Restaurant David Drake

David Drake is in the house, and this— in the age of name-brand chefs playing musical stoves at multiple locales—is enough to raise the excitement level at the restaurant that bears his name in downtown Rahway.  

Where David Drake goes, those with curious and refined palates follow. Thus, Restaurant David Drake has become a must on dine cards statewide. The chef who has done star turns at Stage House Inn, Ryland Inn and the Frog and the Peach here in New Jersey, as well as at the River Café in Brooklyn Heights, turned an old insurance agency into a restaurant in 2005. The city that too often had been associated with a prison took on new luster and a new (and desirable) distinction: dining destination. Then, in 2007, he opened Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant in New Brunswick. This year, he’d also been spotted on KP duty up at Alice’s Restaurant at Lake Hopatcong. When a chef spreads his wings in ways other than through the menu at his eponymous restaurant, there can be cause to worry. No worries in Rahway. Restaurant David Drake’s chef de cuisine Peter Turso is technically skilled and culinarily gifted. But on this night, with Drake in the kitchen and then doing a post-dinner rush survey of dining rooms both upstairs and down in this posh, yet winsomely rustic setting, there’s a confidence that speaks of decades of experience in high-toned, high-pressure kitchens.

There’s no food misstep to speak of. The menus, both a la carte and degustation, are well-edited, largely seasonal and clearly focused on primary ingredients. It’s new American in a classical way— not silly-fussy, not kinetic with chemical experiments, not forcing taste issues by partnering two discordant flavors and calling it a “challenge” to the diner. That isn’t to say this is snooze food. Maine crab, flaky, sweet and tingling with freshness, is indeed challenged by a pickled cucumber chop underscored by an acidity that punches up the natural salinity of the crab. A swirl of heirloom tomato concasse brings out its sweetness and a cumin-scented tuile manages to unite every flavor on the plate. For a palate-cleanser, Drake puts a few favas on the plate, a meaty interlude between crab bites. There’s nothing revolutionary about the pepper-crusted seared yellowfin here, but its execution is flawless, including as counterpoints a rakish citrus salad and a feisty ginger vinaigrette you might not mind sprinkling on your next round of New Age sushi.

The textbook foie gras terrine can’t be ignored. Coupled with a mini ramekin of chunky fig preserves and a swirl of reduced cranberries, it’s a starter fit for Fall. When it’s a bitter-cold winter night, I’ll crave a big bowl of Drake’s carrot-ginger soup dusted with warming curry, sparked by lemon oil and made luxuriously rich by a pouf of whipped cream. That’s living right. Parmesan flecked gnocchi are treated right by being set in a wash of heirloom tomato water dotted with specks of the fruit along with scallions grilled and smoky and ready to be fork-skewered with those light, fluffy torpedoes of pasta. Drake always has had a masterful way with fish.

He handles a sea scallop with finesse by serving it astride carrots two ways: super-sweet in a soulful age, letting the broth enrich the scallop, and humble-hearty in a fricassee that adds texture to the dish. Halibut, pert amid a chop of alium-licked vegetables, laps up a basil pistou. But it’s the shrimp risotto that brings out my inner hoarder. The backdrop of lemongrass kicks the dish into high gear immediately, while snips of zucchini keep it grounded. Once you fork the whole assemblage into your mouth, it’s a wisp of Thai basil, mysteriously minty and clovey, that makes the dish irresistible. Seconds? Gladly. Another irresistible accent partnership—the fool-proof combo of chanterelles and apricot puree—elevates slices of roasted duck breast, creamy white polenta and knobby baby turnips.

Chanterelles and apricots love each other and, in the end, they provide the flavor muscle for the dish. I’m just as fond of the roasted pork, which, on this night, was given the season-throwback sideshows of corn both in a purée and strained chowder, plus grilled asparagus. Here there is nothing on the menu for which you won’t find the right wine on the eclectic wine list. While there’s a wide price range, the middle-level bottles between $60 and $90 are where vinophiles will find relative bargains and the best connections to the food. We nabbed a midrange Charles Schleret Herrenweg Riesling from Alsace whose versatility with Drake’s food would be tough to match at any price.

I’m not sure I’ve met the match for the berry trifle here, largely because the almond shortcake that anchors the layering hits the trifecta of texture, balance of flavors and moistness. Tack on a rush of tart and sweet blackberries, a dollop of vanilla-scented cream and a scoop of strawberry sorbet, and you’ve got a truly grand finale. The chocolate tart—with its lemony pastry, brush of salted caramel, vanilla crème fraiche and sprinkling of pulverized pistachios—certainly can’t be considered an also-ran. Choosing cheese as dessert might find you presented with a plate of creamy Pierre Robert, a tangy goat’s milk number called Coupole, a nutty Pecorino, a butterscotchy aged Gouda and a spicy Cabrales, which is a dandy and snappy blue. It’s a fine choice for ending an evening here. So is making a reservation for next time on your way out. Restaurant David Drake is what a chef-driven restaurant is all about.

Editors 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 epicurious.com.

 

Lola Latin Bistro

The Lola in Lola Latin Bistro, isn’t a person, but an attitude. “The name Lola sounds fun and exotic and Latin,” says Grace Castagnetto, the 25-year-old chef who inspired this fiesta of a restaurant in Metuchen, which is exactly that—fun, exotic and very Latin.

It’s a party, Lola Latin Bistro, a lunchtime/dinnertime celebration of Castagnetto’s spirited takes on the foods she grew up with in a Peruvian household in Perth Amboy coupled with what she learned as a culinary student in New York and as a mainstay in the kitchen of the venerable Frog & the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick. That’s where restaurateur Nick Borzone met her and decided to create a restaurant that would showcase her talents. Thus was born Lola, a hot-pot of Latin flavors accented with the young chef’s awareness of global trends and ingredients. Does it work? One look around the high-energy parlor of a dining room on an SRO weekend night tells you food and diners are clicking, big time. There are bountiful bowls of Brazilian fish stew, fat pork chops plated with a colorful pineapple-jalapeno salsa and cocktail glasses of ceviches going out to tables and, momentarily, stopping conversation. If folks in the area who knew this spot on Durham Avenue as the longtime home to a traditional Italian restaurant had their doubts when Lola opened a year ago, they don’t today. Lola is a firing-on-all-cylinders smash. That’s probably because Castagnetto has the gumption to turn garlic shrimp on its ear, taking a same-old, same-old starter and bumping up its flavor quotient with an infusion of warming, smoky-sweet guajillo chilies. She brushes baby pork ribs with mango and a mix of hot-woodsy spices, cooks them till they’re spoon-tender and elicits swoons from diners. This chef knows how to seduce. She pays homage to her South American heritage with empanadas that are basic and beautiful, such as the pockets of pastry filled with goat cheese and olives, or luxurious and alluring, such as the little bites stuffed with shreds of filet mignon.

If you need to choose, go with the basic, since the beef empanada falls shy on juiciness and seasoning. But there’s nothing shy about the meaty chorizo con queso, with its tandem of heat-licked Spanish sausage tempered by a wash of tangy cheese that you roll into a flour tortilla. Tuna tartare goes Latin here courtesy of tortilla-shaped crisps that provided a cheery textural counterpoint to the silky seafood. I didn’t think the starter needed the schmear of guacamole between fish and chip; if anything, it clouded the play between main elements. Think you know all about jalapeno? You can’t, not unless you’ve experienced Castagnetto’s garlic-and-ajipanca-marinated pork tenderloin. She gives the pork a night in the marinade that lets the ancho-esque taste of the Peruvian ajipanca chile shine and then plates it with a jalapeno puree tamed by slow cooking with scents of cumin and sea salt.

She coaxes an uncommon sweetness out of the normally hot jalapeno, allowing it to bring out the best in the pork. Factor in a heap of lime licked Spanish coleslaw on the side, and it’s an entrée sensation. That Brazilian seafood stew shows the care taken by the kitchen to make sure each shrimp, mussel, clam or piece of fin fish struts its stuff in the broth of onion-strewn tomatoes. Salmon isn’t shortchanged, but coupled with mango that glazes the rich fish and makes it taste like a whole new species. But the biggest and best surprise of the night was what the chef did with chicken: Pumped up by bright citrus flavors and a burst of cilantro, then set astride rice enriched by coconut milk and flecked with scallions, chicken gets a full-regalia makeover from wallflower to prom queen.

We leaned in to discuss dessert options, necessary because, by this point in the night, the party at Lola was in full swing and the noise level bordering on nightclub. The loquacious host came by to advise, a server who confided his sideline is sweets pitched in his two pennies and, of course, we’d spied finales being delivered to tables around us. The skinny? Don’t miss the tres-leches cake, probably the best version of the Latin three-milks cake I’ve had in the state —moist, not too sweet and creamy-textured as it was. And the flan, a wiggly, eggy, thoroughly custardy rendition of the classic. It’s hard to leave a good party. But at Lola Latin Bistro, I suspect the party’s only started.

Editors 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 epicurious.com.

 

Faubourg

“Coq au vin charmed me, its rich red wine base picking up on the sweet smokiness of bacon, with onions, carrots and mushrooms fine in their role as sponges.”

Faubourg

544 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair
Phone: (973) 542.7700
Web: www.faubourgmontclair.com
Instagram: @faubourgmontclair

Traffic jam at the front door! Everyone’s entering through the same portal that leads into a courtyard of a dining/bar space reminiscent of an era when congregating was normal. It’s normal right now at Faubourg, a vast bi-level space in downtown Montclair that exists at the crossroads of a special-occasion restaurant and a neighborhood joint.

 

A neighborhood joint for those who expect fine foods, fine wines, fine cocktails, fine brews and fine service every night of the week, I should say.

Owned and operated by a pair seasoned in such operations, courtesy of years spent working for the New York-based superstar toque Daniel Boulud, Faubourg is the domain of chef Olivier Muller and front-of-house master Dominique Paulin. In the summer of 2019, they opened the place that has been termed a brasserie and is a brasserie in terms of spirit and style, if not size.

Intimate, Faubourg is not. I found myself in the company of dozens of people upon entering the extensive sidecar space: Some were crowded at the bar, others clustered at tables. A sizable crew were delivering food and drink to diners, as well as incoming folks like me.

Faubourg, it seems, is doing what many are saying in these pandemic days cannot be done: plying the upscale-experience, fine-dining trade. That’s dead, many chefs who have made careers out of haute cuisine have claimed; if it can’t be boxed for take-out, it won’t fly. Yet even during the earliest COVID surges, Faubourg maintained its haute-experience mission, all the while creating, within its expansive walls, spaces that offer those gathering for after-work drinks and bites or six-top birthday celebrations just what they need. The overall affect is of a huge party, be it on an ordinary Tuesday or a hustle-for-a-rez Saturday.

We’re in the more subdued mezzanine, upstairs from the truly bustling main dining room where conversation requires some deep leaning-in. Our second-floor perch, near the various private dining rooms, is where you want to be if space is your priority.

The chickpea panisse is what you want to order for your table, if starting things off with the taste of silky, slightly nutty deep-fried nuggets ready for smearing in an herby aioli is your jam. Coupled with a glass of rosé, anything sparkling, or a cocktail that brings with it a bit of a pucker, it’s as South of France as Montclair can be.

Worried that you’ll finish off those crispy chickpea flour squares in an embarrassing nanosecond? Snag as well the barbajuans, a Swiss chard-and-ricotta-filled fritter that looks like a mini, lightly fried ravioli. I’ve only had barbajuans, which are originally from Monaco, in a larger half-moon shape. Faubourg’s little squares provide for more advantageous one-bite, get-it-all-at-once eating, complete with flecks of parmesan and snips of chive. Or it could be the hint of lemon the kitchen sneaks in. That’s possible. Probable, actually.

I’ve had Faubourg’s escargot before; it’s still a winner. It’s a stew, really, of snails, meaty chicken oysters, hazelnuts and a bounty of spaetzle, some browned and crunchy, some soft and chewy. The parsley puree, peppery, piquant and verdant, is the loving mother of this dish: there to give every other element a hug.

Exacting knife skills are required to give tuna tartare elegance. Neatly cubed sushi-grade tuna and pert rounds of cucumber betray such skills. But this starter needs more than the suspicion of lime and a crumble of buckwheat crisps to give it pizzazz. And: Chives need to be tasted before being sprinkled on top (they were mighty mild). Those pretty flakes of red pepper? No zing at all. Past prime, perhaps? However, the ingredients are primo in the crab salad: Mounded atop frisee and arugula were slices of earthy heart of palm, buttery favas and sweet crab. While billed as a lump crab and citrus salad, there were but a few slices of mandarin-like fruit in the shallow bowl. More citrus, please, to brighten the toss.

The orecchiette with lamb ragout came alive thanks to the nutty, slightly bitter Ligurian olives on board. You don’t need a lot of the revered taggiasca olive to make an impression, particularly when lamb is involved. Good, sharp parmesan needs a better-quality creamy-cheese companion than the shy-on-flavor number spooned into the center of the dish. A riveting Garden State burrata is out there, waiting to be found.

Coq au vin charmed me, its rich red wine base picking up on the sweet smokiness of bacon, with onions, carrots and mushrooms fine in their role as sponges. Add a soupcon of spaetzle to the gravy and be happy. Beef bavette is sliced, its thick slabs reconstructed to look like a most desirable meatloaf before being set upon a hefty rasher of shredded oxtail. When accompanied by a classic soubise—a bechamel infused with slow-cooked onions—as the beef duo is here, it’s the ultimate in meat-and-potatoes eating. Good thing, too, as the billed spinach merely peeked out from under the loaf of meats. Why so skimpy a portion of greens? Guess there are folks who want it that way. Lemon sole, slightly overcooked, had by comparison a near-bushel of browned cauliflower as a plate mate, along with a few florets of broccoli, cooked green grapes, capers and slits of mushroom. The brown butter sauce wasn’t enough to rev up the fish, which made me wonder if that’s why someone in the kitchen slipped in a wash of soubise.

Anyway, even though the pear-hazelnut cheesecake was shy on pear, it was resolutely creamy and the accompanying quenelle-shaped oval of hazelnut ice cream deserving of being called divine.

Faubourg is much about repeat diners, those who find their loves on the menu and their choice of top-notch beverages at the bar…and then find themselves in a community of many as a Faubourg regular. EDGE

Editor’s Note: We welcome Andy Clurfeld, the magazine’s food critic since 2009, back to the pages of EDGE following a year during which New Jersey’s top restaurants weathered unprecedented challenges and uncertainty.

 

Cranford’s A Toute Heure

The eggs, scrambled with cream, cooked with patience over low, slow heat, are folded with strands of scallions and set, with a ripple of sharp parmesan, over toasts. They’re an appetizer on this easygoing weeknight at A Toute Heure in Cranford—the mark of a sure-footed kitchen confident enough to start off a dinner with the most basic of ingredients.

A Toute Heure, two years old this month, is the domain of chef-owner Andrea Carbine, who set up shop in this homey corner building with the idea of creating an American version of a bistro. That is to say, she and chef de cuisine Kara Decker fashion a daily-changing menu of regionally sourced foods prepared without fuss or frills, like those simple, yet perfect eggs. They serve it all without pretense in a warm, wood-accented room that defines cozy.

They cater to a local clientele, most of whom drop in, toting bottles of wine, for whatever is on tap that night—be it a silky house-made liver pate, or pork-and-veal meatballs strewn with caramelized onions and served with curry-charged ketchup, or a pile of hush-puppies given a shot of energizing heat by pickled jalapenos. Those locals know to gird themselves for weekend nights, when the no-reservation policy (save for parties of six or more) can make for long waits on the deck. Yet there’s a camaraderie on that deck—some sharing of wines, some reminiscences of A Toute Heure dinners past – that makes it a pleasantly communal experience:

Do you think there’ll be enough chocolate pot pie to go around tonight? Have you tried a red Rhone blend with the brined chicken? Inside, the big-ticket decoration in the low-lit dining room is a double-wide blackboard chalked full with names of the farmers, cheesemakers and other purveyors who provide the ingredients that fuel A Toute Heure’s kitchen. Starting about now, with rhubarb and peas and berries, crops from Carbine’s own garden in Cranford will take hold of the menu and, come high summer, just about take it over. It’s micro-seasonal, deliberately so, and yet there’s a soul to the food here that gives it year-round continuity and comforting familiarity.

It’s about, after all, those eggs, that fundamental liver pate and, perhaps, a puff pastry tart filled with an earthy chop of long-cooked wild mushrooms, onions and a film of fontina that unites the starter. You also can kick things off by nibbling on a short selection of small bites, such as the spirited meatballs or, my favorite, cippolino onions densely glazed with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with sharp, yet creamy blue cheese. It’s a terrific combination and it makes you think about what you can do at home with a little vinegar, onions and a few flecks of cheese. I’m still thinking about what I can do with my next catch of mussels, thanks to A Toute Heure’s humble-goes-haute rendition swathing Prince Edward Island mussels in a velvety saffron cream sauce, then boosting the spice quotient with crumbles of chorizo.

The skinny Belgian-style fries on the side, served with a petite pot of garlicky aioli, makes it better than a trip to Brussels. Halibut poached in olive oil and plated with parmes and stoked mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach and a splay of preserved lemon advances A Toute Heure’s simple-is-right theme. So do the seared New Jersey sea scallops. Their crackling crusts yield to super-sweet meat and, quickly, find smart plate mates in a tart-crunchy apple-fennel salad and a cider vinegar-infused beurre blanc. The pot pie is the I-want-whatever-that-is dish at A Toute Heure. It won’t matter to you what’s inside when you see it come out of the kitchen. You’re going to jones for that beehive of a puff pastry top covering a pottery crock and won’t much care if it’s concealing beef or chicken or just vegetables.

On this night, it’s buttery braised beef and a passel of root vegetables cloaked in a red wine-enriched gravy that demands a soup spoon. Yet it always comes down to a roasted chicken in a bistro, and if a bistro can’t do a roasted chicken right, it’s got no business calling itself a bistro. This brined, bone-in bird is high on interior juice, with a drizzle of garlic-licked oil moistening the crisped skin. I’d gobble it down, straight, any old night of the week, even without the aid of the accompanying toasty fingerling potatoes and plump stew of portobellos. I’d also gobble down a bowl of the vanilla-spiked whipped cream in record eating-contest time, though I’d be foolish to miss the lemon verbena bread pudding it tops. What a great idea, I think to myself, as I hog this dessert. A gentle, lyrical herb giving style and substance to the chunks of bread and swirl of custard that make up a typical bread pudding.

You don’t need hard smacks of accenting flavor, just a subtle touch of something provocative. Save the punches for the chocolate pot pie, which is – happily – all about over-the-top ganache cut by slivers of pear and a balancing squirt of rum. The apple-toffee cake is the choice for a super-sweet tooth, built on a foundation of wines apples and capped by creamy toffee. Get it with one of A Toute Heure’s homemade ice creams – say, the sweet cream or the ricotta with candied citrus. Once cosseted inside A Toute Heure, you’ll get what it’s about: comforting, yet not clichéd, food prepared with technical precision, respect for the seasons and resolutely in tune with stewards of the land and sea. It’s food you’ll want to eat any day, any time. Andrea Clurfeld is a former editor of Zagat New Jersey.

Ragin’ Cajun

The Meyersville Inn Spices Things Up for Spring 

I’ll be the first to admit it. Dining out in New Jersey can be an adventure. Pull up to the Meyersville Inn in the Morris County hamlet of Gillette and it’s hard to know what to expect. It has the look of a 19th century farmers co-op, and indeed that’s what it once was. It also could be a well-camouflaged wings and pies joint. It’s not. Like so many restaurants in the Garden State, the Inn offers an eclectic mix of pub food, steaks, seafood and Italian specialties. Unlike almost every other New Jersey restaurant, it specializes in Cajun and Creole cuisines. This taste of the Bayou comes courtesy of Chef Hoss, aka Houssain Elhady, an Egyptian- born culinary maestro who swapped his mechanical engineering degree a few years back for kitchen whites.

Elhady learned the art of Cajun and Creole cooking from the previous owner, Dan Walker, a Louisiana native. Since then Chef Hoss—whose résumé includes stints at some of the better restaurants in central New Jersey—has added a few intriguing twists of his own for the Inn’s new owners. “Creole and Cajun food isn’t as popular as other cuisines, like, for example, Italian food,” he says. “My culinary philosophy centers 21 around Creole and Cajun cuisine, and the ability to offer it to our customers. Those who have never tasted Creole and Cajun food need only try it once to experience the richness and depth of its flavors.” For the uninitiated (and the timid) there are some important differences between Chef Hoss’s menu offerings. Cajun cuisine takes a rustic approach to cooking, embracing fresh, locally grown ingredients and simple preparations. Onions, bell peppers and celery are the Holy Trinity.

This style developed from the French-speaking Acadians who were chased out of Canada following the French and Indian War in the 18th century. They settled in Louisiana and adapted their cooking to the local ingredients, i.e. anything they could hook, net, gig or trap. Crawfish were among the more abundant resources, and today they play a starring role on the Meyersville Inn menu. Much of Creole cuisine relies on the onion-pepper-celery combination, but from there it diverges significantly from Cajun. Creole is a Caribbean-influenced blend from the food cultures of France, Spain and Africa. As a rule, the French flavors are more aristocratic than in Cajun fare. Cajun food usually has a kick to it but, contrary to popular belief, an authentically prepared Cajun dish does not involve eye-watering heat. Unless, of course, you specifically ask for it that way. If you’ve been to New Orleans and still can’t remember which is which, Antoine’s is Creole and K-Paul’s (Paul Prudhomme) is Cajun. Emeril does both.

Elhady distinguishes himself from other Cajun/Creole chefs by making all of the spices and rubs used at the Meyersville Inn from scratch. This, he believes, adds to the authenticity of his food. From an ambiance standpoint, The Meyersville Inn offers a choice of two separate dining experiences. Those who prefer a more intimate setting will find the tavern, with its subdued lighting, blazing fireplace and generously stocked bar a quiet retreat from a hectic workday. Here light, classic pub food soothes and nourishes. Bayou-inspired specialties include authentic gumbo and a superb catfish sandwich.

Those who prefer to dine in a livelier setting veer toward the well-appointed dining room. Here a lighter, brighter, more spirited atmosphere provides the setting for an upscale but casual crowd, while the room’s Décor pays homage to the building’s colorful roots and history. The wide-ranging menu includes chicken, steaks and seafood, the portions are generous (hey, this is New Jersey, right?) and the wine cellar is surprisingly good. The Meyersville Inn isn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but for many it’s a hike. What makes it worth the trip is drifting down the Mississippi with Chef Hoss as your guide. Bring your imagination and your appetite and prepare to spend an evening on the Bayou.

Editor’s Note: The Meyersville Inn is located at 632 Meyersville Road in Gillette. (908) 647–6302. Marylou Morano is a freelance writer whose articles appear in magazines and newspapers around the state.

The Italian Pantry Bistro

“This BYOB is crowded from the ring of the dinner bell ‘til last call from the kitchen.”

The Italian Pantry Bistro hits a trifecta of buzzwords for comfort in its name. Italian as a genre is the feel-good food of choice for many. Pantry is where all that good stuff in the kitchen is stored. Bistro signifies a down-home, humble restaurant where local favorites are served. Frank Rizzo, chef-owner of The Italian Pantry Bistro, follows through on all the promises made in the restaurant’s name on his menu—in his cooking and in the attitude set forth in this small, near-Spartan storefront in downtown Cranford. “Comfort” may have become a gastronomic cliché, yet Rizzo and his crew disregard it as a sound-bite and wend their way around its possibilities with confidence and a smack of creativity. All that makes Italian Pantry a fun place to dig in to hearty grub. Which is why this BYOB is crowded from the ring of the dinner bell ’til last call from the kitchen. And why families, kids in tow, can be spotted doing early-shift eating—and couples catching a casual-dress date night knock wineglasses in twosomes and foursomes later on. For all its popularity in Union County, it flies under the radar of many of New Jersey’s restaurant groupies. That might be because it is devoted to the now-rather-passé Comfort Food category. Yet I’d bet a bite of sage-tinged French toast, in full fall regalia with the flavors of poached pear, red onion and a pungent blue cheese sauce, might tempt those trackers of trends. I know the baby-back ribs could stand against anything a destination barbecue shack in the South might be dishing up. You could rack up the clichés describing them—falling off the bone, licked with sauce neither too tart nor too sugared—but the point is the sincerity of the preparation. And, absolutely, the pert, moist, just-shy-of-sturdy cornbread served on the side. You could spend a lot of time wondering why you might never before have come across a sweet potato dumpling. Gently kneaded flour-water dough is plied into myriad shapes and stuffed with all manner of fillings the world over, but the marriage of petite fried turnover and mashed sweet potato is rare. It shouldn’t be. Especially if a swirl of chive oil is used as a spirited accent as it is here. Crunchy calamari with a tomato fondue reads like a signature dish for a restaurant called The Italian Pantry Bistro. But it was the weak link in the opening rounds, with too-tough squid giving off too much frying oil and a dipping sauce that needed to pack more of a spice punch. You’ll expect—and you’ll get—burgers, pizzas and pastas in this hometown-proud spot. But there’s always a twist, or a hint of something extra. It might be a “Buffalo”-style burger paying homage to that city’s famous Anchor Bar wings, slathered as it is with blue cheese. Or a beefy patty that’s another trip to the South, with Tennessee bacon, mushrooms, onions, Cheddar and a slap of that excellent house barbecue sauce. There’s a hint of truffle oil, a substance I usually dread, in the mix, but it’s a background note. Personal-size (jumbo personal-size, that is) pizzas (here, called pizzettas) aren’t the corner takeout kind. We took to the potato-onion-mascarpone pie, loving its charred crust and light-on-the-toppings style. I would’ve liked it even more with a more generous sprinkle of big-flake sea salt. Something to think about. That pizzetta offered a better use of the spud than the potato gnocchi, which weighed heavy in a terrific pumpkin beurre fondue sporting crispy fried sage leaves. That combo of high-fall pumpkin and butter has potential galore. You’ll see another riff on often-tired comfort fare in Rizzo’s chicken pot pie, which is topped with cornbread instead of either pastry or biscuit. It has all the usual suspects within (chicken chunks, mushrooms, peas, carrots) and a soothing gravy to bind it all together. Johnny Blue mussels, however, are anything but predictable. This season, the kitchen’s playing the pumpkin theme big, and it sets the bivalves in a startling sauce of pumpkin dotted with flecks of cranberries. It seems discordant at first, that swash of mildly sweet sauce with mussels, but there’s something funky and fun about the pairing. And the stand-up fries on the side don’t mind the frivolity. You guessed right: There’s a cupcake on the dessert menu. On this night, it’s a mini sweet potato number dressed in toasted marshmallow frosting. It’s fit for Thanksgiving. I had to laugh, eating one, as I imagined Rizzo and his kitchen team devising it as a spoof to all those marshmallow-topped sweet potato casseroles on holiday tables. Less satisfying was a baked apple dumpling that lacked substantial apple presence and seemed to try to compensate with too much walnut-raisin stuffing and a burst of butterscotch sauce. But a well-balanced poached pear crème brulée with a properly crusted top hit its stride, and the high mark for finales. The Italian Pantry Bistro is a neighborhood restaurant with a voice. It’s deliberately modest and humble, like many storefront BYOBs, but it doesn’t run with the pack by playing it safe with familiar dishes. No, instead, Italian Pantry spins comfort in a way that makes it impossible to take the genre for granted. EDGE   

The Italian Pantry Bistro 13 Eastman St., Cranford 908.272.7790 Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Reservations accepted for Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday only; it’s first-come, first-served on Fridays and Saturdays. All major credit cards accepted. BYOB. Appetizers generally range from $8 to $14, burgers $13 to $14, pizzas from $9 to $14 and pastas $20 and up. Entrees are $22 to $32.

Arturo’s

 “Richer took over the old pizza joint in downtown Maplewood in early 2007 and re-made it to suit his dreams and palate.”

Seven forty-five on a Saturday night, and the show is about to begin. Regulars file into the corner storefront at Maplewood and Baker, settling into seats that almost seem assigned. There are nods of recognition, glances over to the fellow in charge, a sense of anticipation in not-sohushed exchanges. Corks pop. Wine glasses are filled and the floor crew at Arturo’s switches into high gear. At the rear of the intimate restaurant, chef/maestro Dan Richer already has warmed up his wood-burning oven by firing dozens and dozens of pizzas for the early-eating crowd. But right now, as the 8 o’clock hour approaches, he’s dispatching cups filled with husked cherries, also known as bush cherries. They’re nutty little fruits that look a bit like miniature tomatillos, but taste like nothing else on the planet. Peel back the papery skins, flick the fruit into your mouth and wonder how you’ll ever again eat another sugared peanut or mushy olive as a prelude to dinner. They’re the ideal starter for Richer’s unique show. It’s dinner theater, this ritualistic Saturday night minuet between chef and diner, a paean to all that’s locally grown and produced and catches the chef’s discerning eye. There’s no formal bill of fare on this night, just a procession of plates served forth with no fanfare and minimal explanation. It’s based on the trust Richer has built up between himself and his diners, folks who have warmed to the distinctive style of both the rustic, no-frills dining space and the man who delivers a spare, yet deeply satisfying dining experience. “Coppa, house-made,” is the way our server describes the next dish. He knows no embellishment is needed to sell diners on the veritable kaleidoscope made from cured pork shoulder and its fat, presented as delicate slices of salumi that appear air-brushed on the platter. Alone, or partnered with crusty, country bread, this coppa is pretty darn perfect. Actually, so is Arturo’s. Richer took over the old pizza joint in downtown Maplewood in early 2007 and re-made it to suit his dreams and palate. Pizzas are now of the modern age – that is to say, they go back in time to ovens fueled by wood, to crusts born of kneading and slow-rise techniques, to toppings that tilt toward Spartan, not extra-anything. A welledited selection of those thin-crust pizzas plus pastas are the order of the night five days a week, with Tuesdays turned over to a scaled-back tasting menu and Saturdays the destination-diner extravaganza. On that night, Richer goes strictly market and microseasonal. It’s completely, obsessively ingredient-driven in a good way. Ask about the olive oil, for instance, and you’ll be brought a bottle of the newest member of the Arturo’s Olive Oil Brigade, an unfiltered number from Puglia whose fruitiness makes already silky-sweet scallops even silkier and sweeter. These scallops are the star of Richer’s crudo, a bowl of dense and rich shellfish bathed in the Puglian oil with needle-thin slivers of French breakfast radish that add color and bite to the raw-fish dish. There are a few twirls of baby greens—so tiny that they probably are better thought of as newborn greens—to add color and contrast, and that’s it. It’s gentle, it’s refined, it’s an exacting example of what this chef is trying to do: simplify, simplify, simplify. That’s his culinary style, and it’s both brave and smart. While others less secure in their métier, less confident of their skills, fuss and add a silly number of frills to a plate, Richer practices the art of the take-away. He pares down a dish to its fundamentals, letting his ingredients assume center stage. A salad of baby arugula, for instance, is accented by thin slices of peaches and flecks of shaved Parmigiano- Reggiano. That’s it. High-season tomatoes, both cheery Sun Golds and beefy San Marzanos, are chopped and set in a glass compote to be served only with a sprinkling of sea salt. The tomatoes’ own juices make it good to the last drop. Tagliolini, a thin-strand pasta, is too fresh, too creamy in taste and texture to need anything more than a handful of teeny cubes of zucchini and a little grated Parmigiano Reggiano. We all but bribed our server to admit to an infusion of cream or butter. No, we were told. Nothing but the fresh pasta, the zucchini, the Parmigiano-Reggiano. That’s what good pasta can do. And a good hunk of pork shank needs but a bed of earthy kale to keep it company. In northern states, it’s such an underappreciated partnership, anything pig and greens. In Richer’s hands, it could be the next big thing in Yankeeland. His whipped ricotta, served with raspberries and what possibly was a mirage of shaved dark chocolate, is precisely what dessert should be: neither overwhelmingly sweet nor baroque in scale. I would’ve had seconds had seconds been offered, however, since I’ve always dreamed of cheese and fruit being transformed into just this kind of finale. I left Arturo’s thinking that either I should 1) move to Maplewood or 2) convince Richer to take his show on the road to my hometown. I’ll further assess these options when I return to Arturo’s for the duck prosciutto, hazelnut-pear salad and pasta with wild boar ragu. For without a doubt, this food needs to be a regular part of my eating life. EDGE

Arturo’s 180 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood 973.378.5800 Open Sunday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are accepted only for the Tuesday and Saturday night tasting menus—in fact, they are required for those nights. The Tuesday night tasting ($30) begins at 7 and the Saturday night tasting ($48) at 7:45. Pizzas start at $6.50 and go up to $16.50; pastas range in price from $9.95 to $16.95; salads from $7.95 to $10.95; salumi is $7.95 for an individual portion and $15.95 for the daily selection. All major credit cards are accepted. BYOB. Service is cheerful and helpful.

 

 

Boulevard Five72 in Kenilworth

“On this weekend night, folks everywhere are toasting one another. Servers sashay around the dining spaces briskly and purposefully as the evening promises to crescendo every 15 minutes.”

A private room just off the entrance to Boulevard Five72 is set for a large party. Plates, glasses and votives sit pert on a long banquet table. As we’re shown to our “}e21`perch in the L-shaped first-floor dining room, a table for 10 catty-corner from ours is being readied for guests. Before long, on our other side, a few tables are being pushed together by the busy floor crew. I ask a server how many will be in that party. He shrugs and says, “Either 10 or 12. We’ll find out when they get here.” Party Central in Kenilworth. Boulevard Five72 is fit for celebrations and, on this weekend night, folks everywhere are toasting one another. Servers sashay around the dining spaces briskly and purposefully as the evening promises to crescendo every 15 minutes. Everyone and everything is dressed for the occasion. Approach the restaurant, which sits stately on the main thoroughfare that lends its name to Boulevard Five72, and you might think it looks something like a French chateau. Inside, there’s a bit of a French provincial feel to the décor, dominated by shades of beige and wood tones. It’s an appropriately restful backdrop to the constant-motion dining scene. Snag a bottle of wine from the list and settle in. Chef-partner Scott Snyder’s menu is amenable to almost anything you might be in the mood for. I’d suggest going for one of the value-priced red wines from Spain and letting it do-si-do with the fava bean ravioli nestled in a rustic rabbit ragout. It’s the standout dish on the menu of the moment at Boulevard Five72—a partnership of stalwarts from the south of France that have long earned their stripes at the table. Snyder finishes the starter with an ethereal pouf of truffle scented mascarpone that provides yet another flavor bridge from rabbit to fava to pasta. Or you might consider the crab cake, which here comes accompanied by a coarse chop of a salsa, starring chickpeas with a cameo of fruit. The punchline of the appetizer? A flash of sriracha sauce, moderated by avocado. As I ate, I thought there’d be nothing wrong with giving that hot-fun sriracha more of a chance to dance around the plate: Between the sweetness of the crab and the earthiness of the chickpeas, the dish has the foundation to stand up to more heat. Go for it. Shrimp punctuate a chunky corn chowder that benefits from a trio of compelling accents: smoky bacon, celery root and a touch of turnip. It’s a solid soup—one worth exploring all summer long—as Snyder and his kitchen crew riff on the shellfish and switch around the accenting vegetables to stay in season. One vegetable I wish they’d switch out is the red flannel hash that’s made from beets and plated with the grilled salmon. The grainy mustard and pesto-like spinach purée adds spot-on counterpoints to the moist fish, but the root vegetable clashes with the salmon. A basic strip loin, meanwhile, showed the kitchen’s precision, and the rich reduction of red wine swirled on the plate was all the steak needed. But a haystack of onions that looked more frizzled than frittered, as the menu described, proved an amiable companion, so we gobbled it all up. Why not? Steak and onions are a heavenly marriage. As are shellfish and arborio, the basis for Boulevard Five72’s risotto. It’s heavy on the truffle in its lobster broth, which I know draws applause from a multitude of diners impressed by the presence of extreme luxury. I’m a little less drawn to the use of truffle oil than most; I think it overwhelms shellfish, in particular, keeping its unique character in the closet. We added character to our entrées in the form of two sides well worth the supplement. Spanish chips are one of the planet’s most enjoyable foods. Here the thick-cut potato slices are crisp and crunchy and judiciously dusted with pimenton and salt. Good greens are spiced just right—and right for just about any of Boulevard Five72’s entrées. My suggestion re the greens? Serve with a wedge of lemon to give diners the option of adding a little zing as desired. There’s citrus aplenty in the steamed pudding cake, an elegant finale served with a side of blackberry sorbet. An updated strawberry shortcake was underscored by a faint drop of balsamic vinegar and partnered with a creamy, subtle basil gelato. A favorite at my table was the dark chocolate-caramel tart, with its delightful sprinkling of fleur de sel and a cloud of mascarpone mousse offered as a finishing flourish. As we wound down our dinner, servers were gearing up for yet another large-party table. Amid all the activity, you might notice a slight slow-down between appetizers and main courses, and maybe your entrée plates are left to sit a tad too long after you’ve set down knife and fork. But the crew, largely, performs admirably. The crescendos continue at Boulevard Five72. EDGE

 

Boulevard Five72 572 Boulevard, Kenilworth 908.709.1200 Dining hours: Lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner, from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday. Brunch is served Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. All major credit cards accepted. Appetizers range from $14 to $16, with salad and soups in the $9-to-$12 range, entrees $22 to $38 and sides $5 to $7. Desserts are $8.

Lorena’s in Maplewood

“Campos can cook. His superior technical skills are made clear through the fine chop of a tartare and the ethereal texture of a near-weightless crepe.”

Lorena’s defines intimate. You enter, through a slip of a passageway, a dining room that seats but 32. Tables are small, space between them is at a premium, but there’s never a feeling of claustrophobia. No, instead a wall of windows swathed in dark sage fabric expands the diminutive space. Large, brightly colored paintings bring joy and festivity to the scene. Not that Lorena’s needs any help infusing happiness into the world. It’s a love story, an ode from chef Humberto Campos, Jr. to Lorena Perez, the woman who inspired the restaurant that has, in spite of its size, anchored a particularly chic stretch of downtown Maplewood for almost five years. The romance of this husband-wife team plays out every night dinner is served, with Lorena gracefully orchestrating the doings of the dining room, while Humberto works a kitchen fitted with fewer accoutrements than offered in most suburban McMansions. This is one of those fairy-tale ending restaurants: Boy meets girl, boy and girl share a dream, boy and girl make the dreams of couples looking to celebrate special nights come true as a matter of course. You’d spend your dinner here sighing under the spell of this story if the food didn’t interrupt your revelry.

And the food is pure pleasure. Campos can cook. His superior technical skills are made clear through the fine chop of a tartare and the ethereal texture of a near-weightless crepe. His ability to let an ingredient strut its stuff is evident in the perfectly cooked simplicity of a piece of cod set against a backdrop of humble lentils. His quiet confidence is on display in an elegant cup of divine, unadorned ice cream. Fuss happens in the selection of those ingredients, in the focus on prep, in the concentration it takes to turn from pan to plate an exquisite composition that never befuddles the diner. All the while Lorena Perez is quietly orbiting the dining room—directing a floor crew that misses not a dropped napkin, a dirtied knife or a subtle cue from a table ready to move on to the next course—Campos is mirroring his wife’s front-of-the-house grace in his compact kitchen. The French-influenced, modern American fare quickly becomes the topic of conversation at the tables. The briskness of sake and the punch of wasabi are almost elusive in a starter of raw Scottish salmon chopped as fine as an infant’s fingernail, then punctuated by pops of tobiko and served with a wisp of crème fraiche and a crisp, fried wonton.

The Far East gets a visit from the Continent, and they reach an accord. Campos gives a similar twist to homemade cavatelli, tossing the pasta with shreds of duck so tender, so inherently rich, that it mimics confit, then adds the crunch of blanched snow peas to the mix along with a sprinkling of sharp sheep’s milk cheese. That crepe may look weak-kneed, but it’s got the strength to hold ample jumbo-lump crab—shellfish so sweet that you understand immediately why the chef sought balance with earthy wild mushrooms. Given a swirl of puréed herbs, the first-course dish charms. The cod made me jealous. Sure, Campos secured an extra thick center cut of the fish. He has at his disposal an amped-up, professional stove that rocks at higher temperatures than mine. He probably doesn’t hold back when doling out butter, either. I’d cooked cod at my home the night before and Campos’s version made me want to enter culinary school at the nursery level. Remedial class. This cod, with its barely cooked interior and lightly seared edges, found soulmates in French lentils, pert and forest green, and an all-luxe parsnip purée. It was a plate composed of nothing but accomplished elements.

Wild-caught Arctic char kept pace. A lot like salmon, a little like trout, char isn’t often seen wild in these parts. Campos treats the rare find right, partnering it with wild rice, zesty and bold pickled red onion, then adds dried fruits as a backdrop. Though it may not remain on the menu as Lorena’s shifts through spring into foods more suitable for warmer weather, the short ribs are a classic to revisit as soon as the temperatures again suit. Resolutely beefy and tender, they’re riddled with caramelized onion, sided by an uber-buttery purée of potatoes and given a shot in the arm by riffs of Roquefort, a potent cheese that actually tamps down the richness of the dish. My friends sniffed when I ordered the bread pudding for dessert. Such a sophisticated, polished restaurant. So much romance in the air. Why go boarding school at a time like this? Because, they soon learned, Campos starts with eggy-yet-airy brioche, moistens it with banana, gives it the kick of peanut butter (of all things), then finishes the very grand finale with maple-licked caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. There’ll be competition over this one. As well as for the precise warm chocolate cake, a compact disc that wasn’t a smidgen too sweet and took a serious likin g to an accompanying swirl of raspberry purée. I took a liking to the homemade ice creams, and appreciated the sheer correctness of the chocolate ice cream and the intense citrus flavor in the orange sorbet. You don’t need to hit a diner over the head with frills and frou-frou to impress.

Which sums up Lorena’s, where the food and the scene are all heart.

Westfield’s Chez Catherine

“It is Didier now,” says the gentleman in the Hermes tie and dapper suit as he sands, head bowed slightly in our direction, at the foot of our corner table at Chez Catherine. “Not ‘Sir.’ No more. I am Didier.”

Even Didier Jouvenet’s admonishments can flatter. I’ve just addressed him as “Sir” in a quick series of queries at the end of our dinner, and the owner/maitre d’/sommelier of this intimate and pure French restaurant in Westfi eld is insisting on doing away with distance between diner and proprietor. That’s how the old restaurant pros do it, and the veteran of La Grenouille and The Carlyle Hotel in New York is nothing if not the consummate pro. Chez Catherine has been around a long time in its somewhat incongruous home in the bosom of a Best Western motel near the downtown district. But it’s been reinvigorated by the current stewardship of Didier Jouvenet and his wife, Edith. They have secured the services of chef de cuisine C.J. Reycraft to turn out the French classics. There are very few places in New Jersey where brandade de morue and confit of duck and profiteroles are done with textbook care.

If the foamists have their way, or if designer burgers snatch any more menu space—or if yet another Everything-Asian eatery takes hold in a strip mall—restaurants such as Chez Catherine could find themselves on the culinary endangered species list of New Jersey. We shouldn’t let that happen. The Jouvenets and their kitchen crew give us too much reason to let that happen. The dining room may be a touch too pretty-pink, a tad cluttered and close-quartered. Yet the dishes served forth are precise, heartfelt translations of those that once made France the culinary capital of the planet. They merit attention. Brandade de morue, a soul-satisfying mash of housecured salt cod, potatoes and roasted garlic, is given a lick of olive oil to help smooth it on accompanying toasts. If you’ve ever thought fondue was fun, well, Chez Catherine’s brandade offers the same communal dip-in pleasures, with a different and arguably more intriguing base. Risotto, as popular in parts of southern France as it is in northwestern Italy, is given a creamy lift with the addition of mascarpone, which balances the tannic shreds of spinach nicely. Is a shot of truffle oil overkill? Not in the hands of Reycraft, whose deft hand keeps this often-overused condiment in proper check. It’s background here, wisely elusive. But the foie gras is brawny and bold. A hunk of the stuff serves as the centerpiece of a plate with a rash of partners that allow you to enhance the fatty liver in various ways.

There are pert cubes of Grand Marnier gelee, slivers of toasted hazelnuts, a compote of vanilla-laced pineapple and a swirl of pink peppercorn-infused blood orange. No reason to be shy; lap it all up, for all of it works. Skate, splayed gloriously on a wide plate, showed the wing span of an eagle—and the sure hand of a kitchen willing to let an expertly cooked piece of fish stand just about on its own. A little acid from nibs of citrus was all that was needed. Duck confit, plucked from the annals of the classic bistros of southwestern France, didn’t miss either. This is the dish that defines falling-off-the-bone tender, and Chez Catherine’s rendition is the snapshot for a cookery bible. Factor in a scattering of tart, dried cherries for counterpoint, a pile of wild rice for texture and long-braised scallions for sweetness, and you have an air-tight case for respecting tradition. Chez Catherine’s kitchen also knows how to respect lamb. Fat rib-eye chops come cosseted by a chestnut puree and Brussels sprouts—an appropriately (and pleasantly) bitter sideshow to rich meat. The parade of classics doesn’t let up at dessert. How long has it been since you’ve had a proper profiterole? Here, your new best friend, Didier, will pour from a miniature gravy boat a ration of hot chocolate sauce over and around buttery puffs of pastry with an inner prize of vanilla ice cream. The original molten chocolate cake, done to death at chain restaurants everywhere? It’s here in true French fashion, fastidiously made so it tastes of fine dark chocolate, not something insidiously sweet, and served with a scoop of pomegranate ice cream. The best of the finales may have been the lemon tart, with a curd that resonates sour, spooned into a meringue shell and then set astride flecks of Marcona almonds, a thimbleful of lemon verbena-mascarpone sorbet and a flourish of blackberry sorbet. Mon dieu, do the French know balance, or what?

I do wish, however, that the wine list was better balanced. It weighs heavily in favor of the high-priced (way highpriced) standbys, while all but ignoring the highly nuanced, spirited small-producer bottles from the south of France that would sing with Reycraft’s food. If you’re willing to shell out three figures (or four), you can enjoy a solid Burgundy or Bordeaux. But the $60-to-$80 price range is far too thin, lacking in imagination and educational value, for the list to be considered worth a trip. But the food at Chez Catherine is. It makes me hope France’s life at New Jersey’s tables is long lived.

 

Dress for Dining Success

Gents, Chez Catherine is a place that doesn’t demand jacket and tie, but certainly deserves to be honored by appropriate attire. While a jacket alone will do, the same clothes worn to accomplish household chores will not. Ladies, workout wear is unsuitable here. This is a place where diners should feel inspired to rise to the occasion, even if that occasion is simply dinner out. Clothes worn to mow lawns and shuffle kids to soccer may do you fine at Applebee’s, but not at Chez Catherine. Will you see inappropriately dressed people dining here? Yes. It would be hard to imagine Didier Jouvenet and his crew treating them with any less respect than his properly dressed clients. It’s known as class. Watch and learn.

 

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 epicurious.com. Don’t miss her Q&A with celebrity chef Dennis Foy on page 40.

 

 

 

 

The Chef Recommends

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

Grain & Cane Bar and Table • Shrimp Tostada
250 Connell Drive • BERKELEY HEIGHTS
(908) 897-1920 • grainandcane.com
Our Shrimp Tostada is a next-level dish crafted with wild-caught gulf shrimp marinated in a lime, tomato water, and pepper marinade. Joined with the vibrant flavors of gazpacho and Peruvian leche de tigre and served with crispy nixtamal tortillas, avocado, watermelon radish, and charred salsa negra.
— Chef Louis Bayla

 

The Thirsty Turtle • Pork Tenderloin Special
1-7 South Avenue W. • CRANFORD
(908) 324-4140 • thirstyturtle.com
Our food specials amaze! I work tirelessly to bring you the best weekly meat, fish and pasta specials. Follow us on social media to get all of the most current updates!
— Chef Rich Crisonio

 

The Thirsty Turtle • Brownie Sundae
186 Columbia Turnpike • FLORHAM PARK
(973) 845-6300 • thirstyturtle.com
Check out our awesome desserts brought to you by our committed staff. The variety amazes as does the taste!
— Chef Dennis Peralta

 

The Famished Frog • Mango Guac
18 Washington Street • MORRISTOWN
(973) 540-9601 • famishedfrog.com
Our refreshing Mango Guac is sure to bring the taste of the Southwest to Morristown.
— Chef Ken Raymond

 

Arirang Hibachi Steakhouse • Pork Belly Bao Buns
1230 Route 22 West • MOUNTAINSIDE
(908) 518-9733 • partyonthegrill.com
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 • longhornsteakhouse.com
Join us for our “speedy affordable lunches” or dinner. We suggest you try our fresh, never frozen, 18 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.
— Anthony Levy, Managing Partner

 

Ursino Steakhouse & Tavern • House Carved 16oz New York Strip Steak
1075 Morris Avenue • UNION
(908) 977-9699 • ursinosteakhouse.com
Be it a sizzling filet in the steakhouse or our signature burger in the tavern upstairs, Ursino is sure to please the most selective palates. Our carefully composed menus feature fresh, seasonal ingredients and reflect the passion we put into each and every meal we serve.

 

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 during the pandemic?
Post it on our Facebook page and we’ll make sure to share it with our readers!

Razza

With Arturo’s in Maplewood a smash success, chef Dan Richer takes his dough on the road to Jersey City

Razza

275 Grove Street, Jersey City. Phone: 201.356.9348
Open Monday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards accepted. No reservations are taken. Small plates and salad range in price from $4 to $14. Pizzas are $12 to $18.

It’s late afternoon at Razza, where the art and science of flour and water converge and judgment is pronounced every day at this time.

Dan Richer, bread maestro, is removing 18 loaves from his wood-fired oven at the rear of Razza Pizza Artigianale on Grove Street in Jersey City. They are sizable loaves, but there are just 18. That’s all he bakes any day Razza is open. There’s a deja-vu to his explanation of why: “That’s what fits in my oven. We can’t do a second batch because the oven temperature wouldn’t be right and the bread wouldn’t be right. So when we run out, that’s it.”

This all merits thought, but the nose is ruling. And Richer is talking about his “10 Points for Properly Baking Bread” as he checks each loaf. Yes, it’s cooked all the way through. It’s firm and crisp on the outside.

There are big holes in the crumb. There’s no tunneling. There are ears.

Ears? Yes, Richer says. Ears.

All photos courtesy of Razza

“Every loaf needs an ear. You can pick up a loaf by an edge that rises on the top of a loaf.” He points to one loaf that lacks a proper edge. A problem with the scoring—a slash—made just before the loaves were paddle-carried into the oven. The angle of the slash? The depth of the slash?

Richer is picking up his loaves by their ears, inspecting each one. The vast majority of the 18 loaves have ears in tune with the baker’s carefully orchestrated ritual that consumes a good part of the day at Razza and has consumed the life of the man who shuns the word chef to describe his occupation and smiles, proudly, as he says, “I’m a craftsman.”

Meanwhile, the Razza front-of-the-house team—all of whom had to score 90 or better on a 15-page exam—is gathering at a table to go over the night’s specials. They include a new cocktail, “The Martinez,” which actually is an old cocktail born in California in the 1840s. It’s nigh on showtime, and people are lined up at the door of 275 Grove. They know where they want their bread buttered.

In the beginning

If the name Dan Richer sounds familiar, if the passion, focus and intense pursuit of authentic and correct is something you’ve experienced not in Jersey City, but a little closer to home, then you likely know Arturo’s, the epicenter of soul-satisfying Italian food and pizza in Maplewood. Arturo’s is also owned by Richer, and Razza is the place Arturo’s spawned.

Years ago, Richer bought the longtime suburban pizza spot, but added his own bill of fare—notably a market- and season-driven tasting menu that drew national attention and garnered Richer a spot on the list of candidates for Rising Star Chef of the Year from the James Beard Awards. But he kept working on his pizza, which was head and shoulders above the then-growing pack of pizzaiolos, though not at the level of the best pizza-maker on the planet, New Jersey’s own Anthony Mangieri.

Then, one day, after hearing about Richer, Mangieri “came in for a pizza,” Richer says.

“At that point, I was focusing more at Arturo’s on the tasting menu, the pasta-making, the rabbit-cooking. When he came in, I was so embarrassed by my pizza-making that I knew I had to get better. That visit gave me a new direction.”

A direction that took him to Jersey City, to build Razza.

Richer started studying, reading bread books, delving into the science of fermentation. He reels off the names of bakers who influenced him—from the French professor Dr. Raymond Calvel, who wrote the seminal “The Taste of Bread,” to the American author, theologian, lecturer and restaurateur Peter Reinhart—and talks of years of trials and errors.

“In pursuit of making great pizza,” Richer says, “I learned how to make great bread.”

Inspiring Minds

Dan Richer is all about learning. He studied Japanese cuisine and, in 2005, found Sushi Yasuda on East 43rd St. in New York. Those who worship purist theologies in cuisine know Naomichi Yasuda as the best sushi chef.

Richer agrees. It was Naomichi Yasuda’s words, spoken as he served forth his fishes to Richer at his restaurant, that made the younger chef see the correlations between fish and rice and bread and butter.

“I had the same feeling with Yasuda’s sushi as I did with Anthony’s pizza: It was the rice that did it for me. What Yasuda explained to me so well was the element of time and temperature, of different fishes at different temperatures, of eating one piece at a time because only at that precise moment are both the fish and the rice at the perfect time and temperature. It has to be done at the last second and has to be eaten right away.

“When I started making the bread and the butter, I realized they, too, couldn’t be perfect if the bread was too hot or too cold or the butter too hot or too cold. That level of seriousness is something we take to our bread and butter. I take so much inspiration from Chef Yasuda.”

So much so, that when Naomichi Yasuda left his New York restaurant to the care of his sushi-chef lieutenants and went to Japan to open a minuscule temple to sushi, Richer made a point of traveling to Japan to eat there. He found Yasuda in his element—and at the height of his craftsmanship.

He is sitting in the dining room at Razza, where he has just finished shaping his dough into the now-iconic Razza shape that resembles a French batard. He glances over at the loaves, resting in individual linen-lined baskets. He consults with Octavio Gadea, who works with him on the bread. Then he continues.

“The thing that makes Anthony’s pizza better than anyone else’s is the dough. When you walk into his restaurant, you can smell it. It’s the dough. The essence and soul of pizza is fermenting dough.” True. Be it at Mangieri’s first Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., or the second, on East 12th Street in Manhattan, or the current Una Pizza, in San Francisco, the dough’s been the thing.

As Richer read and worked and experimented, his processes matured. He realized the key was in the fermentation. “I started fermenting everything I could; you come to understand how fermentation is controlled, how to make beneficial bacteria that out-perform the harmful bacteria.

“Innately, as humans, we’re meant to ferment. That became clear to me. It took me out of cooking and into something more like a craftsman. I feel more akin to an ironworker or a cabinet-maker than a chef. You need to understand iron, or wood, and once you understand it, you can put it back together the way you desire. The same is true with flour and water.”

When Richer says he started fermenting “everything,” he isn’t kidding. Pickles, sure. Yogurt, cheese, crème fraiche, naturally.

Then came butter. It was the natural partner for Richer’s bread which was, finally, getting to the level that made him feel good about serving it to his diners. Richer’s butter couldn’t be merely like any other premium butter, not even hyper-priced imported French butter or the good, truly good, cultured butters now sold in supermarkets. Richer’s own butter is made from cream that comes from cows pastured on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. This dairy-farming family makes small batches of yogurt and saves the cream that rises to the top for Richer. When he speaks of that cream, the craftsman gets a little poetic.

“There’s a week in April when the cream changes,” Richer says. “There’s a time when the cows eat onion-grass and you can taste it in the cream. I love to celebrate the seasonality of our own butter. What’s the fun if it doesn’t taste different? It’s such an amazing cultured product.”

It’s what the denizens are waiting for: Razza’s bread-and-butter course.

Razza Right Now

Before Richer took over the space, 275 Grove had been, in long succession, a bar, a wine store, a popcorn store and, way, way before, The Majestic Theater and a home for vaudeville. It is smaller than Arturo’s. Razza’s kitchen is tiny and much cooking, baking and prep work is done at the rear of the dining space, offering diners a bit of culinary theater. That suits Richer’s mission just fine: “Since our space is smaller, we focus more. That means, if we only do five things, we have to do them very well. On the surface, we look like another wood-fired pizza restaurant. Sometimes it seems like we’re nit-picking. But it’s the details that separate us.”

Let’s Eat

First, the bread. It tastes at once nutty and then, faintly, of rye. This never dominates the palate, but scents the mind with its nuance. There’s not just a single texture to the bread, but multiple textures, from the top crust to the bottom crust—and, oh, are they ever different—to the interior crumb, with its own layers of varying textures, particularly around the holes. The initial slice is gone before you have a chance to delineate all those layers.

So you take another slice, this time remembering the butter. The butter, at once beguilingly earthy-gamey and lushly creamy, has a natural salinity that can become elusive if you go too bonkers on the texture thing. I was into my third slice before I smacked myself for over-thinking. I started eating the butter straight, talking myself into believing it’d be a kind of palate-cleanser. Then came the stracciatella, the only thing that could get me to stop eating the butter.

Razza’s special salad that day was centered around minutina, a green that’s grassy in appearance, verdant and almost juicy in flavor. Its inherent sweetness proved an irresistible counterpoint to slivers of wild mushrooms, most importantly maitakes. There’s the barest splash of balsamic vinegar and exquisite olive oil to help fuse the greens and mushrooms.

Meatballs here employ Razza’s bread as binder. They are fluffy, they resonate beef, they come swathed in sauce.

For Dan Richer’s popular Pork Pie, pig’s feet are simmered. The ensuing broth is chilled. The fat is skimmed. The result is a kind of pork “jello,” which is cut into tiny cubes. These cubes are set atop pizza dough along with bacon and shaved onion. The gelatin melts into the dough as the pie bakes in the wood-fired oven, mingling with the addition of Parmigano-Reggiano cheese into a kind of pork sauce. After one slice, Razza’s Pork Pie soars to the very top of my personal Last Meal foods’ list.

– Andy Clurfeld

Fact is, Razza does far more than five things better than anyone else around. There’s the bread, yes. The butter, check. The fire-roasted meatballs, of course. There’s also the handmade stracciatella, a cheese meant to go with the Razza bread. There are the pizzas, some of which are seasonal, and there are salads, with many ingredients sourced from local farms. There are the daily special pastas, the artisan cocktails and the short-and-sweet wine and craft beer lists.

There’s also the setting. Richer preserves the past while making comfortable the dining experience. One wall, with its layers and layers of paint jobs past, looks like an Abstract Expressionist painter got a deal on greens, blacks and browns and went to town. It’s got the kind of texture that makes touching an irresistible response, much like you have to touch Richer’s breads. There’s a wood bench, from a temple, and wood slabs from Pennsylvania barns set atop iron pedestals as tables. (Richer clearly respects his fellow craftsmen.) There’s a huge blackboard, with the Razza processes for dough, butter, meatballs and more diagrammed in chalk.

Razza’s oven is the altarpiece, where the embers fundamentally simmer all night long and a giant cast-iron door keeps oxygen at bay. “When we get here in the morning,” Richer says, “it’s at 685 degrees.” The bread starts baking when the oven reaches 550 degrees, give or take 25 degrees, but no more, no less, and the residual heat—after the bread is done and the oven is at about 525 degrees—is used to roast onions and meatballs. After that, new wood is used to stoke the fire so the oven is ready for the nightly procession of pizzas. There is a dance of aromas all day, all night at Razza.

Those aromas linger, much as they do at the restaurant homes of Dan Richer’s mentor, Anthony Mangieri, with whom he shares a fundamental philosophy: The party’s over—for the day, at least—when the fresh dough or daily bread is gone. The smart savor those aromas, the sign of a master craftsman at work.

Common Lot

“The kitchen partners shrimp with long-marinated green papaya, shards of popping-bright mint, hints of peanut and a vivacious coconut sauce that unites everything on the plate.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Common Lot

27 Main St., Millburn

Phone: (973) 467.0494 

Open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Major credit cards and reservations accepted. 

Prices: Small/share plates: $5 to$18. Big plates/entrees: $26 to $35. Plates for two: $78 to $82. Desserts: $10 to $12.

As I write this, the sun is setting a deep pink-orange over the western edge of my Bayshore, New Jersey, town. Silver-blue sky streaks through brush strokes of pale gray clouds that have lost all vestiges of white in a manner of split seconds. I am as aware of the minutiae of weather at this pinpoint moment as I am of the ingredients in a dinner consumed almost a week earlier at Common Lot in Millburn.

For Common Lot, piloted by the chef-owner Ehren Ryan and his wife Nadine, co-owner and conspirator, is an unforgettable gift to those who value singular experiences in dining out. Who value respect for ingredients, a vision that eschews the tried-and-ultimately-ordinary, a determination to speak in a culinary voice that is proud, loud when necessary, yet always original.

True voices in restaurants are in short supply. That is sad. Many diners don’t even know, let alone understand, what a voice in food is. They should come to Common Lot, to learn.

Photography courtesy of Common Lot

Cook fingerling potatoes, for example, in lamb fat, and that diner will be educated. Duck fat is the fat du jour, has been for more than a decade now in progressive restaurants. But lamb is inherently gamey, and potatoes, a crop that does best in cold weather climes, gain a brave new soul when cooked in something heartier, meatier than the fat of duck. We learn, then, through the Ryans’ rendition of this cunning “small-to-share” starter plate, that meat-and-potatoes, the Germanic-influenced mid-20th-century essential supper of suburban America, how the most basic of the basics can evolve. There is a bit more on the plate to emphasize the evolution: a wash of creamy, rich burrata, of piquant onions, and a little shrapnel—mere shots—of bacon marmalade to set the dish squarely in the 21st century.

The dish isn’t just fine; it’s defining.

And so are the other five “smalls” we order to start our evening at Common Lot, a BYOB down the street from the venerable Papermill Playhouse, where Central Jersey schoolkids like me were shepherded to matinees on class trips and by parents on weekends. If Common Lot had been Papermill’s dinner-plus-theater partner all along, it could’ve ignited a Broadway in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, back at Common Lot 2016: Char-grilled octopus, with edge-of-night splashes of almost-black, play off the sweet snappiness of a spring onion relish and a spare salad of elegantly cubed potatoes. It’s the reduced shellfish oil that both binds and elevates the dish. Rye berries, at once boisterously nutty and coy, are the stars in a grilled avocado salad given nuance by dashes of a date-onion puree, the pulse of many-layered fermented chili and a confit of fennel that ever so subtly resonates with anise. 

Heirloom carrots are roasted with the one-two punches of honey-cumin and pumpkin seeds-yogurt. They complement each other and, in turn, the humble-goes-haute star ingredient. Beef tartare you’ve had; we’ve all had. But try it with an aioli plied with black garlic, a caramelized riff on a common ingredient that renders it simultaneously savory and sweet. In the end, it’s irresistibly umami-driven. Smear the whole shebang on the charred bread offered on the plate and you’ll know how the Frank Sinatra bobby-soxers at the old Paramount felt when they swooned till they fainted.

Why, I thought, haven’t I had plancha-seared shrimp like those served at Common Lot? Here, the kitchen partners shrimp with long-marinated green papaya, shards of popping-bright mint, hints of peanut—and a vivacious coconut sauce that unites everything on the plate without dominating.

I want to do the entire first round all over again. I am learning and loving. I also am, as a pottery junkie of 40-plus years, turning over and caressing the handmade Jono Pandolfi dinnerware and pitchers Common Lot has chosen for its table settings. Good company: The Union City-based pottery is also anchoring tables at Eleven Madison Park, Atera, Piora and Rouge Tomate in New York City, as well as Uchi in Dallas, the Ace in L.A., and Hawksworth in Vancouver.

The big plates (read: entrees) don’t lose focus. Sirloins are a dime a dozen, frankly, but Common Lot’s is house dry-aged for a month and the potatoes that accompany are cooked in beef fat, of course. (I am imagining cauldrons of variously labeled fats gently simmering in the kitchen here.) Creamy leeks and a super-concentrated red onion jam are there for dabbing with slices of the beef. Celery root two ways has its way with Amish country chicken breast: It’s mellowed by time in chicken fat and also left, in near-translucent ribbons, raw; the result is a yin-yang accent that can counterpoint with crunch or collaborate with sheer comfort. The literal and figurative topper: a chicken vinaigrette. 

Ocean char trends autumnal, with a mild-mannered turnip puree, a neat pile of rainbow Swiss chard and a scattering of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms rounding out the plate. But, you know, it’s not really the sides that round out the plate; it’s the expertly browned butter drizzled over pretty much everything. Yeah, butter is wonderful, especially when it’s cooked a second short from too much. Technical wizardry.

Love these entrees, but I’m saving my favorite for last: roasted broccoli, a quinoa salad and kale chimichurri, with a Tinkerbell-esque flick of toasted almonds on the plate. I argue with myself: Was the pesto-like rough puree of kale and allium the muse for the quinoa or the toasty broccoli?Were the almonds meant as a foil for the grain or the vegetable? I have to stop thinking because we’ve done the unthinkable and ordered a follow-up entree from the “shared mains for two” category on the Common Lot menu: the 12-hour braised lamb shoulder, “san choy bow” style, meant for the meat to be piled into lettuce cups.

Momofuko bo ssam fans, lamb is the new pork.

The caramel-concentrated soy is key; the butteriness of the cashews and cooked-til-nutty flavor and texture of the brown rice essential. Once assembled as intended, it’s birthday dinner material. And leftovers? I mean, unless the pair who share this duo dinner are sumo wrestlers who deliberately have been deprived of food for a week, you will have lamb left over. Partner it with white beans dressed in lemon and herbs and have a next-night dinner party.

The Common Lot team doesn’t falter at dessert. There is a lemon semifreddo with a marshmallow cream that pops amid a feisty lemon curd and a thin graham cracker crust. It’s a tango of tart and sweet, of smooth and crisp. There’s a smart progression of creaminess in the duo of mousses—chocolate and peanut butter—set astride dulce de leche; the regret of the dish was the un-share-able honeycomb (too small) and the understandable paucity of the cocoa nibs (would’ve been too much bitter).

But the rice pudding. Hmm. Laced with vanilla and studded with pistachios, it was sophisticated in its simplicity. It defined Common Lot in a very real way, by making the common seem uncommonly intriguing. 

Who are these people? Their chosen restaurant home stops short of having that too-stark, too-wanna-be-chic industrial aesthetic thanks to paintings and the Pandolfi pottery, the warmth of wood and the graceful lines of small touches, such as the water glasses. Ehren Ryan is Australian, while Nadine, who oversees the dining room, is from Austria. They are late-20s/early-30s old souls who seem to-the-table born. They clearly have the utmost respect for tradition, all the while taking chances—and doing so with the confidence that comes from knowing you have the chops to turn chance into triumph.

Ehran and Nadine Ryan have given New Jersey a gift of a restaurant, a place that competes with the nation’s best and would be deemed “worth a pilgrimage” by guidebooks if it was in the south of France. May the sun never set on the most extraordinary Common Lot.  EDGE

WINE TALK

Food with a voice merits—make that demands—wine that can match its heart and soul. Frankly, given the nuances of accents here, I would refrain from bringing any one of those too-big, too-brawny, made-for-show California wines that have limited place at the table.

Common Lot is the place to bring that mineral-driven riesling from Alsace. That age-able rosé from Bandol. That oh-so-elegant Brouilly from Beaujolais. Subtle, but sure-footed is what the food here deserves in a wine…something authentic, sincere and, of course, with a voice.

“True voices in restaurants are in short supply. That is sad. Many diners don’t even know, let alone understand, what a voice in food is.”

Clydz

“There’s always an entrée that offers a combo of game meats. On this night, it’s kangaroo, antelope and quail.”

By Andy Clurfeld

Clydz

55 Paterson St., New Brunswick

Phone: (732) 846.6521 

Reservations and major credit cards accepted. Lunch: Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Monday to Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. The bar is open Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday from 

4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. and Sunday from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Prices: Starters: $9 to $20. Entrees: $22 to $39. Sides: $6 to $15. Cocktails generally range in price from $10 to $12.

The longer you work in New Jersey, the fewer degrees of separation exist between you and anyone else who lives in our storied state. I believe Clydz, a landmark restaurant in New Brunswick that opened nigh on 20 years ago, is one of the Garden State’s epicenters of connectivity. When it opened in 1997, the restaurant had two near-instantly famous specialties: the kind of cocktails that gave birth to the Mixologist Generation of a soon-to-be-new century and dishes that put game—from alligator to bison to rabbit—in the spotlight. In a college town, with folks fresh out of that college coming up with these concepts and putting them into play on a stage at once edgy-hip and comfy-friendly, Clydz spoke in a language that was spirited, refreshing and dicey.

I recall reading Clydz’s press materials sent to me at The Asbury Park Press, where, at the time, I worked as the restaurant critic. What are these Clydz people thinking? I said to myself. They are not following the rules.

I admired them before I took a sip or a bite. Taking a chance, choosing not to play the same-old, same-old game, always appeals to me. My admiration for the courage it takes to test a conviction in public knows no bounds. I went, was somewhat impressed and extremely intrigued, and yet never wrote a review of the then-novel fledgling restaurant. Regrets? I’ve had only a few. This misstep of omission is No. 1.

It’s only just, then, that years and years later I meet and become friends with not one, but two members of the inaugural-era-of-Clydz staff. What are the odds? Well, in New Jersey, especially for someone who has been a reporter here for 40 years, pretty slam-dunk gonna-happen.

Game on, 2016; I go back to Clydz to see how the original vision of first owner Joe Clyde, who later was to bring his “game” game to the historic Sergeantsville Inn in the most bucolic part of Hunterdon County, has held up. Bottom line: Clydz may have shown best when the original crew of young’uns set new standards, but it’s still a place with a personality. And a vibe.

www.istockphoto.com

Yet…am I judging too harshly our lead server, who fails to offer us the names of the day’s various oysters? No, I’m not. She’s wrong when she replies to my query about the types of oysters offered that night with a curt, “Are you going to order them? You don’t need to know unless you are.”

“I won’t know that until I know what kinds of oysters you have tonight,” I respond. I think of my two ex-Clydz pals, both pros in other professions now. No way, no how would they have dissed a diner that way.

Our server doesn’t veer from curt when she provides a half-hearted recitation of the oyster lineup along with a sidebar of how important work on her master’s degree is to her.(Message received.) The oysters are carefully presented and tinglingly refreshing, particularly New Jersey’s own Cape May Salts. These Salts taste better and better every time I have them. On this night, they leave the Blue Points and Deep Bays in the also-ran category.

Meanwhile, we’re finishing a round of classic Clydz’s cocktails from a list that includes members of the first vintage of the mixed drinks that put this spot on the map. The size and scope of the drinks menu is comparable to the length and breadth of a classic Jersey diner’s bill of savory fare. The designated drinkers at my table are gleeful.(And ever more so as the night progresses: I’ve never before told a dine team, “OK, you can drink too much tonight.”)

I’ll rattle off a few of the favorites: Corpse Survivor II (Death’s Door, Lillet, Cointreau, absinthe, lemon juice; can anybody fill us in on the composition of Corpse Survivor the First?); French 55 (Champagne, Zubrowka, St. Germain, pineapple juice, lemon); Holiday Inn (strawberry-infused vodka, St. Germain, cucumber, lime); Cyn City (Hayman’s Old Tom, Cynar, lemon, simple syrup, mint, ginger beer); Jersey Sazerac (Laird’s Applejack, Pernod, maple bitters, simple syrup)…you get the idea. These Clydzians are into complicated.

Anyway, speaking of rattling: The braised python ravioli starter cossets a fine-chop of the fillet speckled with arugula, all of which is ladled with a wild mushroom-infused cream sauce. Meatballs made with various ground game meats (boar, we’re told, dominates the day’s mix) are given a spray of a roasted tomato demi-glace that’s mild and relatively unseasoned. As I eat both the python ravioli and the meatballs, I’m thinking it’s pleasant. But I’m looking for the kind of thrill that comes from accents that understand the protein they’re meant to enhance. Not there. The roasted bone marrow, plated with shreds of pulled short rib, a dab of tomato jam and toasts rubbed with black garlic, is more properly mild. I yearn for a few spoonfuls of rich jus.

The cold appetizers have more character, even though the kitchen’s technical skills sometimes can falter. The charred octopus comes with cantaloupe that’s been grilled and then wrapped with bresaola. Some pieces of octopus are tender and lovely, while others tough; when it works, it’s terrific with onions that are pickled, tomatoes that are roasted till sweet and figs coaxed into a concentrated state. Duck confit deviled eggs sound like an ingredients’ dream come true but the eggs are rubbery and—even with the accompanying chipotle-licked aioli—the starter comes off as shy. Smoked salmon tostones have a flash of red chili-powered oil and plate partners that include mango relish and a pockmark of caviar. They’re in league with the other apps: in need of a flavor that leads, that guides.

There’s always an entrée that offers a combo of game meats. On this night, it’s kangaroo, antelope and quail. Hesitant to try an exotic meat? Don’t be. The kangaroo and antelope were chicken-breast mild, with the quail notching the highest intensity of flavor on that plate. Probably the most “gamey” entrée of the night was the rosy loin of rabbit, plied as it was with a pert sun-dried tomato pesto that weighed in as refreshingly tart and plated with nutty quinoa, favas, carrots and sweet corn. Grilled bison hangar steak was served well by a red wine reduction and a spray of onions electrocuted into frizziness. The kitchen tosses a quail egg onto the plate as a game give-away. Seafood, anyone? Try the rice bowl, with trout and shrimp in the lead and a supporting cast of squiggles of egg, baby bok choy and dashi broth. Mild, once again, ruled. But it’s a comforting dish.

I suspect regulars order another cocktail for dessert; indeed, while the dining spaces were less than half-full on this weekend evening, Clydz’s bar was, constantly, three or four deep. Maybe more. These are the folks, I suspect, who know to avoid the apple pie spring rolls with a “crust” that tastes like Play-doh. Better was the light-batter, not-too-sweet crepes plied with blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.

By now late-late, Clydz is rocking. As I eye the undulating crowd for the drinks of choice, I find myself stumped. I ask a server what the most popular cocktails are and he shrugs. “Everything is popular,” he says. There are maybe 100 cocktails on the list. That’s a lot of popular. Are the game dishes as popular as the drinks? I ask, hoping for a more specific answer.

Which I get. “The Tater Tots (with parmesan and truffle oil) and the Onion Rings (with cheese curds) are good.”

Game off, I guess. Those first years of Clydz, back in a previous century, set standards for fun and game—quite literally. The people who came together here may well have shared a spirit of adventure that wasn’t offered by other establishments in New Jersey. Frankly, I wish Clydz would reconnect with its roots and the soul of its menu. Game is on the menu; it needs to be in the concepts and the cooking, too.