NJ: Bar dining

Chef Anthony LoPinto lands at Marcello's in Suffern: running a Chef's table and cooking classes

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It's good to have Chef Anthony Lo Pinto back doing what he does best: cooking fantastic, seasonally-driven food.

This time, you get to watch him while he does it, as he'll be doing it all in front of you, acting as your host, Chef, and educator.

I've been following Chef LoPinto for over a decade now. I first experienced his cooking and hospitality at the now-shuttered Fortunato in Lyndhurst, NJ, where he came out to the bar to meet my friend and me, and, if I recall correctly, took it upon himself to cook for us. No ordering, just sitting back and having the chef prepare a meal, serve it, talk about it, pour carefully paired wines, and making a connection with his guests.  And that's exactly the experience you can have at Anthony Lo Pinto's Chef Table at Marcello's.

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We were recently invited by Chef Lo Pinto to what I would call a friends-and-family night at his Chef's table, and were more than thrilled to take him up on the offer. The "official" kick-off, I believe, will be sometime in early September, when the Chef's table will be serving food a few nights a week, with a three course meal Wednesday and Thursday, and a five course meal Friday and Saturday nights, available by reservation.

We were greeted by a huge smile and hug, as you are by every Chef, right? The table, which surrounds the stove, was set with bottles wine and a tasting of four olive oils (from Marcello's Italian foods import business). Excellent bread from a local bakery was served. Game on.

LoPintos Chefs Table

When all of the guests arrived, Lo Pinto kicked off the night with a toast, and then went on explain his philosophies on hospitality, seasonal food, and cooking, and sharing in his excitement for this way of cooking for guests. And the first course was in play...

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Rutt's Hut: Fried Chicken in Clifton, NJ

 I've been going to Rutt's Hut for 30 years. And this week I uttered words that I had never considered uttering, and quite frankly didn't know could be uttered:

"I'll have the basket of fried chicken."

What the what??!?

Let's rewind, to the drive over. The missus, who has been to Rutt's Hut perhaps once in her life, started thinking about what she'd be ordering.

Missus: "What should I order."

Me: "You order a hot dog."

Missus: "What else is on the menu?"

Me: "NOTHING is on the menu. You order a hot dog."

Missus: "Oh, maybe I'll get a chili dog!"

Me: "They DON'T HAVE CHILI DOGS. THIS IS RUTT'S HUT. THE ONLY THING YOU ORDER IS A %@#%&%ING HOT DOG WITH MUSTARD, and MAYBE relish."

This frustrating exchange brought me to the verge of exhaustion. Why doesn't everyone understand the world exactly the way I do? Savages. All of you.

Now we're sitting at Rutt's Hut. At the bar, no less. In the middle of the day, no less. A place I rarely find myself--I'll typically go to the walk-up side of the place and eat my meal in the car. We're looking up at the 70-year-old menu above the bar, snickering about how bad much of it has to be, and the oddly specific pricing ($3.10?). Then the missus spies "fried chicken in a basket."

The missus starts up with "I wonder how--." I immediately go to cut her off. I'm not having any more of this nonsense talk about any non-hot dog food that Rutt's Hut allegedly offers. But then something occurs to me: Rutt's Hut fries stuff up but real good. Who's to say they don't fry up chicken parts just as well?

Ordering the fried chicken would be crazy, I'm thinking. I don't want to waste a meal, skipping my two dogs for some awful chicken. I start searching online for images of Rutt's Hut fried chicken, to get a feel for it. Just to see what it looks like. There's just one. One picture of the fried chicken at Rutt's Hut. On some horseshit site called "food spotting"-- a site that doesn't believe in words, and appeals, I suppose, to people who are attracted to shiny things and don't want to think, although I guess it came in handy at that moment. Has more than one person ever ordered this? Hard to say.

We throw caution to the wind and utter those crazy words.  "I'll have the basket of fried chicken."

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Wood Stack Pizza Kitchen: top-notch pizza and cocktails in Pine Brook, NJ

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A short ten years ago, the only thought of Neapolitan-style pizza in NJ was the memory of Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach, owned and operated by the incredible pizzaiola Anthony Mangieri, which had a run of a few years, and probably caused much confusion for the locals and bennies--"What, no slices? I have to order a whole pie? Why is it so small? Why is it moist? It's burned." It closed, and Mangieri moved his place to NYC to great acclaim. Then he moved to San Francisco, for more great acclaim.

But now, in our current world of open-mindedness and tolerance to ideas that differ from our own and our ability to have our worldviews and deeply rooted biases challenged, Neapolitan-style pizza can be all over our state, and even in some other states, if you can believe that. Many of these places do a very good job. Few combine excellent Neapolitan-style pizza with a full bar. And even fewer have a full bar and actually care about the booze they're offering. Wood Stack Pizza, in Pine Brook, is, indeed, exceptional in this regard, and others.

Wood Stack Pizza Pine Brook
Here's a tip: if they offer you bread, take it. They're baking their own bread here, as good pizzaiolo do, and it's excellent stuff. Served with softened butter sprinkled with coarse sea salt (they do things right here, I'm tellin' ya that much).

Their liquor shelves are well-stocked, and even have some stuff that I've never come across. The cocktail list is expansive, and there's a separate section for margarita-type drinks (tequila, and mezcal), presumably because they knew I'd be coming.  The gin, rum, whiskey, and tequila cocktails far outnumber the vodka drinks, thankfully. Good management is in place, it's clear, because the bartenders are jiggering their cocktails. Cocktails are all about proportions, and unless you're a very exceptional bartender, not jiggering can lead to unbalanced drinks. I prefer to see jigger use at a bar. It's a sign of professionalism and an attention to detail. Even I, I, use jiggers when making cocktails at home. Of course, I can free-pour pretty well, but why bother.

Woodstack pizza pine brook
Woodstack pizza pine brook
Woodstack pizza pine brook

The tap beers are all local, and seem to rotate pretty regularly. All from NJ as far as I can remember. All sorts of great beer is being produced in NJ, and you should start drinking it and supporting your local brewers. Otherwise those kids who make the beer are going to have to do the other things they'd be doing, like making awful music. Please drink their beer so I don't have to hear their awful music. 

Wood Stack does have some mass-produced swill in bottles, for the savages among us.

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The Barrow House: Clifton, NJ

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First things first: they have to rope off that entrance that faces the parking lot, since everyone thinks it's a way in, and every guest walks up to the door before realizing it's locked, including me.

Second things second: that burger is horrible. Something must be done about it.

Other than that, we had a very enjoyable meal at Barrow House.

The place seems to have an excellent staff (not much unlike its sister restaurant, Cowan's Public in Nutley). It's a stunning looking restaurant, with attention to detail at every turn (including a photo booth, in which you can have your silly photos taken and sent immediately to you via email). The place looks like it came out of the Farmhouses-R-Us catalog. The restaurant has several different rooms, each with a slight variation on the theme. Fireplaces in about every room.  And a lounge room with couches and big chairs. Certainly a bit kitschy, but executed well. 

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Jockey Hollow in Morristown: continues to knock it out of the park

It had been a bit over a year since my first and only visit to Jockey Hollow. That visit yielded some mixed results, but overall I walked away very positive about the place. Why it took so long to return is beyond me. Indeed, two recent meals suggested to me that Jockey Hollow is one of the best and well-run restaurants in New Jersey.

Jockey hollow burger

Our first recent visit included one of the best burgers I've had in quite a long time. Everything about it was outstanding. The bun was a perfect size and texture, the meat had a course grind, and was super-beefy, the garnishes were creamy and acidic and sweet and smokey and salty (the bacon), and the damned thing just worked. Really well.

Jockey hollow fish

A pristine piece of Branzino was served with pickled vegetables and a cauliflower velouté with some roasted cauliflower. A simple preparation on the face of it, but one which brought some creamy notes and some acidic notes to the table. Along with lots of textures. A real pleasure this dish.

Fast forward two weeks or so, and we're watching Youtube videos on Italy, one of which has a chef making a very simple pasta dish with guanciale. I think to myself "why can't we have a restaurant in New Jersey that uses guanciale." All I wanted was pasta with guanciale. I got myself into a lather, filled with disappointment. The missus out-of-the-blue says "Do you want to go back to Jockey Hollow?" I figured that would be a good move, and I pull up the menu. BOOM. Guanciale, in a pasta dish. Off we went.

But first, a cocktail.

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Penang Malaysian and Thai Cuisine: Lodi, NJ

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The food of Malaysia is one of the few SE Asian cuisines that I've never warmed up to. I think this had something to do with a Malaysian restaurant taking the place of my beloved Good 'n Plenty bar in Hoboken some years back. Damn them.

More realistically, my indifference was probably because the combination of Thai and Chinese and Indian never really did anything for me. Flavors and dishes seemed watered down, to my mind, with no real identity. That, of course, is some ignorant shit. Malaysian cuisine isn't hindered by its many influences. It is elevated by its many influences. I'm finally coming around.

This boring story starts about a year ago when we, on a whim, stopped at Penang in Lodi on the way back from a miserable dinner somewhere. Just for a drink. We figured it would be horrible and we'd get a story out of it. As it turned out, the bartender was an interesting character, the bar was well-stocked, the menu looked very appealing, and we had a grand ol' time. We knew we'd be back. But then we totally forgot about the place. Until this week.

We started with achat (pictured above), which is a pickled vegetable dish with a slightly sweet peanut gravy. Holy cow. This dish is right up my alley. Crisp, bright vegetables, crunchy pieces of peanut, spices, a bit of heat, acid. This dish hits all the marks. We cleaned the plate and I wanted more. Which is a good thing, because another dish we ordered included more.

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Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ: opening in Paramus

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Update: it's open.

It seems like forever ago that the Korean restaurant on Paramus Road, in Paramus, closed. I forget the name, but it was largely unexceptional, and a bit of a dump.

It didn't take too long for work to begin on the empty building, and that work has been going on for quite some time. Over a year I'd say. They gutted the place, and I'm guessing invested in everything from a new roof to a new kitchen. All along yielding no hint as to what type of restaurant might be moving in.

I kind of thought it would be an upscale Greek fish restaurant, what with that kind of money being poured into the structure (not to mention the liquor license). I thought wrong.

Indeed there's now a new sign on the building announcing Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ. Korean wouldn't necessarily be my first choice for this space, but it's certainly a good thing overall. Anything but an Italian-American restaurant, quite frankly, would be fine with me. Another bullet dodged.

While the idea of a Korean restaurant with a liquor license doesn't really excite me (I know of few Korean restaurants with interesting beer lists or cocktail programs), I did see a bunch of new grill hoods being placed over each of the tables. So they've got that going for them. 

I'm looking forward to taking my first slab of short rib and throwing it on the flame, with an OB Lager I assume.


Restaurant comers and goers in Ridgewood: NJ

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The near constant turnover of restaurants continues in Ridgewood, NJ.

Long-time staple and all-around mediocre restaurant La Piazza disappeared a few months ago. I got a bit excited when I saw a sign announcing a new place called "29 Chestnut," until I looked closer and read "Italian Trattoria." What we don't need is yet another "Italian" restaurant in New Jersey (I'm relatively confident that it will be "Italian-American" and will not specialize in the cooking of any part of Italy).

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Diwani moved out of its digs on E. Ridgewood Ave and headed up to Mahwah a few months back. That space is extremely awkward, with a small front room, some sort of dead space, and then a larger dining room tucked in the back. Let's hope Pardis Persian Grill can make a go of it.

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Back on Chestnut Street, it looks like some sort of health food place went kaputt, and something with the potential of being much more interesting is moving in. Tori Ramen Chicken is coming soon.

Will they only serve chicken ramen? What about pork? I like pork. It looks like a pretty big space, so maybe they'll have room for chicken and pork ramen. Either way, this one is something to look forward to.

Ridgewood Fisheries, the small Japanese market, has closed. J Mart, another Japanese market, remains open.

Bella Notte Italian Bistro, which was La Bottega before that, closed a few months ago. The space remains empty.

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Kilwins, some sort of chain, has a nice little spot right across from Van Neste Square. Haven't been in there, but I'm guessing they have chocolates, caramel apples, fudge, and ice cream.

As I noted earlier, another highly anticipated restaurant, Fish, is making progress on their remodel of the old bank building. I've got high hopes for this place, and I hope it doesn't screw it all up.

A reader notes that Italia di Gusto is open on E. Ridgewood ave. The website is here.

So that's that.

I worked up quite an appetite walking those 4 blocks, and headed over to the always-excellent Sakura Bana for some sushi. 

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A quick peek inside Fish Ridgewood: Ridgewood, NJ

Fish Ridgewood, which is bound to open some point this year in the old Bank of America building, has been very open to sharing pictures of the progress on their Facebook page. But that didn't stop me from poking my nosy face in there to take a few pics.

As expected, their goal of opening "mid-May" wasn't realistic, or met. But I'll hold tight, all the while hoping that the place will be exceptional. I have a really good feeling about it. At the very least it should look stunning.

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Wolfgang's Steakhouse: Somerville, NJ

Wolfgangs steak for two

A sunny day and a restaurant filled with windows is the ideal scenario to snap a few pics of food. Nothing beats all of that natural light for sharp, brilliant, clear photos.

Unfortunately for me and you, my cohorts picked the darkest table in the place for our lunch. It was literally the only table in the restaurant without a light fixture over it. I know this because I'm obsessed with such things, and checked. And so, the photos here suck even more than usual. But I will soldier on, because this is important business here.

By now we all know the story of Wolfgang's. Wolfgang was "head waiter" at Peter Luger for years, opened up his own place on Park Ave South in Manhattan, essentially with the same exact menu as Luger, went on to open another restaurant in Tribeca, and then I blinked and he's got places all over the globe. Including, curiously to moi, Somerville, NJ. He was so darned busy opening restaurants that he forgot to grab the .com domain. .net is so silly.

We ordered a chiefly typical meal here: bacon, oysters, steak for two, creamed spinach, German potatoes.

Wolfgangs bacon

The bacon is as good as it is at any of the Luger clones. Here's the thing about that bacon: it's just bacon. It's hardly an exceptional product. It is from the belly of the hog. It's not "Canadian bacon" (an actual thing), regardless of what the menu says or how often clueless food writers perpetuate that ridiculous falsehood. It's bacon. It's good because it's salty and smoky and fatty. And I have no problem with that reality.

You'll not find an exciting selection of oysters at Wolfgang's. The menu says "oysters." In the NYC area, that typically means Blue Point (Blue Point must produce an awful lot of oysters, considering how many menus they turn up on). Of course, if you mention oysters to your server, they'll likely kick into up-sell mode. "We can make a nice seafood tower for you,"  to which I typically respond "would you please just screw the fuck off? Thanks."

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