Sonny’s Indian Kitchen
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.

 

Par 440 Restaurant & Lounge
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 Ryland Inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ursino

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

Ursino’s executive chef, Peter Turso

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

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

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

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

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

Cucharamama

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

Photo credit: Joseph Corrado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Verjus

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

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

Everyone in New Jersey thinks they can run an Italian restaurant. I don’t think I want to.

Being part of an Italian restaurant is all I’ve ever known. I was born into a generational, family owned business that has been operating for more than fifty years. My grandfather’s dream was my playpen. Literally. Warm smiles were usually accompanied by a pignoli cookie or a cannoli. The servers were like aunts, uncles and cousins. What a fabulous and affectionate way to spend my childhood. It was not a life of privilege in the conventional sense. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But a wooden one suited me just fine. Of course, the reality of the business eventually climbs into your life. My childhood Candyland was a living, breathing, hectic restaurant. And it wasn’t always sunshine and dreams. My first real job in the restaurant took place at the tender age of 13. Twice a week, for a total of four hours, I labored in the bakery. That time was primarily spent pouting, standing along the wall, brushing crumbs onto the floor and trying to look busy whenever my parents walked in. All the while, the actual workers were glaring at me. I wasn’t helping. I was in their way. Other kids I knew got grounded when they did something wrong. I was forced to help the hostess on busy Saturday nights. I did more moping than greeting. Ironically, when I look back, I would have to say hostessing was my favorite duty. It required the least amount of actual movement or labor, and I got to stand there looking all dolled-up for a few hours. Working in the bakery would come in second, since all I really had to do was fold cake boxes, weigh pastries, hand customers breads or pizzas,

and assemble cookie trays (so that one extra would land in my mouth). My least favorite (and current) duty is waitressing. Although it is the highest-paying job in the restaurant, at the end of a shift I am covered with grease and alcohol, my head is filled with customers’ complaints and I am dog tired. Being a waitress is really hard work. This is compounded by my natural talent for messing up orders, dropping plates and spilling drinks on patrons. Once I was blind-sided by a negative review of my service after I thought I had done an amazing job with a table. The customers’ actions and generous gratuity seemed to confirm this, yet they smack-talked me on the way out to my manager. That was an especially low blow to my ego. Although being part of a restaurant family has its occasional perks, family members tend to get the short end of the stick compared to the employees, particularly when it comes to the more unpleasant jobs.

There have been numerous instances where I’ve had to get down and dirty. Really dirty. When there’s a clog in the restroom, it always falls to a family member because we can’t say, “I quit!” Also, if I have an amazing date on a Saturday night, or maybe I’m just having one of those days, can I call in and say I’m a no-show tonight? Fugghetaboutit. Can they call me in on my day off because someone else left them hanging? Absolutely. So here I am, a struggling writer with a handful of clippings and a college diploma, looking to get out of the restaurant business as soon as I can afford to. It’s not a decision I came to easily. To take over the family business and continue the Piancone legacy would put a colossal beam on my father’s and late grandfather’s faces—especially since I am an only child and the oldest of seven cousins. Although pride would be coursing through their veins, my family members completely support and understand my need to pursue the career of my choosing. And needless to say, without the help from my family and the restaurant, I would not have been able to receive my undergraduate degree, or be able to put money aside for graduate school. Of course, this is New Jersey, so there’s always someone out there dying to run an Italian restaurant. If that’s you, my advice is to involve your extended family—but also to go in with your eyes wide open. You will need a family that is at least semi-stable, and always ready to man-up and hold down the fort. For what it’s worth, here are some additional words of wisdom:

Treat Family & Workplace Like Church & State. No one wants to talk or think about work after they’ve made it back to the sanctuary of the home. Imagine being overworked and exhausted and then having someone—I won’t mention any names, Mom—asking an endless series of rapid-fire questions. Was it busy? How much money did you make? What’s your schedule? How did the food look? Were there a lot of people at the bar? By the same token, everyone needs to leave work baggage at the door. This is definitely easier said than done. It is also inevitable that your personal life will clash with your work life. Expect it, but don’t invite it. Bottom line? Separate home and work problems. Long-term it’s the only successful route to take.

Respect the Pecking Order. The boss is the boss, the chef is the chef, and family members need to fit in to make a place run smoothly. As the boss’s daughter, I got treated differently. The chefs were nice to me even though, as a rule, they don’t have such a peachy demeanor. On the flip-side, no one wants to include you in small talk. It’s amazing how kitchen conversations suddenly end when I pop my head in and say, “What’s up, guys?”

Don’t Take It Personally. If a customer is unhappy with the food or gripes about the service, chances are he or she is complaining about a family member. Let it go. Stay calm and respectful, even if your stomach is tied in knots. Everyone has an off day, including Mom and Dad. In my case, there’s an added twist since my boyfriend works in our restaurant. When a customer calls him a cutie pie, I need to tell myself servers and patrons are always flirting. Again and again and again. All kidding aside, the Piancone family has experienced business and personal success due to our genuine love and passion for the restaurant and one another. Unlike a corporate work environment, our staff is made up of handpicked prodigies that we know truly care about the well-being of the restaurant because they are our best friends. Our church and state may continuously clash, and a few customers may give us grief, but at the end of a long night, we know we’ll come together and share a glass of wine. Which, believe me, beats the heck out of those pignoli cookies.

Editor’s Note: Johnny Piancone (johnnypiancone.com) is located on Broadway in Long Branch. Francesca’s grandfather and his brother started in Bradley Beach in the 1950s. Francesca graduated from Lynn University in Florida. She wrote for Gold Coast magazine before joining the EDGE family.

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.

 

Mosaico

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

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

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

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

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

Have Food, Will Travel

Gourmet Food Trucks Go Full Throttle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ninety Acres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emeril Lagasse

Internationally acclaimed chef, bestselling author, beloved TV personality, retail superstar— there isn’t much Emeril Lagasse hasn’t done in the culinary world. So it might surprise you to know that among his 12 award-winning restaurants there has never been an Italian one. Until now. This June, Lagasse opens Emeril’s Italian Table at a casino near you—the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem to be specific, just over an hour away, a straight shot out Rte. 78. It will be his third eatery at the Sands, joining Emeril’s Chop House and Burgers and More (aka BAM). Emeril’s Italian Table features the chef’s creative takes on the rustic Italian cuisine he grew up on, as well as classic meat, fish and vegetarian dishes, wood-oven pizzas and artisanal cheeses. Diners will get to experience the cooking process up close thanks to a large window into the kitchen. EDGE editor Mark Stewart tracked down Lagasse as he put the finishing touches on his latest creation.

EDGE: Everything you do is accompanied with such high expectations now—do you experience more pressure or anxiety when you are creating a restaurant concept, or after the restaurant opens?

EL: Opening a restaurant is tough but I love it. With Emeril’s Italian Table the feeling is definitely excitement. I’ve got a great team that has been part of my organization since the very beginning. We all work hard and put a lot of energy into the planning and the menu, crafting the right look and feel of the restaurant. Our style of service and hospitality originates from my restaurants in New Orleans and is a huge part of our culture and the Emeril’s experience. In the end, we’re in the business of making people happy.

EDGE: What signature touches will veteran diners recognize at your new place in the Sands?

EL: When I opened my first restaurant, Emeril’s, in New Orleans, we really wanted to take down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. If you visit today, there’s really no barrier between the kitchen and dining room—you can see us at work and we can see who’s dining, and make sure everything is going smoothly out in the front of the house. Emeril’s Table will include an antipasto bar and a food bar so you get that same experience and interaction up close. The food bar is still one of the hottest seats in the house.

EDGE: You opened Emeril’s Chop House at the Sands a couple of years back, and people swear by it. What goes into making a first-rate chop house—from the menu to service to the atmosphere?

EL: This is our only Chop House, so the concept here is a steakhouse with a little twist on the usual standards – chops, steaks, free-range chicken, seasonal fish, lobster and there’s also some Creole-inspired dishes. We wanted to keep a little sensibility of an American steakhouse, except more open and modern. It’s a really inviting and comfortable atmosphere with great food and great service. Each one of my restaurants has its own personality. My belief is that a restaurant must have heart, soul, and always provide a great customer experience. Great food, great wines, and great service—that’s our philosophy regardless of location.

EDGE: In the pantheon of “celebrity chefs” I think of you as approaching things with a rock-star attitude. Does that come from the days when you were considering a career in music? Are you kind of living both lives at the same time?

EL: Well, I grew up doing both and I still love both. Music was and still is another big passion for me. I was in a local band and played the drums in high school. I was even offered a scholarship to music school, but I decided instead to enroll in culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. I have been fortunate enough to overlap the two along the road.

EDGE: When was that moment when you said to yourself Hey, I’m REALLY good at what I do!

EL: I was probably 8 or 9 years old when I realized that I might want to cook and be a chef one day.

EDGE: You are a proponent of eating local produce, and obviously New Jersey has a lot to offer in that respect. What do you feel is the #1 most misunderstood or underrated vegetable?

EL: Kale. I love cooking with fresh greens, lettuces and kale—whether it’s in a soup or sautéed and served with pasta and clams. Our menus generally rotate about three or four times a year. As we transition into summer we’ll make a few menu changes for the season and incorporate the local summer corn and tomatoes and you’ll really see the seasonal influences.

EDGE: This is our Mind Your Manors issue—manors referring to homes. What are some of the mistakes home chefs tend to make when they try to prepare big, bold cuts of meat themselves?

EL: Under-seasoning. Salt and pepper are a cook’s best tool. Sometimes people are afraid to season, but that’s the secret to a great steak—salt, pepper and maybe a little cayenne or essence. Sprinkle a little more salt at the end, and maybe a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

EDGE: Can you make a truly great steak at home without a commercial kitchen?

EL: A cast-iron skillet, grill pan, or a gas or charcoal outdoor grill are all you need. A lot of people are afraid of under cooking meat, so a good meat thermometer is a smart investment.

EDGE: How has home cooking—from your family background—expressed itself in your creations over the years? How often do you reach back 40 or 50 years for a little inspiration?

EL: Growing up, I was always interested in food from a very young age. My mom Miss Hilda, who is Portuguese and French Canadian, and my dad, Mr. John, were a huge influence on my life. I learned a great deal from my mom. She taught me how to cook and that started my passion for the culinary arts. I also worked at a local Portuguese bakery while in school. I learned the art of making breads, pastries and cakes. Everything I learned early on shows up in some way in my restaurants.

EDGE: What did you learn from baking?

EL: What I learned is one of the most important foundations of my restaurants: make everything from scratch. Bread, pasta, Andouille sausage, Worcestershire sauce, ice creams, sauce—you name it.

EDGE: No shortcuts?

EL: No. There are no shortcuts.

Editor’s Note: BAM! EDGE readers can Cook with Emeril. Go to edgemagonline.com for an Opening Night recipe from Emeril’s Italian Table.

Three for the Money

A Trio of Westfield Winners 

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

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

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

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

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

Grain and Cane
Thirsty Turtle Restaurant