Lun Wah

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

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chef Vola’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Simply Super

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Have Food, Will Travel

Gourmet Food Trucks Go Full Throttle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninety Acres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three for the Money

A Trio of Westfield Winners 

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

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

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

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

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

Warming Trend

Taking the Chill Out of Home Cooking

There are two kinds of home cooking. There is the home cooking that involves chopping and miles of counter space, measuring and splatter stains on the stove, heaving heavy pots and brandishing Brillo pads, finding the Microplane and losing time for a siesta. Simmering can describe the scene, from the time you issue an invitation until you pay the dry cleaner for getting red-wine stains out of grandma’s linens. This suits some folks. It suits them well. It even makes them happy. Then there is the “home” cooking that involves smart shopping. It makes you happy and allows you to retain control of your life. It’s home cooking with help. It requires little more than sourcing ingredients that ease food preparation. Whether you have a designer-showcase kitchen or little more than a galley, smart shopping is the means to a delicious end—particularly when you have neither the time nor inclination for the whole-nine-yards process. Exhale. This is fine. This is permissible. This is also fun. I know because I recently enjoyed mining a number of Union County’s best specialty food shops with an eye toward short-cutting the dinner party process. I bought a bounty of food—from raw ingredients to partially prepared options to ready-to-eat dishes—and saw what I could do with them. While I was shopping, I also picked up tips from fellow foragers who told me about a couple of restaurants they’d used as sources for takeout…and turned that takeout into smashingly successful dinner parties. A bounty, indeed. So, come shop with me. I’m sure when you step inside each of these six shops (and the two recommended restaurants), ideas will bubble to the top.

Photos of Alan’s Orchard and Bovella’s courtesy of Lauren Nitti of Whitehall Media Productions

Alan’s Orchard • Westfield The new center of the locavore movement in these parts, Alan’s Orchards opened in September. It is owner Alan Weinberg’s intent to sell food—from poussin and grass-fed beef to in-season vegetables and cheese—all produced within a 150-mile radius. Enter the tidy and inspiring 1,000-square-foot shop and you’ll see that New Jersey’s got it going when it comes to quality ingredients. Pick a Griggstown Quail Farm’s chicken pot pie and rely on that as the centerpiece for a supper with friends. Snag a couple of cheeses from Valley Shepherd Creamery, just outside Long Valley, and partner them with Baker’s Bounty breads (typically found at New York’s famed Union Square Greenmarket) for starters. Buy whatever in-season fruits Alan has in store and make a warm compote drizzled with a local honey. Or choose a ready-made fruit pie and serve it with the frozen yogurt sold here. If you’re more ambitious, roast one of Griggstown’s chickens or poussins or break out the grill for a loin of pork from the High Hope Farms division of Ted Blew’s Oak Grove Farm in Pittstown. Alan’s happy to direct folks in need of certain seasonings and condiments to the Trader Joe’s in town. Two-stop shopping isn’t bad at all. But thanks to the high quality of the ingredients, you’ll need to do very, very little to make a big impression on your guests.

Union Pork Store • Union The sausage capital of the East Coast is owned and operated by Jabi. Jabi (as Jabi himself will tell you) is “a stage name, like Cher or Madonna.” No surname necessary. But no performer makes spicy mango chicken sausage or lamb-blue cheeserosemary sausage like Jabi and his crew. Jabi simply can’t stop creating. “We make at least one new sausage a week,” Jabi says as he packs up spicy Buffalo chicken sausages that deserve to be on Super Bowl watching menus everywhere, and ginger-chili bratwurst that takes the concept of fusion in new directions. My thoughts fly as I consider the more than 100 types of wursts, 20 kinds of kielbasa and tubs of prepared foods. Stuffed cabbage? Herring salad with beets? Time with Jabi is not for the faint of decision-making. Don’t leave without his spicy turkey sausages with chipotle and prunes. Cooked with cut-up root vegetables and diced tomatoes, they make for a dazzling Moroccan tagine, an exotic stew that can be served over rice, couscous or noodles. The myriad sausages also can be served simply in hot dog buns or hard rolls topped by a quick sauté of peppers and onions. A schmear of mustard is nice. But of the eight types I sampled, I have to say a Jabi creation needs no embellishment to be the star at your dinner.

The Greek Store • Kenilworth Since 1950, the Diamandas family has served forth at this small, crammed-full shop on Boulevard in Kenilworth. They’re one of the original ethnic grocers in the area, and they can take credit for introducing the masses to the delights of moussaka. Rifle through the freezers of local residents and you’ll find the Diamandases’ Greek meatballs waiting for that night when nothing else but a tangle of linguine topped with a few of those oregano-scented meat poufs will do. You also may find phyllo pies filled with spinach and cheese (aka spanokopita) and wedges of pastitsio, a lasagne-like casserole rich with eggy-creamy goodness. Don’t hesitate. Score some of these heat-and-eat entrees for tonight or for your next soirée. Then go to town with selections from The Greek Store’s olive bar and refrigerator case. Here all manner of dips in half-pound or full-pound sizes are sold. There are a good 30 different types of olives at the bar. There is no better way to launch a dinner party than by setting out a selection of Greek olives: Amfissa, the large and soft purplish-black variety from Delphi; Ionian, brine-cured green olives from the Peloponnesos; the traditional Kalamates, the fleshy favorite from Kalamata; Thassos, the oil-cured, dry type from the Aegean island of the same name. Partner these with one of the half-dozen varieties of feta, and lay all out with a spirited dip and pita chips. My personal favorite dip is the taramasalata, a decadent spread of fish roe and olive oil jazzed with nibs of shallots and herbs and a squeeze of lemon. Keep for yourself: a tub of tzatziki, the part-sauce, part-salad classic of sliced cucumbers rolling in thick Greek yogurt laced with mint and garlic. It’s restorative the morning after.

Mr. J’s Deli • Cranford Mr. J’s defines the concept of corner deli—corner deli with really, really good food, that is. Owned by Cranford native John Taggart, Mr. J’s is the breakfast-lunch hot spot locals pop into for pancakes or cold-cut sandwiches, but also know as their savior for to-go meals. Here you get your chicken parms, your sausage-and-peppers, your francaises, barbecued birds and pans of baked ziti and lasagna. It’s where traditional reigns—and those who only wish they had time to cook for their kid’s First Communion or the folks’ 50th anniversary go for a personal bail-out. Sure, there’s a sizable sit-down space, and many do partake daily of the corner deli’s in-store hospitality. But what you need to know when you’re in a pinch for party-ready takeout is the name of Mr. J’s signature dish: Sloppy Joe. There are almost as many Sloppy Joes out there as there are fellows named Joe. But these piled-high sandwiches, here cut into quarters for easy at-home serving, are superior. Turkey and Swiss are layered with a snappy Russian dressing and extra-rich cole slaw on rye. There are combos renowned for their compatibility: chocolate and hazelnut, for instance, or smoked salmon and cream cheese. But turkey, Swiss, Russian and a phenomenal homemade cole slaw is sandwich nirvana. This winter, when you’re suffering from terminal envy of those vacationing on a sunny Caribbean island, lay out a spread of Mr. J’s Sloppy Joes with a side show of sausages doing a do-si-do with peppers. Home, sweet home.

Pinho’s Bakery • Roselle Raul and Julia Pinho first landed in Newark’s Ironbound, then bounded down to Roselle to open the muchneeded Portuguese bakery that locals quickly made a regular pit-stop. Pinho’s doesn’t stint on anything, especially variety. There are fist-size rolls and there are divine, pillowy Portuguese babkas, a slightly sweetened bread that suits for breakfast as well as it partners with a rousing Mediterranean-inspired stew for dinner. There are pastries ranging from Rococo to Spartan in style. Meaning, you can get what you need as accompaniments to your dinner at home without fussing over flour, water, butter and sugar. Just don’t forget to tote home Pinho’s specialty: nata, or custard cups. The little round eggy creations fly out of the store. But the Pinho’s crew makes them constantly. For good reason.


Photos of Alan’s Orchard and Bovella’s courtesy of Lauren Nitti of Whitehall Media Productions

Bovella’s • Westfield Bovella’s has been around since 1949, when it was born in Plainfield as the sweet dream of Michael Bove. Some 36 years ago, Bove moved his pastry shop to Westfield, eventually passing its proprietorship onto family and co-workers. Today it’s owned by Ralph Bencivenga, who can’t remember not working at Bovella’s. That’s a little history. For residents of Union County, Bovella’s is their pastry past, present and future. For some, there are no birthdays without a Bovella cake. No Christmas Eves without a Bovella cannoli. No Easters without a Bovella chocolate-fudge cake.  I may not be able to imagine life without a Bovella chocolate  mousse bombe. I thought the cannolis and cannoli cake exemplary, the mini fudge balls addictive, the basic raisin scones and blueberry muffins fine ways to start the day. But that bombe — partnering a chocolate cookie of a cake and a spiraling mass of chocolate mousse—is one blast of a confection.


Star of India • Kenilworth Cozy and softly lit, this Indian restaurant is worth your time for a sitdown feast. But I was putting on an Indian-cuisine home show for friends as, well, a lip-syncher might. So I ordered, had it packed to-go, then served it all up without breaking a sweat. I started things off with a handful of crisp, pert cheese fritters (paneer, or panir, pakora) and a spirited little stew of chickpeas and potatoes called aloo chola. Americans don’t pair chickpeas and potatoes nearly enough, I thought as I ate. Next, shrimp slow-cooked in a warmly spiced coconut-milk bath (shrimp nirgisi) and chicken in the gentlest yogurtbased sauce infused with tomatoes and onions (chicken pishwari). A winning twosome, any night of the week. Cooks in India have a mastery of eggplant—never, ever pigeon-holing the vegetable. Need evidence? Try Star of India’s Punjabi-style eggplant (baingan bhurta) cooked in a tandoor oven with tomatoes, peas, onions and a judicious amount of fresh ginger. Don’t forget to include the crown jewel of this restaurant’s biryani selection, saffron-scented rice studded with chunks of chicken, lamb and shrimp. Paella of another stripe. I was struck by how easily the food here transported and reheated. It was a smash hit dinner for six.


Thailand Restaurant • Clark Set in an old diner in Clark, Thailand Restaurant has fired up local palates for years. As I waited for takeout, regulars told me it’s the one Thai spot they can count on for authentic fare. “They don’t dumb it down here,” said a gent presiding over a table of eight. “It’s not sweet-sour Thai. The spices are more evolved.” He was right, I learned, when I took a passel of soups, salads and a grand rice noodle dish to the home of friends who live nearby. Gulf of Siam is a hot-and-sour soup in which chilies and lemongrass warm both shellfish and finfish and mushrooms and tomatoes offer a calming backdrop. The  seasonings don’t fight with the fishes; they complement. In the coconut milk-based soup tom-kha gai, chunks of chicken laze about the surprisingly light broth amid riffs of lemongrass and kaffir lime. In tom yum puk, a feisty little soup chunked with Asian vegetables and tofu, the lemongrass-lime component comes on stronger. As it should. We swooned over the Grand Palace Salad, a veritable party of grilled beef plied with onions and smacked with chilies and lime. There was no letdown with the nato-sad salad, a rather unusual toss of ginger-licked ground pork enlivened by onions and made elegant by the addition of cashews. I’m an easy mark for rice noodle dishes and my new favorite is Thailand Restaurant’s pad kee mna puk, a melange of those silky noodles, crispy fried tofu, egg, Thai basil and shards of vegetables. Sigh. I’ve got to learn to cook like this.

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

The Chef Recommends

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

Grain & Cane Bar and Table • Brisket Poutine

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

A new twist on a classic, our Brisket Poutine is savory fall comfort food in its highest form. Our French fries are hand-cut daily and fried to order, smothered in gravy, topped with melted cheese curd, pickled chiles and brisket that simply melts in your mouth. This dish is ideal for sharing with the table.

— Chef Louis Bayla


The Thirsty Turtle • Pork Tenderloin Special

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

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

— Chef Rich Crisonio



The Thirsty Turtle • Brownie Sundae

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

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

— Chef Dennis Peralta



The Famished Frog • Mango Guac

18 Washington Street • MORRISTOWN
(973) 540-9601 •

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

— Chef Ken Raymond



Arirang Hibachi Steakhouse • Pork Belly Bao Buns

1230 Route 22 West • MOUNTAINSIDE
(908) 518-9733 •

Tender pork belly, hoisin sauce and pickled cucumber served on a Chinese bun.




LongHorn Steakhouse • Outlaw Ribeye

272 Route 22 West • SPRINGFIELD
(973) 315-2049 •

Join us for our “speedy affordable lunches” or dinner. We suggest you try our fresh, never frozen, 20 oz. bone-in Outlaw Ribeye—featuring juicy marbling that is perfectly seasoned and fire-grilled by our expert Grill Masters. Make sure to also try our amazing chicken and seafood dishes, as well.

— Ed Durina, Managing Partner


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

1075 Morris Avenue • UNION
(908) 977-9699 •

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



Welcome Back!
The restaurants featured in this section are open for business and are serving customers in compliance with state regulations. Many created special items ideal for take-out and delivery and have kept them on the menu—we encourage you to visit them online.
Do you have a story about a favorite restaurant going the extra mile during the pandemic? Post it on our Facebook page and we’ll make sure to share it with our readers!

Gone and Best Forgotten

These daring fast-food concoctions had high hopes… but barely made it out of the Drive-Thru.

The 2020’s are technically my seventh decade as a fast-food connoisseur and, as my GP recently commented, I have the cholesterol and blood sugar to prove it. I am no longer a regular at drive-thru’s because you only get two hearts in a lifetime, but I am still a willing crash-test dummy for anything that sounds new and different, even if it also sounds a little disgusting. Some great ideas have come and gone in my lifetime, as have some horrible ones, and I’ve probably tried them all—including the good, the bad and the ugly. These are the ones that have stuck in my mind. And probably in my descending colon…

Trinitas Medical Group

THE GOOD – “It kills me that they stopped serving these before they could kill me.”

McDLT • McDonald’s • 1984

Wait. What? Is that EDGE 2020 cover boy Jason Alexander doing a Broadway-style pitch for Mickey D’s? You know it is! Long before his Seinfeld days, Alexander was hawking McDLT’s on TV (Google the YouTube video). The hot side stayed hot, the cool side stayed cool and the elaborate packaging probably makes up a third of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Don’t get me wrong…this was an exceptional fast-food burger, but by the early 1990s all that polystyrene—as well as the equipment that heated the burger side and chilled the lettuce and tomato—was simply unsustainable.

Arch Deluxe • McDonald’s • 1996

A Quarter-Pounder on a potato bun with peppered bacon aimed at sophisticated palates. The hundreds of millions (!!!) McDonald’s spent during a half-decade developing and marketing the Arch Deluxe, which for the record was delicious, missed one small detail: Sophisticated palates don’t slow down for the golden arches.

Moolatte Dairy Queen 2004

I have been at the table for a number of branding skull sessions in my career and I can say without hesitation that, had I been in the same room with the person who suggested this racist-adjacent product name, I would have dumped my (otherwise delicious) coffee ice cream drink over his or her head.

Enormous Omelet Sandwich Burger King • 2005

In a bid to steal market share from the Egg McMuffin, BK loaded up one of its long chicken sandwich buns with two eggs, bacon, sausage and cheese. You could also add ham in some restaurants. Nothing not to like, right? Well, I thought it was pretty good but, like COVID-19 it tended to kill its host. After some initial success the sandwich suffered from bad press and was discontinued.

Frescata • Wendy’s • 2006

With the sudden rise of Subway, Blimpie and other sandwich chains in the early 2000s, Wendy’s decided to compete by adding a line of deli-style sandwiches to its menu. They were tastier than their better-known competitors, but the sandwiches came out slow and sometimes a little sloppy—and disappeared within two years.

Double Down Kentucky Fried Chicken • 2010

Give KFC a little credit. The colonel knows his customer. That being said, after consuming my first Double Down, I felt good knowing that my wife had just completed a CPR course. When she narrowed her glance and pointed out that the “sandwich” was not a sandwich at all—and contained a full day’s supply of saturated fat, sodium, cheese and bacon—I replied, “Fine, I won’t go back for two days…because I just ate two. Ha!”

French Toaster • Sonic • 2015

I had been watching the two dolts in the Sonic commercials for years before a Sonic popped up near my home in New Jersey. I found the menu uninspiring until I stumbled upon the French Toaster, which was similar to Burger King’s “enormous” sandwich, but with two pieces of French toast instead of a bun. I was in high-cholesterol heaven. But then, just like that, Sonic replaced the best part with Texas toast. Doggone it!

THE BAD – “Was this trip necessary?”

Double R Bar Burger Roy Rogers • 1968

I spent a summer in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s and the only fast-food joint within bike-riding distance was Roy Rogers. Their hamburgers were okay when you loaded ‘em up at the Fixins Bar, but what caught my attention was all the grownups ordering the marquee menu item, the Double-R Bar Burger—a hamburger with ham piled on top. I still don’t know why the word “Bar” was in there; maybe they had all stumbled in from a bar, because I tried one and that would have explained a lot.

Taco Seafood Salad Taco Bell • 1986

I once dated a girl whom everyone I knew disliked intensely…because I figured at least one of them had to be wrong. This was the same thinking that drove me to Taco Bell in the late 1980s to try something that seemed like it couldn’t be as bad as everyone said it was. Without going into further detail, let’s just say that neither experiment ended well.

Mighty Wings McDonald’s • 2013

Often I wonder how many chickens made the ultimate sacrifice so that McDonald’s could discover that their customers don’t have time to figure out where the meat ends and the bone begins. I thought they were pretty good, however they were a little tricky to eat hurtling down the Turnpike at 75 mph.

Big Catch Meal Long John Silver’s • 2013

A Long John Silver’s mall kiosk opened near where I lived and I was genuinely excited to try something that sounded like a sampler of their seafood. Unfortunately, that’s not what it was. The Big Catch was a heavily breaded slab of fish along with some hushpuppies and onion rings, all deep-fried as if they had done something wrong in a past life. Not what I expected or what I wanted. Long John’s critics had a field day with this menu item, which supposedly had 33 grams of trans fat, dubbing it “deadliest catch” and “heart disease on a hook.”

Fish McBites • McDonald’s • 2013

These guys got the Filet-O-Fish so right; I wonder how they got this spin-off so wrong. Were these fishy morsels meant as a change of pace for McNugget aficionados? I was curious enough to order the 15-piece size…but had to surrender a third of the way through. When I brought the rest home, my dog—who I have caught eating out of my cat’s litter box—did not recognize Fish McBites as food.

AND THE UGLY – “Surprisingly good, but no surprise they’re gone.”

Bell Beefer • Taco Bell • 1975-ish

No one quite remembers when the Beefer first arrived at Taco Bell, or maybe no one wants to admit it. The Taco-flavored Sloppy Joe was the chain’s answer to America’s growing appetite for meat on a bun and you know what? It wasn’t terrible, especially if you liked to spice things up with a little hot sauce. Beefer fans who somehow outlived the sandwich know that you can still order it at one of those combo Taco Bell/KFC locations…but you have to wink and ask nicely.

Grilled Cheese Burger Melt Friendly’s • 2010

Admittedly, Friendly’s doesn’t exactly fit the fast-food category. But this is a good story. After encountering a long line at my local Five Guys, I kept driving until I arrived at a Friendly’s. I mis-read the menu, thinking I was getting a Grilled Cheeseburger Melt. When the Grilled Cheese Burger (two words) Melt arrived with a thud in front of me, the look on my face was like the Monopoly guy on the “Bank error in your favor card.” Either the cook was on drugs or I was on Candid Camera because my burger was sandwiched between two complete grilled cheese sandwiches. This was an epic work of Brutalist restaurant art. It was sloppy and delicious but I did not make a clean getaway. On my way home I sneezed up (sneezed is not a typo) a fragment of American cheese. How does that even happen? Anyway, I never went back for another one and now my understanding is that they are no longer served.

Bacon Sundae Burger King 2012
Bacon Shake Jack in the Box 2012

Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single food that is not improved in some way by the addition of bacon. And if a food already has bacon in it then it can only be further improved by an extra piece or two. Which is why I was tempted to try both of these ice-cream-based concoctions. The Burger King sundae featured vanilla ice cream, caramel, bacon bits and an actual slab of bacon. Not to be out-baconed, Jack in the Box debuted its 24-ounce Bacon Shake at about the same time. It featured bacon flavoring only, so it got a thumbs-down from me. The milkshake was part of the chain’s “Love Bacon? Marry It!” campaign. For the record, I was already married but seeing bacon on the side.


McWrap • McDonald’s • 2013

A chicken finger swaddled with lettuce and cheese in a soft tortilla, the McWrap looked a little sad and definitely lacked pizzazz, especially when it unraveled in your lap as you tried to squeeze some sauce into it. However, it was a huge hit in Europe so the company brought it to American McDonald’s, where it was the cheapest thing on the menu. The unintended consequence was that a McWrap took five times longer to assemble than a burger, which clogged drive-thru’s and drove away in-a-hurry customers who might have ordered higher-priced items. I happened to love McWraps as quick, between-meal snacks. But franchisees despised them and they disappeared from the menu a few years ago.

Biscuit Taco • Taco Bell • 2015

I believe that anything that fits in a taco probably belonged in a taco to begin with. I am also a huge fan of biscuits. Not surprisingly, the announcement that Taco Bell had combined the two on its breakfast menu grabbed my attention, especially when I heard you could get a Biscuit Taco with fried chicken and honey-jalapeno sauce. Although the flavors were okay (the chicken was breaded with upcycled tortilla chips), when it emerged from the kitchen, there was something disturbing about its appearance. It looked like a Muppet choking on a piece of fried chicken.

Halloween Whopper Burger King • 2015

A flame-broiled burger on a pitch-black A1-impregnated bun? What’s not to love. Seriously, I’m asking: What’s not to love? Just because this limited-edition menu item was visually disconcerting, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t delicious. And just because it turned your poop green… Oh. Okay. Now I’m getting it.
Editor’s Note: Although all of the items in this story have definitely been removed from chain restaurant menus, thanks to social media and self-destructive eating habits, almost all have spawned grassroots efforts to bring them back at one time or another. Don’t be surprised to see one or two back in play (probably with different names) in the years to come; the Double-R Bar Burger (which was named in honor of Roy’s ranch) may still be available in a handful of locations. For more thoughts on fast-food fails, visit and read about Ray Kroc’s dumbest idea, the problem with pizza and the day a pumpkin bomb hit Japan.

Chef In a Box

Coming to a kitchen near you…Me!

Everyone has a pandemic story and this is mine. Jenna, my wife, is great at most things. However, on those rare occasions when she is unable to master a task, she gets frustrated quickly. A year ago last summer, she decided to order from one of those boxed-meal, home delivery services that became so popular when all the restaurants were shut down. Because she does not cook, and because I am a career chef, it made sense that I might be helping her out with the dish she was making, scallops and mushroom risotto, which seemed pretty complicated for her. I was ready to step in, but we agreed that ideally we wanted her to learn on her own.

My assumption was that there would be ample guidance in the box, but that was not the case. These meals come with a sheet that has photos and directions laid out in a handful of steps. For my wife, who rarely picks up a frying pan and is not an expert knife user, what was stressful was the number of things going on at once. Sear the scallops. Stir the risotto. Cook the mushrooms. I watched as she became visibly upset trying to put together what should have been a simple dinner for us. A professional chef understands timing, knows when to step in, create order and delegate tasks for the kitchen staff. A novice home cook deserves nothing less.

That evening I realized there was tremendous potential for a service where a restaurant chef walked you through a live, highly interactive virtual cooking class so you knew what to do with this box of ingredients that you’ve just unpacked in your kitchen.

Because of the pandemic I wasn’t working and had some time on my hands, so I decided to throw something together and test it out on my friends, including Alexia Merlo, a graphic designer, and Daniel Fiorica, a friend since we were 12 years old (he actually officiated my wedding) who worked in the financial services industry. Both Dan and Alexia would become my partners; they were in that original class and immediately wanted to become a part of it. We named our little venture “Peppr.”

Dan focused on the business side, Alexia created the look and feel of Peppr, and I brought an understanding of the basics of how it would work—including the sourcing of ingredients and creating restaurant-quality recipes—and then bringing a chef’s guidance into somebody’s home so they would feel comfortable cooking things they might not on their own. And anyone anywhere should be able to take a Peppr class, we believed—as long as they were in the U.S. and can take a food delivery, of course.


Three years earlier, while working as a sous-chef at Spice Market for Jean-Georges in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, I was invited to compete on the popular Food Network series, Chopped, and was fortunate to become one of the show’s champions. Prior to that, I had been a chef in New Jersey before moving to New York. Initially, I was in a little over my head. I realized that a really good chef in New Jersey makes a really good sous-chef in a top New York restaurant. There is a lot more you need to learn about the culture of New York restaurants to be chef: the volume of everything, how you guide the people you work with, and becoming a manager of human emotions. I learned a ton working in the city and wanted to grow my career when Chopped came along.
It was surreal to even be part a series I’d been watching for years, on a show that every young chef dreams of being on. I had never been in direct competition per se, except for fun stuff we did in kitchens at work, where the chef would grab a bunch of ingredients and see what we’d do with them. You needed to have fun sometimes because it is a hard life. You are in the restaurant more than you’re at home and you have to make a lot of other sacrifices to be in the business, especially to be a chef. You have to find ways to inject some enjoyment into that or it’s completely exhausting.

My goal on Chopped was to do something cool (or just not embarrass myself). It was interesting to be a part of the show and, looking back, it was a growth experience. Suddenly, I was being seen and recognized by strangers at a time when I had just moved from Spice Market to Terroir TriBeca, and people were coming to Terroir specifically to eat my food. It was an interesting transition going from a 400-seat restaurant where we fed a couple thousand people a day to a tiny wine bar, Terroir TriBeca, where I sourced all my ingredients from the green market and fed maybe 200. I became more confident in my abilities and, moving forward, I was able to get positions that I never dreamed would be possible—including my first executive chef job in the city. At the moment, I am executive chef at Buddha-Bar, which opened in TriBeca and has become one of the hottest restaurants in New York City. It’s mind-blowing that everything worked out for me this way. It’s been a wild ride.

Chopped gave me valuable experience in front of a camera, in this case with millions of people watching. So “performing” in front of 10 or 20 people on Zoom during a Peppr class was easy. I was already comfortable talking to people in a kitchen setting, which of course is something inherent in my job. Part of being a chef is being a leader and taking pride in the development and growth of the people who work with me; teaching is something that’s also been a passion of mine. At Terroir, we had an open kitchen, so I often talked to customers while I was cooking. And I had prepared private dinners for people in their homes, so I was aware that you have to bring a certain entertainment value to these events while you are cooking. Sometimes, when I had a really strong home cook, they’d stand beside me while their friends were having cocktails in another room and ask me all kinds of questions. So that’s another type of teaching moment I enjoy—showing them little professional techniques they would not normally have known or seen or learned at home.

First Class

The three of us—Dan, Alexia and me—hit the ground running and by October 2020 we held our first Zoom class. Zoom turns out to be the perfect medium for Peppr, thanks in part to the pandemic. Everyone, it seems, including people who weren’t super-confident with computers, were forced to learn how to use Zoom and had developed a comfort level with it. Now almost anyone working in a business environment has become as competent with Zoom as with their cellphones.

The live aspect of Peppr has been a crucial component. YouTube cooking videos can be helpful, but you are separated from your instructor by time and space. With Peppr, all that stands between you and the chef—whether it is me or one of the five other chefs who are currently doing classes—is a screen. Peppr chefs work in front of a large monitor and can see all of the people taking the class in real time. The experience is super-interactive. For example, during a class, I might encourage everyone to watch someone who has great technique or notice someone who has made a common mistake and ask everyone to watch as I coach them out of that issue. We have the experience to recognize when someone is feeling frustrated or intimidated or just a little stuck and talk them through whatever mistake they might have made. They’re probably thinking, Oh, crap, I added too much water to this dough…how do I get out of this? For a good chef, showing them how to get out of it is not difficult, because teaching people the right way to do something is just part of a normal day for someone like me. On Peppr, it’s done live, in real time. We do ask people to mute their microphones during the class, but we invite them to ask questions as we go because I never want this to be a lecture.

We have tinkered with the format as we’ve gone along. We normally host up to 20 people in a class, but we’ve also booked “private” classes for, say, a family of five in separate locations—often with grandma on her Zoom just watching them. For families with a strong central food culture separated by the pandemic, those classes have been almost like a family reunion.

In the end, our goal is pretty simple. We try to put you in a comfort zone and coax the talented cook out of you. Initially, it may feel daunting to assemble all the ingredients and do the prep work. But when we get to the end of a class and the home cooks see and taste what they’ve made—and sit down with their family and friends to eat something they never dreamed they could make themselves—that’s where the wow factor really comes in. That encourages them to cook more ambitiously on their own and, also, to come back and take more Peppr classes.

Jersey Boy

Since you are reading this, my guess is that you live in New Jersey. I grew up in Marlboro, in Monmouth County. I should mention something that I hope you already know: They call this the Garden State for a reason. The produce, meat and seafood you’ll find at the green markets that pop up around the state is absolutely amazing. I’m writing this as summer turns to fall and the corn, tomatoes, blueberries, cucumbers, watermelon and other local produce is so good that it’s worth the extra effort and expense to find that local farmer’s market or fish market or, up in northwest Jersey, the livestock and the fowl, and the dairies.

My own culinary upbringing began in a family that was half Hungarian and half Puerto Rican. The cuisines are very different but everyone in the family loves to cook. On my father’s side, the food is very Eastern European, with a lot of hardy flavors, while on my mother’s side the cooking features lots of acids and ingredients you wouldn’t see on the other side. From the time I was very young, I was interested in the differences between the two cuisines and why one family ate one way and the other family ate another way. I think that’s what led me to work in restaurants and go to culinary school.

Creating a business in and of itself is super-difficult. Doing so during a pandemic has presented as many hurdles as it has opportunities. The greatest challenge has been finding the most efficient way to get out there, to reach the people we know will love what we do, to let them know we’re doing something really awesome, building community around the shared experience of creating great food.

I know what works for restaurants—it’s a blend of marketing and public relations and social media and word-of-mouth. But the audience for Peppr is not necessarily the same “foodie” audience. The people taking my classes are very comfortable in their own kitchens, and not all are as close to extraordinary restaurant choices as we are here in New York and New Jersey. So we need to understand the best way to use those tools. Meanwhile, we are still changing every day, with each class, finding ways to be better and more engaging. Our goal is to hold 12 to 15 classes a month heading into 2022. We have a group of talented chefs who work on our platform (it’s not just me because I’m a full-time chef in the city). We also see this as a job opportunity for chefs who were displaced by the pandemic; a lot of people in our industry are still feeling that.

At the same time, we need to be thinking about how to leverage the success we’ve enjoyed thus far into whatever Peppr will look like post-pandemic. We are developing strategies for a number of directions, include doing this in a retail setting with multiple kitchens set up, where people could come in and learn from chefs in their area.
As for me, I’m working for a great company and somewhere in the next few years I’d like to become its culinary director. Hopefully, down the road, I’ll own my own restaurant. I would love to come back and bring all the knowledge I have acquired being a chef in New York and open something near and dear and truer to New Jersey, my home. EDGE

Editor’s Note: Chef Andrew Riccatelli, has been a culinary professional for nearly two decades. In that time, he has worked alongside some of the best chefs and restaurateurs in the country including Jean-Georges, Bobby Flay and Stephen Starr. For more information on Peppr, including how to give classes as a holiday, birthday or anniversary gift, visit For information on Buddha-Bar, visit For more information on purchasing Korin knives visit

Grain of Truth

If you haven’t eaten rice today, have you really eaten at all?

As a culinary historian and historic interpreter, I am never happier than when I’ve got in front of me a solid dish of red rice. This simple, hearty dish—one of the many direct contributions of West Africa to the Southern table—isn’t only an edible link to my genes, my DNA, my blood and bone. It’s a way to my heart. Indeed, rice has played a pivotal role in shaping my identity. My favorite rice dish growing up was my Alabama-born grandmother’s red rice (often misnamed “Spanish rice”)—a tasty, tomato-rich rice pilau with bell peppers, onions and spices. Little did I know that, if you followed that one dish back through all of the mamas and grandmas that came before her, you would go overland from Alabama to South Carolina and then across the Atlantic.

My grandmother’s great-grandmother was born in Charleston, the center of red rice country, and her great-grandmother’s grandmother was born in Sierra Leone, among the Mende people. To this day, one of the staple dishes of Sierra Leone is jollof rice, the West African antecedent of red rice. Prepared in different ways up and down the Atlantic world rice belt, today’s versions of red rice essentially maintain the same orange-red glow, as well as a taste that is pleasantly warm and pairs well with just about any leafy green or protein.

There’s an apocryphal story that rice entered the South through Charleston in 1685. A ship blown off its course from Madagascar to England landed unexpectedly in Charleston, where aid was provided to the crew. The grateful captain repaid the colonial British governor with seed grains from rice, which from then on could be grown in Carolina and used to enrich the colony for all time. Though rice was most likely already here when the ship from Madagascar arrived, this story of rice’s entrance into the South highlights how significant it was for the region. In the antebellum South, if cotton was the king of commodities, then rice was the queen. And the queen brought incomparable economic power. Charleston, and later Savannah, were thriving cosmopolitan trading ports, with fabulous wealth guaranteed by the cultivation of cash crops, which relied on the knowledge and labor of enslaved West and Central Africans.

West Africans from Senegal to Liberia, the western half of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), and deep into the interior along the Niger and other rivers, had grown rice for almost four millennia by the time the transatlantic slave trade picked up in earnest. With the spread of Islam and the settlement of the western African coastline by the Portuguese, the indigenous red rice known as Oryza glaberrima and several other wild and cultivated species were joined by Oryza sativa, or “Asian rice.” On the island of Madagascar, some of my other ancestors were growing the latter, their ancestors having brought seed from Indonesia in outrigger canoes. As African and Asian cultures mixed, rice became both a staple and the central feature of Madagascan economic life. In West Africa, too, my forebears knew this reality, with women taking a primary role in processing of the crop.

It is no accident that my great-grandmothers passed their knowledge of rice culture from generation to generation. In the 1700s, planters from North Carolina to Florida imported thousands of enslaved human beings—many of them women—to properly grow and process husked rice. They were already rice-production experts. On the other side of the South, along the Gulf coast and up the Mississippi River Valley, the French sent Africans with rice that had originated in Benin and Senegal. Other Africans arrived in the Americas with similar knowledge, having grown Asian rice to supply slave ships sent to the Americas.

Jollof Rice

Jollof rice, the famous West African dish, is named after the Wolof people of Senegal and Gambia, who themselves call it benachin. Maggi, a bouillon cube ubiquitous in West Africa, has become part of the flavor profile of everything there. If you have access to an international market, it will have Maggi cubes; you can use them to make a Maggi broth to replace the stock in this recipe—just follow the instructions on the package. Be careful…it tends to be salty, so go lightly at first to find your bearings. Makes four servings.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1.5 cups long-grain white rice, washed and drained
  • 1 habanero pepper, seeded and chopped
  • .5 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or Kitchen Pepper*
  • .5 teaspoon seasoned salt or jollof rice seasoning
  • 2.5 cups vegetable or chicken stock (homemade or store-bought) or Maggi broth

*Kitchen Pepper is an old-school spice mix popular in early American cooking. It contains black pepper, nutmeg, ground allspice, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground mace, ground white pepper and red pepper flakes.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 4 to 5 minutes, until soft. Add the tomato paste, turn the heat down to medium-low and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the rice, chili pepper, black pepper and seasoned salt. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the stock, cover, turn the heat down to low and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is nearly but not completely absorbed. Remove the lid, place a piece of aluminum foil over the pan, return the lid to the pan over the foil and steam for another 20 minutes.

We can see the importance of rice in African American folklore, which carried over rice’s unique mythology from Africa. Supposedly carried in seed form in the braided hair of African grandmothers, rice offered the enslaved a hidden and sacred link to ancestors and their deities. Among my Mende ancestors, for instance, rice mixed with palm oil fed the ancestors at their graves. For many other groups, too, African rice was a revered food, not just dinner.

They say in Sierra Leone that, if you have not eaten rice that day, then you haven’t really eaten at all. I appreciate that sentiment, as fare like pilau (which in some places is called perloo)—a simple southern chicken-and-rice dish—or a rice crepe stuffed with green onions, Vietnamese herbs and fresh seafood, trigger some of my most Pavlovian moments.
But even more important, rice connects me to every other person, southern and global, who is nourished by rice’s traditions and customs.

Editor’s Note:
Michael W. Witty is a culinary historian and author of the James Beard Award-winning book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty’s new book, Rice, features 51 recipes ranging from Southern classics to international dishes. It explores the culinary history and African diasporic identity of rice. This story is excerpted from RICE: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook by Michael W. Twitty. ©2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For more information or to order visit

Red Rice

This tomato pilau is one of the greatest dishes ever to emerge from the Low Country and can be adjusted depending on your tastes. The recipe was inspired by the erudite Damon Lee Fowler—culinary historian and cookbook author from Savannah and a keeper of old Southern culinary traditions—who published it in The Savannah Cookbook in 2008; it is included with his permission. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

  • .25 pound thick-cut bacon or salt pork, diced small
  • 1 medium onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and chopped
  • 1 medium bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
  • 1 cup long-grain rice, washed and drained
  • 2 cups Italian canned plum tomatoes, with their juice, chopped
  • 1 cup beef or chicken stock (homemade or store-bought), or water
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt, ground cayenne pepper and whole black pepper in a peppermill or Kitchen Pepper*
Put the bacon or salt pork in a Dutch oven and turn the heat to medium. Fry, uncovered, until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp. Spoon off all but 2 teaspoons of fat. Add the onion and bell pepper and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir until it’s well coated and warmed, about 3 or 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes with their juice, stock, Worcestershire sauce, salt, cayenne and a liberal grinding of pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and stir, scraping any loose grains that are sticking to the pan. Loosely cover, reduce the heat as low as possible and let simmer for 25 minutes. Remove it from the heat and allow to steam for 15 minutes before serving.

The Chef Recommends

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

Grain & Cane Bar and Table • Lobster Roll

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

Our famous lobster roll is back for the summer! Fresh, butter-poached lobster tossed in a citrusy light lemon mayonnaise served in a perfectly toasted top cut brioche bun and complimented with our house-made potato chips. Pairs extremely well with our ice-cold craft beer selections!

— Chef Louis Bayla


The Thirsty Turtle • Pork Tenderloin Special

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

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

— Chef Rich Crisonio



The Thirsty Turtle • Brownie Sundae

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

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

— Chef Dennis Peralta



The Famished Frog • Mango Guac

18 Washington Street • MORRISTOWN
(973) 540-9601 •

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

— Chef Ken Raymond



Arirang Hibachi Steakhouse • Pork Belly Bao Buns

1230 Route 22 West • MOUNTAINSIDE
(908) 518-9733 •

Tender pork belly, hoisin sauce and pickled cucumber served on a Chinese bun.




LongHorn Steakhouse • Outlaw Ribeye

272 Route 22 West • SPRINGFIELD
(973) 315-2049 •

Join us for our “speedy affordable lunches” or dinner. We suggest you try our fresh, never frozen, 20 oz. bone-in Outlaw Ribeye—featuring juicy marbling that is perfectly seasoned and fire-grilled by our expert Grill Masters. Make sure to also try our amazing chicken and seafood dishes, as well.

— Ed Durina, Managing Partner


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

1075 Morris Avenue • UNION
(908) 977-9699 •

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



Support Our Chefs!
The restaurants featured in this section are open for business and are serving customers in compliance with state regulations. Many have created special menus ideal for take-out, delivery or socially distant dining, so we encourage you to visit them online.
Do you have a story about a favorite restaurant going the extra mile?
Post it on our Facebook page and we’ll make sure to share it with our readers!

Feeling the Burn

Exercise your right to take a culinary stay-cation this summer.


Overseas travel may continue to be a challenge in the rush to get everyone vaccinated. However, you can still enjoy a taste of a country’s cultural identity through its national dish. Whether picking from a dine-in or takeout menu, or shopping in one of New Jersey’s now-ubiquitous international markets, feel perfectly free to cobble together your own culinary itinerary. We’ve picked out six of the spiciest signature dishes—three you can find easily, and three that may just turn out to be your gateway to adventure.


The “five elements” theory of Korean culture is embodied in kimchi, fermented cabbage that combines sweet, sour, salty, bitter and knock-your-socks-off spicy. It’s an ancient staple that has crossed over into American kitchens and restaurants in many creative forms—in main dishes, stews, side dishes and condiments—and its availability is no longer limited to Asian markets. In South Korea, kimchi is served with almost every meal, including breakfast.


Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) is Mexico’s curry, kind of—there are countless versions, with limitless complexity. Mole pablano is the most common served in the U.S. What they all have in common is bittersweet dark chocolate, which is flavored with chilies, garlic, onions and a dozen or more spices. The caffeine in the chocolate releases endorphins, while the capsicum in the peppers provides a shot of adrenaline. It’s a rush. Mole is often part of the most expensive dishes on Mexican restaurant menus for a reason. Expect spicy not sweet, if you order it and be aware that it often contains ground nuts.

Pad Thai

The signature dish of Thailand has rocketed to prominence over the last 25 years and now ranks among the most popular foods on the planet. And yet pad Thai is less than 100 years old, the result of a competition in Siam during the 1930s to create a national dish. It’s made with stir-fried rice noodles, fish sauce, roasted peanuts, tamarind, scrambled eggs and just about any combination of meat and vegetables. Simple as pad Thai sounds, in the U.S., every restaurant seems to have its own slightly different take—so if you like spicy, it’s always helpful to let your server know. The translation of pad, if you’re interested, is “fried” (most people think its “noodles”).

Ema Datshi

So on your next visit to your friendly neighborhood Bhutanese bistro, make sure to order Bhutan’s signature dish, an intriguing combination of tear-inducing chilies and soft cheese in a tomato-and-onion stew. Actually, there are quite a number of Bhutanese immigrants who have made their home in the U.S.—between 100,000 and 200,000, in fact—and many have settled in the northeast, from Pennsylvania up through Vermont and New Hampshire. Many are refugees who traveled through Nepal to get here, and are thus classified as Nepalese. Your best bet to locate this dish is in a Himalayan restaurant, of which there are more than a few in the tri-state area.


The Kingdom of Bahrain achieved independence in 1971, so if you don’t know exactly where it is, you may be giving away your age. For the record, Bahrain is an island nation in the Persian Gulf, connected to the Arabian Peninsula by a 25-mile bridge. Its national dish—often consumed with family members on Fridays—Machboos, is a spicy chicken meal strongly influenced by Persian and Indian cuisine. It is popular throughout the Middle East and is actually fairly easy to make at home. In addition to chilies, classic ingredients include ginger, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg. So yeah, it’s super-aromatic.


If you’re partial to Caribbean peppers, the national stew of Guyana is one you ought to try. Its signature ingredient is cassareep, a dark, syrupy extract from the cassava root that probably dates back to Guyana’s indigenous inhabitants, who used it as a preservative. The meat is whatever’s available, but typically beef, goat or oxtail. Roughly a quarter-million Guyanese-Americans live in the US, with most residing in New York’s outer boroughs (as well as northern New Jersey), so finding a good pepperpot isn’t as hard as you might think.

The Fermentation Factor

Cheese, wine and bread…this trio is life’s essence, a microcosm representative of its nourishment and joy.


I’m not a highly curated, picture-perfect human. I’m a quirky, line-drawing, scribbles person. Also, I would operate at lightning speed if I could. Thankfully, I’ve found an antidote to this haste: fermentation. When things aren’t moving fast enough for me, fermentation reminds me of the value of waiting. Feeding my sourdough starter every morning, brewing a new batch of kombucha weekly…at the risk of sounding like an unhinged hipster, these are the routines that ground me. The practice of fermentation is as old as civilization itself, but the splendor of it found me in my early thirties while exploring cheese, wine, and bread in England, Italy and France.

Fermentation is under our noses, but is only now entering most people’s awareness. It is the process by which a substance breaks down into a simpler substance, altering food with microbes rather than by cooking it with fire. If this produces the most essential, delicious foods on earth, what can the same process do for us, as humans? Our lives ferment; we all have awkward, smelly phases along with delicious, robust ones—mine certainly has.

Cheese, wine, and bread, I think you’ll agree, are three of life’s most delightful things. They can be found worldwide, each place informing them with its own unique history and stories that extend far beyond the delicious dance on the plate. These are three of my favorite recipes…

Stilton Scones with Cranberries

Scones are as English as Stilton. If you’re American, you probably pronounce it scoan, like “stone.” In England, it’s pronounced scon, like “con.” However you say it, scones are an essential part of the afternoon-tea tradition (and also wonderful any time of day, in my opinion). Cranberries and blue cheese are a winning combination, and especially Christmasy. Another of my favorite variations is to swap out the cranberries for 2 tablespoons of coarsely chopped hazelnuts; if you do opt for the hazelnuts, try the scones with a smear of red onion and port marmalade or another fruity jam to bring the sweet kick.

6 tablespoons (¾ stick/90 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing

2½ cups (300 grams) all-purpose flour

¼ cup (50 grams) sugar

4 teaspoons (15 grams) baking powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

2⁄3 cup (160 milliliters) whole milk

1 large egg

2 tablespoons (about 20 grams) dried cranberries

6 ounces (180 grams) Stilton blue cheese, broken into large chunks (about 1 1⁄3 cups)

  1. Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Grease a sheet pan with a little butter.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt until well combined and lump-free.
  3. Add the butter and use your fingertips to rub it into the dry ingredients until the butter is fully incorporated. The mixture should have the consistency of coarse cornmeal. Add the milk, egg, and cranberries and mix with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula until the dough comes together.Gently fold in the blue cheese chunks until just incorporated (you want those chunks to remain intact, not break down into smaller crumbs). The dough will be fairly wet.
  4. Using a tablespoon, take a heaping scoop of the dough (about 2 inches/5 centimeters in diameter, a bit smaller than a tennis ball but bigger than a golf ball) and place it on the prepared sheet pan. Repeat with the rest of the dough, spacing the scoops 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) apart. (The dough spreads as it bakes, so if your pan isn’t big enough to space out the scones, you’ll need to use two.)
  5. Bake for 5 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake for 5 minutes more. They’re done when they’re golden, with some browned bumps on the uneven surface. Bake for 2 to 6 minutes more, as needed.
  6. Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the scones to a wire rack. (Some of the melted cheese will have escaped and gotten crispy on your baking sheet—that’s the cook’s treat to nibble on!) Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Spaghetti all’Ubriaco (Drunken Pasta)

When Italians discovered the joy of using their favorite beverage (wine) to cook their favorite food (pasta), variations of this plum-colored pasta dish became a standard meal. Spaghetti all’ubriaco—“drunken spaghetti”—isn’t as inebriated as it sounds: the heat burns off the alcohol in the wine. In cooking the pasta with the wine, however, the noodles are imbued with a subtle sweetness and depth of flavor. A medium-bodied dry red wine works well here, but honestly, I’ve used a wide variety of leftover reds. (The origin of this dish is considered to be Tuscany, so if you want to stay regional, you could uncork a Chianti or some other wine made primarily with sangiovese grapes, one of the most important grapes in Italy and grown abundantly in Tuscany.) Ideally, it would be a delicious red wine you would happily drink—and sometimes I do pour myself a glass and cook with the rest—but I also think the adage “waste not, want not” is perfectly applied here: If you have an opened bottle that’s past its prime for drinking, this is the perfect use for it. I make this version with nuts, cheese, herbs, garlic, and red pepper flakes. I love garlic, so I use a lot. If you don’t love a garlicky pasta, use fewer cloves. Ditto with the red pepper flakes. These simple ingredients are all you need to put together an addicting, lip-smacking plate of pasta. I find these deep-plum strands of spaghetti completely irresistible, as sexy as a satin sheet.

Coarse sea salt

12 ounces (340 grams) dried spaghetti

¼ cup (60 milliliters) extra-virgin olive oil

4 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 cup (250 milliliters) red wine

½ cup (1.6 ounces/45 grams) freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving

¼ cup (45 grams) finely chopped nuts (I like pine nuts, walnuts, or almonds)

1⁄8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Sprigs of parsley, for garnish

  1. Fill a large pot three-quarters full of water and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous amount of coarse salt (the adage “It should taste like the sea” is a good gauge of how much). Cook the spaghetti for 2 minutes less than the instructions on the package for al dente. (You don’t want it to be completely cooked because it will continue cooking in the red wine later.)
  2. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large, high-sided pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 1 minute, or until the garlic becomes fragrant. Pour the wine into the pan with the garlic and stir. Remove from the heat while the pasta finishes cooking.
  3. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup (about 250 milliliters) of the pasta water.
  4. Add the pasta to the pan with the wine and garlic over medium heat and stir. Cook, occasionally stirring gently, for 2 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente and has absorbed most of the wine, taking on a plum hue.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat and mix in the cheese and nuts. Stir in a tablespoon (or more) of the reserved pasta water; its starchiness mixes with the fat in the cheese to create a silky coating on the noodles. Finish with the nutmeg, season with salt and pepper, and stir to incorporate well. Taste and adjust the seasoning if you think the dish is asking for it.
  6. Serve garnished with parsley and topped with more cheese, and enjoy slurping down the drunken noodles.

Susie Q’s Sour Cream Challah

When I started writing Cheese, Wine and Bread, I asked my mom where she initially got her challah recipe, and learned that “mom’s loaf ” has evolved over time. This current iteration, which she’s made consistently for over a decade, was adapted from a dinner roll recipe from a 1990s issue of Cooking Light.

2 (¼-ounce/7-gram) packets active dry yeast (4½ teaspoons)

½ cup (125 milliliters) warm water (around 110°F/43°C)

½ cup (1 stick/115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup (105 grams) sugar

1 cup (240 grams) sour cream

2 large eggs, whisked

5 cups (600 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 egg white, beaten, for the egg wash

Poppy seeds, for garnish (optional)

  1. Combine the yeast and warm water in a large bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes.
  2. Cream the softened butter and sugar in a medium bowl using a whisk until smooth. Gradually stir in the sour cream until combined. Set aside.
  3. Add the eggs to the yeast mixture and mix well. Add the sour cream mixture and stir until smooth. Add 1 cup (120 grams) of the flour and the salt. Gradually mix in the remaining 4 cups (480 grams) flour until you have a shaggy dough.
  4. Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Tip the shaggy dough out onto the surface and sprinkle with a couple more pinches of flour.

Knead the dough with the palm of your hand (avoid poking it with your fingertips), adding flour as needed to prevent it from sticking to the work surface and your hands, until the dough is smooth, not sticky, and gently springs back when pressed with a fingertip (also called the “poke test”), about 5 minutes. (Another way to check that the dough has been kneaded long enough is by performing the “windowpane test”: Cut off a chunk of the dough—around 50 grams—and stretch it gently between your fingers into a thin sheet. If it breaks too easily, it needs more kneading, but if you can stretch the dough thin enough to see your fingers through it when it’s held up to the light, it’s good to go.)

  1. Pour the canola oil into a large bowl, then place the dough in the bowl and rotate to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with a clean dish towel and place in a warm (75 to 80°F /24 to 27°C), draft-free area for about 90 minutes, until the dough has doubled in volume.
  2. Remove the dish towel and punch down the dough. Turn the dough out onto your work surface and divide it into two equal portions. Cut each portion into thirds so you have 6 portions. Roll each of these portions into a rope on a clean workspace (or just in the air, rolling the dough between your palms) about 15 inches (38 centimeters) long. Working with three ropes at a time, braid the ropes, pinching the ends to make sure they don’t unravel during the second rise, to form two loaves.
  3. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Place each shaped braid on its own pan. Cover each with a clean dish towel and let rise in a warm, draft-free area for 30 to 45 minutes, until they bulk up in size a bit (but are not doubled).
  4. Near the end of this proof, arrange two racks in the oven—one on the bottom notch and the other second from the top—and preheat the oven to 375° F (190°C).
  5. Prepare an egg wash by whisking the egg white and 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl until frothy. Uncover the dough and use a pastry brush to brush the loaves with the egg wash. Sprinkle with the poppy seeds, if using.
  6. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the loaves are a dark golden brown and sound hollow when you knock on the underside. Make sure to switch the sheet pans’ position on the oven racks and to rotate the loaves 180° degrees halfway through to ensure even baking.
  7. Transfer the loaves from the sheet pans to wire racks and let cool thoroughly. Then enjoy!

The draw of these foods is that they take time to be transformed almost magically by the microbes within, which is a comforting prospect, and a necessary antidote to our live-tweeting culture. For instance, when you post a photo on Instagram or Facebook, do you automatically refresh the page as the likes pop up? Imagine if you had to wait two weeks, or two months, before you could see the responses, but when you received them, those responses, although not instantaneous, were somehow able to endure, like a lingering hug or a letter that’s traversed an ocean to land in your mailbox. Rather than the quick high of a digital fist bump, you receive a warm embrace. To me, that’s akin to the satisfaction fermentation offers.

If fermentation is the preservation of food, those same principles of change and transformation must apply to us. We bring a bit of our past selves with us, and a hope for the future. When a new obstacle, opportunity, or question arises—as one always does—all we need to do is take a deep breath and let things ferment. Don’t overthink it. Just let it ferment.


Editor’s Note:

Katie Quinn’s new book Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France ($29.99) was published in April by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. In it, Quinn shares the stories and science behind cheese, wine, and bread, along with dozens of classic recipes. Part artisanal survey, part travelogue and part cookbook, it features more than 100 pieces of art, including watercolor illustrations and color photographs.

The Black Horse Tavern

“The entrées are unquestionably the stars at the Black Horse.”

By Michelle Ali and Nicholas Brooks

The Black Horse Tavern & Pub

1 West Main Street • Mendham NJ • 07945
973.543.7300 •

The tavern is open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The restaurant features an extensive wine list, a popular prix fixe menu on Tuesdays from 5:00 to 7:00, and two rooms for private parties that can accommodate up to 125 people.

Mention the idea of “Old School Dining” to a New Jersey foodie and you may not elicit the intended response. Visions of grease-encrusted diners, timeworn seafood joints and, let’s face it, (the really old-school) Medieval Times are likely to come to mind. This story is about something a little loftier—and a lot older—the Black Horse Tavern in Mendham. Originally a stagecoach stop, the Black Horse has been serving New Jerseyans since the 1740s, making it by most measures the state’s oldest restaurant.

Which is not to say there is anything “old” about the menu. On the contrary, since the arrival of its young executive chef and general manager, Kevin Felice, the Black Horse has struck a balance that appeals equally to its well-heeled local clientele and those with more intrepid and adventurous tastes. The focus of the approachable, understandable menu is farm-to-table sustainability; the high-quality meat, poultry and fish are surrounded by fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Indeed, Felice makes great use of the 10 farms within five minutes of his kitchen. That kitchen features a slow-cook rotisserie which he has put to use in a number of imaginative ways (including producing its own bacon). It should be noted that the Black Horse Tavern is famous for its roast beef, mac & cheese and other homey menu items. We worked our way through the appetizers and entrées with an eye toward the freshest, healthiest options, the most intriguing combination of ingredients, and eye-catching preparations.

For starters, the standouts included an Arugula Ricotta Salad and Crispy Crab Cake. The salad earned high marks for taste, nutritional value and a clean, modern presentation. The arugula really popped, sugar-snap peas added a touch of crisp sweetness, and the salad itself was well-seasoned. If you are watching your calories, ask for the dressing on the side; we would have stopped the pour a bit sooner. Ask the server to make sure there is plenty of ricotta. It was delicious. The crab cake was the best-executed appetizer on the menu. It was not overly salty, and the accompanying fennel and dill salad was a great addition to the dish, which balanced many flavors. A good portion of lump crab and very little filler let the seafood do the talking.

Photo by Brett Wilshe

The entrées are unquestionably the stars at the Black Horse. The Smoked Bone-In Pork Chop had a wonderful level of smoke without being the least bit dry. The cut and presentation was smart and whimsical, and the mustard and cherry chutney went very well with the dish. It was nice to find a large pork chop that was well-seasoned and smoked, and the chef did a superb job of ensuring that each bite was moist and juicy.

The Farm-Raised Seared Salmon was presented beautifully. Everyone has their own preference regarding the doneness of fish; we would have liked our salmon taken off the heat a minute sooner. We thought the accompanying herbed quinoa was extraordinary—nutty and perfectly cooked, with a lovely hint of basil oil. The Myers Organic Filet may be the best quality steak you’ve ever had. Seasoned with coarse salt to coax out and heighten every molecule of flavor, it literally melts in the mouth. Order this anything above medium rare and you should be led away in handcuffs.

Having been tipped off in advance that everything on the dessert menu is made on premises, we saved room for the Key Lime Pie, Blackout Devil’s Food Cake and Blueberry Lavender Ice Cream. The custard had tremendous texture and flavor, with a burst of lime in every bite—you can tell fresh lime juice was used. The crust had a rich, buttery flavor but there was disagreement at the table on whether it should have had more crunch.

Photo by Brett Wilshe

We also disagreed on which dessert was our favorite. All were superb. The chocolate cake was not overly sweet and very moist. It was decadent enough to live up to its name. The ice cream was smooth, rich and full of blueberry flavor, with the little tweak of lavender with each spoonful. We guessed there was a hint of clove in the recipe, which the chef later confirmed. If you are looking for a guilt-free finishing touch to a meal at the Black Horse Tavern, the antioxidant properties of this dessert make it the hands-down best choice. In fact, go ahead and order a second scoop!

Michelle Ali

Nicholas Brooks








Editor’s Note: We asked EDGE’s regular food reviewer, Andy Clurfeld, to work on an Old School-themed wine and spirits story for this issue. Into the breach stepped Michelle Ali and Nicholas Brooks. Michelle is the Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Trinitas. Nicholas is TRMC’s Executive Chef. Together, they have re-invented the concept we used to call “hospital food.” Michelle, it should be noted, does not eat meat, so Nicholas handled that part of the menu.

In the Course of Love

New Jersey boasts a surprising number of romantic restaurants. These rank among the very best. 

Any dinner accompanied by the voice of jazz vocalist Steve Tyrell is romantic to me. How simple is that? I don’t need chandeliers, banquettes fitted with tapestries and puffed with pillows, views of water or mountains. I don’t particularly want service by a crew that bows, china and silver with pedigrees, or trend-of-the-second food. I’d likely spend the evening making snide comments if a wine list was all about trophy bottles, if an entrée required a scalpel and tweezers to assemble, and if the person I was with could not refrain from snapping photos of every course.

Frenchtown Inn

Okay, so perhaps I do have my preferences. We all do. After almost 25 years of reviewing restaurants in New Jersey, I could list in a nanosecond the restaurants I’d avoid if asked for my personal choices for a romantic dinner. I don’t like pomp, I don’t like pretense and I really, really don’t like anything that smacks of imitation. Sincerity is the surest shot to lassoing my heart. I love restaurants helmed by chefs who cook with passion and skill, who offer a strong voice in food. Kind of the way Steve Tyrell plays the piano and sings.

If you do a little research, ask a few questions, I suspect you’ll find that the person to whom you want to give an evening of romance has preferences of his or her own. Maybe even a private list of restaurants that sing “Isn’t It Romantic?” So ask. Just ask.

But if your partner in romantic dining isn’t much of a planner, a researcher or doesn’t have an inquisitive mind, I’d like to pass on a handful of restaurant recommendations to keep in mind should the object of your affections ask where you’d like to spend a romantic evening. These are classics, to be sure. Restaurants, in most cases, that have served the Garden State for years. They are reflective of place, have stood fast to their missions in the face of changing times, even changes of chefs. Some make bold culinary statements, some have stolen my heart in subtle ways.

Whether they strike a chord with you, or simply start you thinking about your own preferences, I hope you snag an evening (or three) this season devoted to a romantic dinner….

  • On the Delaware River is the Frenchtown Inn, where the food and the setting duke it out for top honors. Let’s call it a perennial draw. Nothing there has ever been over the top, chi-chi or trendy. Today, with chef-owner Andrew Tomko in the kitchen, the last stop in Frenchtown before crossing the bridge to Pennsylvania is one of my first recommendations when folks inquire about a special restaurant for a special night out. Drive around the western Hunterdon County countryside, stop at some antiques shops, art galleries and studios, then end up at this inn. Confession? A few decades ago, I lived across the street, in the old Gem Theater building. (Yes, I remember when the serene Frenchtown Inn was a rowdy townie bar called the Warford House.) So the Frenchtown Inn is a sentimental favorite. Romance often comes with a dash of sentimentality.


  • I remember so many top-drawer dinners at The Bernards Inn, in Bernardsville. I remember sitting out on the porch, talking with the wine importer Bobby Kacher about his excursions around the south of France; a tete-a-tete with a soul mate as we talked politics in scary times and scary places; a spirited dinner with a food-centric pal who’d taken the train from New York City because he wanted an evening in the kind of place they just don’t grow where he lives. The Bernards Inn long has been a commanding presence in New Jersey dining, but never more than since chef Corey W. Heyer took charge of the kitchen. His technical precision serves his creativity well, and the elegant setting is about old-school understatement, not flamboyance.


  • Well, there is a certain flamboyance about Rat’s, the upscale restaurant set amid the world-class Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. Art, art is everywhere, in the various dining spaces that are all about bounty, in the rooms that welcome, in the restrooms that don’t give the senses a break. That’s all deliberate, the brainchild of Seward Johnson, who, the year it opened, gave me a personal tour of Rat’s and the atelier he installed in the compound when I was on assignment for Town & Country magazine. Johnson was forward-thinking, connecting Rat’s (named after a loyal and hospitable character in the book The Wind in the Willows) to a farm at its birth, urging diners to tour the sculpture grounds before or after their meal, determined to make dinner an all-inclusive creative experience. The mission and the restaurant, reinforced today by the wide-ranging talents of chef Shane Cash in the kitch and the management of Philadelphia-based restaurateur Stephan Starr, never fail to warm my heart.


Small, intimate, reminiscent of a locally loved French bistro, A Toute Heure in Cranford is my idea of a restaurant expertly and exquisitely conceived and realized. Many have tried similar concepts, but few have hit the mark as well as the ownership team of Andrea and Jim Carbine and executive chef Kara Decker, the prime forces behind the sweet little spot that has earned its statewide reputation for purely delicious food. Sure, A Toute Heure can be seen as a tad cramped. (I see it as comfortably cozy.) There’s no liquor license, so it’s BYOB.(That’s happiness for a wine geek like me, who always has bottles at the ready for the seasonally satisfying plates this conscientious kitchen serves forth.) Spontaneous dining simply can’t be expected on weekends—or, I so often hear—even on weeknights since the place books out. (I like looking forward to a special night out, so reserving a month ahead is fine for me.) This bistro is beloved.


The first time I ate at Makeda, the Ethiopian restaurant in New Brunswick, was back in its early days, when it was located in a smaller space and the dining was joyfully cheek-to-jowl. It’s long settled in its larger digs in the college town and its imprint on the community is profound: A dear pal who teaches at Rutgers tells me that it’s not only where she takes all out-of-town guests and celebrates birthdays and anniversaries, but the cuisine has influenced her home-cooking. “Makeda transports me every time I eat here,” this professor says. “It’s a vacation in a couple of hours.” I agree, and that’s why this downtown destination owned by Peter Meme and Stuart Smith, with peerless chef Aster Kassa, is always on my go-to list. Sometimes romance is less about where you are, physically, and more about where a restaurant’s food and attitude can take you, spiritually. When at Makeda, I get away in the best possible way.

All this said, I can take a walk on the beach at Barneget Light, swipe the sand off my arms and legs, then canter over to Mustache Bill’s Diner for a plate of chef/owner Bill Smith’s fried flounder (extra tartar sauce, please) and feel like hugging the world. Pop Steve Tyrell in the CD player on the ride home, and the recipe for romance is complete.

Reservations Recommended…

Frenchtown Inn

7 Bridge St., Frenchtown • 908.996.3300


The Bernards Inn

27 Mine Brook Road, Bernardsville • 908.766.0002


16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton • 609.584.7800

A Toute Heure

232 Centennial Ave., Cranford • 908.276.6600


338 George St., New Brunswick • 732.545.5115

Hamilton’s Grill Room

“We cut into the half-bird, dipped the meat and crispy skin into the sunset-color butter, and wondered why we weren’t doing this at home.”

by Andrea Clurfeld

Hamilton’s Grill Room

8 Coryell St., Lambertville • 609.397.4343

Hours: Open for lunch Thursday through Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; reserva-tions not necessary. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m.; reservations recommended. BYOB, though should you forget to bring along wine, it can be purchased at The Boat-house just across the courtyard in The Porkyard complex.

Prices: Appetizers: $9 to $17. Soups and salads: $3.50 to $14.50. Entrees: $22 to $39. Sides: $6.50. All major credit cards accepted.

It’s the late 1970s, and Jim Hamilton is zipping around an alleyway off Coryell Street in Lambertville. He’s in the process of converting a semi-crumbling former sausage factory back here into… well, I’ll recreate the gist of it much as he spoke:

“An antiques shop, galleries, maybe an art studio,” Hamilton says with a sweep of his arm. “A cluster of spaces.” He speaks of the need for creative souls to have room to work by the canal and the river (that’d be the Delaware), as well as a supportive community. “A restaurant, we’ll put the restaurant back here. There has to be a restaurant, a place for people to come together. Simple food, fresh food.”

At this point, Hamilton stops moving and looks at the novice reporter (me) whose scribbling cannot keep pace with his free-flowing storm of ideas. We’ll freeze this frame, a la Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life on the face of Jim Hamilton, award-winning Broadway set designer. His eyes bright and focused, his mouth offering a half-moon smile, his body now in a half-lean against some half-beam, he is convinced that Lambertville—his old hometown, the place he has come back to for its good bones and endless potential—is going to someday be one of the most desirable destinations in all of New Jersey; visually arresting, creatively energetic, spiritually satisfying. He convinces 20-something me.

I move there.

Every time I return, I start at The Porkyard, the name Hamilton gave to the old sausage factory that did, indeed, become exactly what he dreamed, and then some. The Porkyard jump-started Lambertville’s renaissance as the city (it’s New Jersey’s smallest) with the most to look at per square inch. Around every corner is a design gem, be it a detail or a top-to-toe restoration.

Today, The Porkyard, a must-stop in the diverse, design-centric downtown commercial district, is flourishing. There are antiques, art and a tiny and inviting two-story Mecca for drinks called The Boathouse, all of which are anchored by Hamilton’s Grill Room, the restaurant Jim opened more than 20 years ago. With his daughter Melissa then at the open-kitchen grill, it set the pace for a new style of restaurant dining: food and setting that are all about elegant simplicity and casual sophistication.

Chef Mark Miller fell into step with the distinctive Hamilton style several years ago when he took charge of the kitchen. The seamless transition means the romantic rusticity of the dining rooms can be appreciated without reservation. There’s the high-ceilinged, banqueted Gallery Room, along the canal; the twinkling-lights Garden Room; the private-for-a-party, mural-filled, post-and-beamed Delaware Room, warmed in winter by a Franklin fireplace; the airy and open Grill Room; and the intimate Bishops Room, with a framed mirror on the ceiling and angels painted on bead-board walls. In milder months, outdoor seating along the canal is the prime place to perch at Hamilton’s Grill Room, sipping wines you tote along and reveling in Jim Hamilton’s dreams come true…and food true to Hamilton’s roots as a home cook who believes in the integrity of basic Mediterranean food and using ingredients locally sourced.

You’d be wise to start with an appetizer called “Jim’s Cannelloni,” for this thin sheet of pasta cosseting moist ground pork, a film of tomato and something that’s akin to a breeze of mild, melting cheese is all about casual done right in the kitchen. It’s the gentlest of segues from the slam-bam world of in-your-face flavors to what Hamilton’s cooking is about.

But don’t assume anyone here is afraid of feisty flavors. Take the grilled shrimp, super-sized and moist as served in their shells, which are plied with potent anchovy butter. Long a signature dish, they show how vigorous ingredients such as anchovies can work in accenting roles when properly applied. Speaking of proper, few can do a textbook-correct, pastry-crusted country pate, a sturdy, subtle mélange of meats plated generously with cornichons and spicy mustard. It’s a salute to the kitchen’s core sensibilities.

A toss of romaine hearts, slices of avocado and chunks of ruby grapefruit are a salute to off-season salads. An extra-cost add-on of jumbo-lump bluefin crab is a luxe touch.

To experience Hamilton’s at its best, snag entrees from the grill. A whole bronzino is a thing of beauty here—seared-skin fish you can fillet yourself, or have the kitchen whisk away the bones. If full-service is your wish, just ask to see the whole fish first so you can appreciate its beauty. On the night of our visit, the firm-fleshed fish was very Med in style, served with a compote of olive tapenade that provided just the right punch of salinity to the mild finfish.

Grilled cowboy steak, cooked a little past the requested medium-rare, also was given an equally appropriate schmear to add interest: Creamy blue cheese, piquant and portioned just right, is a classic for the best beef, for sure, but seems to strike some chefs as just not enough. Too bad.

It will be too bad for you if you miss the downright terrific rotisserie chicken here, especially if when you visit it’s given a wash of tomato butter. We cut into the half-bird, dipped the meat and crispy skin into the sunset-color butter, and wondered why we weren’t doing this at home. Again, another oh-so-right moment at Hamilton’s Grill Room.

Then, there are those details, which must be in the Hamilton genes. Each entrée came with roasted cauliflower dusted with sharp, nutty grated Parmigano-Reggiano. We could not get enough of the stuff. We also wished we’d double-ordered the separate sides, particularly the creamy, charred leeks braised with a marinara that resonated San Marzano tomatoes, and the just-for-fun skinny pommes frites.

I remember much about previous suppers here at Hamilton’s Grill Room (sturgeon, mighty sturgeon; my first encounter with the vivacious shrimp-in-anchovy butter; a primo pork chop, flush with warm chutney; a cassoulet, plumped with duck confit), but I don’t recall too many sweets that have left the kind of impression as the savory dishes. On this night we love the perfect-pitch pecan pie, for its crust is light and flaky and it’s happily not too sweet.

I’m having the sweetest memories as we amble out of Hamilton’s Grill Room, knowing the restaurant’s defining chef Melissa Hamilton (she worked as food editor at Saveur, Cook’s Illustrated and Martha Stewart Living magazines) is nearby in Lambertville, now shepherding Canal House Books with her equally talented and food savvy co-conspirator, the writer-photographer Christopher Hirsheimer. I’m remembering going to a minuscule East Village restaurant called Prune shortly after it opened a decade or so ago, loving its food and meeting its chef-owner, who turned out to be Gabrielle Hamilton, also Jim’s daughter. (Gabrielle has won a James Beard Best Chef Award and written the also-award-winning memoir Blood, Bones & Butter.)

Mostly I’m remembering trying to keep up with Jim Hamilton (who, now well into his 80s, still lives in this countrified city) as he told me on that day 35 years ago of all that Lambertville could be. He was right, he tends to be, and it’s fine with me to continue to gasp at the heels of a man who understands the art of living beautifully.

Editor’s Note: Andy Clurfeld is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey. The longtime food critic for the Asbury Park Press also has been published in Gourmet, Saveur and Town & Country, and on Her post-Sandy stories for rank among the finest media reporting on the superstorm’s aftermath and recovery.

Cooking…By Design

Canal House Cooking is the series of cookery books that brings home the “Essential Hamilton Eating and Cooking Experience.” They’re the brainchild of two like-minded women, Melissa Hamilton, former chef at Hamilton’s Grill Room, and her cooking partner Christopher Hirsheimer.

“Every day we cook,” they write. “‘Canal House Cooking’ is home cooking by home cooks for home cooks.”

The books, published periodically in decidedly un-coffee-table size, are available at Hamilton’s Grill Room. They’re designed by “a group of artists who collaborate on design projects.” The photography is ethereally elegant, yet the food in the photos looks down-home real.

Volume No. 6, for example, is subtitled “The Grocery Store,” and its recipes are inspired by grocery stores grand and esoteric, and also ubiquitous suburban supermarkets that can be at once meh and marvelous. Mostly, though, it’s about cooking from common ingredients, lots of pantry staples, with seasonal stuff as the kick-starter, and includes cocktail bites such as “Cheddar with Mango Chutney,” as well as “Any Night Linguine with Clam Sauce” and “Winter Summer Pudding.”

The cooks’ decision to rent a house for a spell in Tuscany and shop and cook there gave shape to Volume No. 7, “La Dolce Vita.” Living amid Italians, cooking like Italians prompted the women to divine “Meatballs with Mint & Parsley,” “Stuffed Onions Piedmontese” and “Christmas Soup,” with chicken and escarole.

Dinner, anyone?


“A feisty, rather luxurious eggplant curry, ennai kathrikai, may have been my favorite dish of the night.”


1671 Oak Tree Road, Edison. Phone: 732.516.0020

Open Monday through Friday for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Dinner: Monday, Wednesday through Saturday from 5:30 to

10 p.m., Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. and Tuesday dinner buffet from 6:30 to 10 p.m. Major credit cards accepted. Call to inquire about reservations.

Karaikudi isn’t your average restaurant groupie’s trend-of-the-minute, Instagram-ready hot spot. It’s posh in a traditional way, neither deliberately un-decorated nor all-out artfully attired in a manner that attracts the “Well, I-was-there-last night” crowd.

No, Karaikudi, located in a large parking lot behind one of many shopping centers on Oak Tree Road in Edison, is a rare-for-America Chettinad restaurant, specializing in the little-known cuisine of a region in the state of Tamil Nadu, in Southern India, where typically vegetarian food reigns and spices star.

Yet Chettiars, the people of Chettinad, are not vegetarians. They do not eat beef or pork for religious reasons, but they are huge fans of fish, chicken, lamb and goat. They celebrate spice arguably with more passion than any people in the Spice Belt of South India, and serve their spices, including a variety of chilies, not in fiery doses but by skillfully integrating them into their dishes.

Karaikudi, where members of the New Jersey Indian community and the devoutly food-centric congregate, is a favorite of James Beard Award- winning chef Floyd Cardoz, whose landmark restaurant Tabla brought high-style Indian fare to New York City. It’s where learning something new in food is a delight.

Two of my favorite dining companions, Lily Mullen, 15, and May Mullen, 13, made the trip from Ocean County to experience foods completely foreign to them at Karaikudi. They’re not exactly novices in the kitchen, serving as extremely able sous chefs during my own recipe-testing projects and helping their parents, Eileen and Shannon Mullen, with nightly dinners. They also win 4-H awards for the produce they raise in their extensive backyard garden and for the chickens they’ve nurtured for years. As they efficiently combed Karaikudi’s menu, asking questions both pertinent and probing, I thought to myself, “These two could teach a CIA grad a thing or five.”

We quickly dug in. I could’ve eaten five portions of a signature Chettinad dish, Gobi 65, aka chili-infused cauliflower. Lily coated her tongue and tummy with a silky, creamy mango lassi, which she describes as a lovable “milkshake-like drink,” before, during and after the Gobi 65. It was, she said, “covered in the crispy coating of orange spices that looked like nothing I’ve ever eaten before.”

“They both were deliciously different,” Lily said of the lassi and cauliflower. “I soon realized that Indian cooking has very spicy flavors or mild, simpler ones.”

In other words, Lily caught on to the very essence of Indian fare: balance. If you drink a yogurt-based fruit lassi as a counterpoint to a chile-powered dish such as Gobi 65, you’ll catch flavor not fire.

May took a liking to a playfully presented starter called chicken “lollypops.” Dusted in masala, it was a textbook example of how a classic spice mixture can energize a basic such as chicken.

“The chicken lollypops were my favorite dish,” May said.

“The color, the taste, the spiciness and flavor just really hit the spot.”

Mysore bonda, a warming lentil stew enriched with chilies and served alongside coconut dumplings, is something I’d curl up to gladly on a rainy night. May, not a fan of coconut, thought the dumplings a tad bland. But she’d happily reprise the chicken biryani, which was a far more spice-roused rendition than the stuff too often doled out at restaurants without Karaikudi’s finesse.

“The chicken biryani was intriguing!” she exclaimed. “It’s unlike anything I have ever tasted. It wasn’t too spicy or too bland.”  Lily summed it up by saying, “The chicken rice with the egg dish looked like what I imagined Indian food to look like.”

I always imagine a banquet of India’s unfailingly gregarious vegetables as a perfect meal, and I’d want Karaikudi’s paneer 65, spiced and fried cheese, on any groaning board. With black pepper and ground chilies as key components, neither one overpowering the other, this is Indian cheese taken to a new level.

A feisty, rather luxurious eggplant curry, ennai kathrikai, may have been my favorite dish of the night: Eggplant stewed with onions, tomatoes and chilies in a tamarind-based sauce proved tart, tangy and inviting as a side show to both the bone-in mutton kurma, a casserole of goat in a silky cashew gravy, and butter chicken, another saucy-yet-sassy stew of chicken with a creamy tomato-infused base.

“Out of the five gravy dishes we tried, the fish one was my favorite,” Lily said. For her, the Chettinad fish curry, with kingfish simmered in a multifaceted masala, bested the chicken, mutton, eggplant and pea-cheese sauce-rich dishes.

Fish curries are a specialty of Chettinad cuisine, so Lily’s spot on in her assessment. Karaikudi’s shows off its spice know-how, fusing seasonings warming and soothing in a way that lends depth to the finfish. I could’ve eaten that dish all night.

I have to admit that I was most excited to watch Lily and May have a proper experience with both a dosa and an uthapam – specifically a paper masala dosa and an onion uthapam. The paper dosa, a large, lacy and extremely light crepe made with rice flour and, in this case, stuffed with potatoes and onions licked by masala, prompted Lily to say it had “the texture of a French fry.”  May enjoyed the dosa, but thought the filling “a little too spicy.”  The onion-flecked uthapam, often dubbed an Indian “pizza,” is made with a rice flour-lentil base and is thicker than a pancake. Lily enjoyed it straight, no chasers — without “dips,” as she cleverly termed the chutneys, sambhar and raita that accompanied our food.

Pineapple kesari, anyone? That’d be a pineapple semolina pudding that’s a kind of second cousin to a fruited bread pudding. Gulab jamun? Snap up these milk dumplings soaked in rose-flavored sugar syrup at Karaikudi. Both desserts are sweet, yes, but not cloying, particularly the gulab jamon, which Lily referred to as “pancake balls.” They “seemed daunting at first, yet they tasted like a pancake soaked in syrup.”

The only dish we all didn’t take to was billed as chakara pongal and described as a “beet halwa.” It wasn’t like the chakara pongal I’d had before, a very sweet crumble-esque dish starring nuts, dried fruits, basmati rice, milk and lots of jaggery (palm sugar). This shredding of beets was sweet without counterpoint, which set it apart from Karaikudi’s norm.

And Karaikudi’s norm is food so transporting, a dinner here is as good as a stamped passport.

Editor’s Note: The ritual of the International Night dinners that became the cookery book of the same name by Mark Kurlansky and his daughter Talia omits India only by fate. In all the spins of the globe that directed the Kurlansky family to their cooking destination, somehow Talia’s finger didn’t land on the sizable country of India. So we filled in the gap for the many, many devotees of Indian cuisine in Edge-land.



In The Night Kitchen

A father-daughter duo embarks on culinary flights of fancy

In March 2009, when Talia Kurlansky was 9, her father Mark spun a big globe with an airplane as its base that sat on a desk in their Manhattan apartment…and let his daughter’s finger fall where it may. That fateful fall of the finger dictated what was to become a family ritual: a dinner menu culled from the cuisine of a foreign land. Fifty-two menus later, the fruits of the family’s ritual have become a joint father-daughter book, International Night (Bloomsbury; $29), a globetrotting adventure in food, history and culture.

Mark Kurlansky is one of the most respected and decorated writers in America, author of The New York Times best-sellers that include Cod, Salt, The Big Oyster, The Basque History of the World and 1968—as well as a host of adult fiction and children’s books. Talia, now 14 and a freshman at The Calhoun School in New York, may not (yet) have her father’s catalog of books, but in her debut with International Night, she explains in a voice both sure and entertaining how to separate an egg, why spaghetti Bolognese is her favorite dish, who grills the best sardines and

Courtesy of Mark Kurlansky

what steps are necessary to achieve a perfect pizza made from homemade dough tossed, softly and gently, in the air (“Try not to let the dough land on the dog, or in a potted plant. But the dog usually loves it”).

International Night is a book that schools would be wise to include in their curriculum, and parents in their home library. The Kurlanskys’ experiences—both in the cooking (“I tried dishes we don’t normally make in our house,” says Talia; “Some recipes in this book are ones I’ve made for years, but have refused to share until now,” adds Mark) and the off-the-beaten path traveling—are primers in how to learn.

“I’d been to 41 of the places in the menus,” Mark says of the bills of fare that range from Andalusia, Algeria, Aquitaine and Argentina to Quebec, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Turkey. “That left 11 where I’d never been.”

All international dinner nights involved homework. Mark and Talia researched culture, customs and cuisines, and made sure music was part of the evening’s festivities. Talia added another component: costumes.

“I’d learn what traditional dress and what the outfits were like, and I’d use things from our home to come up with a costume I’d wear for International Night,” she says.

“Kids contribute a lot of ideas through the questions they ask,” Mark notes.

“I got a great sense of the timeline of history and a realistic sense of place,” Talia adds. Her mother Marian took hints of history and culture to guess which country her family was traveling to via the edible route.

Sometimes, when Talia’s finger landed on a destination, the end result was a trip. As Mark writes in their book, “When I learned that for the first time in history there was a cooking school in Morocco, I decided that Talia and I had to go.” They studied with dadas, women trained by their mothers in the crafts, secrets and recipes of Moroccan cookery. They cooked with their dadas several hours a day, taking in the sights and curiosities of this North African country in their non-kitchen time.

“While on this trip, I went up a level in my cooking,” Talia writes. When it came time to write a menu, “we realized that we had too many dishes [for just one dinner], so we had two Morocco Nights.”

Morocco may have served forth a bounty for the Kurlanskys, but every aspect of the project brought insight and new skills to the father-daughter team. Talia talks of using the back side of a ladle to spread crepe batter around a pan: “Move the ladle in a circular motion and that spreads the batter evenly.”

Mark, whose expansive knowledge of all things culinary has brought him honors from the James Beard Foundation, Bon Appetit magazine, the National Council of Teachers of English and National Parenting Publications, still marvels at the “universality of salt,” and points out that “peppers are different everywhere (because), like wine, they taste differently everywhere they are grown,” and offers tips on spices such as cardamom: “It gives dishes a magical perfume, but get the green, not the white.”

Courtesy of Mark Kurlansky

International Night also offers the recipe for Mark’s prize dessert, “Rigo Jancsi” from Hungary, which he spent weeks perfecting during a stint in the 1970s as a chef at a restaurant in Greenwich Village. The cake was easy, the chocolate topping not all that hard to learn, but “I worked on the filling for weeks, trying, throwing it out, trying again.”

Finally, Mark got it.

As Talia says, “A lot of people making dessert don’t understand the chemistry. They don’t use a recipe.”

But with most of the savory recipes in International Night, the Kurlanskys agree the instructions should be “suggestions.” Home cooks should let inspiration flow.

Researching for the book, and cooking for the book, left Talia with an even stronger desire to travel. “I love being places where I don’t speak the language,” she says. “I want to travel everywhere.”

Mark, who currently is writing a book about the impact of paper on civilization and whose Twitter handle is @codlansky, wishes Talia’s finger had landed on Scotland, since he spent time there fly-fishing and had many tales to tell—and India, a huge country he’s yet to explore.

What? Never been to the land virtually ruled by his beloved spices?

“No,” Mark says, his voice expressing regret. “I’ve never been to India. We need to correct that.”

International Night…the sequel.

RECIPE FILE: HARIRA* (a soup for Moroccan Night)

  • one-half pound lamb, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 medium white onions, finely minced
  • one-half pound dried lentils
  • one-half cup canned chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
  • 1 celery rib, finely minced
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • Large pinch salt
  • one-half teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 teaspoon clarified butter
  • 9 cups water
  • 3 medium tomatoes
  • 1 slice fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 4 turns of peppermill containing black peppercorns one-quarter cup rice, cooked
  • 3 tablespoons flour

Place the lamb, onions, lentils, chickpeas, celery, 3 table-spoons olive oil, salt, turmeric and clarified butter in a pot. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.

Add the water. Cook over medium heat for one hour.

Meanwhile, take the tomatoes, blacken the skin over a burner, and rub it off. Quarter the tomatoes and remove the seed and gel. Save yourself a lot of chopping by pureeing the tomatoes in a food processor with the ginger root.

Mix in a bowl with the tomato paste, remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and the black pepper. Add this mixture to the soup pot. Stir well and cook another 20 minutes. Add the rice. Cook 10 minutes more.

Take some liquid from the soup and mix it in a bowl with the flour until it is smooth and without lumps. Stir it back into the soup. Stir constantly while cooking soup for another 5 minutes. Serves 3.