A Trip to Bountiful

What’s in store for New Jersey’s adventurous eaters?  You name it.   

By Andy Clurfeld

Remember trying to guess the number of jelly beans packed into a big glass jar at a county fair? I was never good enough at math to come up with a reasonable jelly-bean-per-square inch count that I could multiply by jar height and width to hazard a reasonable count. I admired those who even approached a ballpark number. After speaking with dozens and dozens of culinary professionals as indoor dining in New Jersey was coming out of its long hibernation, I learned I’m in ample company in the “it’s anybody’s guess” department: Nobody in this COVID-canceled-it world can say with any certainty what the state of our restaurants will be as the year 2020 winds down. 

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Although we may not know what’s in store, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s actually in Garden State stores, which carry a world of foods. So what I set about doing, rather than a review or profile a restaurant that might be in flux, in re-set, in one sort of modification or other by the time you read this, was to shop markets outside the general stock-up norm and see what’s available— specifically, what might bring to your home table the spirit of dining out.  

Mind you, I wasn’t looking for our old standby favorite, the rotisserie chicken. I wasn’t parsing the deli counters for cold cuts and three-bean salads. Nor was I grabbing prepared skewered beef cubes and bell peppers for the grill at the meat counter or marinated tuna chunks in the seafood department. I was hankering for more exotic tastes, a smack of adventure, a journey to another land on a plate.  

And I found those experiences at New Jersey’s bountiful ethnic mega-markets. 

Fattal’s Bakery

From the true super-size stores, such as Hmart (Korean/Asian), Netcost (Russian/Eastern European), City Fresh Market (Latin American), Seabra Foods (Portuguese/Brazilian), Mitsuwa (Japanese/Asian); Patel Brothers (Indian), Supremo (Latin American) and Kam Man (all-Asian), to the more intimate shops, including Chowpatty (Indian), Fattal’s (Middle Eastern), Nouri Brothers (Syrian/Middle Eastern), Piast (Polish), Makola African Market and The Greek Store, to the beloved neighborhood-centric Mexican and Indian corner stores, there’s a veritable United Nations of foods in our midst. 

Consider stamping your dining table much as you  would your passport, with a global menu of meals. I can vouch for finding food-shopping happiness at all the markets noted above—and experiencing the joyful, delicious meals that result with little or no effort. In fact, I often tell dinner guests who compliment my cooking that I’m not a particularly talented cook, but I am a very good shopper

Want some examples? There really are no recipes here…just mealtime put-togethers at a variety of  price points. 

Photo by Andy Clurfeld

Let’s start easy, seriously easy, with a completely ready-to-eat meal from Hmart, which has stores in North and Central New Jersey. We’ll progress to an elegant appetizer (or even an entrée) that’s assembled from prepared and purchased foods at Netcost. Then we’ll do what I think of as the two-step: quick and easy two-element bites that elevate your eating game.  

So rev up those taste buds and stretch your palate. 

Hmart sells myriad and many prepared foods, including sensational Korean kimbap rolls, which look like Japanese sushi rolls, but spotlight vegetables instead. Buy a package of those and partner with an “egg” roll, an omelet-like layering of scrambled-then-cooked egg punctuated by peppers and onions and lined with nori sheets, a skinny version of a handroll known as a “finger” roll, and a petite side of cucumber-sesame salad. Use the pickled vegetables that come with the rolls to garnish and punch up the prettiness of the plate

Piast Meats & Provisions

NetCost, with Jersey stores in Paramus and Manalapan, is world headquarters (well, my personal world head-quarters) for caviar and many other Russian and Eastern European foods. Now, caviar isn’t everyday fare for me, but when I want to do something special, I layer in a ring mold a few things I find in this uber-market’s extensive prepared foods sections (a chunky, creamy salad of potato, peas, onions, peppers; an egg-based salad; slices of smoked salmon) plus one of the thick, rich Russian sour creams NetCost sells (doctored with snippets of fresh chives and sliced scallions) and, slathered on top, a generous schmear of black caviar. You can welcome the New Year with this, or use it as the centerpiece of an intimate supper. Bring on the black bread from NetCost’s bakery department and plain crackers

While you’re browsing NetCost’s prepared foods bars, fill a tub with one of the excellent eggplant salads, maybe some silky chopped liver and/or a few soupcons of something mushroom. Why

Photo by Andy Clurfeld

You’ll need them to fill the pani poori (or puri) you’ll score at Chowpatty, my Iselin-based must-stop for cocktail party snacks, as quickie two-step hors d’oeuvres. Pani poori are a classic snack food in India—airy, crisp, hollow puffballs that you (carefully!) use a chopstick to poke a hole in and then stuff with pretty much anything. I do love using those NetCost salads, as well as chickpeas (rousingly seasoned), potatoes of all stripes, minced herbs and chilies (got a pesto lying around?), chopped-up smoked fish. Stuffing elements are endless; just make sure you fill your poori just before serving: They are delicate and most stuffings make them soggy after a while

Chowpatty Foods

More two-steps? Coming right up. Chowpatty is also my source for potato chips, particularly the chile-spiced ones, which form the base of the easiest of appetizers. Layer on top a slice of NetCost salmon or a dollop  of caviar. Or a swirl of Hmart barbecued beef or  jarred kimchi. Or muhummara (red pepper-walnut-pomegranate spread) or tabbouleh you forage at Fattal’s in Paterson

You get the idea. The Garden State has a diner-size menu of ethnic food shops open for exploration. Eat, learn, play in the kitchen

Try Something New




When you walk into an ethnic market, you’re bound to encounter a new food, or a familiar food presented in a new way. Play Marco Polo or Columbus or Magellan and explore. For instance, at Hmart, take a stroll through the produce department and you’ll find big and baby choys, musk melons and snow pears, honey apples and dragonfruit. Segue to the seafood department, and there will be icy bins of whole fishes and tubs of whole crabs. 

At NetCost, there’s a selection of at least a couple dozen caviars, a sea of smoked fishes, and herring enough to satisfy a famished Norwegian. There are scores of different breads, various styles of sour cream, and preserves that transcend anything Smucker’s makes. You already know same-old, same-old. Challenge your taste buds

Better Shop Around

Some of the markets in this story are located in towns near you, so you know about them already. Take note of those that aren’t…if you are traveling to another part of New Jersey for business or pleasure, take the opportunity to stop in and explore. Most are on or close to major roads and highways

NetCost • Manalapan and Paramus 

Hmart • Paramus, Cherry Hill, Fort Lee, Edison, Leonia, Ridgefield 

City Fresh • Union City 

Seabra Foods • Newark, Kearny, Harrison 

Mitsuwa • Edgewater 

Patel Brothers • Edison, Iselin, North Brunswick, Parlin, Plainfield, Perth Amboy, Trenton, Pennsauken 

Kam Man • Edison, East Hanover Chowpatty • Iselin 

Fattal’s • Paterson 

Nouri Brothers • Paterson 

Piast • Garfield 

Makola African • Newark 

The Greek Store • Kenilworth 

Andy Clurfeld, who racked up a lot of miles for this story, notes that while we do take-out from our favorite restaurants—while we support them in any way we can right now and as the future unfolds—eating more adventurously at home today will make all of us more appreciative diners when our eateries are again at full capacity. “If there’s one thing I’ve been hearing from chefs,” she says, “it is that, in the post-COVID Era, they can’t wait to cook at full tilt.  And then some.”

 

Heads Up, Eyes Down

Dan Lipow May Be Foraging at a Meadow Near You

By Andy Clurfeld

Right now, Dan Lipow is talking chanterelles. Don’t stop him. You’ll miss the opportunity to learn more about the princess charming of wild mushrooms than if you’d had an encyclopedia on the fruiting body of a fungus implanted in your brain while you slept. Because no tome on wild mushrooms—or most anything else that grows in the wild—can pinpoint for you the precise locations where such not-so-buried treasures lie like Dan Lipow can.

Ok. Chanterelles. This could be a great summer for chanterelles. As well as for, Lipow says, day-lily flower buds, purslane, wild ginger, elderberry, garlic scapes and sea beans. But you’re stuck on mushrooms?

“Local log-grown shiitakes, chicken-of-the-woods, milky cap mushrooms, lobster mushrooms—and more!”

“Makes me hungry,” Lipow adds.

Dan Richer, multiple-time James Beard Award-nominated chef of Razza Pizza Artignale in Jersey City, might say Lipow is always hungry.

“I’ve known Dan Lipow since 2006, 2007,” Richer says. “His love for food has kept evolving and intensifying. Fact is, my success has a lot to do with Dan’s support.”

Russell Farr, a soccer coach who lives in Morristown, hears the name “Dan Lipow” and immediately exclaims, “The ramps! The fiddleheads! The nettles! Dan’s selection is more than unique. It’s led me to a lifestyle. I started going to the farmers’ markets just to talk with him.”

Arirang

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So who is this maestro of the meadows, the scavenger of the streams through the woods, the lord of the locavores? And what is The Foraged Feast, his burgeoning enterprise that, in short order, united the best foragers here in New Jersey with foragers in other prime-source parts of the country in order to bring wild things safely into home kitchens of the Garden State?

For someone who appears to live a kind of swashbuckling existence of thrashing out into territories less-than-tamed, Dan Lipow is warm and friendly, welcoming and inclusive, a natural teacher and a deep believer in connecting novice to expert.

He’s a good dude.

Born in New York City, raised in Connecticut and lucky enough to have a relative with a farm where he first encountered wild things, Toddler Dan was enthralled with the berry patch in his own suburban backyard.

Grain & Cane

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“It was a mature patch, red raspberries and blueberries, and I used to pick the berries. A lot of berries,” he says. “My parents put in a vegetable patch. They put in a row of asparagus—we grew all sorts of stuff.”

A nearby apple orchard, trips to Long Island Sound for fishing, and “big, really big trees—there must’ve been morels there, with those big, old trees” occupied his time and mind. His family moved to Greenwich, and soon Teenage Dan was eyeing “massive oysters that we’d pop open” and “digging steamers and quahogs.”

Flash forward. He didn’t go to college right after high school, but strapped on a backpack and took off for Europe. It was 1987 and he was 18. “In Greece, a big gyro was 25 cents. All the stuff I ate there, I wouldn’t’ve eaten here. I hit 13 countries, going by ‘Let’s Go,’ ” the budget-friendly travel guides.

He returned to the U.S., worked in photography and went to Boston University for a year “so I could get into the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California.” Three years there taught him much about California cuisine and even more about Mexican foods.

Soon, he was a sought-after photographer in New York City, traveling the world—and eating its cuisines. “I’d have an assignment, three weeks in Tokyo, for instance, and carte blanche for meals.” By the time Lipow was 30, he’d been to dozens of countries and “experienced food everywhere.”

He spent five months in Southeast Asia on a project of his own creation through the United Nations Human Rights Council. In consort with Habitat for Humanity,  he documented issues in children’s habitats, the conditions, the realities. He presented his work at a U.N. conference in the mid-1990s.

“Hard work and great food,” he now recalls.

But by the end of the 20th century, he’d met his culinary-adventuring dream:

A giant Puffball. A mushroom that can grow to the size of, say, a basketball.

A friend who knew of Lipow’s prowess in the kitchen said, “You’ve got to Iron Chef this thing.”

“I went to the Whole Foods in Chelsea and stocked up,” Lipow says. “I cooked and cooked with that Puffball. Roasted. Made stock. Sir-fry. Cubed it—sugar plum and pepper balm. That giant Puffball opened the door. It could make magic.”

Soon Lipow was tutoring himself in mushroom studies. He was also studying foraging, and going for hikes in New Jersey, Connecticut, upstate New York.

“I was good at identifying mushrooms, and bringing them back home and using them. I was taking it all very seriously; I’d suck up the information.”

Meanwhile, Lipow and his wife decided in 2005 to move to Maplewood, where he was even more clearly able to see and experience the seasons and the cycles of what grows in the wild.

“You don’t see that in New York City,” he says.

He began to realize he was a true forager, understanding what edible treasures were right there, if not in plain sight, at least able to be unearthed by the knowledgeable eye.

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“Knowing that about a forest is very powerful—knowing where the chanterelles exist. I want to find those [treasures] in that environment, understand the sense of place, the environment, the possibilities.”

He found his perfect world, “a world where you can’t stop learning.” And what he discovered in New Jersey is “its many, many terroirs; it’s not like everywhere else. There are lower and upper reaches, hillsides, valleys. Here in Maplewood, we sit in the Watchung Range. Sussex County has terrain a lot like Appalachia. Glaciers came down to just north of I-78.”

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Soon a sign in the window of Arturo’s in Maplewood attracted Lipow’s attention: “Home-cured duck prosciutto.” That sign was written by its then-chef/owner Dan Richer, who was splicing authentic regional Italian dishes into the old pizzeria’s menu. Kindred spirits in more than first name, the Dans started collaborating.

Says Richer: “Dan taught me where the ramps are. When garlic mustard is in season. What Japanese knotweed is.

Back when farm-to-table what not yet a thing, I learned how exciting a walk in the woods with my friend could be. He brought these things to my menu—and they bring joy to people’s meals. It’s all so special.

“When Dan was considering transitioning from photography to foraging, well, I thought that was a  no-brainer. I just told him to bring it to me, and I’d cook with it.”

A new career was born.

“I’d show up with wild maitakes and we’d roast them in Dan’s pizza oven at Arturo’s,” Lipow recalls. “I’d find things, I’d call him, and he’d say, ‘Bring them over!’ We’d then go in for tastings he’d make just for us.”

Those tastings, Richer says, expanded from private  to reservation-only Saturday nights. Then a second tasting night was added. Indeed, on the basis of those resolutely original, hyper-seasonally focused tasting menus, Richer was nominated for a James Beard Rising Star Chef Award.

Lipow found other chefs willing to follow the forager along uncharted paths in the Garden State. By 2016,  The Foraged Feast was rocking at a half-dozen farmers’ markets in New Jersey, and Lipow was working with other four-star foragers “as an aggregator… of the  best-quality foraged and cultivated mushrooms,” as well as seasonal foraged fare such as those cherished sea beans, ramps, spring onions, spiky Devil’s Club Shoots, green briar tips, Juneberries, and what to some is  pesky knotweed, but to Lipow is easily broken down  by stovetop cooking until it caramelizes to pure deliciousness.

Courtesy of Dan Lipow/The Foraged Feast

He’s caught the attention of revered chefs, including Justin Antonio of Summit House, who “purchases mushrooms from him all year long” and makes spotlight dishes that include “his wild watercress, which I puree and serve with grilled calamari, preserved lemons, his ramps and his fiddleheads. I use his maitakes in a salmon dish, with fermented Napa cabbage, and I also roast his maitakes with pastrami spice. He challenges us all the time. No one I’ve ever met has more knowledge of his product than Dan Lipow.”

Melissa Goldberg of Short Hills, the founder of the Farm & Fork Society CSA, is another fan who uses his mushrooms in virtually everything she cooks: “Omelets, tarts, soups—if I’m cooking, and Dan’s mushrooms are in my kitchen, I throw them in! Have you had the velvet pioppini?” She pauses to exhale. “In a tart? With pasta? He opens people’s eyes to the world of mushrooms. He has such a connection to the Earth.”

One recent night, Dan Lipow is talking about his culinary colleagues at Garden State Kitchen in Orange, where he has his warehouse and often mingles with artisans preparing foods for market. He’s talking about the chefs he forages for, the customers who are now friends, the satisfaction he gets from sharing food and stories.

“Food can get staid and boring if you don’t experiment,” he says. “But there’s inspiration all around.”

He takes a (rare) breath, then continues: “It’s always about looking for that great morsel—that morsel that someone makes into that perfect bite.

“You know, I’ve got these great porcini. I shaved them, drizzled with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Sea salt, black pepper. It was so— I’ll send you  a photo.” EDGE

Editor’s Note: Dan Lipow is on Facebook and Instagram through www.theforagedfeast.com. He can be reached at The Foraged Feast through email: theforagedfeast@gmail.com.

Opening Thoughts

AJ Capella and Anthony Mangieri on summer,  the shutdown, and the new normal.

By Andy Clurfeld

The world is a different place than it was at the start of this year, or even at the start of spring. Now, as summer dawns, it’s challenging to imagine what the traditional season of sun- and-fun capped by a lazy, long dinner at a favorite restaurant might bring. Restaurants? Some open, but differently; some closed, sadly permanently; most in a state of flux.

We speak to two acclaimed restaurant chefs, both New Jersey-born and bred and Garden State loyalists to their core.

Anthony Mangieri, nationally renowned and referred to as the Pope of Pizza, started his career in the early-, mid-1990s in a slip of a storefront in Red Bank, where he baked authentic Neapolitan breads. A few years later, he opened his first Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach, before moving Una Pizza first to  New York’s East Village, then to San Francisco’s Mission District, next back to New York, on the Lower East  Side, and finally, home again, in downtown Atlantic Highlands. He is, rightly, credited with inspiring a new generation of pizzaiolos and showing pizza-eaters that his pizza, based on his otherworldly dough (starter born in 1996), is the original “transporting” pizza.

AJ Capella, a rising star in the culinary world, garnered respect and devoted fans during his turns at the Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station; the Aviary in New York, and  A Toute Heure in Cranford, before taking the top chef spot at Jockey Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Morristown. Now 30, he’s spent half his life working in restaurant kitchens and developing a style that marries the soul of authentic European peasant cookery with globally accented high-style finishes. Mangieri and Capella, each working and percolating these past months, take stock and reflect, refresh and predict.

Anthony Mangieri’s Una Pizza on Orchard Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has closed completely during the COVID-19-induced pandemic; however, Mangieri had, on Feb. 28, opened his new Una Pizza Napoletana at 91A First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. That Una Pizza has remained open, serving takeaway pizza Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Expanded hours are planned as restrictions on commerce ease.

Mangieri:

Dylan+Jeni

“This shutdown has given me time to reconnect. It’s a forced shutdown, but it’s given me more time with my family and to do things other than restaurant cooking.

“The issue is not so much the shutdown, but the reality of restaurants. What is that reality? For me, we’ve had to revert to minimal staff, which we can do and still do our pizza. But what is the reality for bigger restaurants with bigger staffs? The hardest transition at this time is for those restaurants.

“Do they go at half-capacity for six months? Most fine-dining restaurants will not come out of that. Elaborate menus need bigger staffs. I understand adapting to the time, but fine-dining take-away?

Dylan+Jeni

“I had no interest in doing take-away; it’s a different product. I’ve never myself had delivery (food), ever, and neither has my wife (Ilaria, who is from Naples and has a background in classical music and communications). The shutdown didn’t change my business model, my approach. I’ve had to limit ingredients, because I can’t now get some of them. I’m now using mozzarella made in New Jersey, from a company that imports buffalo mozzarella from Italy and makes it here.

“So I make the amount of pizza I can myself handle, about 90 pizzas a day, and that’s what I’ll do. We’ll be open four to five hours a day, and I’m toying with the idea of taking some reservations (if dine-in restrictions are eased) so I can control things.

“I get to work at 7, 7:30 in the morning, prep for hours, then make pizza the whole time we’re open, then clean up. It’s intense—the mental and physical focus. To open with outside tables—that would cost lots and lots of money: new tables, umbrellas, staff going in and out.

“Right now, I’m excited about the new ingredients I’ve got—pepperoni, peppers, great basil.”

Anthony Mangieri starts talking about the great jars of imported tuna he’s been tasting, then about chocolate, and ice cream, and gelato. The best ingredients lure him, inspire him and, inevitably, propel him to share them. Always have, always will.

Capella:

Jockey Hollow Morristown

“I was in Italy when this whole thing started. I was in Bologna, late February, Modena, having Lambrusco at a winery, tortellini en brodo everywhere, eating mortadella every day! Gnocchi frito—everywhere. It’s fried dough that expands and hollows out. Super-thin, filled with air. It’s served like a bread.

“We were eating a lot of a tangy, creamy farm cheese that’s spreadable, soft, with thick curds. I was talking to Sal (Pisani, a cheesemaker who operates Jersey Girl Cheese, and a friend of Capella’s) and he told me he’d work on making it here.

“Anyway, we got one of the last flights back. I quarantined; didn’t go anywhere, didn’t leave my house except to walk my dog. Then the shutdown.

“We cooked and cooked at home. My girlfriend is a pescatarian, so I don’t eat meat at my house. Cooking at home was fun, not rushed.

“Now, I don’t know about high-end dining, which is what I’ve always done. I don’t think it’s going to be back any time soon. Takeout, yes, doing online groceries, yes. I’m organizing all of that now at Jockey Hollow.

“But I’m also thinking, ‘What can I be doing differently? How can I reinvent, say, a fast-food sandwich? I’m thinking, say, crispy lamb neck instead of a chicken sandwich. ‘Cause high-end restaurants, if they have to cut back from doing 400 or 500 covers to 125 people, that’s not workable. You’ll have to do take-out plus a grocery in the basement.

Jockey Hollow Morristown

“I’m thinking, coming up with ideas. A 10-, 12-seat café for high-end dining, plus take-out. All locally sourced foods on the menu. A two-sided place. I think a lot of opportunity can come out of this pandemic, and the new post-pandemic restaurant models will change. The days of high-end dining as we know it are over.

“I’m thinking of a menu with scallop ravioli, with a whole scallop inside, poached, with compound butter, as the ravioli cooks. A smoked duck egg custard. You know, a riff on chawanmushi, Japanese steamed custard. But finish it with a tiny dice of Taylor ham, top it with cheese and egg. Classic New Jersey!”

Then AJ Capella talks through a menu for this new-restaurant dream that fuses the world’s cuisines with the Garden State culinary traditions and ingredients. His food always will have a heartfelt New Jersey accent.

The Frog and The Peach

“The ricotta gnocchi, lavished with black truffles and nibs of wild boar sopressata, was so sensational I did something I’ve rarely done when dining out on the job.”

By Andy Clurfeld

The Frog and The Peach

29 Dennis St., New Brunswick. Phone: (908) 846.3216 

Reservations and all major credit cards accepted. Open for dinner seven nights a week and for lunch Monday through Friday. Prices: Soups and salads: $9 to $14. Appetizers:$16 to $19. Entrees: $21 to $43. Sides: $9. Desserts: $12 to $14.

In the beginning, there was The Frog and The Peach…I wrote that sentence in my mind more than 25 years ago, when I started reviewing restaurants in New Jersey and concocting a sociogram of sorts that linked anyone and anything culinarily worthy in the Garden State. The Frog and The Peach was nerve central, chair of the brain trust, the heart that pumped inspiration and example to everyone else who served forth to the public. The Frog, born in 1983 on a bleak side street in New Brunswick and named for a Dudley Moore-Peter Cook comedy sketch, is where trends and some of the most respected, accomplished culinary and hospitality professionals in the state got their start. Industrial chic? Marquee status to local ingredients? Eclectic, boutique, artisan wine list? Fine-dining at a perfect-pitch bar? Check off a list that goes on and on: It all comes back to The Frog.

FrogAndPeach.com

The Frog today is owned by executive chef Bruce Lefebvre, who purchased the restaurant in 2012 from its birth parents, Betsy Alger and Jim Black. (Rutgers grads, of course.) The married couple had transformed the circa-1876 building at 29 Dennis St. that once housed the printing presses for New Brunswick’s newspaper, The Home News, into a multi-level theater for dining, where various stages could be set nightly for a variety of experiences. Tete-a-tete in an alcove? Communal dinner featuring cult wines in a set-off space? New and novel bites at the bar? Alger and Black’s revolution of continual evolution at The Frog also ignited their neighborhood: Once desolate and stark, with but one other restaurant and a synagogue nearby, the Hiram Square community is now desirable and swank, with brick townhouses that look plucked from Philly’s Old City and luxury condos that house Johnson & Johnson execs.

FrogAndPeach.com

The Frog as design guru/community activist/social conscience, however, is another story.

Lefebvre (facing page), schooled at Wake Forest, the Culinary Institute of America, post-college Frog kitchen and stints at New York City landmarks Aureole, Daniel and Lespinasse, is tag-teamed by general manager/wine director Jim Mullen, an alum of Georgetown, the Corcoran School of Art and restaurants such as the ground-breaking New York wine-and-food mecca Montrachet. There are well-informed front-of-the-house folks no matter where you step and a kitchen crew that seems eternally tuned to Betsy Alger’s famously exacting orchestrations. That’s the way of The Frog, back to the David Drake days, the Stanley Novack era and the Eric Hambrecht reign. Every one of these acclaimed chefs did time as top dog at The Frog.

The current menu under Lefebvre hits on all cylinders. It’s neither silly-obscure nor fearful of challenging diners who come here expecting to learn. There’s Le Quebecois veal tartare, given the sultry counterpoint of winter truffles more potent than the norm and pickled mustard seeds, a one-two punch of earth and warmth that cuts the richness of the veal and encourages a dab at the quail egg and a roll in the lardo. What could be too much luxury, particularly in a starter, is calibrated carefully—an exercise in control.

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Littleneck clams are partnered with a classic companion, pork sausage. But it’s the infusion of fresh ginger that elevates the dish, intensifying the flavors of both meats with a penetrating heat. Romanesco cauliflower, oh-so hip these days, is romanced by a fancy-schmancy duck Bolognese and a duck egg, then scattered with breadcrumbs. Intriguing, though its texture was off: I wanted to taste something crunchy or crisp to balance the plushness of the double ducks. Loved the concept of the octopus, billed as charred and Portuguese, even though it was served with a world of accents—enoki mushrooms, a chili-miso sauce, treviso, eggplant—but found the execution problematic: The chunks of octopus were alternately tough or mushy and the chili-miso sauce oddly without spirit.

FrogAndPeach.com

But the ricotta gnocchi, lavished with black truffles and nibs of wild boar sopressata, was so sensational I did something I’ve rarely done when dining out on the job:  I hailed a server and asked for another round. I had to taste more—immediately—of those near-weightless mini dumplings I once believed had reached their apex at the restaurant Vetri in Philadelphia, but have a new master hand in Lefebvre. Strewn amid the gnocchi are strands of mildly bitter greens, sweet roasted garlic and squash, deftly inserted accents that, again, serve to balance more forceful ingredients.

Opah, a warm-blooded fish that ranges from pale pink to rosy red when served raw but turns ghostly white when pan-seared as it was here, was brightened by two strong plate partners: a walnut paste much like the Georgian condiment satsivi, which brought a butteriness to the dish, and an olive-spiked brown butter that added a smoky salinity. Pompano took on a world of accents—taro, an avocado-coconut mash, sticky rice and kale soaked in chilies—and might have been more successful streamlined. Duck is done as a duo here these days, Long Island breast and quarter-size meatballs parked on the same plate with pretty cold-weather vegetables: pearl onions, squash and Brussels sprouts. The unifying component here is the duck jus, lush as it is with truffles and parmesan. That’s one delish sipper. Another twosome spotlights Iberico pork,

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cured ham from Spain and Portugal. The Frog’s Iberico indulgence is splendid, what with a silky-textured skirt steak sliced from the pig and soulful nutty-herby croqueta made from braised rib meat. Maitake mushrooms, an aioli laced with sherry vinegar and blooms of nasturtium complete the plate. 

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There’s lots of rum firing the flavor of the praline cake, which has an every-day-is-Mardi-Gras appeal. I was thinking the lemon-scented goat cheese tart needed a kick of another stripe to rev up its engine. But a confection that sounded ordinary—milk chocolate ganache isn’t exactly on trend these days—held my attention through the last fine bite. 

FrogAndPeach.com

We don’t seem to want to leave The Frog and The Peach on this night; it’s late and there’s been a huge “Beer vs. Wine” dinner party in the garden room that I wish I’d had the courage to crash, the staff is quietly, discreetly re-setting tables for the next day. We should go home. But we linger. We’re in the bosom of the mother culture of restaurants in New Jersey, and it just feels good.  

Seoulville

“Bulgogi jeongol, marinated beef cooked with a tangle of sweet potato noodles that mingle with mushrooms, tofu and vegetables, is a party in a pot.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Seoulville

45 West Main St., Somerville. Phone: 908.854.4100
Open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 9:30 p.m. Note: Seoulville takes a late afternoon break Tuesdays through Fridays and closes from 3 to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Major credit cards and reservations accepted. Prices: Appetizers: $6 to $15. Barbecue dishes: $23 to $29. Dolsot (rice bowls): $15 to $17. Soups: $13 to$17. Casseroles (jeongol): $35 to $38. Entrees: $14 to $32. BYOB.

Kimchi jjigae is the Statue of Liberty of soups, beckoning for generations to the tired, the poor of health, those huddled under quilts struggling to breathe free of wintertime colds and flus. It is potent of broth, fired as it is by spices seeping from fermented vegetables and long-simmered pork belly, and soothing of texture, with slices of tofu and slivers of tenderized cabbage, radishes and other roots turning up in every bite. Kimchi jjigae fortifies the ailing body as it restores the flailing soul. It’s a wonder of a dish, and Seoulville, a relative newcomer to Somerville’s ever-diversifying restaurant scene, nails it.

Seoulville is the result of a natural progression: In before-culinary-enlightenment times in Somerville (and many county-seat centers of New Jersey suburbia), you had your red-sauce Italian joints, your chow mein Chinese joints, your continental masquerading as classy (dress up and take out Aunt Gert for her birthday) or slumming (diners didn’t serve moussaka in those days), and little else. Then came the white sauce known as alfredo, Szechuan and something called “cuisine minceur,” or a lighter side of French cuisine that blew the lid off the butter-and-cream classics and made us feel virtuous and oh-so-nouvelle.

Photos courtesy of Brian Kim/Seoulville

Was it sushi that helped us shake off the shackles of the 1950s Germanic meat-and-potatoes diet? The advent of olive oil? The Eurail pass that allowed post-grads to travel and travel and eat and eat? All of that, for sure. During the course of a decade or two, Japanese, Mexican, Indian, Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Mediterranean from many ports, island fare and, critically, strains of America’s own regional specialties, came to star on menus at everyday-style strip-mall restaurants throughout the Garden State.

Why it has taken more than a decade of the 21st century for Jerseyites to welcome Korea’s comfort foods to their backyards puzzles me. But after years of trekking to Fort Lee, Palisades Park and Edison, I’m grateful that Brian Kim and his parents Helen and Kenny were brave enough to bring Seoulville to at least one corner of New Jersey that lacked real-deal bibimbap.

Is there a food more comforting than this stew of a salad that flips crusty-topped baked mac-and-cheese on its fanny and actually weighs in as nutritious? Seoulville’s casserole of rice, beef (or chicken or tofu), slivers of mushrooms, carrots, spinach, daikon, a runny fried egg, a scattering of sprouts and, on the side, a cup of gochujang (a Korean chili paste embraced by millennials who spoon it on everything they eat while curled up on Klippan sofas) is filled with ingredients we know. Here, they’re re-assembled, cooked in a stone bowl that crisps some of the rice, and brightened by that smoky-hot-sweet-mysterious sauce it doesn’t take a prophet to forecast as the successor to salsa.

Brian Kim, the front-of-the-house man at Seoulville and the guy who truly wants to teach gochujang, kimchi jjigae and bibimbap to the uninitiated, is happy to guide you through the menu of classics tailored, in varying degrees, to American ways. Give a listen, give a try. You can eat your same-old any time.

For here, the chicken wings come glazed sweet and spicy—and that do-si-do of dolce and daring isn’t sticky and cloying, but invigorating to the meat. Which is the point. The seafood and scallion pajeon, a pancake that tilts in texture to an omelet crossed with a crepe, isn’t even a tad oily, allowing the shreds of shrimp and squid to take charge. My favorite starter is the fried tofu, batter-dipped cubes with taut, crisp crusts that squirt with milkiness. Eat a cube, with or without a brush of sweet soy glaze, then check out the banchan–small bowls of vegetables and condiments, including cubed radish, sliced cucumbers, pepper-licked potatoes, marinated mungbean sprouts–and enjoy the interplay.

Made for sharing, and worth the investment, is the Korean hot pot. Bulgogi jeongol, marinated beef cooked with a tangle of sweet potato noodles that mingle with mushrooms, tofu and vegetables in a broth that tastes meaty but is all about slow-cooking with shiitake mushrooms, is a party in a pot. Stir in a spoonful of gochujang; snag a leaf of lettuce from your bossam platter and pile some of the beef and vegetables inside, wrap and eat; mix some of your banchan with your bulgogi on a side plate. This food is all about customizing to your own tastes. Your own expanding tastes, I hope.

Speaking of bossam, Seoulville’s pork belly boiled in water scented (I suspect) with ginger and garlic, peppercorns and onion till super-tender—then seared and served with leeks and onions—is minimalist compared to some contemporary takes. But comforting it is, and if you ply it with the sauces and banchan, you’ll be well on your way to understanding not only how to eat Korean, but what you can do to charge up your own dining regime at home.

Grilled beef short ribs are a no-brainer to eat and love. Served on a hot plate, meant to be speared and fired and consumed without judgment, they’re one of Seoulville’s relatively shy dishes. So is the cod braised in a soy-based sauce and served with a splay of mild vegetables. It reminds me of a tame version of miso-glazed black cod, a dish made famous at Nobu—a dish that once seemed as foreign as, well, kimchi jjigae.

For weeks after that dinner, I thought of Seoulville. Its mission to serve as a bridge between mother country authentic and suburban Jersey educational did make me a little sad, however. I kept wishing the Kims didn’t feel that need to cotton to Western palates at all. But they are in it for the long haul, definitely wanting to take locals on a culinary trip. I stopped back with a friend, ostensibly for bowls of a couple of soups I’d missed, but really to see how the little place with the big heart was doing.

The room was nearly full at an early-dinner hour. I looked at the menu and chuckled. How could I not have ordered the famous “Hangover Soup,” arguably the most loved of Korean standards, my first time there? Its beefy broth, fortified with both soybean paste and red pepper paste and strewn with cabbage, sprouts and vegetables, might not have the infusion of jellied oxblood that the original must possess, but it scares my friend’s cold into submission. A seafood broth bolstered by that same spicy pepper seeps into soft tofu and infuses it with hints of shellfish, riffs of chilies; it makes for a soup I find magical.

Seoulville, a modest but pleasant storefront with subdued décor and the most welcoming of service, could be part of the natural progression of things culinary. It might just be what the good denizens of New Jersey had to work up to. But it’s also about a carefully orchestrated menu by the Kim family and a style of cooking that’s at once educational and experimental, yet purposefully easy to digest. We’re getting there.

BYOB

It’s possible my love for Korean food is fueled by its compatibility with wine. Specifically, gewurztraminer, the fruit-forward, spicy personality white wine that adores intensely seasoned foods—particularly ones plied with chilies. Bring to Seoulville your best gewurz, be it from Meyer-Fonne or Albert Boxler. In reds, consider an un-shy number from Spain, perhaps something from Rioja or the Ribera del Duero. Or a Priorat. You want something that allows its fruits and heft to be balanced by spice and a little earthiness; a high-alcohol, amped-up, resolutely “big” wine will be discordant with the nuances of seasoning in Seouville’s signature dishes.

Foreign Service

Eating my way through ethnic Montclair.

By Helen Lippman 

In the run-up to this year’s presidential election, we’re likely to hear a lot of divisive language about “foreigners” in our midst—so much so that one could easily forget that one of this country’s long-defining qualities has been the way it makes room for new people and cultures. Fortunately, we have places like Montclair to remind us. Craving Cuban black beans or an Indian samosa? You’ll find it here. Love Middle Eastern fare? Sample food from Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Turkey—all within a walkable, small-town mile. As an added bonus, virtually all the restaurants are BYOB To tell you about a few of my go-to places, I’ll start, as my husband and I sometimes do, with the first meal of the day. Simit House Bakery & Co., a casual Turkish eatery on a corner of Church Street, calls its breakfasts “sunrise abundance.” You can order a ”petite” plate of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and feta or a “hearty” serving with sausage, cured beef, hard-boiled egg and provolone added to the mix. I prefer menemen, a creamy egg dish with a kick from pepper paste, chopped tomatoes and onions. The namesake simit—a sesame seed-covered cross between a bagel and a pretzel that’s been a popular Turkish street food for hundreds of years—surrounds the eggs. Served warm, it needs no butter or jam. 

Owner Ibrahim Yagci, a native of Istanbul, says his aim in opening the bakery was to preserve the simit’s legacy. But the menu has grown steadily in its two-plus years of existence. The sausage-shaped potato roll—onion-flavored mashed potatoes juxtaposed with the crunch of spicy phyllo dough—has become another local favorite, as has the spinach pie. Sweets, salads, soups, sandwiches and Turkish coffee are on tap, too.

Uncle Momo, a French-Lebanese bistro a few blocks away, has a bountiful brunch menu (as well as lunch and dinner). Owner and chef Wissam Elmasri, who is Lebanese and attended culinary school in France, serves a mix of American, French and Middle Eastern fare. The crepes, made from quinoa, are light and airy.  The most unusual is Zeit W Zaatar, made with labne (yogurt cheese), cucumbers and olives, all seasoned with dried thyme. My two favorites—spinach & goat cheese and smoked salmon & spinach—are delicately flavored and topped with greens. Ruby red pomegranate seeds give the salad an unexpected zing.

Individual pitzas, so named because they’re made with fresh-baked pita rather than traditional pizza dough, are also worth a try. I especially like the lamb pitza, seasoned with parsley, onions, and a hint of cinnamon.  I’ve also become attached to the muhalabia, a milk pudding flavored with rosewater, and Wissam’s saffron rice pudding, a colorful twist on an old-fashioned dessert that’s wonderful with mint tea.

Ani Ramen, a trendy Japanese noodle house that opened in 2014, is a good place for lunch, snack or a casual dinner. Its success is not surprising, given that owner Luck Sarabhayavanija and his team tried hundreds of combinations of noodles and broth before settling on a menu. The result: A half-dozen ramens to showcase and about 20 more in the mix. “We have a simple chicken broth, a more complex miso, a brothless ramen with intense flavor, a wonderful vegetarian—our hidden gem—and our signature rich and creamy pork broth,” he says. 

My strategy is to share a bowl of ramen so I have room for other house specialties—the chili-charred, sea-salted edemame, the light and spicy kale salad and particularly, shrimp buns. Made of marinated panko shrimp (a house secret, whispers Sarabhayavanija) pickled cucumber, shredded cabbage and spicy miso mayo on a fresh-steamed bao bun, the taste keeps me coming back for more. 

Right next door is Spice II, a restaurant owned by Sarabhayavanija’s mother, Sheree, and my favorite of the three Thai restaurants on Bloomfield Avenue. Its bright red and gold décor and subtle smell of spice evoke memories of a long-ago trip to Thailand.  I usually start with the fried tofu, served with a piquant plum and peanut dipping sauce. The mango salad—a fruity blend with apple, pineapple and red onions in a chili-lime dressing—is another favorite starter, as is the lemongrass- and lime-infused tom yum soup. Many entrées can be tailored to taste, not just for spiciness or main ingredient, but also with a choice of basil, garlic or ginger sauce and a vegetable mélange. Chicken rama, made with carrots and broccoli in a peanut sauce that’s sweet and spicy, is a house specialty.  Feeling adventurous? Grab a few friends and head to Mesob, where the food cries out for sharing. It arrives on a pizza-sized communal platter, to be eaten not with fork or spoon but with injera, the spongy flatbread that doubles as an eating implement in Ethiopia. Friendly waiters keep replenishing your supply as long as there’s food left to be scooped up. Order carefully here. My husband and I often ask for chicken and lamb tibs—marinated and sautéed with onions, garlic and jalapenos—prepared “between mild and medium,” but which is quite spicy. If you prefer food with little or no heat, select dishes marked “mild.” Each entrée comes with two sides. Misia wat (spicy lentils) and kik aletcha (yellow split peas) are among my favorites. 

Costanera, a Peruvian restaurant whose owner/chef, Juan Placenia, was born in Lima but moved here when he was a tot, is two doors away. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and everything I’ve eaten here—even the humble rotisserie chicken—has been top-notch. That said, fish and seafood take center stage. The restaurant features a raw bar and several ceviches, marinated in leche de tigre, the Peruvian name for the citrus and chili mix that cures the fish. But Placenia has a penchant for unexpected combinations, blending crab, ahi tuna and shrimp, for instance, in a single ceviche. Seafood entrees range from Asian-style shrimp to Peruvian seafood stew. Escabeche de pescado, pan-roasted cod with spiced pickled onions and yams, is my usual choice. Fried yuca, sweet plantains and quinoa salad, perked up with lime vinaigrette, almonds, tomatoes and the tartness of dried cranberries, are favorite sides. Dessert is a main event, too. The tres leches cake won’t disappoint, and the combinado classico blends the tastes of rice pudding and Peruvian purple corn pudding made with apricot, papaya and pineapple in a single parfait. 

If you love Paris—and who doesn’t?—save room for dessert at Le Petit Parisien. Crepes, salads and sandwiches are also served here, but the macarons, pastries and croissants create the biggest buzz. Macarons come in many flavors and hues, including raspberry, pistachio, blood orange and sour cherry. Little cakes and tarts are tempting, too. A strawberry passion fruit mousse cake, covered with tantalizing swirls and topped with a bit of chocolate wrapped in edible gold like a tiny treasure, catches my eye, but I order the flourless chocolate cake instead. 

Owners Limi Maldonado and Baptiste Chigot moved to Montclair directly from Paris, and the atmosphere here is as French as the pastries. “There are a lot of Francophiles in the area,” says Maldonado, “and they tell us they feel like they’re in Paris.” Indeed, anyone who has seen the lights of the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night and watches the blinking lights of the mini Eiffel Tower in Le Petit Parisien’s window can’t help but feel that way. 

BLOOMFIELD & CHURCH

There are dozens of exceptional restaurants in and around Montclair. These are some of my favorites on Bloomfield and Church. Call or check their web sites for days and hours.

 

on BLOOMFIELD AVE.

Ani Ramen House

401 Bloomfield Avenue 

973-744-3960 aniramen.com

 

Costanera

511 Bloomfield Avenue

973-337-8289

costaneranj.com

 

Fusion Empanada  

706 Bloomfield Avenue

973-707-7174

fusionempanada.com

 

Mediterranea

578 Bloomfield Avenue

973-744-1300

mediterraneanj.com

 

Mesob

515 Bloomfield Avenue

973-655-9000

mesobrestaurant.com

 

Spice II 

399 Bloomfield Avenue

973-509-2110

spiceii.net

 

Uncle Momo 

702 Bloomfield Avenue

973-233-9500

unclemomo.com

 

on CHURCH STREET

 

Fresco

15 Church Street 

973-337-8225 frescoonchurch.com

 

Le Petit Parisien

10 Church Street 

973-746-0288 lepetitparisienmontclair.com

 

Manny’s Diner

12 Church Street 

973-509-9600

mannysdiner.com

 

Mundo Vegan

20 Church Street 

973-744-5503 

mundovegannj.com

 

Raymond’s

28 Church Street 

973-744-9263

Raymondsnj.com

 

Scala del Nonna Ristorante 

32 Church Street 

973-744-3300

scalinifedeli.com/scaladelnonna

 

Simit House Bakery & Co.

2 Church Street

973-893-5970

simitlove.com

 

Just

“The duck mix in the little tacos enjoys a two-step dance with the broccoli pops that escape convention with that hint of chili  in the sesame sauce.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Just

Route 9 South, Old Bridge, next to the Emporium International Market

Phone: (732) 707.4800 

Open Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Prices: Soups and salads: $10 to $13. Starters:$10 to $13. Entrees: $22 to $38. Side dishes: $6. Desserts: $8 to $12. Reservations and major credit cards accepted. There is a serviceable wine list and a more creative cocktail list.

I am power-shopping at Emporium International Market, snagging a vacuum-packed, hot-smoked whole mackerel and asking the kindly woman behind the seafood counter to dole out a quarter-pound of caviar, which will cost me $10 and elevate the hors d’oeuvres at my next night’s dinner party from nice-enough to all-luxe. I’ve already had wrapped a pound of peppered slab bacon, which I’m cooking in my mind: Tiny dice, fry, remove bacon-nibs, add a huge amount of greens, sauté, top with the little bacon bits, eat.

I am snapped into the here-and-now by the members of my dine team. We’re booked for dinner at the restaurant next door and it is now post-time for chow time, they remind me. It’s 7:30. The Emporium is open ’til 9:30. I want to get back to finish my shopping; I feel as though I’ve only just tapped this market on Route 9 in Old Bridge with all manner of Eastern European foods and a distinct Russian accent. But dinner in two hours? Fat chance.

justrestauranrnj.com

Seven minutes late for our reservation, we spill over into Just, the singularly named spot that shares an address with the Emporium, and apologize profusely to the hostess. “I was shopping,” I start to say as the gal smiles and replies: “No problem. It happens all the time.” I bet it does. The owner of both the market and the restaurant, Igor Maller, is a native of the Ukraine who emigrated to New Jersey and, once upon a time, operated a club in Moscow. International is his way of life. Putting together the one-two punch of a market aimed at adventurous home cooks and a restaurant whose menu runs the global gamut is a no-brainer for the culinary juggernaut: Maller’s vision of geographical borders and boundaries is that they don’t exist. Unite, fuse, take ingredients to their natural conclusions, and prove that even if politicians can’t seem to bring about world peace, the big table of the world proves we all eat many, many of the same things, just in different guises.

justrestauranrnj.com

The conductor of Just’s culinary orchestra is chef Jonathan Vukusich, who reins in the far-reaching menu by believing in the taste-good factor. His food is approachable and, often, fun. He elevates comfort foods, street foods, iconic foods to date-night dine-out levels. He cares about deliciousness and design in equal proportions and executes his plates with panache. In the airy dining room that is often filled to the max, the vibe is merry and bright. It’s a happy scene.

We are happy to embark on a world tour with the starters. There’s a take on Tater Tots stuffed with shrimp, crab and a binder of mozzarella and goat cheeses. There’s a sesame-flecked tuile molded into a cone and filled with sushi-caliber tuna and wasabi’d tobiko. There are mini soft-shelled tacos plumped with Peking duck and shreds of cucumber and scallions, then swished with a citrusy, slightly sweet hoisin sauce. There’s broccoli fried Korean-style, then splashed with a heat-licked sesame sauce. Funny how the tuna cone, with its now-conventional forward-flavor Japanese accents plays off the soothing taste and texture of the seafood-cheese nuggets; intriguing how the duck mix in the little tacos enjoys a two-step dance with the broccoli pops that escape convention with that hint of chili in the sesame sauce.

justrestauranrnj.com

The kitchen also has fun with avocados, fashioning them into an Eastern Med-North African salad by torching, then plating them with chickpeas, nutty-tart pickled garlic and a burnt orange vinaigrette that achieves the kitchen’s goal of unification: Don’t count out the intrinsic flavor of an everyday orange to ratchet up the tastes of a creamy, mild avocado, earthy chickpeas and good old garlic. For it does…especially in this fired-up incarnation.

One of my personal favorite spices is sumac, the sour-tangy-tart red berry that is picked from a bush in the Middle East, dried and ground into a powder or flaked. Its inherent balance, not to mention vibrant color, makes it a fine choice when lemon won’t do. Here, at Just, sumac powers up shrimp and scallops that are served over couscous flecked with vegetables. A coconut curry sauce infused with tomato takes a shine to Chilean sea bass: The velvety curry is cut by the acid in the tomato, and the result is a balanced accent for the mild, yet rich fish. Hamachi sashimi, however, is overwhelmed by shiitakes and peppers sautéed in a sauce of coconut and ponzu that’s incongruously sweet. It was wrong for the fish.

The pork shank special, relatively tame in a brandied mushroom sauce, isn’t one of Just’s top-tier entrees, but the accompanying pork-fried orzo, with its smoky nibs, should be sold by the quart. Short ribs could be partnered with the broccoli app: The meat is slow-roasted in a Korean barbecue sauce and served with a super-smooth puree of potatoes that cozies up to salsify. Tasty stuff.

www.istock.com

Desserts follow suit here, meaning you’re not going to get simple or plain. An apple tart cosseted in puff pastry is given a condiment of its own in a honey-quince foam. Vanilla ice cream, too. The pastry’s a little thick, a little heavy, but the apple-honey/quince partnership is a natural. What do you get when you layer chocolate fudge, toasted meringue and a graham cracker custard? A S’mores crème brulee. Didn’t you earn that badge on a Scout camping trip, Skippy? You also can face-off with Oreo zeppoles, which you will either love or choose to ignore. The requisite uber-intense chocolate confection is dubbed “Mona Lisa,” and it’s a layered cake of dark chocolate mousse, ganache and whipped cream swirled with raspberry preserves. It’s more obvious that its sly-smile namesake.

As I figured, we’re at Just way past Emporium International Market’s closing bell. But that’s okay. I leave feeling as though the shopping prelude and the eating opera is exactly what this excursion to a tucked-away world is supposed to be about.  

justrestauranrnj.com

NEW TWIST 

Shortly after you are seated for dinner at Just, you will be served pretzel buns with honey-Dijon mustard butter. These are clever and addictive. The pretzel bun is much like a soft pretzel, and definitely on the Amish end of the soft pretzel spectrum. The butter, softened and speckled with mustard seeds, isn’t too sweet, but there’s a definite smack of honey.

You must slather the butter—in my case, in frosting-like proportion—onto the pretzel, eat and repeat. The repeating process is likely to, well, repeat itself.

My Chemical Bro-mance

A loving look at the science of wine.

By Mike Cohen

The wide appeal of wine encompasses devotees along a remarkably broad spectrum. From the ordained Court of Master Sommeliers to the masters of the supermarket special, wine has the capacity to leave an indelible imprint on the human mind. No wonder people like me can wax on endlessly about the aromas and flavors from our favorite gulp. To non-oenophiles, this may seem like so much inside baseball; they wonder, isn’t it enough that it tastes and smells good? Yes, of course it is. But that’s not what drives the wine industry, and certainly not what reaffirms our interest each and every time we open a bottle and drink the night away. Perhaps the better question is, “Is there any science behind this phenomenon?”

The answer is Yes. Indeed, chemistry has given us a whole new set of toys to play with to define what it is that we love so much about wine. 

FOLLOW YOUR NOSE

As we begin to nose (or smell) a wine, there are primary aromas from grapes, both fruity and floral. Secondarily, aromas arise from fermentation. These are called esters. In young wines, these esters impart pear and banana characteristics. If the wine has undergone malolactic fermentation (where the grape’s tart taste mellows to a softer-tasting lactic acid), battonnage (a stirring of dead yeast cells and other particles that remain in a wine after fermentation) and oaking (which adds aroma compounds to a wine) extracts enter the picture with creamy diacetyl and woody vanillin aromas. Finally, there are tertiary aromas from the aging process. Wines typically contain some dissolved oxygen, but if they are barrel-matured, they absorb additional oxygen. All this leads to what is considered beneficial oxygenation with the formation of aldehydes, creating that unique and hard-to-describe signature of a finely aged wine. 

Once in the bottle, maturation changes the volatile compounds. It’s basically an anaerobic process that reduces the oxygen content of the wine. Full-bodied reds need this maturation process to balance out the aromas and flavors that define this segment of the wine industry. Tertiary aromas are what take us away from simplistic descriptors of wine. 

We all know that guy who says something like, “I’m getting hints of saddle leather mixed with Havana cigar, woodland floor, and autumnal garden.” Well, that guy might actually be dead right. There happen to be over 400 wine odor compounds (many with catchy descriptions) that have been identified in small concentrations that pierce the olfactory threshold. Compounds in grapes that are precursors of wine flavors include free amino acids, phospholipids, glycolipids, aldehydes and phenols. Alkyl esters, a result of fermentation, are important compounds that give secondary aroma characteristics. Terpenes present in grapes are unchanged by fermentation and therefore contribute to primary aromas. Young wines made from grapes with a high terpene content include muscat, gewurztraminer and riesling. Their nose screams of primary fruit and show overt grape-like aromas. Other compounds unchanged by fermentation include the pronounced black currant or cassis aromas of cabernet sauvignon.

www.istockphoto.com

ON THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE

Relatively speaking, our ability to taste wine is almost a dead end. The tongue can only perceive four sensations: sweetness, bitterness, salty, and acidity. Yes, I know people argue there’s a fifth one, umami—aka a mouth full of soy sauce—but it’s not my thing, so let’s stick to what we do know.

Sweetness can be detected on the tip of the tongue but cannot be smelled. For example, muscat varieties have fragrant and aromatic nose qualities that are reminiscent of sweet table grapes, but the wine, when tasted, may be bone dry. Sweetness perceptions may also be found in higher alcohol levels, and when vanillin is present in oaked wines. Thus, a high-alcohol wine stored in barrel may actually taste sweeter than the actual level of residual sugar in the wine. A technique to understand this is pinching the nose while swirling a wine around the mouth to perceive it’s actual stimulation to the tip of the tongue. Also, the higher the acidity of the wine, the less sweet the wine will be, as acidity impacts the taster’s perception of sweetness.

Residual sweetness in wine is due to fructose, post-fermentation. White wines can contain between 0.4 to 300 grams/liter, while red wines fermented dry lie between 0.2 to 3 grams/liter. However, it is not unusual for New World reds to contain up to 8 grams/liter of sugar to soften any bitterness imparted by phenols. These would not be considered sweet red wines, but rather balanced.

Acidity, often considered the most critical aspect when it comes to tasting wine, is perceived on the sides of the tongue and cheeks as a sharp, lively, tingling sensation. All wines have it—whites greater than reds, cooler-climate wines more so than warmer climate wines. Sugar and acidity in wines are inversely related, so as one goes up the other must come down, and vice versa. The greatest acid present in wines is tartartic acid, although malic and citric acid account for some sizable concentrations. Other acids may be present, including acetic acid (aka vinegar). Acid has the ability to negate sweetness in a wine’s palate, and plays a huge role in dessert wines. 

Tannins, another compound found in grapes, also give tactile sensations in the mouth, making the teeth and gums feel furry and dry. They are often a key component in big red wines that offer what is called “grit” and complexity to the taste. Tannins are polyphenols taken primarily from grape skins, but also found in stalks, which impart a greener, harder nature, so whole-cluster wines will have this incorporated into the taste. Oak is another source of tannins, often a more subdued character with a more aromatic side to it. 

Tannins bind and precipitate proteins. This is why red wines match so well with meats and cheeses. This combination causes wines containing tannin to congeal into strings, or chains, thus changing our perception of the wine as it mixes with the food proteins. It is often assumed that white wines contain no tannin. This is untrue. They are there, but at lower levels than red wine. White wine is pressed pre-fermentation, and the solids are settled out. Unless there is any period of skin contact post-crush and pre-press, the phenolics in the skins will have a limited impact. Whole cluster pressing may make up some shortcomings on tannins, but typically it is oak aging that gives white wines their tannin character.

QUALITY NOTES

Nose and taste are just two of the components we consider when evaluating the quality of a wine. Also coming into play are flavor, balance and length and price. Quality will present itself as an unbroken line of attack on the senses. From the initial nose, followed by the first mouth sensation and then on to the finish, a quality wine will develop and change in the glass and gain complexity as it changes chemically. There will be a clear, individual personality about the wine that defines its origins and maintains this footprint through repeated tastings. This is the holy grail of wine quality. And quality can be further broken down into two areas of concentration: natural factors and production factors. 

For example, climate has a considerable influence on the quality of wines produced. Cooler regions may not fully ripen grapes and often are subject to considerable variability—producing wines of sometimes questionable quality. Grapes from these regions will produce lower sugar levels and higher acid levels than grapes in hotter climates. Red grapes from cool climates will have weak concentrations of compounds, green tannins and raging acidity. In these regions, chaptalization (adding sugar to boost alcohol content) and deacidification (the removal of wine acids prior to fermentation) are often used to make up for climatic shortcomings. Hot regions have their problems, as well. Grapes may ripen quickly, with high sugar levels, yet without time for sufficient flavor development—in essence getting burned out. Growers able to place vineyards in the ideal mix of warm and cool climates will obtain the best of both worlds. This favors flavor development and balance of sugars and acid. Climates that have a large diurnal variation also produce the same outcomes. 

The role played by soil cannot be understated in the quality of a wine. The most important characteristic is the ability to control water supply, either by holding or drainage. Quality wine is not produced from poorly drained vineyards. The texture of the soil will affect the vine’s ability to absorb water, nutrients and minerals, and can be altered by preparation and vineyard management techniques, such as the addition of gypsum. Compaction should be avoided to allow oxygenation of the soil. The pH of the soil must also be considered. Though it may seem counterintuitive, vines grown in high-acid soils will produce grapes with a lower acidity than those grown in a low-acid soil.

Soil and drainage also impact aromatics. Historically, it was believed that poor (low N) well-drained soils were best for growing wine grapes. However, recent research in Bordeaux indicates that a relatively high nitrogen content

will increase aromatics of varietals such as sauvignon blanc. Research at the University of Bordeaux has determined that top chateaux in and around Bordeaux have high percentages of acidic gravel and pebbles. These soils are naturally poor in nutrients and deficient in magnesium, due to high levels of potassium. This imbalance contributes to low vine vigor and yields. 

THE HUMAN FACTOR

I am a transplanted New Jerseyan who teaches a wine course at the College of Charleston, and you just got the chemistry and geology overview. There’s also a “people part” of the class, and it’s just as important to master. Over the millennia, the human species has vastly diminished its smell world. We’ve traded our olfactory acuity for enhanced color vision. DNA coding for olfactory proteins are no longer important for humans, as this sense—as well as taste—are largely restricted to food choices. Our senses are bombarded constantly by a mass of information and it is the higher brain functions that extract from this sea of data the features we wish to zero in on. This is called higher order processing. 

Think of all the aromas that bombard your senses from a glass of wine. How do we process this and come to our simplistic descriptors of wine? Flavor processing incorporates smell and taste to identify nutritious foods and drinks, and to protect us from eating things that are bad for us. Flavor processing is tied to memory and emotion. We remember the way a great cabernet smells and we like the pleasing taste. Neurologically speaking, the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain transforms taste and smell and forms the sensation of flavor. Add in touch and vision and now we have a complex unified sensation that the brain tells us is a nice, hedonistic experience.  

Remember the old slogan Better Living Through Chemistry?In my book, that’s what a great bottle of wine is all about. 

www.istockphoto.com

STRESS TEST

Vines, like people, work best under stress. Growers have no control over rainfall, but they do over irrigation. Many growers practice deficit irrigation. Neutron probes are inserted into the soil to indicate when water is required. Stressing the vines causes the roots to synthesize abscisic acid (a kind of plant hormone), sending this to the leaves and deceiving them into reacting as though there are drought conditions. Shoot growth stops and all energy goes into ripening the fruit.  Moderate water deficit can double or triple the concentration of the precursors of the varietal thiols that are released during fermentation. Timing of stress is also critical. It is beneficial for sauvignon not to be stressed, especially if pyrazine aromas are desired in the wine. Unstressed cabernet sauvignon also produces very pyrazine-dominated wines.

 

Source of Pride

Where on earth do you get this stuff?

By Andy Clurfeld

Courtesy of Razza

Dan Richer, the multiple James Beard Award-nominated chef at Razza Pizza Artigianale on Grove Street in Jersey City, may have skipped his graduation ceremony at Rutgers to go to Italy, but he’s been the university’s biggest booster as a restaurateur. You’ve heard of Richer’s renown Project Hazlenut Pizza? No? Well, look it up on The New York Times web site and understand why the newspaper’s restaurant critic Pete Wells gave Razza a three-star review in 2017. The background according to Richer: Before the 1900s, the hazelnut tree was prevalent in New Jersey. Disease wiped it out. Oregon became the hazelnut capital of America. But, with hazelnuts in demand, a worldwide shortage ensued. Enter Rutgers, with its prominent school of agriculture and Dr. Thomas Molner, the head breeder of what soon would be known as Rutgers Project Hazelnut. Molner and his crew worked, and worked hard, to revive the hazelnut in New Jersey. What they produced, Richer supported – by purchasing the crop. He made—of all things—a pizza of hazelnuts. A pizza! Who knew? “The Project Hazelnut Pizza has hazelnuts, a little fresh mozzarella and ricotta and a few drops of local honey,” Richer says. It’s brilliant. Unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. And pure Garden State. “Now there are more than 10,000 hazelnut trees in New Jersey under Rutgers’ supervision.”

Travel down Ryders Lane in the New Brunswick-Millstone environs and take them in. Extraordinary. And it’s thanks to a famous chef that the hazelnut, Dr. Molner and Rutgers are getting their due.

Who are the other farmers and food artisans Richer relies on to keep Razza riding high?

“My neighbors at Cedar Hill Farm, on Red Hill Road in Middletown, Agnes deFelice and her son Gary deFelice,” Richer says. The deFelices grow strawberries on their farm for Razza and, during that precious three-week season in spring, Richer picks them up on his way to the restaurant and takes in the aromas of still-warm-from-the-sun strawberries all the way from Middletown to Jersey City. “On Day One, we do strawberry salad. Day Two, we have to put them in the fridge, so we make strawberry jam or a topping for dessert. I just guarantee Agnes and Gary that I’ll buy whatever they pick. It’s worth it. The season is so short. I just pray they don’t sell their land to developers.”

What and who are the favorites of other restaurateurs and chefs?

Mark Pascal & Francis Schott • Owners • Stage Left Steak and Catherine Lombardi • New Brunswick

“Dreyer Farms in Cranford is a seven-acre farm in an area that has become surrounded entirely by suburb. Family-run for generations, they have a great farm market for consumers and they also work well with restaurants, letting us know what is coming in and making sure we are able to take advantage of it.

“Mike Baker is a lawyer first and a farmer second. He owns 4½ acres in East Brunswick, and basically grows us whatever we ask for. We have a meeting every year at the end of winter and decide what the plantings will be for the coming year. He supplies the lion’s share of our heirloom tomatoes—also a tremendous amount of herbs that we use.”

Courtesy of Common Lot

Ehren Ryan • Chef-Owner • Common Lot • Millburn

“We use a few local farmers for very specific items and they are all very seasonal. We love what they produce—in season. First is Malcolm Salovaara, of PK’s Four Brothers Farm in Bernardsville. This is a family-based farm who raise mainly pigs and chickens. The chickens are some of the best I have eaten anywhere. They are very seasonally driven, so the chicken season is from around April to October. We use the chickens with ramps, morels, spring items that bode well with the flavor of their chickens.

“Second is Dan Liplow, [who operates] the Foraged Feast, all over New Jersey. Dan is our forager and mushroom guy. During spring, summer and fall, Dan will search out interesting ingredients for us to test in our dishes. He brings sassafras for us to use, which we turn into root beer. Wild garlic roots, wild watercress. He also brings us black current wood for oils. During the winter months he has access to cultivated mushrooms that are by far are the best-tasting mushrooms.

“Third is Colleen Gilmore, of Buds and Blooms in West Milford. Colleen has a small farm that supplies us with all different types of herbs, edible flowers, small heirloom tomatoes and other little items. We sit down and chat about what can she grow for us—bronze fennel, Thai basil flowers, chive flowers, etc. The quality of the herbs and flowers is second to none. So pungent, so much flavor, and they look so bright.”

Courtesy of Osteria Radici

Randy Forrester • Chef-Owner Osteria Radici • Allentown

“We use Korean grapes and pears from Evergreen Orchard Farm in Yardville. We compress the pears with stracciatella from Italy and preserve the grapes for our semifreddo. We use potatoes and cabbages from New Sung Sang farm in Millstone. We hay-smoke both the cabbage on a pork dish and purée the potatoes as a thickening agent in spaghetti, with mussels.”

Bruce Lefebvre • Chef-Owner The Frog and the Peach • New Brunswick

“We love Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley. The owner and cheesemaker is Eran Wajswol. (Valley Shepherd) has more than 500 sheep, 100 goats and 50 cows. Eran uses traditional European methods to produce many kinds of cheeses from grazed animals’ milk. They milk the female ewes on their unique rotary milking carousel, which you can see firsthand by taking one of their tours in spring. They also age the cheese in a hillside cave. We have used so many of their cheeses over the years, including Oldwick Shepherd, Crema de Blue, More Beer, Oldwick Shepherd, Nettlesome and Carameaway. Valley Shepherd Creamery also has a shop that is open to the public.”

Shanti Church Mignogna • Co-Owner Modine and Talula’s • Asbury Park

“We get fresh greens year-round from Lew at Thompson Family Farm. He grows beautiful hydroponic greens right in Wall, which is like 10 minutes away from our restaurants. A few years ago, we asked him to put together a mix with tatsoi and mustard frills for Talula’s and I’m pretty sure his ‘Asian mix’ is one of his best-sellers now. It’s always awesome when farmers are willing to grow specific things you ask them for.

“At Modine, we have put a lot of thought into our meat program. Our chef Chris is a skilled butcher, so we have the ability to source larger cuts of meat and break them down ourselves. He’s been working with Fossil Farms since opening. All of our eggs, beef and pork comes from them. We get whole Berkshire and Duroc pigs that are pasture-raised, completely naturally, which means without hormones or antibiotics. It’s pretty cool that our meat is completely traceable and comes from less than 100 miles away. Also at Modine, we love getting the freshest, most delicious local oysters from our good friends at Barnegat Oyster Collective! It’s a family-run business and they represent 12 local shellfish growers in the Greater Barnegat Area. You can always find their oysters on our menu, either raw with a seasonal granita and/or broiled with chipotle bourbon butter.”

(Shanti quotes oyster-grower Sarafina Mugavero of Forty North Oyster, who says: “The number of oyster-growers has grown just in the past few years because more restaurants and retailers are supporting a burgeoning local agriculture industry.”)

Courtesy of A Toute Heure

AJ Capella • Executive Chef A Toute Heure • Cranford

“I use a lot of farms. I think it’s important to support the community you live in as well as small businesses. I extend that theory to other purveyors, not just farmers. [I use] Breadsmith in Cranford and Dan Lipow’s Foraged Feast. Roamin’ Acres in Lafayette raises Berkshire pigs, and one of the products they do is prosciutto. Cured in the same way prosciutto in Italy is treated, salt-cured for 18 months. I have eaten many prosciuttos and cured hams, and the flavor of this one is remarkable. The color is vibrant red, the fat is pure white, and there’s a slight crispiness to it. It is hands-down my favorite cured ham.

“It’s funny how the food world in NJ is seemingly large but, in reality, quite small. Everybody knows everybody.”

Somos

“Chef Juan Placencia has branched out from his cozy Peruvian restaurant Costanera in Montclair to open this self-styled Pan Latin beauty.” 

By Andy Clurfeld 

Midway through the cachapa at Somos, I’m realizing it is the ultimate every-meal food. A corn pancake that’s more flavorful than those based on wheat, it’s not in need of a blast of sweet nor a slather of dairy to entice. It requires no wake-up call from a caffeinated beverage to wash it down nor a counterpoint of anything chilled to stimulate the taste buds. Its inherent sweetness is mitigated by starch, balanced by moisture and toyed with by a chef who understands its potential intuitively and by virtue of practice. 

All photos courtesy of Somos

This cachapa, a homey number that spans all but the rim of a white dinner plate, is topped with a warming stew of leeks and mushrooms punctuated by pops of corn kernels and given a quick flourish of cilantro and cojita. The crowning glory? Tangy tomato jam, plopped not so much artfully as purposefully in the shape of rough quenelles atop the whole thing. The ensemble has a charming peasant-y quality to it, and its potential as breakfast, lunch or dinner makes me happy chef Juan Placencia has branched out from his cozy Peruvian restaurant Costanera in Montclair to open this self-styled Pan Latin beauty in North Arlington. 

Somos is large. You enter to a posh tavern of a space that shows how architect-designer Michael Groth likes playing with geometric shapes as much as Placencia likes stretching the parameters of traditional ingredients and classic dishes. Banquettes make little rooms out of a cluster of four round tables set for two. Semi-circular high-tops align to form the outline of another, larger circle. Chairs with short backs belly up to a bar softly lit from both the floor and the underside of the counter. There are arches as doorways and shelving and also as ornament and decor. You segue to a dining area that’s far less dramatic, set with light wood tables and chairs and lighting that’s not about creating a scene. That’s the purview of the food. 

You can eat the cachapa all night, if you’d like, or you can pry chunks of black bass from slivers of red onion in a ceviche that’s brightened by a vivid soup of tomatillo flecked with nibs of avocado, snips of cilantro and the suspicion of chilies. Grab the tortilla crisps angled on top to scoop up the tomatillo broth—or ask your server for a sauce spoon. The ahi tuna ceviche is richer and more spirited, with its base of coconut milk plied with rocoto and lime. In this one, use the strips of fried plantain to sop up the sauce. I couldn’t ask you to leave behind the chicharron de pescado for the chicken-filled croquettas: The silky cod crusted in quinoa and topped by both a chop of tomato salsa and an aioli infused with sweet piquillo peppers is a terrific table partner for the pert fritters deftly fried and synched to the tune of aji amarillo chile peppers. 

Though little at Somos weighs in as heavy in the startertapas round, working a couple of salads into your meal is all-around wise. I think Placencia’s warm quinoa salad ranks as the standard by which all other main-dish tosses should be judged: It’s served slightly warm and the elements that mingle with the tiny seeds—kabocha, Bartlett pear, Brussels sprouts, chorizo, tomatillo— are either chopped or crumbled so as not to overwhelm the focus of the salad. The signature Somos salad starts with large leaves of Bibb lettuce and tops them with a haystack of spiralized carrots and onions, as well as avocado and, yup, more quinoa. The best part of this one? A vigorous sofrito vinaigrette that lifts familiar ingredients. 

If you wish, you can stop here, with a full slate of small plates that will evolve and change with the seasons and the desires of Placencia and his chef de cuisine Roberto Carnero. The main courses are scaled back in quantity and also achievement. Peruvian pot roast is shredded and served with wide noodles in a spare sauce of tomato, carrot and even green peas. Chicken is roasted with achiote, plopped on mashed potatoes and a messy splay of limp jicama slaw dressed in something that gave it a garish magenta glow. Branzino, grilled with little seasoning, was a snooze alongside yuca fries with far less personality than mainstream French fries, plain white rice and a metal ramekin of bland pico de gallo. The patatas bravas, which we paid for as an extra side, needed more of the good romesco aioli. But they had flavor.

Don’t expect the pineapple tres leches to look like any tres leches you know: Here, it’s served as a layered parfait in a clear, tall glass, with a zippy coconut-rum sauce and chunks of passionfruit laced within—and a toasted mashmallow-y substance on top. My dining companions really liked it, as well as the squash doughnuts drizzled with a cinnamon-streaked fig relish. Me? I could’ve returned to bliss with the cachapa.

For when you find that one-in-a-million dish that does it all, you stick with it

Behind the Scenes at Somos

Juan Placencia is a bona fide star chef in New Jersey. Born in Lima, Peru, he came to the United States as a toddler and got his first whiffs of the restaurant life at the places his parents owned and operated. If you know Oh! Calamares, now in Kearny, you know where Placencia got his start. He went to culinary school and then, in the early aughts, worked at top restaurants in Manhattan, including Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park. Before opening his own restaurant, he did turns at Gotham Bar & Grill and Del Posto, to learn more about the operational side of things. In 2010, he opened the BYOB Costanera in Montclair. Somos opened in the late fall of 2018. The chef’s team includes chef de cuisine Roberto Carnero; the architect-designer Michael Groth; general manager Brian Bode; and beverage consultant Rachael Robbins. They are the “we are” at Somos—which translates as just that.

SOMOS

185 River Road, North Arlington 

Phone: (201) 621.0299 • somosnj.com 

Open weekdays, except Tuesdays, for dinner; open Saturday and Sunday for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards and reservations accepted. Prices: Tapas and starters: $7 to $14. Main dishes: $17 to $27. Sides: $4 to $5. Desserts: $8 to $9. There’s a cocktail list ($11); glasses ($8) and pitchers ($26) of sangria; wines by the glass and bottle; and beers on draft and by the bottle.

Storied Arc

Outstanding in the Field Returns to Riverine.

By Andy Clurfeld

Chef David Viana looked quite at home where the buffalo were roaming, on the plains of Warren County where Riverine Ranch sprawls across 62 verdant acres in a hamlet known as Asbury. Viana and his crew from Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge were working under a tented outdoor kitchen and on grills set up astride the bustling space as ranch owners Courtney and Brian Foley gave tours of Riverine, introducing some of the 150-odd buffalo and their products—meats, cheeses, yogurt, butter—to 250 guests who had journeyed from all parts of New Jersey, plus New York and Pennsylvania, to take part in the ultimate in farm-to-table dining: the national Outstanding in the Field (OITF) program.

Viana, himself a nationally recognized chef who this year was nominated for a coveted James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region—and the Foleys, a teacher and an electrician originally from Queens (who in 2004 moved to Washington Township in Warren to farm)—were anointed by the Outstanding in the Field hierarchy as worthy of hosting a dinner. This is a big deal.

OITF, founded by Jim Denevan in 1999 as a “traveling celebration of people and place and the origins of good food,” had stopped in New Jersey once before, last year, at Riverine. Folks had such a good time at the buffalo farm, OITF decided to come back. The Foleys reached out to Viana, who brought his Heirloom crew (Sean Yan, Kendall Szpakowski, Katherine “Kat” Norat, Rob Santello and owner Neilly Robinson) to the farm to do what they do best: Make the most out of from-the-farm ingredients. The 250 diners were waiting—and had been since seats to the long table set in the signature OITF arc had gone on sale the first day of spring last March, and sold out shortly after. It’s a competitive sport, acquiring OITF dinner reservations; there are those who follow the flow of the transcontinental dinner party as it serves forth starting in the early part of the spring in the warmer climates and continues through fall, touching down in colder parts of the country. Demand is such that, after a break for the OITF home team during the holidays, there’s now a winter session of dinners in the warmest parts of the country. 

After cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres, after sampling Riverine’s extraordinary buffalo milk cheeses and visiting the cave where some cheeses are aged, the congregation segued to the arc’d table and took a peek at the chefs. There was Viana (above), turning hunks of buffalo over on a charcoal grill, while his team prepped platters of Riverine buffalo tartare served with crusty toasts of bread from his pals at Talula’s in the “other Asbury” (Asbury Park, that is, down the Shore). They’d amped up the opening round served at table with pickled vegetables from Hauser Hill, a farm based in Old Bridge, and cornbread and corn butter from Thompson Family Farm in Wall. A salad of tomatoes from Hauser and buffalo mozzarella from Riverine came with microgreens, while gnocchi made with smoked Riverine buffalo ricotta took a liking to condiments constructed with Hauser carrots, onion and apple. It’s all served family style, with guests and their new best friends quickly settling in at the table. On this night, buffalo roast was carved and plated with chimichurri, polenta and corn, and a suitable finale of roasted pepita pavlova came with Forbidden Rice meringue laced with Riverine buffalo milk. “It’s a pretty big undertaking,” Viana says, noting that it takes a good week to prep and cook outdoors for the huge crowd. “It’s not easy to cook for 250 on a charcoal grill! But we’d do it again in a heartbeat. It’s all about people coming together at the table…there’s an energy that’s palpable.”

Courtney and Brian Foley (left)

For Courtney and Brian Foley (left), it was a “fantastic opportunity to work with the people from Heirloom Kitchen.” And, adds Brian, a chance as well to share our “passion for water  buffalo.”

In the lead-up, the Foleys hosted Viana and his crew at Riverine, giving them tastes of the various buffalo meat and dairy products and sending them home with samples. The chefs then worked up a menu for the OITF dinner in conjunction with farms and artisans Viana often works with at his restaurant. After that, “we just straightened up the farm a bit,” Courtney says with a laugh. “Our buffalo are very friendly and very photogenic.” Top that off with delicious from-the-farm fare and you’ve got a dinner for the ages.

 

Simply Outstanding

  • Riverine Ranch is located at 247 Cemetery Hill Road in the Asbury section of Washington Township. The Foleys sell their products out of a store on the farm, which is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. For information, call (908) 319-3356 or visit riverineranch.com.
  • Heirloom Kitchen is located at 3856 Route 516 in Old Bridge. For information and reservations to its dinners and cooking classes, call (732) 727-9444 or visit heirloomkitchen.com.
  • Outstanding in the Field’s dinners can be tracked on its Web site, which also offers links for reservations: outstandinginthefield.com.

 

Heirloom Kitchen

“Duck is Viana’s signature dish, and no matter the micro-season, he works what’s fresh and what’s purposeful into his nightly duck program.” 

By Andy Clurfeld

When it comes to people with one-of-a-kind voices, New Jersey has given birth, or a place to work and live, or prominence to more than its share of singular talents.

Think Sinatra. Springsteen, of course —now a newly minted Broadway star. Count Basie, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah, Sarah Vaughn, and Patti Smith. Then there are Einstein and Edison; Yogi Berra and Derek Jeter; Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells. And also Annie Oakley, Shaq, “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Philip Roth and John McPhee, all peerless in their respective fields.

Now consider that Alice Waters, impresario of the ground-breaking Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, founder of the Edible Schoolyard initiatives and modern-day instigator of eating local and organic food, is from Chatham.

Yes, Alice Waters, whose influence on what and how we eat today is comparable to The Beatles’ influence on rock, is Jersey born and raised.

Time to take your medicine, Garden State denizens. Time to toss to the curb the cliches of New Jersey’s mass-produced culinary past promulgated by those intent on keeping original voices at bay while promoting the same old pizza and pork roll places, the overstuffed hoagies and subs and leaden bagels, as well as the ‘dogs, doughnuts and diners that give credence to out-of-town critics’ rants.

For there’s a new breed of chefs in New Jersey, and they are skilled, savvy and seeing things clearly now.

Leading the way are nationally regarded chefs, such as Dan Richer of Razza in Jersey City; Maricel Presilla of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, and Drew Araneo of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport, as well as critically acclaimed voices with relatively new restaurants that include Ehren Ryan of Common Lot in Millburn; Greg Vassos of Brick Farm Tavern in Hopewell; and Randy Forrester of Osteria Radici in Allentown.

Factor in the wealth of ethnic restaurants that reflects the vibrant cultures and communities rooted in this, one of America’s most diverse states, adding both talent and a gastronomy that extends to all parts of the globe, and you have a collective table that groans glorious. It’s a simple mix of good ingredients and good people.

Photography courtesy of Heirloom Kitchen

It’s just what the doctor ordered as a prescription for eating in 2018.

David Viana, now chef-partner at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, could be the poster child for the vanguard born out of old guard.

He is Portuguese, raised in the traditions of the table, and took in the ways of professional cooking at some of the best restaurants in Europe, New York and New Jersey. Anthony Bucco, executive chef at the empire that is Crystal Springs Resorts in Sussex County, lauds Viana as the “most talented, gifted chef” he’s worked within a pro kitchen. Visionary chefs including Vassos and Ryan are honored to be part of collaborative dinners with Viana; young chefs, notably Jon Boot, now at Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station, and Sean Yan, current pastry chef and assistant to Viana at Heirloom, are inspired by his food. 

Because it’s unlike any other.

I’ve eaten a half-dozen dinners in as many months that either Viana created or collaborated on and find his voice to be, at present, the most original in the Garden State.

Viana starts with a main ingredient as his inspiration, be it duck or spring peas, apples or porcinis, scallops or cauliflower, and builds from there. His accents challenge and enlighten, yet they stop shy of being fussy. They are always artfully applied.

Photography courtesy of Heirloom Kitchen

Art on a plate scares me. I’ve seen and tasted too much artifice. Viana’s washes, pin-dots, and arcs of sauce, spears of vegetable, frothy poofs of concentrated herb and ringlets of leafy things never do anything but enhance the main element. The “art” supports, and shows, Viana’s control over a plate.

I’ve watched Viana in his open kitchen at Heirloom Kitchen—which is a restaurant three nights a week and a classroom other evenings—break down a duck: butcher the duck, score its fat, prep it till it’s ready to be called upon for a precise 40-minute stove-top sear that will star in a seasonal preparation. In the space of a few weeks late last year, there were two of note: johnnycakes and oatmeal, persimmon and delicata squash and a rush of pomegranate on a regular-dinner night in early December at Heirloom, and one with herbed wheat berries and granola, parsnips and date puree, coffee and pecans, and the unmistakable umami of maitakes with a squirt of duck jus at the venerable James Beard House in New York, where Viana was invited to cook dinner days before Christmas.

Duck is Viana’s signature dish, and no matter the micro season, he works what’s fresh and what’s purposeful into his nightly program. Viana’s regulars might have duck every month at Heirloom, without duplication. 

They also might have pork belly with a bacon marmalade and loops of Vietnamese caramel, the richness of which is offset by thick-cut half-moons of celery and salty peanuts. They might have pork-smoked apple raviolo and come across on the plate a bacon-pine nut crumble there expressly to play off the pasta pockets with a slyly silky texture—as well as pivots of delicata squash and sweet potato and a splash of mustardy jus. 

Scallops in cold weather will be appropriately accompanied by dug-up vegetables such as fingerling potatoes and carrots, both of which are roasted and—with the scallops —given a choice of playmates: almond-mint pesto, chestnut puree, and lemon-brown butter emulsion. The accent editing is pitch-perfect. Likewise, halibut will see kohlrabi smoked and pureed, chanterelles gently warmed, an egg yolk scented with truffle and mustard seeds pickled to give them added depth and a defiant edginess that the mild, dense, meaty fish appreciates.

Viana rises to the challenge of sides: Cauliflower gets a sultry-snappy lift from pomegranate molasses and mint pesto; kale is laced with duck confit and topped with a fried egg; Brussels sprouts are plied with a gastrique that bristles with mustard and then all’s calmed by the inherent sweetness of butter infused with, of all things, parsnip. You have to think: Sides? These are sides? They could comfort and cosset and fill in a bowl by themselves, eaten on a couch. Yes, they could. But they appear on Viana’s Heirloom menu, to be passed family-style at the table or counter, depending on where you sit.

If you are at Heirloom Kitchen, which is owned by Neilly Robinson, you will be seated (depending on your choice and the availability) at the chef’s counter, facing the stoves at which Viana cooks. A row back, there is another counter, also with a “view,” but without the same opportunity to watch, and converse with, the chef. Then there are tables of the regular dining-out sort—two-tops and four-tops, and a larger one for parties of perhaps 10.

I’m not forgetting dessert, made by Sean Yan to suit the Viana style. Lemongrass mousse, for instance, is backed by gingerbread and plated with white chocolate that’s been roasted and mint that’s been pulverized to the texture of dust. There’s the suspicion of bourbon in the mix, and a whiff of Asian pear.

But don’t count on repeats of anything you read here right now. In the world of a singular voice such as David Viana, yesterday is history to learn from, today provides a chance for change, and tomorrow is the opportunity to play out a dream deemed a privilege to share.

New Jersey, after all, thrives on its one-of-a-kinds

Heirloom Kitchen

3853 Route 516, Old Bridge • Phone: (732) 727.9444

Major credit cards accepted. Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for dinner and, generally, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings for cooking classes. Menus change weekly and special collaborative dinners are planned seasonally. Visit www.heirloomkitchen.com to view schedules for classes as well as current menus. Reservations are required, and tables book early. Heirloom is a BYOB, but offers a small selection of wines from Domenica Winery for purchase on site.

 

DePesca

“DaPesca brings honor to New Jersey’s fishes and fishing industry and fills a void in fine dining…created by restaurateurs and chefs who have failed to place local fishes on a proper pedestal.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Set back from the main drag of Morristown is the old Vail Mansion, a formidable structure that could, and once did, house any number of governmental offices in this, the county seat of Morris. Instead, it is home to four distinctive eating-and drinking entities that have, under its reinvention as Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, become the dining-out headquarters in north-of-the-Raritan New Jersey for the tuned-in, private jet, chef’s-on-a-night-off, wine geek and raw-bar-loving sets. Translation: It’s the high-style crowd’s home away from home.

Christopher Cannon, late of the New York City restaurant scene, where he won James Beard Awards for Marea and L’Impero, came to New Jersey by way of marriage. Becky, his wife, grew up in North Jersey and knew it was ready for a visionary. Chris Cannon is a visionary.

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

For a time, Cannon was a visionary without a place to practice his progressive restaurant ways. A bitter divorce from his New York restaurant partners left him without dining rooms and bars to pour the artisan, quirky, impossible-to-find wines he was known for—and without a constant stream of fans looking to partake in the latest “Cannonball” blind wine-tastings. So the Cannons and their kids moved to Becky’s home state, and Chris Cannon started looking around for the perfect place to create a public space. Hey, why not a circa-1917 mansion on South Street in Morristown? What might intimidate most only inspires an industry veteran who appears to live by the motto, “If something’s easy, how can it be fun?”

Three years ago, Jockey Hollow became The Oyster Bar, which rocks nearly nonstop with pristine raw fishes, charcuterie, and plates small and large; The Vail Bar, a speakeasy-style hideaway where the go-getters and the glamorous convene over cocktails and fine fare; the Rathskeller, the basement beer hall-private events space that used to serve as Morristown’s very own jail and now hauls ‘em in for live music and top-tier craft brews to wash down German grub; and, upstairs, a somehow-intimate 70-seat fine-dining space.

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

You can explore the bars at your leisure. Right now, we’re talking about that upstairs restaurant-within-a-restaurant that the father of reinvention himself reimagined this winter as DaPesca.

DaPesca brings honor to New Jersey’s fishes and fishing industry and fills a void in fine dining that, inexplicably, in our state bordered by 130 miles of ocean, not to mention rivers and bays and myriad and many lakes has been created by restaurateurs and chefs who have failed to place local fishes on a proper pedestal. Cannon was bothered by this. Having recently acquired a chef as formidable as the mansion turned- restaurant itself—Craig Polignano, ex-Ryland Inn, among other high-end restaurants—to take charge of all things food at Jockey Hollow, and having developed an association with Eric Morris, founder and owner of Local 130, the New Jersey seafood specialist, Cannon was ready to shame the gun-shy of the Garden State. DaPesca does just that.

Sourcing primarily from Local 130, as well as Forty North Oysters, the Barnegat Oyster Collective and Sona-Far Hills Seafood, DaPesca names on its ever-changing menus the boats and their captains who fish off our coastlines and make possible what Polignano and his kitchen crew create. 

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

If you eat at DaPesca regularly, captains such as Jim Lovgren and Eric Myklebust might become your guidestars for how to order.

There really is no better way.

For the Barnegat clams, sparked by a wispy ring of Calabrian chile, and the local oysters, with their slurpy salinity and ping of minerality, pave the way to a Spanish mackerel crudo set atop a tangle of cucumber strands spliced with puffed rice and scented with the penetrating power of yuzu. That intense citrus tames the mackerel, probably my favorite fish on the planet, and infuses the toasty puffed rice scattered about with unexpected freshness. The dish shows how inspiration can take hold. You’ll find the calamari á la plancha a revelation, especially if you’ve been eating the same-old, same-old renditions for a generation or so. Here, the local stuff isn’t fried and sent out to pasture with tomato sauce, but given an Asian twist with tamarind and noodles of papaya, Balinese peppers, and peanuts that act as so much more than a give-away garnish. I learned something new about calamari’s versatility in every bite. Our local tuna, too, took a spiritual trip to the Far East when Polignano chose to plate it in a pho-style broth scented with Thai basil and popping with crunchy sprouted mung beans. Polignano and Cannon readily admit pledging allegiance to the flag of Italy, culinary religion in New Jersey, after all. Which brings us to the pasta-risotto portion of the menu: Don’t pass by the “little hats” of pasta—cappellacci stuffed with nuggets of braised pork—that are set in a rich shellfish broth with little clams spurting big juices. Those curious counterpoints to the clam-pork duet? Beech mushrooms. They sop it all up. Meanwhile, the pinched logs of dostalini stuffed with the buttery-tangy Piedmontese cheese castelrosso take to a saucy combo of orange and puntarella, a hopped-up chicory, along with a side crumble of pistachios; and the risotto is positively daring, what with crab dancing with almost-sweet Meyer lemon and a verdant, rough chop of seaweed pesto working pine nuts not ground into the mix, but left whole and therefore more forceful. You know skate wing, right? Well, be prepared for something completely different here, as Polignano turns it on its ear. It’s twirled into something that looks like a mini muffin and partnered not just with the classic caper-butter duo, but with an Italianate twist of roasted cauliflower and grapes. This silky-textured, mild fish always tastes ever so slightly nutty to me. Well, darned if the chef doesn’t give his skate a flourish of hazelnuts at the finish. Bingo. Dayboat scallops are done simply and right here, with a slaw-like base of celery root and apple, cubes of potato and mysterious notes of black truffle that appear when least expected. The best lobster dish I’ve ever had in New Jersey is Polignano’s butter-poached lobster, which yins against the yang of translucent curls of fennel and threads of tarragon. But it’s the frothy bouillabaisse cream that did me in: How boffo is the rich-on-rich marriage of lobster and shellfish bubbles?

Photos by AJ Sankofa/Courtesy of dePesca

Not everything at DaPesca is divinity of the sea. I don’t get the need to wrap monkfish in prosciutto like the minions do, especially when sidemen include olives and sausage that only add to the oversalted taste of the dish. I also hope the squid ink gnocchi, with more squid on the plate, is nixed by now since it was mushy in texture and muddy of flavor. Desserts, too, need work: I’m not a fan of oversize anything, but the two cubes of lackluster carrot cake with a two-bite torpedo of mascarpone ice cream ain’t worth $4, let alone $14, and the trio of sorbets—blood orange, cranberry, and Meyer lemon—had awkward shards of ice within.

Next time, I’ll nab another round of the butter-poached lobster and see if I can get an extra bowl of that bouillabaisse froth. I’ll bring fish-shunners to sit at my table so I can order extras of the calamari and skate and mackerel and dive into their plates without competition. I’ve been looking for a big-ticket seafood joint like this for decades. DaPesca is where my odyssey ends.

NEW JERSEY’S BEST WINE LIST?

Chris Cannon may be over-the-moon about Jersey’s fishes, a fanatic about forging relationships with Garden State farmers and fascinated with the history of his newly adopted state, but there’s nothing more he loves than wine. Unless it’s the collection of eyeglass frames he’s amassed with a fervor that could be described as manic. But that’s a story for another issue of Edge. Cannon has the most idiosyncratically desirable wine list I know, a list that you’re given to scan on an iPad as you are seated, but really deserves a conducted class by itself on a day when Jockey Hollow is otherwise closed. Think a library-style, hushed opportunity to sit and read, and re-read a list that seems like it cannot be real. But it’s a list he’s been working on most of his adult life, establishing connections with importers, distributors, and winemakers, forging relationships with wine names major and utterly obscure. Frankly, Cannon’s tastes tilt to the obscure.

But his prices lean friendly. The centerpiece of his wine program is an evolving, always-changing list of “60 Under $60.” It’s a treasure trove of wines you never thought you’d be able to try, of grapes you’ve never heard of from winemaking regions that have no beaten paths, of styles that will teach you how to pair wine with food once and for all. Cannon and his floor crew love talking wine at the table with their guests, and they love sharing their latest finds. If you’re so inclined, give a call to arrange a “Cannonball” wine adventure, in which the wine maestro himself will pour—blind—wines largely from this “60 Under $60” list and guide you through the tasting. The Cannonball experience takes place on Fridays.

No matter where you dine at Jockey Hollow, you can take advantage of New Jersey’s best wine list.

DaPesca

At Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen • 110 South Street, Morristown • Phone: (973) 644.3180

Reservations accepted and recommended; major credit cards. Open for dinner Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 to 9 p.m., Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from5 to 10:30 p.m. A four-course tasting menu is $86, while a seasonal six-course tasting to be ordered by the entire table is $116. (With wine pairings, the six-course menu is $190.)

A la carte service is available at DaPesca except on Saturdays when only the tasting menus are served. For more information, visit www.jockeyhollowbarandkitchen.com.

 

A Matter of Taste

In pursuit of the American Dream, immigrant cultures are reshaping New Jersey’s foodscape.

By Andy Clurfeld

From “America” by Simon & Garfunkel
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America
All come to look for America

Drive the Turnpike in 2018, 50 years after “America” was released by the poet-rocker duo, and you’ll find today’s America at every exit. Its sister thoroughfare, the Garden State Parkway, offers the same people-scape at every exit ramp as well. Cross-hatch the ’Pike and the Parkway with major roadways such as Interstate 80, 195 and the Atlantic City Expressway, and you’ll find jump-off points that lead to people, places and things of incredibly diverse origins.

NetCost

Is New Jersey America’s most emblematic state? Could this Mid-Atlantic stalwart of the original Colonies, gateway to the Northeast, subject of Mason-Dixon Line debates and most teased member of the family of states united under a red, white and blue flag signifying liberty and justice for all be the poster child for America itself?

The argument could be made.

It would be won, slam-dunk, on the merits of our peerlessly diverse and delicious foodways. I’ve taken to saying, as I’ve worked the past year to form the Garden State Culinary Arts Foundation, that New Jersey—a peninsula of 8.9 million people bordered by two major rivers, a connective ocean and the unique and fertile Delaware Bay—is singularly positioned as the nation’s culinary leader.

Gourmanoff

For not only does it benefit from those waters, but from a wide-ranging geology that allows for the cultivation of many and myriad crops and provides lands for raising animals. Somehow, in a state that balances extreme densities of populations in its cities with expanses of space in its countrysides with veritable crops of varying housing types in its suburbs, we’ve also become one of the most diverse states in America. Our ethnic communities have taken root in cities, in rural areas, in the suburbs.

No matter the roadway, no matter the exit, you’ll find foods that define the now-wide-breadth of today’s cuisine in America.

It started in New Jersey with waves of immigrants from Italy, Ireland,

HMart

India, Germany, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Ellis Island—whose 27.5 acres were found by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 to be dominated by New Jersey —was the gateway for these folks, who settled in Garden State cities, farmed its lands north, central and south, and set up shops everywhere to make Old World staples and invent hybrid foods that used New World ingredients in recipes developed back home.

DMart

The next waves of immigrants, from Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Korea, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Portugal and other parts of India, formed enclaves throughout the state and brought with them their culinary traditions that added to the increasingly rich foodscape.

Food Bazaar

Foreign-born populations in Hudson, Middlesex, Bergen, Union and Passaic counties began serving forth in restaurants and specialty markets foods you’d once needed a passport to experience. From Ducktown, an Italian enclave in Atlantic City, to the Koreatowns of Palisades Park and Fort Lee; from the Ironbound’s Portuguese community of Newark to Havana on the Hudson in West New York and Union City; from India Square in Jersey City and Little India in Edison/Iselin to the Little Istanbul, Little Lima, Little Bangladesh and the huge number of various Little Middle Easterns in Paterson, there’s a world of authentic cuisines in New Jersey.

Travel to the ‘burbs outside Atlantic City, and you’ll find expert Vietnamese food. There’s more in Cherry Hill and on the outskirts of Camden. Filipino fare is flush in Jersey City’s Little Manila and also in Bergenfield, Piscataway, Edison, Belleville, and Woodbridge. Scout Mexican in Long Branch, Freehold, New Brunswick, Trenton, Vineland, Bridgeton, Lakewood, and Red Bank. Don’t expect to visit South Paterson without spending a day devouring Turkish foods.

Mitsuwa

What’s more American than a bountiful table with an equally bountiful number of options? Our food choices in New Jersey, thanks to the various waters we have for fishing, the wide range of soils we have to cultivate and grow crops and raise animals for meat and dairy, and the globe-spanning backgrounds of our population who bring a world of edibles right to our doors, are second to none.

Second to none.

I see that as I shop in Mitsuwa, the Japanese uber-market in Edgewater with not only a peerless selection of fresh and prepared foods but also with a food court that puts to shame anything you’ve experienced in a major mall.

Chowpatty

I see, as well, that we indeed are second to none when I scour the shelves at NetCost, the Russian/Eastern European supermarket in Manalapan or its sister, Gourmanoff, in Paramus. There’s an increasing number of Hmarts in the Garden State, a testament, yes, to the Korean populations but also to the interest folks of all ethnicities have in Korean cuisine and ingredients. Food Bazaar (I like the one in West New York) is where you can find Latin-leaning ingredients, and Jersey City’s India Square is home to a host of markets, including D-Mart. I’m also a fan of Chowpatty’s small snacks-and-sweets shop in Iselin.

If you want to look for America today, start here at home, in New Jersey. Because we are both the original melting pot and the modern melting pot, convening in our compact state at the biggest table the world has ever known.

Bon appetit!

Editor’s Note: The 2018 Garden State Culinary Arts Awards took place in April. Among the winners were Razza Pizza Artigianale’s Dan Richer (Outstanding Chef), who was profiled in a past issue of EDGE, and Ariane Daguin (Culinary Legend) of D’Artagnan in Union.
Osteria Radici

“The hay-smoked duck that brings art to the science of the senses comes with a silky puree of eggplant and a dab of jammy fig.”

By Andy Clurfeld

OSTERIA RADICI

4 South Main Street, Allentown

Phone: (609) 223.2395 • www.osteriaradici.com

All major credit cards accepted. BYOB. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Two five-course tasting menus each at $84 per person; a la carte options offered. Reservations accepted.

The leg of duck looks lightly lacquered as if it might crack if I spear it with a fork and prompt a popping sound that would snap me to attention if I weren’t already sitting high on my seat. I’m on alert because the smoky aroma isn’t the beach bonfire kind I’m used to, but something of the field. Is burning waves of grain possible? I can’t wait any longer to figure it out; I dig in.

The duck, hay-smoked as it turns out, tastes like a cross between a confit from Southern France and a subtle version of a spit-roasted bird from China. It doesn’t have that totally melting mouth-feel of confit, nor is there a tinge of stickiness from something cloying. It’s pure duck, cunningly gamey, irresistibly tender and beguilingly layered, infused with the flavor of fire at all levels. It challenges every sense.

It’s the way Randy Forrester cooks, and the result is an intimate, highly personal, provocative cuisine that only can be found at Osteria Radici, the 24-seat restaurant he and his wife, Ally, own and run in one of New Jersey’s smallest burgs, Allentown. Mark it as the capital for instinctive, individualized cooking on your culinary map

all photos courtesy of Osteria Radici

Osteria Radici, ostensibly, is Italian. Regional Italian, to be sure, with menus that change constantly, are tweaked daily and always reflect what’s happening on the Garden State’s farms and in the waters off its shores. For Forrester, that’s not the only jump-off point when he works in the kitchen. The Forresters travel, they read, they forge relationships with food artisans. The chef has cooked in celebrated big-city restaurants alongside big-name personalities, but he’s his own man in this storefront, doing food his way. Forrester, and Radici, remind me of Marc Vetri when the James Beard Award winner was first cooking at Vetri in Philadelphia.

The hay-smoked duck that brings art to the science of the senses comes with a silky puree of eggplant and a dab of jammy fig, which take turns doing a two-step with the star of the show. Follow it with Chinese long lamb sausage and topped with nonna-style ricotta salata, and you’re rolling. Keep it going with malloreddus, a kind of ridged gnocchi Forrester makes from semolina, as in its native Sardinia, and tosses with pork cheeks, shreds of green cabbage and nuggets of mushroom. The dish is inexplicably, delightfully juicy; it practically washes itself down.

Forrester can do stately and elegant, too. Veal loin, thickly sliced, roasted till rosy and stacked on a potage of corn flecked with kernels, is given a couple scoops of aged gorgonzola, whose sharpness bites into tender, dense meat and tames the sweet corn. It’s a genius combination, these three elements I can’t remember ever eating together. By the time I’m onto the olive oil semifreddo with its plush peanut zabaglione and clever pretzel crumble, I also can’t remember feeling slighted that it took me till age 64 to have veal and corn and gorgonzola as an ensemble.

All that, the duck-and-eggplant, beans-and-lamb, pasta- and-pork, veal-and-corn, and semifreddo-zabaglione, is one of Randy Forrester’s new tasting menus; it’s the “Dalla Terre,” the meat menu. There’s also a “Dal Mare,” a seafood-focused menu. You need to do both.

While doubtlessly Forrester’s menus will have evolved, you may this fall be lucky enough to catch the chef taking liberties with New Jersey’s best-anywhere sea scallops by seducing the sultry-sweet hunks with something that resembles a relish— only his is made of the yellow squash variety called gold bar. There’s a tinge of heat from chilies and a swoon from just the right herb, opal basil.

Forrester’s octopus transcends the cephalopod’s continued trendiness. He chars it, then tosses it with red grapes, fried capers and fennel pollen to make a kind of stew that tastes at turns sprightly and fresh and cuddly and warming. That’s some feat.

I may be most charmed, though, by Forrester’s pastas. He tends to focus on just a few ingredients, and coaxes out of them a world of flavor. He winds white anchovies and peperonata through strands of spaghetti, then punctuates the dish with specks of parsley. Nothing is out of balance: There’s not a too-salty, too-sweet, tooanything note about the dish that’s a tribute to the red, white and green in every way. Speaking of speck, the spiced cure of this particular pork proves an intriguing accent to the rich flesh of cobia, which is served on a petite ragout of chicory and green onions. Seeping out from under this splendid dish is a broth worth bottling.

This fish menu is capped by a peach custard that’s as light and frothy as a soufflé and harbors hints of sweet vermouth; it’s finished with finely grated almond. Now that’s how you end a seafood dinner.

You can, if you wish, pick and choose from what’s listed on the two fixed-price menus and order a la carte; all perdish prices are printed on the menu. But don’t do that; at least not your first time at Osteria Radici. 

Randy Forrester has a masterful understanding of all things culinary and is that rare chef who can fuse science with art and make it all taste so, so good. His tasting menus are symphonic, and they flow perfectly. Eat, and learn. And remember you were there at the beginning of a career that will do Allentown, and New Jersey, very proud.

WHO ARE THESE TWO?

Is Randy Forrester the best chef you’ve not yet heard of? Well, if you’re tuned into the James Beard Awards circuit, you likely are aware that little Osteria Radici in Allentown was on the national list of nominees for Outstanding New Restaurant this past year. A 24-seat BYOB from a teeny town in New Jersey usually isn’t a contender for this award. But Osteria Radici, which opened in October 2017, only a few months before the Beard nominees were announced, already had attracted the attention of the culinary cognoscente – and chefs.

Randy and Ally, who grew up in Central Jersey, first met and became friends while students at the Peddie School in Hightstown. They went off to college (she, Wellesley; he, Boston) and, after reconnecting, began dreaming of creating their own restaurant. In the meantime, Randy amassed serious kitchen credentials, working with Scott Conant at L’Empero and Fabio Trabocchi at Fiamma, and, closer to home, The Ryland Inn and Harvest Moon Inn. They chose Allentown to both stay close to family in the Hopewell Valley and to farmers and artisans they’d grown to admire.

Today, Ally is a teacher by day, while Randy does it all from scratch at the restaurant. Both work the five evenings a week—Tuesday through Saturday—that Osteria Radici is open for dinner. They travel widely; last March, for example, during Ally’s school vacation, they went to Umbria with their daughter Giada, now 2. Giada, by the way, already speaks Italian—taught by her father, who speaks it (and cooks it) fluently.

A Toute Heure

“Sea scallops from Barnegat Bay showed the kitchen at its height…it was another plate that neglected neither style nor substance.”

By Andy Clurfeld

A TOUTE HEURE 

232 Centennial Avenue, Cranford 

Phone: (908) 276.6600

Reservations and major credit cards accepted. Lunch: Tuesday through Friday from noon to 2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch is served the last Sunday of the month from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. There is a special “Second Saturday” dinner served from noon to 10 p.m. Prices: Bites and appetizers range from $3 for an oyster to $19. Entrees range from  $35 to $45. Mussels pots are $16 for a half pot and $30 for a full pot with frites. Desserts are $10. BYOB.

They had me at the duck rillettes.

First, that this oh-so-French specialty was on tap. Next, that they were textbook: Duck meat, slow-cooked in duck fat till silky-tender, then shredded, salted, potted and topped with more fat, is preserved and released from captivity when the flavor of the duck has been oomphed to the nth degree, then presented with proper toasts to diners who miss the dish’s native Dordogne like Harry Connick Jr. misses New Orleans.

OK, I think to myself; you can go home again, even if the home fires aren’t being lit by the same ol’ folks.

A Toute Heure in Cranford, one of my favorite restaurants in all of the Garden State, may have a new chef and new owners, but the charms and sincerity of the plates coming out of its kitchen match that of founders Andrea and Jim Carbine, who sold the restaurant last spring.

Today’s proprietors, Nathally and Mario Florio, and their on-point chef Alexandre Gomes, also source locally and fanatically, but they bring a bit more of a cosmopolitan approach to the menu. Sure, there are the humble peasant-fare-gone-haute rillettes, but there’s also an asparagus duo that sings with a citified French accent:

Photos courtesy of A Toute Heure

Both white and green asparagus are employed, along with peppery greens, a coddled egg oozing golden yolk and dabs of bearnaise tickled with tarragon. Gomes then takes the pitch-perfect dish a step higher by sprinkling the pretty plate with bacon dust. Holy smoke! It’s a unifier.

 

Speaking of pretty plates, I hope the special salmon tartare makes regular appearances in A Toute Heure’s new lineup: The rosy-orange sushi-caliber fish, chopped and mounded amid peas and near-translucent slices of radish before being topped with microgreens, sits atop a thick wash of pea puree given a couple arcs of fruity olive oil for good measure. It was the dish that made it clear to me why the Florios hired Gomes as their chef. Finesse, top-notch technical skills and an acute awareness of how to bring nuance to a dish aren’t exactly qualities priced at a dime a dozen.

Those same skills are evident in the soft-shell crab, expertly seared so the shells are crisp-tender, while the meat remains sweet-juicy. It gets a lift from two plate partners that offer a counterpoint to the flavor and texture of the dish: an aioli that resonates with musky, gently bitter saffron to offset the sweetness of the crab, and shavings of cucumber that do the crunch-squirt do-si-do just like the shellfish.

The only dish we tried that fell short was the roasted chicken, billed to have been marinated in piri-piri. Piri-piri is a hyper-hot chile native to Africa that’s used in a Portuguese chicken dish that folks make pilgrimages to experience. It’s incendiary in that irresistible way, with waves of heat ebbing and flowing in the presence of, usually, garlic and vinegar or lemon. The chicken here, to be sure, was lovely, but the bird and the broccolini and the roasted potatoes sure would’ve been special with real-deal piri-piri heat.

Sea scallops from Barnegat Bay showed the kitchen at its height: Again, a textbook sear; again, perfect produce partners in baby carrots and discs of purple potatoes, as well as earthy shiitakes and delicate oyster mushrooms; again, a garnish that proves it’s more than a toss-off in fava leaves. It was another plate that neglected neither style nor substance.

But what about mussels? A Toute Heure, the original, was known for its mussels pots, an ever-changing, ever-evolving repertoire of them. We indulged with the new “beurre fondue” mussels pot, a rich concoction bolstered by butter (lots), cream (lots) and leeks. This version’s statement-making, breakout ingredient is the addition of potent, but not overwhelming, garlic confit. (Fortunately, the billed “truffle” had little impact.)

Salad for dessert? You bet. Grab it when it’s peach season and Gomes is grilling his peaches before tossing them with raspberries and blueberries, then topping them with the creamy Shy Brothers’ “cloumage” from coastal Massachusetts. A drizzle of honey, and you have just my kind of dessert. I have to admit, though, that I also was smitten with the ricotta cake, infused as it was with olive oil, plied with citrus and hazelnut, then plated with macerated cherries.

For a decade, Andrea and Jim Carbine served New Jersey in exemplary style, creating a restaurant in A Toute Heure that paved the farm-to-table way for small, personal, bistro-style restaurants determined to educate, enlighten and, ultimately, elevate our expectations of what could be done in a casual, comfortable setting. Like good parents, they gave all they could – and then they let the next generation do their own thing.

Their chosen successors, chef Gomes and the Florios, aren’t just worthy; they are world class. 

 

LET EVERYONE DRINK ROSÉ

Never have I met a restaurant menu that begs for a French rose more than A Toute Heure’s. It’s possible that the menu served forth by the new regime begs for such a rosé even more forcefully. So much of what we ate, and so much of what we passed up on this first round at the new ATH, seemed made for rosé.

So now a bit of torture: My dine team for this dinner drank the most special wine I’ve ever brought on an eating mission—the 2015 Chateau Simone Rosé. Don’t expect to find it at any old wine shop or liquor store. It’s imported by Neal Rosenthal (Mad Rose), and not exactly in big-box-store quantities. Chateau Simone is in the Palette appellation, which is a teensy speck of a wine district within the mere spot of a wine region known as Bandol, which is known as the premier place in all of Provence (and the Cotes de Provence appellation) for rosé.

Quite simply, it’s the bee’s knees of rosé, many, many, many layered, nuanced, rich yet lyrical. It’s delicious, and its partnership with everything from the duck rillettes to the salmon tartare to the soft-shell crab to the asparagus—yes!—to the scallops and the mussels was exactly what the wine-food pairing thing is about.

State of Taste

New Jersey’s culinary stars are getting their long-deserved red carpet moment.

By Andy Clurfeld

Nick Pizzonia, New Jersey’s leading advocate for artisan organic and natural wines, is having a morning-after revelation following a dinner crafted by Chef David Viana at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge. Pizzonia describes each course in detail. He talks about the technical precision of Viana’s cooking, the pinpoint harmony of his plate partnerships and the revelatory ways the chef plays accent off the main ingredient. He talks about Viana in comparison to other chefs working today in the Garden State, and comes to the conclusion that Viana is a singular talent. But, the wine authority notes, Viana is plying his profession in unprecedented company.

Photo courtesy of Common Lot

“New Jersey is having a moment,” says Pizzonia, founder of Court Wine Club. “We’re definitely having a moment.”

Yes, we are. In almost 30 years of writing restaurant reviews and covering all things culinary, I’ve never seen such a high level of talent spread so widely among the culinary professions in New Jersey. Chefs at fine-dining restaurants get much ink and buzz. Yet also winning raves and fans are the Garden State’s farmers and food artisans, its neighborhood ethnic eateries headquartered in enclaves that reflect New Jersey’s richly diverse population, and its brewers and vintners. 

Indeed, as the winners in the new Garden State Culinary Arts Awards show—from Common Lot in Millburn (Best New Restaurant), to The Bent Spoon in Princeton (Outstanding Food Artisan), to Melick’s Town Farm in Oldwick (Outstanding Farmer), to Flying Fish Brewing of Somerdale’s Gene Muller (Outstanding Beer Professional), to The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick (Best Restaurant), and to Drew Araneo of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport (Best Chef)—quality and star power are everywhere in New Jersey. 

The headline that stopped Edible America in its tracks came this past September, when The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells awarded three stars to Chef Dan Richer’s Razza Pizza Artigianale in Jersey City. The cheeky headline read: “Is New York’s Best Pizza in New Jersey?” OK, we Joiseyans are used to this kind of stuff, this New Yawky taking ownership of New Jersey superiority whenever it suits. 

Wells answered that question with a “yes.” But he also said something more important, something we must credit Richer for doing, beyond crafting the best pizza, bread and butter, as well as brilliant, exquisite, peerless salads: “…Razza dresses its pies with local ingredients so distinctive that every time I’ve eaten there, I’ve learned something about New Jersey farms.”  

Bingo! Richer, going back to his days at Arturo’s in Maplewood, has been sourcing those “local ingredients” that are “so distinctive.” We’re familiar with our heirloom tomatoes, of course, but Richer brings to the forefront hazelnuts from good ol’ Rutgers U, mozzarella from buffalo in Sussex County, plus Jersey wheatberries essential to Razza’s pizza and pork from Jersey-raised pigs fundmental to Razza’s meatballs. As well as greens and lettuces, fruits and perhaps 30 seasons worth of vegetables. He gets what micro-seasons in the Garden State are all about.

So we have Richer and Viana and vivid voices such as Ehren Ryan, chef-owner of Common Lot—whose Bag of Egg and Crisps dish I challenge our new fans at The Times to refrain from headlining,  “Is New York’s Best Nibble Found Due West of the Hudson?” You don’t scan a menu at Common Lot without a brown paper bag of coddled, seasoned-egg-coated homemade potato chips in your hand, fortifying you for the task of editing down Ryan’s engagingly idiosyncratic menu to a manageable dinner.

Take evidence from an early fall dinner-for-two: Scallops, sliced and torched for a mere blink come fanned over the juice of a roasted chicken, then topped with nibs of preserved lemon and near-translucent shreds of pickled fennel. The interplay of sweet and sour, faint anise and bold earth comes close to being the complete aesthetic experience. As does rare beef tossed as lettuces might be with kohlrabi and apple, mint and Thai basil, then given a Peter Pan-style dusting of fried kombu and togarashi just for kicks. Literally.

Ember-roasted cabbage? Who would think that this, as an entree, could make my heart race? With a pesto-like backdrop of pulverized wild nettles, mushrooms both nubby-meaty and skinny-slithery, plus a salad of teeny flowers and herbs as texturally compelling as a John Robshaw textile, my crush is understandable. You might fall for the elegant, compressed Berkshire suckling pig—as intense a dish as I’ve seen Ryan plate, what with farro, pickled tomatoes and leeks keeping pace with the pig and a paisley-shaped dollop of beer-infused mustard doing its best to counter the richness. Wimps might try to unite around something seafood at Common Lot, such as a pan-roasted tilefish given a stew-like side of baby artichokes and grilled corn then topped with sorrel and muksy dashi fortified with corn husk.

This is New Jersey now. From Latour at Crystal Springs Resorts in Sussex County, whose culinary pilot is the exemplary chef and mentor Anthony Bucco, to Red Store in Cape May Point, the domain of its fearless and focused chef-owner Lucas Manteca, the Garden State’s map is pocked with pins earmarking destination dining. There are must-stops in New Brunswick for Bruce Lefebvre’s globe-spanning fare that won The Frog and The Peach the GSCAA’s Best Restaurant nod and in Keyport for Best Chef Araneo’s Southern-accented, soul-satifying dishes at Drew’s Bayshore Bistro. But then why not detour mere miles to Tinton Falls to score sweets made by the GSCAA’s Outstanding Pastry Chef Debbie Mumford at Mumford’s Culinary Center, taking in while you’re there the savory eats made by her husband, the legendary farmer-chef Chris Mumford?

While Chris Mumford was farming every inch of land in and around his late 1980s-to-late-1990s namesake restaurant in Long Branch, the Melicks of Oldwick in Hunterdon’s still-bucolic Tewksbury Township were not resting on the laurels of their 70 million years of tending orchards and fields in New Jersey. Well, maybe not 70 million, but you get the idea. George Melick, now 81 and pretending to be retired, saw his children, Peter, John and Rebecca win the GSCAA for Outstanding Farmer this year. The First Family of Farming in the Garden State is known for an ever-growing list of products: the state’s best apples and peaches, vegetables integral to the menus of chefs at top restaurants, sweet cider and, the newest offering, hard cider. You don’t know thirst-quenching till you taste Melick’s Ginger Hard Cider.

Speaking of thirst-quenching: The neck-and-neck award in the GSCAAs could have gone to the three finalists in the Outstanding Beer Professional category. Gene Muller, of Flying Fish, nabbed it, but his worthy adversaries at Carton Brewing in Atlantic Highlands and Kane Brewing in Ocean Township are to micro-brewing today what Bud and Ballantine were to macro-brewing back when. As a friend was telling me about his addiction to matching Jersey brews to Jersey cheeses, I immediately mind-flew to a pair of Garden State cheesemakers whose cheeses will be at my own last supper: Eran Wajswol, of Valley Shepherd in Long Valley, and Jonathan and Nina White, of Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse in Holland Township. Some great names, huh?

Truth is, my favorite way to play the name game in New Jersey’s culinary star galaxy is to list my favorite ethnic eateries. I love to say “Cucharamama,” the name of James Beard Award-winning Chef Maricel Presilla’s fine-dining restaurant in Hoboken, but I love to eat her South American food even more. Don Julio, the Chifa restaurant (Chinese, Peruvian-style) in Elizabeth, is on my lips every time I’m hungry and craving wonton soup and fried rice that’s a thousand steps up from strip-mall Chinese take-out.

Maricel Presilla by Joseph Corrado

The thing I may love most about eating in NJ is finding ethnic fare in seemingly unexpected places: Who, outside of Jersey, would think Atlantic County is a hotbed for Vietnamese?  Lucky us, living here and knowing better. Count me as one of the many No. 1 fans of Tieu Mien Tay in Pleasantville. Korean? I happily pound the streets of Palisades Park and Fort Lee way up north for the beguiling dishes of Korea, but right at this moment, I’m soft on Soft Tofu in Fort Lee. Middle Eastern is suddenly all the rage, thanks to MishMish in Montclair, while Eastern Mediterranean just might be the coming rage now that newcomer Reyla has taken hold in Asbury Park.

NEW & NOTEWORTHY

Photo courtesy of 100 Steps

So why do I have such high hopes for New Jersey’s culinary future? Because 2017 is yielding an excellent crop of newcomers to the scene.

I mentioned Reyla, a sister restaurant to one of 2016’s top new restaurants, Barrio Costero. The Asbury Park siblings are now two of the hottest draws in the beach city, Barrio for modern Mexican and Reyla for both classic and creative updates on Eastern Mediterranean. There’s also Cargot, a classy French brasserie that’s new in Princeton; Gayeon, a modern Korean in Fort Lee; Hearthside, a wood-fired mecca in Collingswood; and Juniper Hill, a ramped-up roadhouse in Clinton Township where fine-tuned seasonal small plates rule.

The reincarnations of Cranford’s own A Toute Heure and 100 Steps, sold by Andrea and Jim Carbine into hands as capable and nurturing, are showing that second turns can be first rate, with Alexandre Gomes doing high-style fare that’s both exquisite and accessible at ATH and Joe Beninato offering unexpected takes and ingredients on plates that make OHS more than a supper club.

 

Close to Home

Authentic. Exotic. Spectacular. So what are you waiting for?

By Andy Clurfeld

Summer travel season is upon us. Time to dust off the passport and plot excursions to ports exotic and intriguing. Or stay home and travel light—very light. And very near. Once upon a time, adventurous diners in New Jersey had to travel thousands of miles to experience the cuisines of foreign places. Not true today.  

In fact, Maplewood resident Anthony Ewing is tracking and mapping the Garden State’s myriad and many ethnic cuisines on his in 2010, it’s a veritable United Nations of dining destinations that includes some 1,200 Jersey restaurants serving 60 different cuisines. “From Afghan to Vietnamese,” Ewing says.   

The New Jersey native, who started mapping his top food finds after moving back home from Brooklyn, got us to thinking about all the terrific eateries practically in our backyard. Sure, we love our sushi nights, and the “local” that serves a beloved Italian dish is never out of our hearts. But on this trip around our neck of the woods, we wanted to explore foods a little less familiar. So we’ll hold the best-sushi-rolls and Nonna-approved red-sauce roundups for other issues of EDGE. 

Herewith, an eating tour that includes Chinese-inspired Peruvian, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Middle Eastern, Southern Indian and Russian cuisines.

Photo courtesy of Rupamdas75

Chowpatty

1349 Oak Tree Road • Iselin

732-283-9020

www.chowpattyfoods.com

 

Let’s cut to the postscript: So enamored of the dahi batata poori at Chowpatty were we that, seconds after we finished dining, Atsuko Sasaki and I rushed next door to Chowpatty’s market to buy the ingredients to make them at home. The little dish that captivated was a small, delicate puff made from chickpea and rice flours that’s sliced at the top so it could be stuffed with potato, a cilantro-green chili kind of pesto, a tart-faintly sweet reddish-brown sauce, and a slap of super-creamy yogurt. We downed those babies in no time

Now, my pal Atsuko is a certified chef in Japan and mightily skilled in the kitchen, so she replicated the dhai bataka poori at home first time out. I, of course, forgot the yogurt, but still managed to enjoy eight puffs before I even sat down to dinner.

This is what dinner at Chowpatty can do for you: educate and stimulate. 

After being enchanted by the dhosas, Atsuko found a friend who offered to teach her how to make the crispy rice flour crepes that are super-sized and can be filled with all manner of things: spices, cheeses, onions, vegetables. We nab the cheese-masala dhosa that puts two spice mixtures into play to great effect. A chile-potent red does a do-si-do with a cilantro-coconut green as they take aim at the sultry cheese melting into the crunchy crepe.

The sturdier uttapam, also made with rice flour, is served here much like a pizza. Ours is topped with a variety of vegetables and we can’t help but slice it like a tomato pie. We’re loving it alongside the tuver ringan, a mash of eggplant and peas that comforts and warms.

You must try a Thali platter at Chowpatty: Served on a round platter compartmentalized into little dishes of vegetables, rice, dal, pickled vegetables, yogurt-based sauces and legumes, it’s a feast meant to be eaten with tiny pappadum and charred bread made with millet flour. Don’t be shy with the sauces, including chili pastes hot and moderate, ghee and raita.

Dessert? Go for the pineapple-orange ice cream or the very dense, very rich, extraordinarily delicious mango kulfi, crowned by pulverized pistachios. We’ll end with another postscript: That’s sold in the next-door market, too. 

Nargiz Deli & Cafe

1651 Springfield Ave. • Maplewood

973-761-0123

Facebook: NargizDeliCafe

You can get gyros and paninis and pita sandwiches crammed with feta-cukes-tomato and your craving of the moment (lamb, chicken, hummus) at Nargiz, a specialty market with a bent towards things Russian and Eastern Mediterranean. But why get what practically is ordinary in NJ when you can get a piroshkie?

This, to me, is a no-brainer. This Russian marvel is an uber version of a pirogi  crossed with a buttery, flaky almost brioche-style roll stuffed with something wonderful. Honestly,  you don’t even need sour cream. That’s how good these piroshkies are.

Photo courtesy of Nargiz Deli & Cafe

Do like we did and get an assortment. Lamb? Yup. Potato? Natch. Cheese? Of course. As I eat them, I can’t help but feel this is a kind of melting-pot food that so many people from so many cultures would relate to easily. On top of the pirogi-brioche appeal, it’s got a Korean pork bun sensibility and a hometown hoagie attitude.

Lamb meatballs are killer tasty at Nargiz. Find them in the display cases and tell the friendly folks behind the counter that you’d like them warmed so you can eat a bowl of them at one of the cafe tables. While you’re at it, score the earthy, forcefully smoky eggplant casserole and a scoop of the Georgian bean salad, flush with cilantro, chopped onions and nuts. 

Don’t leave without shopping around. I found a pretty jar of pomegranate molasses that will make my next muhammara (red pepper-walnut-pomegranate) spread very likely the best ever. No offense to mail-order businesses, but you never know what you might bump into when combing the shelves of a place like Nargiz. 

I am going to figure out what I’m going to do with the cured sardines I snatched from the refrigerated case. Tonight might be the night I warm some olive with lots of lemon juice and flat-leaf parsley and toss those little fishes with strands of spaghetti and that sauce. Might be? Definitely will be.

Lalibela

261 Irvington Ave. • South Orange

973-327-4840

Facebook: Lalibela Ethiopian

Kategna is injera bread plied with butter and spiked with hot chili spices. It isn’t shy and it isn’t like anything you’ve ever tasted, unless you’ve been intimate with the addictively sour, spongey bread of Ethiopia. Made from teff flour, injera is the vehicle for eating in Ethiopia, used instead of forks and spoons and knives. Its uniquely pourous texture makes it one sublime scooper, and it’s the principal reason you should check out Lalibela, a small, humbly decorated storefront with a devout clientele.

So back to the kategna: Here at Lalibela, the chile-flecked injera is rolled and sliced something like a wrap sandwich – only there’s no filling. The flavor and the texture of the injera itself are what give it charisma.

It’s almost as though there’s an effervescence to injera. It’s rather magical.

Photo courtesy of Lukasz Nowak

Anyway, here’s what happens when you order a pair of entrees at Lalibela and pretty much any Ethiopian restaurant: Both entrees, as well as a pair of sides of your own choosing, come spooned atop a huge, flat pancake of injera. You also get a basket of jelly-roll style injera. Take your pick and start scooping.

The lamb stew, with lots of garlic and onions and a pronounced pop of tomato and pepper, is a stunner, with layers of flavor that serve as foils for the sour bread. A stew of beef is less interesting, mostly because the spicing is less complex, but little dumplings made from chickpea flour and and long-cooked in a berbere-spice mix with onions holds its own with the crisp, thin pancake. 

Collards are a must, for they serve as a bridge between the meats and the legumes. Lentils, for instance, are on fire in a way that rivets; when you alternate between the collards and the fiesty beans, there’s a yin-yang that comes into play.

The service at Lalibela varies: You might get a helpful soul or one less interested in your culinary education. Odds are, no matter, you will at very least bump into new flavors that make for a new favorite dish.

MishMish

215 Glen Ridge Ave. • Montclair

973-337-5648

www.mishmishcafe.com

MishMish is a hit and hip restaurant in the downtown district, a short stride from Anthropologie and an even quicker journey to the mind-set of Yotam Ottolenghi and his era-defining “Plenty” and “Jerusalem” cookbooks. You want a little Yotam without the kitchen work? Come to MishMish and be transported to the heart of the Middle East.

A local who is conversant in MishMish-ese tells me the hummus is a marvel, but you can skip it in the dip round since it’s easily obtained in hummus bowl form. This is excellent advice, especially since the smoked eggplant spread here is one to order by the gallon. Maybe by the cauldron, since it’s extra-deeply smoky, comes with a flourish of mild, crumbled cheese, and is the perfect partner for the singularly sensational pita. 

Let’s take a moment to talk about this pita. Forget what you buy in the supermarket. This is pita from Planet MishMish, a thicker incarnation that mines the depth of flour like, say, a Dan Richer at Razza (in Jersey City) does for his bread and pizza.

Fried cauliflower is worth the splurge on oil intake, cause it’s so good, so comforting, that it doesn’t even need the yogurt-based dip served on the side. I flat-out adored the shishito peppers char-grilled whole and served naked save for a wedge of lemon. Eat ’em by the bushel.

If you are a card-carrying member of the Ottolenghi flock, you know from shakshuka. (If not, it’s eggs poached in tomatoes, onions, chilies and spices, often served with cheese on top and bread.) You’ve eaten shakshuka for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. It’s the absolute-right-at-any-time dish. How did we live without shakshuka?Anyway, MishMish does it with mushrooms and harissa, with lamb meatballs and with lamb sausage. Each has a following. I can vouch for the lamb meatballs. I could write a whole story just about the lamb meatballs, but I don’t have time or space. 

Photo courtesy of Pimento Grill

Mostly because I want to get to the hummus bowl with ground brisket ragu. Are you in heaven yet? No kidding: The folks here grind up brisket and add it to a slushy of tomatoes and warming spices. Think cinnamon most prominently and you’ve nailed it. If you eat this dish and don’t immediately plan a dinner party, do not consider yourself on the food-centric spectrum. Depending on your mood, you might favor the grilled chicken shawarma hummus bowl, a beauty thanks to the roasted tomatoes and drop-dead sensuous caramelized onions.

Think about it. Is there a reason not to eat the MishMish way every day?

Pimento Grill

1908 Springfield Ave. • Maplewood

973-846-4555

www.pimentogrill.biz

Pauline Barnes, owner/chef at this sweet storefront, wants you to know that once you enter her domain, you are under her care. And guidance. She’ll help you plan your dinner, your party, your life. She’ll tell you why you need Pimento’s jerk chicken, why you must experience her oxtails, why you need the coconut “run-down” red snapper. 

We are happy in her presence and soothed by her comforting Jamaican fare. No, it’s not high-on-the-Scoville scale stuff, but it’s lazy-day swell when island attitudes beckon and you want to turn yourself over to dishes that take you away. Like a Calgon bath used to do.

Talk about those oxtails. They are simmered in gravy, along with big, broad butter beans and a host of island herbs and gentle spices. Similarly attuned to the milder side of eating life are the brown stew vegetables, which incorporate soya chunks to maximum advantage. This is the dish that will cure you of your misconception that everything island is going to set off a 12-alarm fire in your mouth.

We took on the curried goat with relish, gnawing on the hunks of lamb-like meat. Ditto for the jerk chicken, which is among the mildest I’ve ever tried and totally right for beginners. We snacked on the fried sweet plantains throughout dinner, because, frankly, they put you in a “nothin’-can-be-finer” mood.

I think the under-the-radar fishes just might be the best tickets on Pimento’s menu. Pauline’s touted run-down snapper is a winner, simmered as it is in a coconut sauce and served head-on, bones-in, yet easily filleted at table. It was the sauce, creamy, yet light, and flecked with greens, black beans and onions, that made the dish divine. The escoveitch whiting, even though fried, offered a nice ping of vinegar.

Hello, island time. We need you.

Don Julio

50 Marshall St. • Elizabeth

908-820-9494

www.donjuliorestaurantnj.com

Chinese immigrants to Peru in the mid- to late-19th century brought with them culinary concepts and traditions they fused with ingredients and new sensibilities they discovered in their new home in South America. The result is a cuisine known as “Chifa,” and nowhere in New Jersey is it found with more authenticity and sheer deliciousness than Don Julio.

Located near the waterfront here, Don Julio is a destination. It can be crazy-packed on weekends; fair warning. Folks come for both the Chifa and also traditional Peruvian fare. The menu, almost telephone-book long, is worth coming early to read so you can study and plot.

 

Photo courtesy of Luis Delboy-Don Lucho

Here’s what I think you should do: Assemble a large party and go all-out. Do Chifa as your primary, but don’t miss the best of Peru here. First, have the ceviche, for it’s an expertly crafted Peruvian model, flush with shrimp, topped with hunks of sweet potato and plain potato, a chunk of big-kerneled Peruvian corn, crunchy beans and a ton of onion rings. Bet you will eat the whole thing.

 

Then go for the wonton soup. Frankly, strip mall American Chinese joints water down, and dumb down, wonton soup. See what it can be by sipping the mutlilayered broth holding delicate-skin wontons, thick slices of juicy roast pork, thick shreds of cabbage and slices of white-meat chicken. And, ah! The noodles, the noodles!

Fried rice is nirvana. It is light, bright and mostly about the exquisitely cooked rice. It’s neither salty nor dry. It is punctuated by nibs of pork, peas, egg and sprouts, and it possesses a seminal freshness. 

Our server smartly directed us to the sirloin steak over “green noodles.” How simple, yet how beautiful. The “green noodles” are made so by tossing hearty spaghetti-like strands with a verdant sauce that looks and tastes like pesto made with cilantro. Which it is. But, again, there is a lightness and a brightness that speaks to a deft hand in the kitchen.

We cannot resist another recommended dish, the sweet-sour fried fish, which is neither sweet nor sour, but fascinating in its purity of taste. Plied with cabbages and surrounded by a brothy brown sauce, it looks like a bowl of confusion, yet yields clear, clean tastes. It says a lot about Don Julio. Which can teach you a whole lot about “from-away” flavors right in your own backyard.  

ETHNIC NEW JERSEY

Anthony Ewing, founder, publisher, editor, writer of the peerless EthnicNJ.com Web site, has a handful of favorite ethnic restaurants in the EDGE sphere. Here are five, in no particular order, that are worth your while to check out.

The Banderas • Summit • Costa Rican

Enter to a full wall mural of a Costa Rican volcano. Find inside a traditional menu of rice dishes, including chicken and rice and shrimp and rice. “Costa Rica is all about simple, straightforward food,” Ewing says. “Not too spicy.” 

Seoulite • Berkeley Heights • Korean

An early example of authentic Korean is this regional favorite that settled into a mainstream town years ago. “There aren’t barbecue tables,” Ewing says. There are, however, beautiful “soft tofu stews and bibambap made in the kitchen and rice cakes in red pepper broth.” Ewing notes there will be another branch of Seoulite opening soon in Somerville.

Thai House Rock • Colonia • Thai

Well, Thai with a hefty “side of rock-’n’-roll,” Ewing says. Think vinyl records on the walls. “It’s a hole-in-the-wall,” he adds, but the food is sincere. 

Arepas Pues • Elizabeth • Colombian

“Authentic, Colombian-style arepas are served here,” Ewing says, which are different than those from other parts of South America.

Binh Duong II • Hillside • Vietnamese

It’s the younger sibling to the original, in Bloomfield, and Ewing pegs this one as serving better food. In fact: “Some of New Jersey’s best Vietnamese food.”

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfeld recently presided over the 1st Annual Garden State Culinary Arts Awards. New Jersey’s most influential restaurants and chefs vied for top honors in 13 different categories in front of a standing-room-only crowd of foodies, friends and family. Several nominees have appeared in the pages of EDGE, including Cucharamama, A Toute Heure, Common Lot and The Frog and The Peach. You can check out these stories and others by clicking on the FOOD button at edgemagonline.com.

Source Code

The future of eating well is right under our feet. 

By Yolanda Navarra 

Everyone used to say my grandmother should have opened a restaurant.

Instead, she married a man with an eight-acre apple orchard and evergreen farm in Holmdel, where he also grew organic vegetables, fruits and flowers. The farm was a magical place and their marriage—farmer and chef—made their house a farm-to-table paradise for me. Whenever she called, I’d squint my little eyes and hold my breath, hoping, for a dinner invitation, which was usually a creative feast of whatever she’d collected from the farm that morning. The first time I ever tasted a Jerusalem artichoke, I was an 11-year-old who couldn’t get enough of unusual flavors. I lived for them. I’ve never forgotten the smell of spices in the kitchen or picking apples from trees, and looking out at the land wondering what might be ready to harvest. All these years later, the flavor of that first Jerusalem artichoke is still on the tip of my tongue.

A New Jersey upbringing doesn’t make me a foodie any more than being hungry for just-picked produce makes me a farmer. Yet with the thousands of farms—and farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants—dotting the Garden State, I am hardly alone in my obsession for eating local.

Courtesy of Rachel Weston

The state’s official website celebrates the fact that New Jersey continues to live up to its nickname. Our farmers are producing quality crops. While food and agriculture is our third largest industry, New Jersey ranks highest in the production of cranberries, spinach, bell peppers, blueberries and peaches. We also raise famously delicious Jersey tomatoes, corn, apples, strawberries, potatoes, hay, soybeans and nursery stock. Jersey Fresh, a 33-year-old program sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to educate consumers about the state’s crops, reports that our farmers grow more than 100 varieties of produce and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of specialty crops. As of 2015, we have 9,100 farms spread out over 715,000 acres of land that generated $1.02 billion in sales the previous year

Rachel J. Weston, chef and author of New Jersey Fresh: Four Seasons from Farm to Table, (the subject of a 2015 EDGE story), says, “If you haven’t eaten corn harvested that same morning, strawberries still warm from the sun or tomatoes just brought in from the field; you haven’t experienced the bounty of the Garden State…[and] when farmers and chefs collaborate together on showcasing Jersey Fresh products in a meal the results are memorable.”

Weston recommends preserving summer and fall produce for winter by making jars of jams, pickles, chutneys, salsas and tomatoes that will be ready to go even if the ground is frozen. In fact, her freezer is stocked with local berries, peaches, pesto and eggplant. Winter finds her cooking with storage crops, including potatoes, carrots and winter squash. She also can’t resist shopping at farmers markets for various mushroom varieties, which are grown in climate-controlled greenhouses

“I supplement a bit from the grocery store,” she concedes, “but with some planning and creativity, it is possible to eat well year-round.”

But it’s not only about the food; Weston also enjoys the personal connection. “Shopping directly from farmers and through a season-long C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture, aka “farm share”) program or a visit to a roadside stand provides the opportunity to meet the people who grow our food, learn how it is grown and the opportunity to have fresher, more flavorful options, while supporting our local economy.

FARM TO MARKET

There’s an inherent magic and entertainment value to shopping at a farmers market that the average grocery store can’t offer—coupled with the freshness and immediacy of the food and where it was born. Farmers markets typically offer more than just produce. Eggs, cheese, meats, breads, grain, mushrooms, wine, honey and more are all part of New Jersey’s agricultural output

“I’m a big believer in you get what you pay for…and when you shop at a farmers market, you get the relationship built into that price,” says Chris Cirkus, who manages the West Windsor Community Farmers Market, and also works part-time at the New Jersey Department of Agriculture as the Farm-to-School Assistant Coordinator. Unlike a chain grocer, she adds, farmers market products are competitively priced: “Folks are very mindful of what they can spend on groceries, so we really focus the market on those offerings.” Cirkus also volunteers at Greenwood Ave. Farmers’ Market in Trenton—which was created for food access and health services and is run by the Trenton YMCA—and consults for the 31 & Main Farmers Market at Campus Town, in front of The College of New Jersey

Photo by Chris Cirkus

New Jersey is home to more than 150 farmers markets. Each market is a separate entity; therefore no two are created equal. They can vary in their number of vendors and have their own rules. For instance, some may prohibit anyone other than farmers themselves from vending; in other words, no distributors are allowed. Others prohibit the sale of non-food items. It all depends on the shared vision of the organizers, who can be anyone from community members to townships to businesses.

The West Windsor market, a non-profit organization, began in 2004 and is run by community members. In spite of the township’s support, they operate independently. The market currently features around a dozen vendors, including bakers who use local flours and fruit; a pasta maker who uses local grain and vegetables; ketchup and sauces made with New Jersey tomatoes; jams sourced from local fruit; pickles, and pickled vegetables made with New Jersey vegetables. Two food trucks offer breakfast and lunch using local meat, eggs, and vegetables

The great equalizer is the good intention. Ideally, each market exists to support the community that hosts it. The markets that fail often lack either support, passion, or both. Not every town should have a farmers market, Cirkus says. It depends upon, among other things, what farm stands are nearby.

“Farmers markets don’t typically allow distributors; that’s the point,” she says. “It’s about creating community, engaging with the folks who grow, raise and produce the food.

“It all comes back to the farmers for us, and how we can ultimately highlight them across the entire marketplace. There are statistics about shopping locally and the percentage of a dollar that stays in the local economy when supporting small farms and business. I think it is something like two-thirds of each dollar. If that’s not enough of an incentive to shop at your local farmers market, perhaps the relationship with the farmer or vendor who grew, raised or produced that food is.”

FARM TO TABLE

Can you imagine a world where diners cared about the origin of their food? I can, and I love what that looks like. Farm-to-table establishments would be commonplace and restaurateurs would embody the farm-to-table lifestyle. Farm-to-table would no longer be a movement. It would be a fact of life. 

Courtesy of Beach Plum Farm

Courtesy of Beach Plum Farm

Jim Nawn, owner of the Fenwick Hospitality Group, which produces The Dinky Bar & Kitchen, Main Street Catering & Events, Cargot Brasserie (opening this spring) and Agricola Eatery (agricola is the Latin word for “farmer”), developed 112 acres of farmland in Skillman known as Great Road Farm to supply seasonal, sustainable, antibiotic-free ingredients—including more than 120 vegetable varieties. They have been certified organic for the past two years. “I believe our number-one goal is great-tasting food,” says Nawn, who formerly owned and operated 37 Panera Bread franchises in North Jersey. “I also believe that local and organic produce leads to optimal taste, when we can grow in our limited growing season and in balance with costs .” 

Photo by Fenwick HG

A similar blueprint for success can be found in Cape May, where Curtis Bashaw (above) is co-managing partner of the Cape Resorts Group, which relies on Beach Plum Farm to supply food for the group’s establishments: The Ebbitt Room, Blue Pig Tavern, Rusty Nail, Boiler Room, Exit Zero Cookhouse and Louisa’s Café, all of which are within two miles of the farm. “We bought this farm with the vision of growing food for our restaurants in Cape May,” Bashaw says. “People love to get in touch with where their food comes from and with the natural setting here, just a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.”

The eight-year-old, 62-acre farm supplies most of the produce for all the restaurants, including more than 100 fruit and vegetable varieties, herbs and flowers. Beach Plum Farm even has a kitchen that serves salads, sandwiches and fresh juices. In this case, fresh is synonymous with extraordinary flavor, says Bashaw. “You cut the asparagus at 6:00 in the morning and you are eating it in a salad in the Blue Pig Tavern by lunchtime. That’s pretty fresh. The flavors just pop in a way most people aren’t accustomed to.”

Chef David C. Felton of Ninety Acres relishes what was once his young chef’s dream of having a farm so near to the table, which has become part of his daily mission. Ninety Acres is yet another farm-to-table gem, located in Peapack-Gladstone. Set on sprawling Natirar, the 90-acre portion of a larger property that once belonged to King Hassan II of Morocco, it now has a farm that feeds the restaurant. About 250 chickens supply fresh eggs. Berkshire/Duroc pigs lend to the farm’s sustainability by gobbling up the pre-plate cooking scraps from the restaurant, while sheep graze their way through the cover crops. For composting, the litter from the sheep and pigs are consumed for vital nitrogen, as well as food scraps and non-toxic wood chips and leaves from a nearby county park.

Felton can imagine a more food-conscious existence, too: “I think we’d revert back to a simpler time, when food was more precious and neighbors were more civilized. People used to grow their own food, or knew the people that grew it for them. There was a shared concern for quality ingredients that could feed not just a family, but a community. If everyone cared about their food’s origin, I think personal connections would be strengthened. There would be more communal dining with real conversation, rather than chatter with emoticons.”

Eric LeVine (above right) is among the growing number of New Jersey chefs who rely on local growers for the bulk of their ingredients—which in turn influences their menu offerings. LeVine, chef and partner at Morris Tap and Grill in Morristown and Paragon Tap and Table in Clark, says he is inspired by nature. “Our menu rotates seasonally,” he explains, “so we focus on spring/summer and fall/winter. We change things depending upon what the farmers have to offer and take advantage of what’s available. For example, when corn is at its peak, we’ll grab a couple of  bushels and use them in a dish like corn salad or corn risotto.”

Courtesy of Morris Tap and Grill

The winner of Food Network’s Chopped in 2011, LeVine has partnered with Happy Harvest Hydro Farms in Denville for his supply of greens. Its method of hydroponic farming is a soil-free, insect-free and completely non-toxic approach to growing. He buys other produce from the century-old Donaldson Farms in Hackettstown. What’s most important is getting the right products without going too far afield, LeVine points out: “We source local poultry from a hormone- and cage-free farm in Pennsylvania. All of our fish and meats are from sustainable farms.”

Driven by what he calls an “insane passion,” LeVine has worked in the food industry for the past 37 years. At times, he’s experienced the challenges of scoring enough of the consistently high-quality food he needs to run his businesses. “It’s tough at times because all you want to do is help farmers with their products, but it’s a balancing act.”

Consider the fact that a patron may ask for a slice of tomato on his burger in the off-season. LeVine says, “If the American palate didn’t always demand it, I’d never offer tomatoes this time of year!”

 

 

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Upper Case Editorial

WHAT’S IN A (NICK)NAME?

The nickname on your license plate dates back to a speech delivered at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Abraham Browning (below) of Camden described New Jersey  as a “Garden State”—an immense barrel filled with good things to eat and open at both ends. Benjamin Franklin made a similar observation decades earlier. 

 

 

 

 

Courtesy of Rachel Weston

JERSEY TOMATOES

New Jersey farmers have been growing tomatoes since the 1920s. Now, there are hundreds of varieties. But the quintessential Jersey tomato, the Rutgers 250 (named for Rutgers University’s 250th anniversary), is considered delicious enough to bite into like a piece of fruit so the sweet juice drips down your chin. Rutgers tomatoes, among the most popular Jersey varieties, were once commercially grown specifically for canning—think Campbell’s Soup in Camden. The seeds can still be purchased for growing in your own garden.

 

Editor’s Note: Eric LeVine demonstrates his commitment to sustainability, his community and his customers through education. Look for classes this spring and summer on farm-to-mouth cooking on his website, www.chefericlevine.com.

 

The Ryland Inn

“There’s a new chef in town…Christopher Albrecht, a protégé of Tom Colicchio…and his is the ultimate farm-to-table future.”

By Andy Clurfeld

THE RYLAND INN

115 Old Highway 28, Whitehouse Station

Phone: (908) 534.4011

Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. Open from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Sunday brunch and from 4 to 8 p.m. for Sunday dinner. Prices: Snacks and cheese: $6 to $21. Appetizers: $13 to $22. Entrees: $22 to $54. Side dishes: $9. Desserts: $12. Five-course tasting menu: $75; $120 with wine pairings; five-course vegetarian tasting menu: $65; $110 with wine pairings.

The Ryland Inn is a grand old gal. She sits on a sidecar to Route 28 in Whitehouse Station, set back from the bustle of the highway and possessing an elegance that only the most effective facelifts can provide. Oh, she’s had work done, of that you are sure. Yet if you remember her from the old days—say, back in the 1970’s—when pioneers to this once-agrarian part of Hunterdon County used to congregate at the bar, you’ll feel at once at home with your memories and in awe of the rejuvenating renovations. 

Ryland had a rebirth in the 1990’s courtesy of Craig Shelton, a chef who brought it four-star fame and, eventually, a James Beard Award. The kitchen has been manned by a Who’s Who of Garden State chefs (James Laird and Anthony Bucco, to name a couple) and visited by luminaries of all stripes: Ronald Reagan dined there, as did the food cognoscenti from Gourmet, who put Shelton on the cover of the magazine in October 1997.

Photography courtesy of The Ryland Inn

Flash forward to now: There’s a new chef in town, and his is the ultimate farm-to-table future. Christopher Albrecht, a protégé of Jersey son and “Top Chef” star Tom Colicchio, is the definition of the chef-of-today. Albrecht talks soil before he talks anything else in the culinary processes. “The most flavorful bounty any garden or farm produces is not an accident,” the chef says in literature presented with the check to every table at Ryland. “It’s a direct reflection of the condition of the soil.”

Ryland has its own farm and Albrecht, best known from his years at Eno Terra in Kingston, also plucks primo ingredients from more than 20 regional farms, food purveyors and producers to make up his evolving tasting menus, a la carte bill of fare and nightly specials. 

Albrecht merges ingredients of the micro-seasonal moment with simplicity of presentation, function driving flourish—such as the pop of crunch the deep-rose pomegranate seeds give the pitch-perfect thin slices of opa supported by tiny leaves of cilantro and celery, sour-slightly sweet grapefruit in a “snack” of crudo. There is the best dish of the night, a cauliflower-and-mushroom cassoulet, which we begged a portion of from the vegetarian tasting menu. It’s not-pretty brown-and-beige, but it is pure soul food, with flageolets and black-eyed peas providing the base, fennel and leeks the counterpoints, and the starring vegetables the binding flavors.

The tortellini stuffed with a trio of pulled game meats—duck, rabbit and pheasant—suffers from tough, hard-in-parts pasta. However, the smoked game broth, streaked with shards of ricotta and shreds of Swiss chard, is so divine, I lift the bowl to my lips to drink down every ounce. But someone on the line didn’t watch the pot as the tortellini boiled!

A special of quail stuffed with raisin bread, olives and fennel was stunningly salty, both in its breast meat and the skin of the bird. The red corn grits that support the sweet Nantucket bay scallops taste, well, gritty, but when you connect the grits to the scallops with the grilled radicchio, a light bulb goes off. The bitterness of the radicchio, soothed by the red wine reduction and the richness of bone marrow, bridges shellfish and grain. It works. You eat, and you eat more.

Talk about bridges: Fat pappardelle, fortified by squid ink and midnight black, is given the all-luxe treatment with a Bolognese of venison, the warmth of chocolate and the infusing heat of Aleppo pepper. It’s another eat/eat more dish. I didn’t feel similarly about the braised and roasted beef duo, with torpedo-shape onions sitting atop the shredded meat and a thick oval of textbook medium-rare beef standing solo on the plate astride the potato-Swiss chard gratin. All good, fine enough, but the heartstrings felt no tug.

If we saw another charcuterie board pass by, we were going to pitch a fit. Instead, we interrupted the dinner’s flow by ordering one. There’s not just the de rigueur salumi on board, but a riveting chicken-liver mousse and a classic French rolled paté that defines melt-in-mouth sensibilities.

If you’ve never experienced viognier in its Condrieu incarnation with paté, do so here: Though Ryland’s wine list needs to pay better attention to Albrecht’s predilections for sauces, seasonings and spices, the 2011 Domaine Faury Condrieu is a bottle that can take you through the charcuteries and many, many dishes here. 

The kitchen needs to take another pass at its maple flan dessert. The flan, thick, pasty and not maple-y, tasted like canned pumpkin pie filling. Its accompanying citrus salad, spiked with Earl Grey, sported unripe segments of grapefruit, while the funnel cake (which looked, oddly, like a fried soft-shell crab) was heavy with batter and oily. And the oval scoop of whipped cream was overwhelmed by cinnamon. In another finale, the chocolate trio, the chocolate-caramel tart was afflicted with un-dissolved sugar and mighty grainy, a flaw neither the hot chocolate nor the icy semifreddo could mitigate.

So we have Ryland past, Ryland of a rebirth era and, now, Ryland looking ahead. With Albrecht, this nationally known landmark has the right stuff for a bright future.

It’s up to the folks who brought The Ryland Inn to its present, owners Jeanne and Frank Cretella, to let this chef hold sway.  

SUPPORT SYSTEM 

I wondered if Albrecht was getting the proper support in the kitchen with a couple of dishes (quail over-salted, tortellini undercooked). On the whole, the dishes are well-conceived. But, is there a notch that’s not yet been kicked up? I think so.

Ryland deserves, Albrecht deserves and diners deserve service that is head-and-shoulders above the crew on the floor of these stately dining rooms. The front-of-the-house staff needs a crash course in propriety and how to serve in a fine-dining setting. 

This isn’t about a miscue here and there, but across-the-board fundamentals. Information about specific ingredients in dishes is given incorrectly, knowledge about beverages (particularly wine) is lacking, and basic tableside etiquette ignored, with diners’ conversation routinely interrupted and the practice of being watchful from a discreet distance seemingly not taught.