner: visionary, scholarly, driven to educate.”

Photo credit: Joseph Corrado

Before there were more chefs than size-2 starlets on TV, there was Maricel E. Presilla, doctor of medieval Spanish history, making her students at Rutgers late to their next classes by feeding them irresistible snippets from the Latin world’s diverse culinary cultures. Dr. Presilla’s lectures were like tapas: bites that whet the appetite for more. She’d pluck them from her vast pantry of knowledge and drop them into the topics of the day, effectively setting the table for the bounty of Latin cuisines soon to come in New Jersey. Her students circa the 1980s and ‘90s are her “students” now. But Dr. Presilla’s classroom today is a restaurant kitchen—two, specifically, and both in Hoboken: the Pan Latin Zafra, born in 2000, and the high-style South American Cucharamama, 2004. (There’s also an atelier-cum-store exploring and selling Latin American provisions, Ultramarinos, opened in 2010.)

The professor is a chef, but still a scholar, still a visionary, still a teacher at heart. She is, arguably, the most respected Latin chef in America, the winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic for her work at Cucharamama. Just as her body of work transcended her classroom at Rutgers, so has her culinary expertise transcended her restaurants’ kitchens by way of critically acclaimed cookery books, articles in magazines and keynotes at conferences where all manner of intelligentsia convene. Maricel Presilla even has cooked at the White House. On this night, Presilla’s Cucharamama is the center of the culinary universe for me. I first was here in the spring of 2004, a week before Cucharamama officially opened its doors, to see the wood-fired oven Presilla was using to cook chicken, suckling pig, lamb, breads, peppers and arepas, the massive jars of marinating olives and escabeche of eggplant, and the rustic tools such as the batan, a grinding stone from the Andes her crew employed to muddle spices.

The corner storefront in Hoboken had been transformed into another world, one where respect for South America’s as-yet-unheralded cuisines reigned. That’s still the way at Cucharamama—which means “mother spoon”—and I find decades worth of periodic conversations with Presilla, as professor, as author, as chef, weaving through my mind as I dig into dishes I’ve both had before and am trying for the first time. There’s octopus, more tender than a strong sea creature deserves to be, awash in a smoky, rather fruity panca pepper sauce balanced by the salinity of black olives. There’s calamari done Peruvian style, its crunchy crust giving way to silky squid sprayed with a tangy, faintly heat-licked tamarind-rocoto chile sauce.

There are nuggets of chicken, coated in nutty, crackling quinoa, mouthfuls that would be pleasing to any child who tries them. Cucharamama’s soups are legend, and I’m reminded why as the Ecuadorian creamy corn soup blended with plantains and studded with shrimp rolls over my tongue. Ah! And there are little plantain-filled empanadas on the side! Reverie. The white bean and tomato soup, pureed to an ultra-thick creaminess and served with my all-time favorite cabrales-onion empanadas, re-focuses and soothes as those wood-fired savory pastries set me on a mission: I need to figure out the exact proportion of that Spanish blue cheese to sweet onion confit in time for my next dinner party. However, Presilla’s arepas, those addictive South American corn cakes that here are blistered beautifully in the wood-fired oven, are menu items I never could hope to duplicate. These days, they’re given dollops of salmon roe and Venezuelan crème fraiche, a true step above the Mexican crema I score every time I stop in at my favorite bodega. That smoky-fruity flavor of panca chilies comes through loud and clear in another dish cooked in the wood-driven oven—shrimp, deftly roasted in the sultry panca sauce.

Don’t miss whatever ceviche Presilla has on tap. On this night, there’s a veritable aquarium of shellfish and finfish sitting in a soupy broth of tomato and citrus, a tribute to Ecuador sprinkled with chopped peanuts and crisp plantain chips. I like this better than the somewhat wan shrimp and palmito salad, which lacks the personality and passion of much of the rest of the menu. But the tamals? Always soulful, particularly so with thick shreds of longbraised duck hop-scotching with skinny, apricot-y mirasol peppers atop that grainy, gutsy corn tamal. Ever since Presilla described for me the lengths she went to procure just the right ingredients to make a bitter orange mojo for her wood-oven-roasted chicken, I’ve not been able to leave Cucharamama without ordering it. Perfection—it’s perfection, this young, juicy half-a-bird,half-a-bird, basted with the garlicky, sour-orange glaze and served  with a high-octane, spiced-up potato puree that leaves all those butter-dominated incarnations of spud in the dust.

There are more potatoes to love, including those plied with a musky cheese-tomato sauce and accompanying the Argentinean chimichurri’d skirt steak. Once upon another time at Cucharamama, I wasn’t all that keen on the cannelloni filled with creamy spinach and walnuts, topped with a pair of intersecting sauces—a white number sporting riffs of manchego and parmigianoreggiano and a red of tomatoes warmed with, I suspect, a pinch of baking spices. This time, I was charmed, because the filling, not the sauces, took center stage. The grand dame of desserts here is the Argentinean millefeuille, a many, many, many layered confection of super thin puff pastry with dulce de leche, walnuts and a meringue spiked with malbec. It’s almost frightening when it’s presented, this elegant, yet seriously over-sized wedge, but it’s also intrinsically light. Order it alongside the wispy apple crepe or the Amazonian sorbet sundae ripe with tropical fruits, acai and, in season, suriname cherries, and share, definitely share. The only quibble I have with Cucharamama 2012 is the wine list. While it’s admirably and correctly focused on South America and Spain, it’s short and outdated. There’s more variety and many more quality producers available in the American market than when the restaurant opened in 2004. The list doesn’t reflect that, and it should. But in every other way, Cucharamama is the image of its chef-owner: visionary, scholarly, driven to educate. As Presilla once happily told me, “My former (Rutgers) students are coming here! I feel like I’m living history now.” And making it, as well.

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfield is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey. The longtime food critic for the Asbury Park Press also has been published in Gourmet, Saveur and Town & Country, and on epicurious.com.

 

Pass Perfect

A Warm Reception Begins with a Cool Caterer

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Call me biased but I think great, memorable food is the key ingredient in a great, memorable wedding reception. It’s not just me. I know people who were married decades ago who can’t name half their wedding guests, but they can tell you to this day in excruciating detail what they thought of the food. Pick the right caterer for the right reasons and you’ll be golden. Choose the wrong one and, well, let’s not go there. Most people know me as a restaurateur or “celebrity chef” so they are surprised when they’re doing that first bit of wedding research and my name suddenly pops up as someone who caters receptions. So are people from this area who approach me at David Burke Kitchen in New York, or at Fromagerie in Rumson, looking for a catering recommendation.

I like to do weddings and other big events outside of my restaurants. I’ve got an entire staff devoted to catering now, and it’s becoming an increasingly important part of my business. Think about it. If I am pulling out all the stops for 150 people and creating a totally unique wedding experience, maybe only a fraction of those guests have been to one of my places. So when we do a great job, it’s a powerful advertisement for the restaurants—and, of course, for future weddings and other events, like fundraising galas. By the same token I do have an advantage in this business in that the couple that contacts me has almost certainly experienced my menu before and liked it.

Consequently, that first conversation isn’t so much a selling opportunity as an opportunity to ask them what they love about my food and how they envision incorporating it into their event. That being said, I also know that those same folks may also be considering two or three other competing options, so I still have to make them go Wow! In fact, I think when you go shopping for a wedding caterer you should set the bar high—make them make you go Wow! For me, the wow factor is all about coming up with really cool ideas, ideas that go beyond what any other caterer might think of. I hate handing out a menu and saying, “Here, pick one of these.” I want to create a unique wedding. I’m not afraid to take chances, and if the couple thinks the same way then we can do some fun stuff.

That’s why I think it’s crucial to get a read on their personalities and their shared experiences, and use that as a springboard. I like to know where they met and what was their first meal together. You never know where that first bit of inspiration will come from. But once you’ve got that, you build it out to include the food, the cake, the table settings and the gift bags. One thing I try to encourage clients to do is think about elements of interactivity and craftsmanship. It might be an artist carving an ice sculpture during the reception. It might be meringue floating on balloons. It might be a kitchen tour—people are so curious about food and what chefs are doing. The wedding cake is always an interactive experience, but why not take that to the next level? Everyone assumes a cake has to be made days in advance.

That’s not necessarily the case. We can bring in a master baker to create the cake during the wedding, and guests can actually have a hand in the finishing touches. And who doesn’t like to lick the bowls? We can set it up so everyone “licks the bowl” at their tables. Of course, fewer and fewer weddings these days are what I’d call traditional sit-down affairs. A lot of conversations I have begin with, “I want something different than a fully plated meal.” They don’t want people to feel stuck to the table. However, the fact is that there is almost always some sort of sit-down component—and the main course choices do need to be somewhat traditional, because your goal there is to please as many people as possible. You can’t put skate or bluefish or sweetbreads on the menu. But that doesn’t mean you play it safe, either. On the contrary, we can do some eye-opening things within the confines of chicken-salmon-filet-vegetarian. If someone says let’s do prime rib and baked potato, fine, we’ll sex it up and make it modern. It’ll be the best they ever had. By the same token, if someone wants burgers or meat loaf or some other comfort food at a wedding, we’ll do it. That’s what we’re all about. I was thinking that I’d love to do a breakfast wedding. Has anyone ever tried that before? I wonder. This shifting focus on creating a series of extraordinary hors d’oeuvres I think is fantastic. Anyone who knows me knows that I love that kind of challenge. Ideally, I like to do eight to ten at a reception. It gives us a chance to show off.

Making the Call The ideal time to pick your wedding caterer is six to nine months before the big day. The three pieces of information you’ll need are the venue you’ve selected for the reception, the number of guests you are expecting and a rough idea of your budget. It’s not crucial to have nailed down the exact date, but a range of dates is helpful. The items you can expect to cover in your initial meeting include the type of reception you envision and how the event will flow. Do you want to lean toward the traditional, or make it fun and interactive? Is there a theme or trend that you’re interested in exploring? What don’t you like? Have you seen pictures in a magazine or on the web of a reception that sparks your imagination? If so, bring them to the meeting. Needless to say, there will be a lot of discussion about food choices. Don’t expect to make any decisions at this first encounter. A caterer may make suggestions to get a feel for your preferences, but nothing is set in stone. After that initial meeting, there will be a lot of follow-up to solidify as many details as possible. From there, the caterer will propose a menu crafted to fit your tastes, your reception theme and your budget. It’s a good idea to arrange a tasting if anything is undecided, especially as you get a little closer to the date. We’re fortunate in that most of our wedding clients have eaten in my restaurants or are familiar with my food from other catered events.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Photo courtesy of David Burke

Building a menu that pushes the envelope is the fun part of planning a wedding. The tricky part is making sure that your caterer can actually pull it off. We tend to end up working in venues with a lot of character but also a lot of quirks. It might be a museum in the city or a private estate in the country or a historic venue like Water Witch. Understanding the limits and the possibilities of these unique spaces is really important. It determines what equipment we truck in and how we staff an event. Don’t let caterers get away with saying, “No sweat, we got it covered”—especially in a space they haven’t worked in before. The devil is always in the details. Here are some rules of thumb. You’ll want one waiter for every 20 guests. You’ll want to make sure that there is a hierarchy in place. There should be a captain, a head bartender and someone in charge of the busing staff. That’s the front of the house.

Behind the scenes are the cooking and cleaning crews. For a wedding of 200 we typically bring at least six cooks and two or three people to keep the kitchen and prep areas clean and uncluttered. Don’t use a company you suspect is skimping on manpower. We usually err on the side of over-staffing events—we want to do such a good job, and that’s tough to do if you’re shorthanded. What else is reasonable to ask a wedding caterer to do? A caterer is not a party planner, but they can be helpful with details like flowers and audio/visual. I’d say we get involved in those areas—or at least make recommendations—about 15 percent of the time. We do work with party planners, probably at least 50 percent of the time. But nowadays a lot of people take on the wedding planning themselves. If they have opted not to go with a banquet hall, then they have already started down that path.

Sometimes in the eleventh hour the bride realizes she can’t handle it and she reaches out to us. We can usually see it coming, and we’re happy to help. So what should a catered reception cost? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? If you care about food, obviously you want to devote as much of your budget as you can to making that part of your wedding memorable. If you want to transcend the basic beef-chicken-fish menu and make the food itself a series of unforgettable experiences, it comes with a price tag. But it’s not as much as you’d think. Depending on the venue you’ve booked, you’re probably going to end up between $150 and $300 a head. That number includes staff, rentals, etc. For this caliber of event—essentially the same party we’d do for the Whitney in New York—that is very competitive.  

  Editor’s Note: David owns David Burke Kitchen, David Burke Townhouse, Fishtail by David Burke and David Burke at Bloomingdales in New York, David Burke Fromagerie in Rumson, David Burke Prime in Connecticut and David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago. www.davidburke.com

 

Verjus

On this night, the roasted chicken was infused with tarragon, snuggled under the skin during its time in the high-temperature oven.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If there’s a single dish more satisfying than a properly roasted chicken, I’ve not found it. Skin crisped by intense heat and tinged with the taste of an herb, maybe subtle, maybe bold. Breast meat juiced by a little oil, a little butter, and hinting of the same thyme or tarragon that streaks through the skin. Dark meat starting to fall from bones, bones that have shared their soul, deepening and enriching what clings to them. Cavities from which you can pull extremes of flavor, perhaps strands of meat, moist to the point of almost drenched, perhaps a sliver of lemon attached to an out-of-the-way part of the bird. A roasted chicken is a contemplative dish, right for a Sunday when obligations either have been escaped or accomplished and supper can be a quiet affair that starts with all good intentions (a fork) and ends with a bit of rascally table behavior (hands) apropos for the food in front of you. Chicken soup has nothing on roasted chicken for me. I prefer chomping to sipping. Roasted chicken also brings to mind three vivid food memories, one actually experienced, one watched from a distance, one merely read about in a magazine.

The magazine account validated the culinary instincts of then-food writer, now-movie maker Nora Ephron as she traveled with friends in Europe. Passing the entrance to a small restaurant, I think it was in Italy, Ephron had the car stopped, stepped out, took a look and a sniff and said something to the effect of, “I bet they do a good roasted chicken here.” Upon which she and her party decamped and learned that indeed the restaurant did a splendid roasted chicken. The chicken-from-a-distance unfolded in a series, as I gawked again and again almost 20 years ago at the spit-roasted birds twirling about open-air markets throughout Provence. This was well before American supermarkets figured out selling already-roasted chickens would lure customers, and I was drop-jawed with awe at the spectacle. Never bought one in Provence, though, preferring to tinker around with raw ingredients. Stupid of me.

The actual experience came during a birthday trip to San Francisco a couple years ago, when all I wanted to do was lunge at chef Judy Rodgers’s roasted chicken bread salad at her Zuni Café. I did. Make whatever reservations you need – plane, train, blimp – to experience Rodgers’s perfect balance of chicken, bread cubes, greens and juices. Until Zuni, there is Verjus, in Maplewood, where roasted chicken has been on the menu since 2001, when the French restaurant opened for business, and where it might be taken more seriously than at any other restaurant in New Jersey. This is serious praise. The chef-owner Charles Tutino knows his birds. He not only roasts chickens every day Verjus is open, he roasts duck. Both often come in half-bird portions, which may seem an extreme amount of food to anyone who is not an aficionado of expertly roasted birds. The only reason I’ve ever found to stop eating once a roasted chicken (or duck) is set before me is to save something for the next day’s lunch. This requires belief in the benefits and joys of delayed gratification. When the bird is properly roasted, that is not always possible. It was not possible at Verjus. Let’s back up a bit, and give you some background as well as appetizers. Tutino is a classically trained chef who worked at French restaurants in New York before coming to New Jersey and setting up shop with his wife Jane Witkin in an understated space they decorated in a style that would mirror the food. There are cloth-covered tables, dark blond wood chairs, silver and stemmed glasses. There are, perhaps, a couple dozen tables. The scene is hushed, adult. You can converse.

Escargot, to start, are textbook, in the Burgundian manner: white wine, butter, a little garlic, parsley and anise. I adore the braised endive, a pert gratin of elegant spears bathed in lemon and sprinkled with a mix of romano and parmesan cheeses, because the vague bitterness cleanses for something richer. Like the duck liver terrine. Talk about a way with bird dishes: Tutino’s compact layering is cut deftly by his accompaniments—cornichons, cranberry compote, a slash of Dijon mustard. Though I wouldn’t restrict my starter to a mere toss of baby greens, even with Verjus’s signature barely-there vinaigrette, I admire the in-season salads here. Dandelion or morels and mache in the spring, frisée and roasted beets in the fall. Soups, too: Count on spinach in the spring, pumpkin in the fall. But roasted birds, always.

On this night, the roasted chicken was infused with tarragon, snuggled under the skin during its time in the high-temperature oven, and served with carrots glazed by ginger-charged honey and garlicky mashed potatoes. The roasted Pekin duck is positively high-toned, compared to the chicken’s simplicity, skin lacquered but not blackened by silly sweet stuff, as is too much the fashion elsewhere, and plated with black rice and braised red cabbage. There’s a flourish of saucy cranberries, a tart note expertly played. Sure there’s meat and there’s fish (beef Bourguignonne with a soothingly tame mushroom sauce; lightly crusted salmon with lentils), but what you most need to remember is there’s rosé here, from Bandol. A nice Rhone Valley red wine always does right by roasted chicken for me, but there’s something restaurant-special about real-deal pink vino with birds. I wasn’t so impressed with the desserts at Verjus—we tried a serviceable ice cream terrine anchored by fig ice cream and quince sorbet and an apple tarte tatin that, frankly, needed more apples—but I figured anyone who knows chickens as well as Tutino also might know eggs, so I came back for Sunday brunch.

Why not eggs Benedict, poached, set atop English toasts in a pool of Hollandaise? Or an omelette, with poached salmon and a pile of twice-cooked potatoes? There’s even a dessert reward at this time of day and week of very eggy crème brulée, with a suggestion of lavender. As I paid the bill for brunch, I thought about when I could return for another of Verjus’s properly roasted chickens and ducks. I thanked the server and said I’d enjoyed the eggs almost as much as the roasted birds at dinner. A gentleman at the next table leaned over and whispered a tip: “If you like the chicken here,” he said, “you’ll love the chicken salad they do at lunch. With tarragon mayonnaise and a ciabatta roll.” My eyes widened. I’d need to pick up a chicken on the way home. Couldn’t make it through the day without chicken salad.

Why Did the Game Bird Cross the Road?

Why Did the Game Bird Cross the Road?

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The longer I live in New Jersey, the more I am struck that it is a state of contrasts. As I drive by the belching smoke and stench of Linden’s refineries, I can’t help noticing that I am surrounded by license plates trumpeting the fact that I am in The Garden State. Wishful thinking? Not for those who venture beyond the toll roads to discover acre upon acre of corn, tomatoes, eggplant and squash, orchards of apple, pear and peach trees. To be sure, much of New Jersey may not be a fresh produce Eden. Yet to the epicurious, there are wonderful pockets of natural and sustainable farms worth investigating and patronizing. Among the state’s most praiseworthy resources are its naturally raised poultry farms, chief among them the idyllic Griggstown Quail Farm. If the ubiquitous, bland and rubbery-to-the-touch national chicken brands don’t excite you, it’s time to head out to Griggstown. Not only do they raise young succulent chicken and tasty marinated poussin, they also offer seasonal treats: Capons and Red Bourbon and natural turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas, pheasants and quail in the fall and winter, not to mention Mallard and Muscovy ducks.

Griggstown’s game birds are so good that at least three times a year, I drive 90 minutes to the Princeton area—a sort of culinary hadj—to stock up on pheasants, butterflied and marinated poussin, quail eggs, chicken pot pies and homemade soups. I know I’m almost there when a runaway pheasant skitters across Bunker Hill Road like a Park Avenue matron in spiked heels tearing toward a pre-sale at Bergdorf’s. Sometimes these free-range birds fly the coop and make a fast getaway, relocating into suburbia. However, it’s a sad, but delicious, fact that the majority of unlucky quail, poussin and pheasants—raised in acres of fenced-in, open-air habitats—are headed to Zagat-rated restaurants, gourmet butchers and trendy dinner parties, pleasing foodie palates around the Tri-state and beyond.

The story behind their unlucky fate stretches back over 40 years. It’s an inspiring tale plucked from entrepreneurs’ annals of vision and success. It started with a teenage lawn boy with a dream named George Rude and the farm owner, Peter Josten, who also happened to be in the restaurant business. On returning from Vietnam a few years later, Rude, then in his twenties and a game hunter since childhood, approached Josten with the idea to raise game birds as a business. Josten supplied two acres, his contacts with high-end New York restaurants and, voila, Griggstown Quail Farm was born. Today, the farm has grown to 70 acres and Rude has not rested a day since raising his first quail. His business has grown selling his produce—poussin, chicken, quail, pheasant, turkey and capons—both retail and directly to customers at farm markets. In 2002, he built a small market on the farm and in 2004 hired Matt Systema, a young chef, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Café Boulud in New York and the Ryland Inn in New Jersey. Chef Matt creates a range of prepared products including chicken salads, a variety of chicken sausages, turkey burgers, turkey and chicken potpies, quiches, fruit pies and homemade soups.

In addition, farm-laid chicken and quail eggs are also sold. Stay tuned, as they are building a 4,000-square-foot kitchen with bigger plans for the farm vegetable produce and someday perhaps an eat-in area. A separate off-shoot company (Rudy’s, which is owned by Rude’s brother Peter), delivers game birds nightly to gourmet restaurants that stress high quality and locavore trends. Griggstown chicken, quail and pheasants have been sighted on menus of New Jersey dining spots ranging from Eno Terra in Princeton, Nicolas in Red Bank, and Hamilton Grill Room in New Hope to The Blue Bottle Cafe in Hopewell and the Bernardsville Inn. In a rush? Today you also can find some Griggstown products such as chicken sausages, chicken pot-pies at farmers’ markets as well as at your local fine-food purveyor. Bob Sickles of Sickles Market in Little Silver has carried Griggstown products for five years. “You can’t beat the quality of their pot pies,” he says. Sickles also orders from Griggstown his family’s Thanksgiving Red Bourbon turkey, which can be purchased “oven-ready” and is a revelation in juiciness.

If you are one of the many daunted by the mere thought of cooking game birds, some—like the marinated poussin—come in air-tight bags with cooking instructions so easy that my husband, a self-professed grill-o-phobe, barbequed them with confidence and great results. (I did take five minutes off the cooking time because our grill’s heat is more intense than the norm.) Even our dinner guest, a hunter and picky gourmet famed for returning nearly every meat entrée he orders at restaurants to the kitchen, was pleased and impressed. The cook felt like crowing!

Cooking with Fire

How I learned to love the Habañero

When I was a sous-chef at the River Café in New York in the early 1980s, there was a creative punishment awaiting kitchen staff that showed up late for work. The chef would slice off the top of a bell pepper and thread a string through it like a party hat. You would have to wear that hat throughout your shift, and endure taunts of “pepper-head” until it was time to go home. You knew there was bad traffic coming into the city if three or four guys were wearing pepper hats. Three decades later a couple of things have changed in the food business. First, that would probably be considered workplace harassment today. Second, and more important, the use of peppers in the kitchen has definitely evolved. I use a variety of peppers on every menu in every one of my restaurants, and I try to be as imaginative and creative with my choices as I can. Some I use for seasoning, some for flavor, some for heat.

And although I am far from an expert on peppers, I can’t imagine cooking without them. That’s a far cry from my early days in the business. Thirty years ago, Southeast Asian cooking was practically unknown and chefs like Dean Fearing, Mark Miller and Bobby Flay were just starting to bring Southwestern cuisine into the mainstream. I had worked in French restaurants my whole life, so when it came to peppers I was a complete neophyte. I’ll never forget my introduction. One day at the River Café, someone tricked me into chomping into a scotch bonnet. I almost jumped in the river. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get rid of the heat. It was a hot day to begin with and I really thought I was going to keel over. I was pissed! For years after that, I couldn’t eat Thai food. I remember once at a friend’s restaurant in Chicago, he served me a dish that was so hot that I got really mad at him. It ruined the whole meal. I couldn’t taste the wine we ordered. He pointed out that I’d bitten into a chili that was there for color and flavoring. It wasn’t meant to be eaten.

Later, when I first started working with different types of peppers, I still didn’t fully understand or respect their power.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

One time, we were working with a particularly potent pepper. I was sweating a lot that day and I inadvertently used the same hand that was handling the pepper to wipe my brow. Well, about 20 minutes later it felt like someone had stuck a screwdriver in my eye. Again, I was very new to working with peppers, so I didn’t realize what I’d done. Overnight, it spread across my nose into my other eye. I couldn’t see! I ended up going to the hospital thinking I had some disease that was making me go blind. The doctor asked me what I’d been doing and worked out what the problem was. The next day I had a business meeting with Phil Suarez, who is Jean Georges’s partner. It looked like someone had worked me over with a baseball bat—both of my eyes were purple-red. He still gives me a hard time about that when I see him.

Even today, I make a pastramied salmon that involves boiling molasses with cayenne pepper. We paint the mixture on the fish, and then smoke it. Your hands get sticky with the molasses and it can work its way into your skin and under your fingernails. If you go to bed—or, worse, to the bathroom—without completely scrubbing off the cayenne mix, you’ll be in bad shape, believe me. And during my days working in Hong Kong, I learned another important lesson: never eat Chinese food in the dark. The peppers used in cooking belong to the Capsicum family. They include a lot of familiar names, like jalapeño, cayenne, chipotle, poblano, habañero, scotch bonnet, serrano and, of course, bell peppers of various colors. Most sources credit Christopher Columbus with giving peppers their name. He brought them back from the New World and named them after black pepper, which was the only hot spice Europeans were using at the time. Black pepper was incredibly expensive in the 1400s—in some places it was used instead of money—so the “discovery” of a new way to spice up food was big news. Spanish and Portuguese explorers and traders spread peppers to Africa, India, and Asia. Paprika got to Hungary through Asia, not through Europe, which is interesting. Not for nothing, but paprika is one of the trickier peppers to cook with. You really have to open it up and let it bloom.

Today I am a big proponent of peppers. Cayenne is my friend. I always have serranos and jalapeños on hand. We use serrano peppers in our firecracker applesauce. It’s great how the heat and sweet mixes together. First you get the sweet, and then the heat kicks in. I didn’t like jalapeños at first, but now I think they are a great way to get exactly the amount of heat you want in a dish. I am a huge fan of the peppadew, a sweet, piquant pepper that’s grown in South Africa. We put them on sandwiches and in salads. We make wonderful use of chipotles in our ranch dressing and our aioli. It’s extraordinary on our tuna tartare tacos. Of course, with all of the different pepper options out there, people tend to look down upon the old reliable bell pepper. For my money, it gives you the greatest depth of flavor. And that flavor experience changes depending on how you cook it. I think that among the bells, the green pepper gets overlooked. It has a little bitterness and a more unique flavor than red or yellow. Still, to bring out some heat and wake up the palate, it’s fun to work with the hot stuff.

I like a little bit of heat now and then, I have to admit. If you’re feeling adventurous, I recommend experimenting with habañeros. Make a habañero butter and put in on a steak or a pork chop or a burger. Keep some in the fridge and on weekend mornings spread it on some toast with eggs. Think of it as the gateway pepper—you can go up or down the Scoville scale from there according to taste. Some final thoughts on peppers. When you bite into a hot pepper, no matter how convinced you are that you’ve singed the taste buds off your tongue, that’s not what’s happening. It may be uncomfortable, but you’ll survive. Peppers activate the pain receptors on your tongue and in your throat, so it sends a pretty strong message to your brain at first. In football, the first time you get tackled you feel like you’ve been in a car wreck. But you get used to the pain and even get to like it a little. For most people, the same is true when it comes to cooking with peppers. As long as you remember to wash up before rubbing your eyes (or visiting the restroom), the discomfort will be contained to a place where you are also experiencing some incredible flavors and textures. It’s a trade-off I’d make any day. Besides, who doesn’t like a little pain with their pleasure from time to time?   

Editor’s Note: David Burke owns Fromagerie in Rumson, Primehouse in Chicago, Prime in Connecticut, and Fishtail, David Burke Townhouse, and David Burke Kitchen it the James Hotel in Manhattan.

 

Lun Wah

Plates here arrive awash in subtlety, with sauces demure and focused, main elements expertly cooked, technically precise. 

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

“Sam,” I say to my friend who is about to leave with his family on a trip abroad, “once upon a time in New Jersey, there wasn’t sushi on every corner or places nearby where you get tacos or tortas or other Mexican foods. There weren’t Thai restaurants. You know that, right?” Sam is 11 and, after hearing my spiel, puzzled. “Really, Andy?” he asks. “No California rolls?” I don’t want him to think I grew up deprived. But, compared to the variety of restaurant options we have today, the New Jersey I grew up in circa the 1960s and 1970s was, at best, limited. “When I was your age,” I tell Sam as we navigate the Garden State Parkway, “there was pizza and Chinese and that was about it for ethnic food.” I quickly realize I need to qualify Chinese. “I’m not talking Szechuan or soup dumplings or any of the things we eat now. Chinese was…well, Chinese was very different back then.” Which is why we are en route to Lun Wah, a classic in Roselle since 1974.

I wanted Sam to come back in time with me to a vintage New Jersey-style Cantonese/Polynesian restaurant, complete with tiki bar, waiters in Hawaiian-print shirts and a koi pond—a setting, a scene and a bill of fare almost extinct now in these parts. He’ll experience the most exotic foods of a generation past and realize what a treat it will be to have a chance to trek across the Atlantic to try a whole other new world of food. “Sam,” I continue as Steve Tyrell belts out Ain’t Misbehavin’ on my CD player, “you need to know how to take chances with new foods. You need to know how to order in a restaurant without falling back on the same-old, same-old stuff. You need to know this, Sam. You understand?” His response is barely audible, even though I’ve tamped down Tyrell. “Yeah,” he says. “When are we getting there?” We do get there, and settle into a bamboo-lined booth in one of two “palm”-tree lined dining spaces. Sam looks up at the fierce mask glaring down at us from its perch on the wall, then at me, unfazed. “How about Voodoo Steak?” I ask, and Sam laughs at the name. However, he’s appalled when I tell him we’re going to start with a pu-pu platter.” “Poo-poo? Oh, Andy, no!” Sam protests, until the platter arrives with a lazy-Susan arrangement of nibs and bits and a flaming mini-grill in the center.

Suddenly, Sam’s eyes glow. By the time we polish off our chunks of marinated beef, meaty hunks of ribs, shrimp toasts, packets of moist, spiced chicken and old-fashioned, pork-stuffed egg rolls, Sam is a big believer in the charms of Lun Wah’s superior pu-pu platter. Lun Wah is, after all, pure retro. As we spear cubes of beef, warming them for a minute on our grill, we see many diners file in. They’re all greeted by a veteran floor crew which seamlessly takes orders, delivers dishes and replenishes drinks served in pineapple shells trimmed with paper umbrellas and rimmed with plastic monkeys threatening to dive into the fruited spirits. By the time we’re served our resolutely Cantonese soups—a house wonton plumped not only with the steamed dough pouches filled with minced pork but also slices of chicken and roast pork, shrimp and crisp choy, and a thoroughly comforting chicken-corn that earned its moniker “velvet”—Sam’s ready to surrender to Lun Wah’s ways. “You can take the rest of the soup home,” I tell Sam, who is having a hard time saying goodbye to the kernels of corn and shreds of chicken swarming the not-too-thick soup base. This is a naturally thickened slow-cooked model, I suspect, for there is none of that cornstarch aftertaste that’s kept me from ordering the standard in many moons. Sam’s about to offer what I’m sure would’ve been a compelling argument for finishing every last drop of soup when our new best friend, Kenny—server sublime and master of Lun Wah ceremonies—arrives to see how we’re doing.

I take this as a cue our entrées are almost ready and, in turn, cue Sam to put down his spoon and prepare for more. “This place is the best, Andy,” Sam says, emphasizing the superlative with a slam-dunk imitation of one who has ingested a couple of Lun Wah’s Coco Locos, a concoction of rum and coconut milk. “What’s Volcano Steak?” Soon, he’s caught up on how he’ll describe to his family the multiple slabs of filet mignon set upon a thick layer of Chinese vegetables, all of which ring a tiny flame nestled in a citrus shell. Lun Wah doesn’t miss a chance to light a fire under, or for, its diners. But although there’s no shortage of ceremony and pomp, plates here arrive awash in subtlety, with sauces demure and focused, main elements expertly cooked, technically precise. The claypot subgum, a stew of myriad ingredients, illustrates that perfectly. There are chicken and shrimp, not a smidgen overcooked, shredded beef, muchos mushrooms and snow peas, broccoli and shards of more esoteric Asian vegetables in the heated pot. It’s bound by a light, sprightly sauce.

taste everything, individually. Nothing’s muddied. Grand Marnier shrimp, that luscious standard that at one time titillated, is textbook correct, with crunchy fried walnuts helping to offset the richness of the creamy, fruity sauce. Sam isn’t a shrimp fan (he’ll learn, he’ll learn), but he can’t get enough of that lush sauce, which he considers a kind of salad dressing for the thick slabs of cabbage and choy bedding the shrimp. We end as I always ended as a late-stage teen dining out with friends: with chocolate ice cream and chunks of pineapple.

On the way home, Sam, Lun-Wah-fortified, belts out his own personal rendition of “They All Laughed” and I don’t feel the need to reprise my beloved Steve Tyrell. But I do feel the need to reprise, for your sake, Lun Wah. So I return to check out several more classics that you might need to know about should you visit. Do you remember Happy Family? I remember Happy Family, and Lun Wah’s is a delirious version—the same that taught us about oyster sauce and how it relates to pork, shrimp, beef and chicken. Som Bo Duck is delicate and soothing, a splay of boneless duck breast amid chicken and shrimp, all atop a bevy of Asian vegetables. Coconut Shrimp never has been done as well in fusionfriendly New Age restaurants as it is here, with Lun Wah’s kitchen striking just the right balance of flakes to shellfish.

Just because we figured we should, we tried one of the handful of Szechuan selections, gingered beef that we asked to have kicked up to the max with hot sauce. The verdict? Gummy and one-dimensionally hot; no nuance, no finesse. Stick with Lun Wah’s core Cantonese/Polynesian dishes. Rather than doing dessert, use up your guilty-pleasure calorie allotment by starting your evening with one of the house-special drinks the folks gathering at the tiki bar so adore. Hawaiian Sunrise is a tart-tangy mix of lime juice and vodka. The Scorpion blends both light and dark rums with brandy, fruits and almond. Gin, lime juice and a liqueur (or two) we couldn’t divine and our server wouldn’t divulge make up the Bamboo Cooler. Lun Wah makes up in its warm wrap of nostalgia what it lacks in chic. There’s nothing new here. And there shouldn’t be. But when the call of the exotica of yore beckons, you’ll be glad to know it’s there, waiting for and welcoming baby boomers…and those whose generation has yet to be defined.

Chef Vola’s

 ‘The ricotta-marinara blush sauce is crazy-good, its rich cheesey soul tempered by the acidity of tomatoes. Get it over a sturdy pasta that can stand up to the sauce.’

 Should you be worried you’ve actually come to the right place, the voice – The Voice – of Frank Sinatra will reassure you that you have, that this duck-your head, watch-your-step, below-sea-level entrance is indeed the way, the only way, to enter the inner sanctum of Chef Vola’s. Frank is always singing at Chef Vola’s. Frank, who legend has it wanted to be buried with a slice of owner Louise Esposito’s banana cream pie, who knew the secret behind the name of the world-renowned restaurant, and who just might be its unofficial mascot, invariably greets diners who descend into the basement and keeps crooning all night long. Those diners might be Jay-Z and Beyonce. They might be members of the cast of The Sopranos. They might be sports stars. They might be good old Jersey boy rock stars such as Jon Bon Jovi. You don’t believe these folks, plus heads of state and of Fortune 500 companies, hurdle the hoops of the reservation process to score a table in the cramped, cluttered, completely charismatic low-ceilinged, dimly lit dining spaces where vintage Italian nonna fare is served alongside a handful of improbable-sounding original Esposito dishes? They do.

Check out Chef Vola’s walls of fame that bulge with bumper-to-bumper photos of Louise and her co-owner family members, husband Michael and sons Michael Jr. and Louis, as they snuggle with the familiar faces of those they’ve fed. Fancy-pants restaurants can’t claim the extent of the celebrity patronage of this 90-year-old BYOB a block from the Boardwalk and at the edge of a neighborhood sometimes described as a tad sketchy in Atlantic City. They fly in from L.A. They pit-stop from a finals match to a championship game. They hop-scotch from Munich via Philadelphia, renting a car and driving east on the Atlantic City Expressway. As did my dining neighbors the same night I marveled at the new additions to my old restaurant friend, which had gotten a bathroom upgrade and some extra seating since my last visit. (Oh, don’t think Chef Vola’s still isn’t cheek-to-jowl. You will, I promise, still be able to read the fine print on the wine bottles at the adjoining table and hear everything said.)

Two couples from Germany started their U.S. tour with a dinner at Chef Vola’s because, they revealed, friends who’d made a similar trek told them the food, the atmosphere—and what I translated as schtick—was the best anywhere. And you only have to drive from your home port somewhere in New Jersey. Chances are, once you do, you will again. You may well make reservations on your way out for your next birthday or anniversary. You will return for the cannellini and string bean salad scattered with cubes of sharp cheese and salami, a veal chop so large you will be glad you didn’t fly in because even the leftovers couldn’t fit in an airplane’s overhead compartment, pasta awash in a “blush” sauce that combines ricotta and marinara, and Louise Esposito’s pies, each of which—and there are a good couple dozen—have their own ardent legions of fans. I’ll throw my support behind the coconut-pecan ricotta pie, but we’ll discuss later. First, the hype surrounding Chef Vola’s is exaggerated. Yes, the phone number remains unlisted in a phone-book sense of listing numbers. But you have it here and you can find it if you have basic-level Internet skills. Second, you can get a reservation. As with many extremely popular restaurants, you simply have to plan ahead, call ahead and not expect a table at 8 on a Saturday night.

You don’t need to be blood relatives of the Espositos or routinely play to sold-out concerts in stadiums. Yes, it’s cash only, it’s not cheap and you must bring your own spirits. (Consider prosecco for starters and a red wine for entrées.) It is a bit hard to find on initial visit. Park in the lot in the shadow of the Tropicana and walk a block and a half north. That boardinghouse-style structure you see at an odd, almost dead end is Chef Vola’s. Don’t look up for the entrance, but look down and to the side farthest from the Atlantic Ocean. You got it, Bunky. Now you’ve got to get a salad, such as that double-bean number with creamy white cannellinis and crisp green-bean batons set off by the same elements as a classic chopped salad. Or, right for autumn, the toss of arugula with dabs of goat cheese, sweet-tart dried cranberries and a dressing much like a fig glaze, only thinner. Don’t go all hoggish on the plates delivered to your table: Share everything.

Chef Vola’s is where the you-getta-lot school of eating in Joisey was born. You’ll find prosciutto- and roasted red pepper-wrapped mozzarella served to half the diners around you. You’ll see crab cakes made from jumbo lump crab that defy the genre in pure size of lump. They’re simple and divine. Too many people, distracted by the sensationalism of the crab cakes, overlook the most rustic of dishes here, the veal sausages. Please don’t make this mistake. Channel your inner Italian grandma and get these links with their tangle of fried red and green peppers and onions. The second you’ll walk in the door, you’ll get a hankering for pasta, and you should not let this craving go unabated. The ricotta-marinara blush sauce I spoke of is crazy-good, its rich cheesey soul tempered by the acidity of tomatoes. Get it over a sturdy pasta that can stand up to the sauce. Or, if you’re choice-challenged, try the pasta trio.

The night of my recent visit, we blasted angel hair with that blush sauce and took another haystack of the thin macaroni with a clam sauce skillfully composed of clams, a jigger of olive oil and plenty of garlic. I adored the mushroom fra diavolo, a chunky sauce with spirit and sass, though I think I’ll like it better next time with penne. I so liked the Flintstone-size veal chop with mushrooms I once had at a birthday dinner that I maneuvered ordering to make sure my first-timer dining companions could take a stab at it. To my knowledge, they are still debating which rendition of the veal chop they most love: the mushroom’d one or the parm’d one. (Parm fans outnumber ‘shroom fans a good 10-to-1. I’m a proud minority voice.) While my companions argued, I ate most of a fish entrée I’d avoided at previous dinners because it sounded unlikable. It’s anything but, no matter how overwrought it sounds: red snapper topped with a jumbo lump crab cake and topped again with a Champagne-Cognac cream sauce, all of which is swirled with pesto. Who knew this could work? The Espositos, who invented it.

If you want to delve into Chef Vola’s history, and perhaps be told the secret behind its name, order the chicken cacciatore. It’s one of the few dishes from the original owner of the restaurant, Chef Pina Vola. And here’s what few patrons know: Pina Vola was a woman. (She sold the place to a fellow who kept it fairly intact until 1982, when the Espositos bought it and greatly expanded the menu.) Not only weren’t there many female chefs in Pina’s day, women weren’t exactly thought of as top chef material. Which maybe is why Pina didn’t do much to publicize her presence. But her cacciatore is commendable, a feisty stew that lets big-flavored tomatoes dominate. Do order it bone-in. And don’t fold on me now, not with your nimble server ready to recite the pies of the night. Plus, Frank’s probably revved up to “New York, New York” form and one of those Espositos will be watching, if not taking your dessert order personally.

If you want to get invited back – that is, have your next reservation taken—don’t skip dessert. With Sinatra’s devotion to the banana cream pie recommendation enough (be aware it comes semi-frozen, which I think doesn’t do its flavor justice—but who am I and what do I know?), I’ll direct you to the coconut-pecan ricotta pie. It’s served warm and it’s a doozy, the shreds of coconut and crumbles of pecan bringing soul to the molten cheese. I’ve also got a thing for the limoncello cream pie. This one’s packed into a crust made of lemon drop cookies, which are the perfect foil for the pumped-up Italian liqueur. Decadence is what the chocolate-peanut butter mousse pie is about. I laughed as I watched a friend tuck away all but the three bites I’d taken mere minutes after declaring himself too full to make it back to the car, let alone consider dessert. Maybe that’s why Louise Esposito personally slaves over those pies. Maybe that’s why this family and its crews both in the kitchen and in the front of the house shimmy around the diminutive spaces night after night. They want to keep an eye on you to make sure you’ve taken dinner to the extreme—eaten more than you should, laughed more than usual, eavesdropped on your table neighbors more than propriety allows. They want you to have the full Chef Vola’s experience. Their way.

 

Simply Super

There are no second acts when it comes to throwing a football party. Here’s how to get it right the first time.

The mid-winter football party. Call it a tradition. Call it a cliché. Call it what you want, but don’t call me if the menu features burgers, dogs and slaw. As a former running back and linebacker, I’m telling you that you must respect the game. And that means you must respect the food you serve during the game. Long after the final whistle blows, and the X’s and O’s are a distant memory, you want your friends and family to still be talking about your culinary playbook. Some basic guidelines. Have your guests come an hour before kickoff. Prepare everything in small, individual portions. This makes eating neater and increases the likelihood that people will take home the leftovers. Assign a different “buffet coach” for each quarter. You’ll be moving food in and out of the game like Tom Landry, so it’s important to have an extra set of eyes, ears and hands to help you—and someone to keep the buffet area clean. Finally, print out a lineup of the food you plan to serve, and when it’s scheduled to appear. Think of it as a game day program. It helps people pace themselves and gauge how much to eat.

PREGAME I love it when I walk through the door at a football party and see something totally unexpected. Caviar, eggs Benedict, pastramied salmon—something that tells me this party is going to be fun. It’s like running a double-reverse or a wildcat on the first play of the game. The crowd starts buzzing and the defense is thrown back on its heels. I love that. You can really get the party going with a pancake bar. Bet you’ve never seen one of these. Set up a griddle, a container of batter, and various fillings and toppings. Everything from pieces of fresh fruit to shreds of Peking duck. People love making pancakes. They take five minutes and bring out the kid in us. And it’s really fun if you have kids at the party. Everyone will improvise. Some people will use them like soft tacos. It’s a wonderful way to get people to start interacting with the food, and one another, as they arrive.

FIRST QUARTER As people settle in for the start of the game, bring the big time finger food out to the buffet. By that I mean items you can eat with your hands. Food fumbles can ruin a party, and I think people make a way bigger mess trying to eat with a knife and fork on a couch than they do eating with their hands and a couple of napkins. Traditionally, this is where you might be tempted to serve burgers and dogs. If you do, I’m throwing the penalty flag. Instead of hamburgers, I’d suggest meatloaf. Find a recipe you like, make tiny, individual football-shaped sliders and serve them on rolls. They only take 15 or 20 minutes to cook, and they come right out of the oven hot, like fresh baked cookies. I serve them in my restaurants and people love them. If you must have dogs, then think about serving chorizos, or doing franks in a blanket. But if it’s simply a pork product you’re craving, why not go with BLTs? Use double-cut bacon, and heirloom tomatoes if you can find them. You could also add some guacamole. Who doesn’t love making themselves a BLT? By the way, a great hot side dish for a football party is tater tots. Buy them in a bag and doctor them up a little. They go great smashed into the BLTs, and the leftover ones are good for food fights.

SECOND QUARTER You’ve heard of an option play? Well, your option here is chili. This is one of the things you can cook the day before and it only gets better. Serve it with chips in little copper-pot bowls lined with tortillas. Amazing! Everyone has his or her own take on chili. Personally, I think most are too sweet. Use lots of meat and a little sauce, almost like a Bolognese. The meat should have some texture. You want your chili to have heartiness, and you get that with the right combination of acid, salt, sweet and a sense of heat. I also add puréed bell peppers. The fat should come from the sour cream or cheese. I’m not a bean guy, unless it’s vegetarian chili. If you must, offer beans on the side as a mix-in.

HALFTIME This is where you can get a second use out of the pancake griddle. Clean it off during the first half, keep it warm, and then fire it up for people to make the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich. Buy a bunch of different varieties and let people experiment. If you’ve opted for BLTs in the first half, make sure to set aside a few slabs of bacon and sliced tomatoes. Football parties aren’t about super-healthy eating, but it’s a nice idea to offer a salad. I would go with something more manageable and interesting than lettuce. Think about a bean salad. Mix great northern white beans, black-eyed peas, green beans cooked until they’re not too crunchy, chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil. You can break this out at halftime, too.

THIRD QUARTER A championship football team comes out of the locker room at halftime with a game-changing plan that’s full of surprises. The third quarter means it’s time for kebabs! This is another item you can assemble in advance. They are fun to make the night before. Marinate the completed skewers and keep them refrigerated until game time, when they go under the broiler on the grill while the marching bands take the field. The kebabs don’t have to be huge, and the way to serve them is inside a tortilla. Squeeze the tortilla and pull. You have a great little fajita.

FOURTH QUARTER Pizza. Seriously. Toward the end of the third quarter, get your oven good and hot and start making little individual pies. Use the leftovers from the first-half spread—cheese, pancake and chili toppings, meatloaf. People can individualize their own mini pies, or you can surprise them. By this time, some of your guests may be groaning, but if they’ve paced themselves they should have room. The added benefit of finishing the game with pizza? There’s less to clean up and put away, and you can send people home with the extra pies. Believe me, they’ll take them.

TWO-MINUTE DRILL But wait. The final two minutes is crunch time, right? That means dessert—something totally underrated at football parties. This is your opportunity to roll out the team colors. We’re not talking cupcakes here. Cupcakes are a rookie mistake. They are time-consuming to make, a pain to eat, and you’re never really happy with the way they turn out. Think fresh fruit. Giants fan? Raspberries, strawberries and blueberries over vanilla ice cream. Jets fan? Use grapes, kiwis and Granny Smiths. Steelers fan? That could be a problem. If you have black fruit in the house you’ve probably killed your guests already. By the way, the grownup version of this dessert is spectacular. Pre-scoop the ice cream into clear glasses the night before (with team logos, of course). Heat up the fruit in a pan with a little OJ and marmalade, sugar, sweet wine or brandy, and throw in a cinnamon stick. Add the fruit to the ice cream, shake on some powdered sugar and bingo— you’ve hit pay dirt!

Editor’s Note: David Burke owns Fromagerie in Rumson, Primehouse in Chicago, Prime in Connecticut, and Fishtail, David Burke Townhouse, and David Burke Kitchen at the James Hotel in Manhattan.

Mosaico

In the restaurant business, necessity isn’t always the mother of invention. More often, reality is. When Rudy Carrera and Andy Dinic opened the doors at Mosaico in 2005, they envisioned it as being trendy and high-concept, with an unflinching Northern Italian menu—a slice of SoHo transported to Rte. 22 in Mountainside. Good reviews and a loyal clientele from their previous place (an Italian bistro in Springfield) helped get the longtime partners off to a roaring start in their new digs. But when the air went out of the economy a couple of years later, they had to rethink their hard line on Northern Italian in order to maintain Mosaico’s bottom line. Their solution was to fully embrace the meaning of Mosaico. “A mosaic is made up of a thousand little details that are individually beautiful and of high quality,” says Carrera. “The artist assembles them to form a complete picture. We just reassembled some of the pieces.”

The menu morphed into what Carrera describes as Northern Italian with a twist, and it’s the twist that has kept the customers coming back. The Mosaico staff noticed that, as times became increasingly uncomfortable, their regulars started asking for familiar “comfort” foods ranging from Bolognese and carbonara dishes to pizza and burgers. So Dinic and Carrera began sneaking these items into the menu, or at least letting diners know that the kitchen could whip up almost anything they wanted, on the spot, made to order. “The economy forced us to become more flexible, more nimble,” says Dinic. “Our customers appreciated that. They always said, ‘We come here because we know it’s always good.’ As long as we could maintain our standards of service, quality and creativity, we felt that we were being true to the original concept.” Mosaico’s 2011 menu still leans heavily toward modern and traditional Northern Italian cuisine.

The signature dish, Veal Mosaico, a creation of chef Luis Romero (who has been cooking for Carrera and Dinic for more than a decade) is a scallopine layered with portabella mushrooms, roasted peppers and gorgonzola, in a brandy brown sauce, served with red potatoes on a bed of arugula. Another standout item is the French cut grilled pork chop. It has an entirely different thickness than what New Jersey restaurant-goers are probably used to. It’s never dry, even when ordered well done. Mosaico has also carved out a sterling reputation as a place to enjoy the bounty of the ocean. There are always at least two fish specials on the menu, even at lunch. Regulars swear by the crab cakes and, according to Carrera, the seafood salad rivals prosciutto and melon as their most popular appetizer. Grilled calamari is not on the menu, but is listed among the specials almost every day. Fish and shellfish are delivered each morning, so there’s an excellent chance that what comes to the table was swimming somewhere the previous day. The crowd at Mosaico is a mosaic in and of itself. At midday, four out of five tables appear to be business lunches. Some tables tear through their meals, while others linger well into the afternoon. In the evenings, it’s a blend of young and old, family dinners and romantic twosomes, and a fair number of business people.

The restaurant is also a popular spot for private parties. According to Dinic, that is how many people discover Mosaico. He also estimates that, at any given time, about 40 percent of the faces that come through the door are familiar ones. In an era where customer loyalty is key, that is a very healthy number. The look of Mosaico is best described as a blend of modern and traditional. High ceilings in the dining room create a feel of openness and cut down on the noise, and there is a cozy lounge area that makes waiting for tables a very civilized experience. Mosaics fashioned from antique tiles that once graced buildings in Italy serve to soften the decor and add color—and also inspired the restaurant’s name. Indeed, at first the two owners could not agree on a name. It was their interior designer who suggested Mosaico.

Ultimately, what people appreciate most about Mosaico is not what’s inside the walls, but what’s inside the people who work there. From the owners to the kitchen and wait staff— right down to the busboys—there is a genuine feeling of family. And that feeling is extended to the people who patronize Mosaico. Carrera says that he and Dinic work hard every day to keep their employees focused on the experience they deliver to customers—and to treat them the way they would like to be treated if they were sitting down to a great meal. “As much as the quality and consistency of the food, it’s the personal attention and service that defines Mosaico,” says Dinic. “When you’re here you really feel like you’re at home,” adds Carrera. “Only the food is better and you don’t get stuck doing the dishes.”

Have Food, Will Travel

Gourmet Food Trucks Go Full Throttle

Early morning. My friend, Pam, jumps off the ferry at Pier 17. As she scoots up Wall Street, she stops at a steaming cart to purchase the “best oatmeal in the world.” Next stop is a fresh fruit purveyor for just squeezed orange juice. Then on to another truck to buy “phenomenal” coffee. Breakfast in hand in only three minutes—a lot quicker than the corner diner—she heads up to catch the #6 subway. “I love buying food from these trucks,” she enthuses. Pam is an elegant woman in her 60s with high standards. She enjoys good food and dresses impeccably. So what is she doing ingesting food-on-the-fly (and from the street, no less)? My first reaction: Inoculate me…or at the very least pass the Tongue Purell! But since observing Pam grab food on the run that morning, I’ve noticed that food trucks have become ubiquitous, quite the thing and even chic on both sides of the Hudson. In the immortal words of Jimmy Durante, “Everybody’s getting in on the act.”

In his televised Bobby Flay’s Throwdown!, Iron Chef Bobby Flay has challenged to culinary cook-offs—and lost to—a number of food truck vendors. The New York Times food section regularly mentions these popular gourmet gypsies, and how and where to locate them. Zagats’ blog has launched a Food Truck Finder, providing parking location, reviews and even ratings of dozens of trucks—which is amazing since it didn’t include the popular Rickshaw Dumpling Truck, Kimchi Taco Truck, or King of Falafel. Even Food Network celebrity chef Tyler Florence has joined the movement, hosting The Great Food Truck Race, a culinary road show in which seven food trucks from California to Texas vie to be the most successful and win a $50,000 prize. Street food is older than a Babylonian bazaar. So what is creating this present-day proliferation of mobile food vending businesses? From Portland Oregon (600-plus trucks) to Austin, Texas, (more than 1,000), the mobile food business seems to be gaining momentum. It started on the West Coast (Los Angeles had food trucks as far back as the 1940s) and has headed East. Recently, Newsweek devoted an entire page to a wildly popular taco truck in L.A. Being in-the-know about a new restaurant, art installation or trend feeds the pop-up culture of the 3rd millennium, where businesses come and go in a matter of weeks. Often aided by social networks, a movable feast in a truck has become something for foodies to watch, follow, friend and tweet. Pam, my commuting friend, is no exception. She adores the thrill of discovery and being in on something new, delicious and personal.

KING OF QUEENS Krista, a chic young New Yorker, often grabs her dinner from King of Falafel in Astoria, Queens on the way home from her sales and marketing job. She says the very personal aspect of dining “a la cart” lends added appeal to the experience. “A huge part of what makes it so great are the people,” Krista explains. “There is always a long line of ‘Astorians’ of all ages and ethnicities waiting for the consistently delicious food. It’s fun to listen to the banter and the guys that work the cart are great. Oftentimes they give me some fresh falafel to munch on while I wait for my order of piles of marinated chicken and lots of tahini. And they tend to call me sweetie or sweetheart, which is actually kind of charming coming from them.” Not every food aficionado is on board with the truck trend. Once when the subject was raised, Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times food critic, demanded to know “where the hell do you eat” the food? How about at the office, on a bench, or whatever conveyance takes you home? Since being inspired by Pam’s culinary trek up Wall Street, I have shared a Rickshaw Truck Hudson Valley Peking duck dumpling with my friend Sugie on the high seas (aka the Seastreak Ferry). I’ve even managed to carry a Dessert Truck sublime chocolate bread pudding all the way home before devouring it.

THE WHEEL DEAL Who are these enterprising mobile food vendors? Culinary school grads find the trucks a low-cost way to start a food following. Whereas opening a restaurant with rent and renovation might cost over $1 million, outfitting a gourmet food truck will cost between $75,000 for a used one and $200,000 for brand spanking new. New Jersey chef Adam Sobel purchased, outfitted and decorated his vegan food “Cinnamon Snail” truck for $26,000—acquiring the

used truck and supplies through Craigslist and paying his artistic and electronically savvy friends with free food. He has since upgraded the truck with $14,000 worth of improvements. Some restaurants wanting to deliver their food brand to other neighborhoods have started fleets of mobile food vendors. Rickshaw Dumpling, with a brick and mortar restaurant on West 23rd Street in New York, recently added another truck to service its curbside fans. On the other hand, some trucks—Dessert Truck and Cupcake Stop to name a couple—have actually engendered flagship restaurants. So you’re thinking of running a food truck? Thinking it might be fun, cheap and easy? Not so fast. In addition to the sometimes 90-hour-a-week time commitment, roadblocks and speed bumps include municipal bureaucracies with hard-to-obtain permits and licenses, monthly health inspections and police harassment. Also, strict and biased parking restrictions—such as parking too close to a crosswalk—can plague an enterprising food truck operator. As a result, the Street Vendor Project, an unofficial union of vendors, was formed as part of the Urban Justice Center in New York. To raise money to advocate for all street vendors, they initiated the Vendy awards, which Mario Batali calls “the Oscars for food for the real New York.”

JERSEY DRIVERS Gourmet trucks have started pulling into towns across New Jersey, too. However in many places restrictive ordinances can discourage the mobile food business. Sobel, a native of Red Bank, with a kitchen there, spent endless hours earlier this year trying to convince borough officials to carve out a spot where he (and others) could sell food near his home. During the warm-weather months, his Cinnamon Snail has a home every Sunday at the Red Bank Farmer’s Market. Jersey City and Hoboken are home to a number of trucks offering interesting fare. The aforementioned Cinnamon Snail, Two Pitas in a Pod, and the Taco Truck are among the more popular. In the highly competitive food business, one might surmise there is cutthroat competition or turf wars, but in fact there exists camaraderie and mutual respect among the mobile vendors. Indeed, they often swap meals for variety and friendship. Lev Ekster, the Cupcake Stop truck entrepreneur, opted out of law, hired some great bakers and started the first mobile cupcake shoppe. In less than two years, his cupcakes won the Food Network’s Food Feud for Best Cupcake. With a bakery in Montclair, a newly opened shop in Greenwich Village and a truck that ventures into Manhattan each day, Ekster seems to have all the bases covered. If you work in the city, you can even preorder cupcakes for the office and pick them up at his Twittered location. How tweet it is.

Ninety Acres

‘Since you’re playing lord or lady of the manor, order the entrée-size as your appetizer and practice reveling.’

The long and winding road that drops you at the entrance to Ninety Acres might justify the traction of Hummer’s H2, or the agility of a basic Jeep, or the diminutive size of a Mini Cooper to best navigate its narrow confines. But, frankly, I was thinking “Bentley” as we approached the restored carriage house in Peapack- Gladstone that has been transformed into a destination restaurant on the 500-acre estate called Natirar. A Rolls would be too obvious. As the valet opened a door of our SUV, protecting us with an umbrella on this monsooning night, I wanted to ask, “How many Bentleys do you park a month?” I didn’t. I wanted to be inside, cloistered by the expanses of stone and wood that are brightened by glass and warmed by leather and copper. After being seated and gazing about, I sensed an Arts & Crafts attitude about the place. Albeit Arts & Crafts on a soaring, grandiose scale. To the right of the entrance is a bar with tavern room dining; to the left is the main dining space. Wander around and you’ll come across an open kitchen where you can watch pizzas shoveled into, then taken out of, a wood-fired oven— and maybe even the tucked-away Cognac Room, where parties who’ve properly reserved can dabble in a small plates scene.

If it all seems mighty aristocratic, remember: You are only in the carriage house. The original estate of the Ladds—Walter and Kate—began to take shape in the first decade of the 20th century. The couple acquired parcels eventually totaling 1,000 acres in Peapack-Gladstone, Far Hills and Bedminster, the core of the Somerset Hills. They built a 33,000-square-foot main home in the Tudor style. In clever tribute, they named the whole shebang the reverse of the river that runs through it. The anagram of the Raritan stuck, even after it was sold in the 1980s to the Royal Family of Morocco. As the new century dawned, local resident Bob Wojtowicz started to realize his dream of turning Natirar from historic estate to luxury resort. His plans caught the interest of Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, and dovetailed nicely with the goals of Somerset County. It became a Wojtowicz- Branson-Somerset County public-private partnership, and today Natirar itself reflects that arrangement. There’s a private club, offering trips abroad, wine tastings and sports. To come will be a hotel and spa.

Right now, open to all, is Ninety Acres, the restaurant. That is the domain of chef David Felton, who mines New Jersey for ingredients that shape his menus and add to what is grown on Natirar’s farm and raised in its pastures and pens. It’s a concept not unlike Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, though there’s a very, very Somerset Hills-y feel to the scene. That is to say, the plates at Ninety Acres have a contemporary classic esthetic. Felton, formerly chef at the Pluckemin Inn, doesn’t press at the edges of global trends or push unfamiliar ingredients upon a crowd accustomed to their comforts (and comfort zone). He’s taking it slowly, looking at the concept and the menu as an educational process. For example, on my first visit to Ninety Acres shortly after it opened in December 2009, folks were just testing the poached egg and pork belly starter that now, a year-and-a-half later, is a signature dish scoring universal raves.

This time, we tried a spin-off pizza in which the egg and pork mingle with the heat of chilies and the pungent spark of Gorgonzola and asiago cheeses, mellowed only slightly by a film of fontina. It’s a winner, the pie that Ninety Acres’ fans recommend without hesitation. I’d recommend a terrific pasta dish (whether you try it as a starter or main course) of chewy garganelli and Natirar lamb that’s been slow-braised till it’s practically spoon-ready. What makes it lovable is the tingle of mint pesto coupled with the richness of meaty fava beans and maitakes, my personal favorite all-luxe mushroom. Don’t stint on this one; since you’re playing lord or lady of the manor, order the entrée-size as your appetizer and practice reveling. I wanted to revel in the terrine of duck breast and foie gras, but found it too one-dimensional. There was a dab of aged sherry, snips of blood orange and a sprinkle of pistachio on the plate, but nothing to add vigor to the seriously buttery taste and texture of the terrine. More satisfying was a petite pot of French lentils bolstered by a true darling of a stew of spring vegetables. Here, Felton nudges diners by adding Valley Shepherd Creamery’s “Nettlesome” cheese to the mix, topping it all off with a spray of lemon oil. The mixed milk cheese flecked with nettles and the intensely citrusy oil make a dish with an inherently gentle soul provocative. That’s good cooking.

FULL SERVICE The floor crew at Ninety Acres has come into its own since its rocky start in late 2009/early 2010. I recall a dinner at which a few members of the service staff debated right in front of us which table got the plates they had in hand; politely trying to wrangle silverware as our food grew cold; and having to beg refills of our wine from a bottle set at a distance. The worst offenders? A couple of captains who openly complained about being short-staffed. None of that happened during a recent visit, when our meal’s delivery was well-orchestrated and servers attentive (if still prone to interrupting conversation with the always-awkward, “How is everything?”). The wine list has grown in scope and depth, the handiwork of sommelier Brooke Sabel. Though the by-the-glass program could offer more boutique selections, there’s a tie to the cuisine that shows thought. Clearly, Ninety Acres is in this game for the long haul.

Perhaps that’s where Felton would be taking the entrées. Don’t misunderstand: Once settled into the posh, so very comfortable dining spaces of Ninety Acres, even completely unadorned basics might do you just fine. But I know Felton’s cooking can offer head-turning surprises—quirks that complement and even elicit uncontainable exclamations from diners. I wasn’t getting a lot of that here. Yet. Next on the table was a top-notch bone-in strip steak, panroasted to a T and sided with a couple of small grilled portobellos. A quick lick of steak sauce, and that’s all the kitchen delivered. I wanted to taste a feisty crust of seasoning on the steak and a counterpoint to the portobellos, which, after all, have a similar beefy appeal as the meat. We ordered a couple of sides (at $9 apiece)—a strapping plate of earthy braised greens pocked with bacon and made bold by mustard and ultra-haute mashed potatoes ordered with olive oil but served instead with butter. I’d suggest doing the same. I’d also suggest—should it be on tap as the menu changes with the seasons and evolves—the cod with a pitch-perfect Meyer lemon-lobster sauce. It’s Felton at his peak, respecting the integrity of the cod by enhancing its flavor, but without overwhelming it by adding both contrasting acidity and rich, dense, naturally buttery shellfish. A flourish of royal trumpet mushrooms, sunchokes and runner beans ringing the plate made this one exuberant, defining dish. Very small Barnegat Light scallops were planned as the focus of an entrée that didn’t quite come together. Partnered with the overcooked scallops were roasted beets, a small beef short rib and a smattering of horseradish. At a nearby table, a party of smartly dressed adults and children were doing Ninety Acres’ Saturday night special of prime rib, exchanging grins and wielding their steak knives with admirable skill. Food for thought. Finales here follow suit, meaning they are neither splashy nor curiosities, but takes on classic confections. My favorite was the mascarpone cheesecake that may have skirted pledges to seasonality with roasted pear and rosemary honey as accents, but charmed with pure deliciousness. The crust of the maple custard pie was short of perfectly flaky, but the tout to local eggs and the fledgling sugaring industry can’t be shortchanged. There’s also a chocolate torte paired with chocolate-jalapeno ice cream that shouldn’t put off anyone who fears the heat of chilies. It’s a barely-there presence, that jalapeno, making the dessert all about chocolate. Ninety Acres is all about the New Jersey the jokesters ignore—the New Jersey, mind you, we’re grateful they ignore. It’s been described by those who don’t live here as an oasis. But it’s not. Natirar and its restaurant reflect the well-mannered elegance of the Somerset Hills. It’s going to be a pleasure to watch Ninety Acres and its surrounding communities explore new culinary horizons together.

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfield is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey. The longtime food critic for the Asbury Park Press also has been published in Gourmet, Saveur and Town & Country, and on epicurious.com.

Three for the Money

A Trio of Westfield Winners 

If at first you succeed, why not keep at it? It’s hard to remember a time when Theresa’s wasn’t around to feed families who realize they can’t make meal ends meet in between soccer and homework. Or couples who commute and, on occasion, want more than takeout rotisserie chicken and strip-mall Chinese. Or 20-somethings just off the train who are looking for a gathering place with more eats than drinks. The successful formula at this Italian-leaning, something-for-everyone restaurant on Elm Street encouraged founder and guiding force Robert Scalera to open a Southwestern-style spot called Mojave Grill, a mere blink away in downtown Westfield. Now folks craving a good bowl of black bean soup, quesadillas with punch and pizzazz, and chile-infused main courses had a downtown alternative in the same come-as-you-are vein as Theresa’s. And when it seemed there was a niche not yet explored, Isabella’s American Bistro was born in yet another storefront on Elm. It borrows culinary themes now and again from its siblings, but does have a much-loved jazzed-up meatloaf, wasabi-crusted seafood specials and a fruited bread pudding locals can’t do without. In other words, bistro style with an American-food attit      ude. An old friend from Westfield told me her four kids might have gone hungry during their high school days if not for Theresa’s and Mojave. They were at one or the other— sometimes both—every week. They’d all zero in on their favorite dishes, order and feel sated. Tara King, catering manager for all Scalera’s restaurants, says the faithful indeed do pop in two, three nights a week. And that doesn’t include lunch stops, since they all serve midday meals as well. Curious? Come dine with us then. We took in dinner at each of the Westfield mainstays to catch the individual flavor of each place. Neighborhood joints though they may be, there’s a sense of pride in the crafting of dishes that’s not always apparent in restaurants with a similar purpose and point of view. Ingredients are fresh. Stocks are made in house, not purchased in vats from food distributors. Though there are no ahead-of-time reservations to be made, there is a nightly call-ahead system that keeps table waits to a minimum. The restaurants routinely are packed to the gills, but on most occasions, there’s commendable flow from kitchen to table. Scalera’s restaurants are well run.

THERESA’S The always-smart partnership of shellfish and beans makes for a simple, yet engaging starter. Shrimp are marinated, then grilled, and plated with a white bean salad. The pair is united by a sweet flash of roasted red pepper and the herbal kick of a pesto-laced oil. Flashy and fussy? No. Soulful and satisfying? Yes. So is a local favorite pasta dish, the now-classic penne with vodka sauce. It’s so often tired and trite, laden with massive amounts of sauce that prompt giggles among teens, who think they’ll get a buzz from a sauce labeled “vodka.” Sorry. There’s a vaguely astringent quality to the spirited sauce, but what gives Theresa’s version of the dish a lift above the norm is the carbonara-like addition of crumbled pancetta and sweet peas. Potent in a non-alcoholic way. It’s possible that riots would ensue in genteel Westfield if the asiago-crusted chicken ever were taken off Theresa’s menu. Our polite server on this night said there was no chance of that. Folks love the cheese-on-cheese aspect of the dish, what with mozzarella layered in the mix. It’s all balanced by a dose of tomato and a garlicky cream sauce. If you’re looking for a sweet-tart sensation, give the balsamic-and apricot-glazed pork tenderloin a go. It’s got the appeal of something barbecued as well as a couple of hearty standbys on the side in garlic-licked mashed potatoes and a tangle of spinach. The dessert of choice? A dense, yet light, flourless chocolate cake that demands, and receives, a dollop of vanilla gelato.

MOJAVE GRILL There was a special soup on tap the night of our visit that intrigued: caramelized onion and potato, punctuated by the freshness of scallions and topped with crisped onions that have been shot through with cayenne. Of all the Scalera concepts, I’ve liked Mojave the best. There’s bolder seasoning and more of a distinctive personality on the plates, particularly on the specials’ roster. This soup crystallizes why?: The onion-potato soup is thick, rich and calls for counterpoint, which it gets in the rawness of the scallions and the heat of the crunchy cayenne’d onions. The signature black bean soup needs its jalapeno spike, as well as the luxurious lime crema, chunks of avocado and chopped, spiced tomato. Extra dimension in a dish is why we eat out, so we can experience what we might not do for ourselves at home. We tend not to make tuna ceviche at home very often, either, which is why Mojave’s faithful snag the chunks of yellowfin made brazen by ginger and pasilla chilies and then soothed by cooling cucumbers and avocado. Tune into the pulled chicken enchiladas and, if you’re in the mood for comfort food, for the ancho mole, red rice and black beans with a swath of cotija cheese and sultry crema. They’re just about as harmonic as a chorus from The Mamas and The Papas. If you’re craving quesadillas, nab the blackened chicken number that comes cosseted with a Monterey Jack-esque cheese and a generous slather of avocado-basil aioli. I wasn’t taken with the yucca-crusted grouper, a nightly special, for the grouper was overcooked, the taste of the yucca not doing a thing for the fish, and the red pepper puree overwhelming. The one-two punch of seared flank steak topped with a vigorous chimichurri hit on all cylinders, though—and it just might make you whip up your own take on the parsley-garlic-hot pepper-vinegar sauce this summer when you’re grilling a flank steak in your backyard.

As I scooped up the last of the spiced walnuts in the orange-and-arugula salad at ISABELLA’S, I sensed an impatience on the part of my dining companion. It took no special powers of deduction for me to realize my pal wanted our bacon- Cheddar meatloaf now. It soon arrived and began to disappear. I managed to score two bites and reasonable enough spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, both of which benefit from gravy chunky with shallots. You’d think meatloaf is only served in this country when the moon is full on a fourth Tuesday the way some people attack slices of the stuff. There’s no denying the appeal of Isabella’s meatloaf. (Which has a lot to do with an abundance of bacon, I suspect.) While the attack on the meatloaf was taking place, I took advantage of an uninterrupted spell communing with the night’s special ravioli: pasta pockets stuffed with goat cheese and roasted red peppers, then drizzled with a vibrant tomato-pesto sauce. There’s an accord reached on the fettuccine tossed with baby shrimp, corn, sweet peas, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms, all of which is bound by a chipotle-charged cream sauce. This is vintage Scalera and what I think his restaurants do best: Take a bunch of familiar ingredients, a concept that’s not off-putting, then jazz it all up to the level of food you expect when you go out to eat. My wish for Isabella’s? That it would pair a cut of beef other than filet mignon with a crust of peppercorns. That intense coating would work much better with a chewier, heartier flavor, such as strip steak or rib-eye, than it does with a mildmannered filet. But all ends well here with a banana-studded bread pudding streaked with caramel and served with vanilla ice cream. It usually does at Westfield’s trio of winners. EDGE

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfield is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey. The longtime food critic for the Asbury Park Press also has been published in Gourmet, Saveur and Town & Country, and on epicurious.com.