NJ: BYOB

From Scratch: Excellent Italian restaurant in Ridgewood, NJ

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There's a little gem of a restaurant tucked away on E. Ridgewood Ave in Ridgewood. With its limited menu and lack of the typical Italian-American treats, From Scratch might not be for everyone. But if you are interested in Italian cooking influenced by the cooking of that country, you will probably enjoy the place. Judging by the crowds and hard-to-get reservations, plenty of people already "get it."

I could have very well been sitting in Italy the other day, as I enjoyed my lunch, with the sounds of the Italian language in the background (the owners are from Rome). The waitress that day was also from Italy. Near Napoli, as it turned out. More importantly than where she's from is that she convinced me to order an Italian soft drink.

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Typically I'll drink only wine or beer or water with food, but as she described this drink as being made with bitter orange, my interest was piqued. I'm sure glad I gave this stuff a try. Contrasted with the one-note sweet glop the passes as soda in the US, the Italian version is much more dynamic, much more interesting, and much more delicious. This stuff is agrodolce (bittersweet, as you know). It tasted not much unlike an Americano, a cocktail which I routinely drink like it's my job (equal parts sweet vermouth and Campari, topped with sparkling water and served with a slice of orange). It's made by Lurisia and called Chinotto.

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Oh the food you wonder? I had a wonderful panino with bresaola, parmesan (sliced by knife), arugula, and a touch of dressing. This is a perfectly balanced sandwich with quality ingredients. Contrasted with typical sandwiches, which too often consist of too-much mediocre bread, and too many bland fillings.  This sandwich packed all sorts of flavor and texture, all with being a sensible (to my mind) size.

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White Maple Cafe: Ridgewood, NJ restaurant

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White Maple Cafe opened without me realizing it. I happened to be walking by one day, after a fine meal at from scratch, and there it was. A good-looking restaurant with an interesting menu. Who knew?

I popped in for a quick lunch the other day to see what was going on. I liked what I saw and enjoyed what I had, for the most part.

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Best dishes: of 2015

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Putting together a year-end wrap-up list like this is sort of a pain-in-the-ass, I've come to realize. I have to figure out what dishes I want to include, find a photo, remember something halfway interesting or at least accurate to say about the dish, type it all in, spellcheck, look up web sites, etc. It takes a lot time, and at the end of the day very few people care what I put into my face. And I'm sure as shit not getting paid for it. But, it's a nice walk down memory lane for me, so once I get going, sifting through the photos and thinking about the experiences, it turns out to be quite a lot of fun, as I ignore the reality that you may not give a toss about any of it.

But then I have to type words and stuff, and I put it off for 3 weeks. It turns into a task. A task that I just recently tackled.

So why isn't this list New Jersey-focused you didn't ask and probably didn't even wonder? Well I'll tell ya. I used to include only New Jersey/NYC restaurants in these lists (I think), but I've been told that there is some value to some people to include stuff from other places. The fact that many of the dishes on this list are from outside of New Jersey shouldn't be a surprise. When I travel, I'm obviously carefully picking restaurants that I think will be outstanding. And let us not ignore the fact that when you're traveling, things just taste better. New experiences put more lead in my pencil than anything. When I'm stuck in New Jersey, conversely, I don't spend enough time eating out, and too often go back to the same places where I know I can get a good meal. But, there are several restaurants on this list within a stone's throw of New Jersey, so even if you don't ever plan on leaving the Garden State, perhaps something on this list will appeal to you.

Enough explaining. On with it.

Here's a list of exceptional dishes that I enjoyed in 2015. In no particular order other than perhaps chronological.

 

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Momma's Boy Burgers: A Shake Shack-ish place in Wayne, NJ

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It's beyond evident that Shake Shack was an inspiration for the people who opened Momma's Boy, a burger/hot dog joint in Wayne, NJ. It's clear right down to the wood/metal interior and the logo. And who can blame them for taking some cues from a place like Shake Shack. Shake Shack does a pretty damned good job at selling hamburgers and fries.

The people behind Momma's Boy were certainly paying attention when they pulled this place together.  The burger is very similar to the burger at Shake Shack. Same griddled potato roll, same style of "special sauce" (may0/ketchup-based), same type of melty American cheese, and the same size. But all of that means nothing if the burger meat isn't tasty, and the execution is flawed. Do they pull it off?

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Joyce Chinese: River Edge, NJ, the same as it used to be: excellent

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From the various rumblings on the web claiming how Joyce Chinese, the barely 2-year-old Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ, "isn't as good as it used to be," you'd think they changed the menu and dumbed down the food to appeal to bland American tastes. From my admittedly unscientific analysis, I conclude that that's all a bunch of cahcah (cahcah means crap). The restaurant continues to serve mind- and tongue-numbingly good Sichuan food.

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Novo Mediterranean: Ridgewood, NJ

North Jersey has no shortage of restaurants focusing on what might be considered "Mediterranean cuisine." Ridgewood alone boasts several, ranging from good (Lisa's Mediterranean and Mediterraneo), to cookie-cutter (casually glances at It's Greek To Me). So when I saw another restaurant billing itself as "Mediterranean" was opening on Chestnut Street, I wasn't overcome with anticipation. In fact, I was only vaguely interested in the prospect. I'm here to tell you that I was a moron.

After my first meal at Novo Mediterranean, I proclaimed it "excellent," "one of the most exciting new restaurants in the area," and noted that it "has potential to become a favorite." 

After the next meal I upped the ante, stating "Chef Kahlon is a stone cold killer," and "serious effing business here."  It took me a while, but I am no longer (as much of) a moron. Novo is, indeed, irrefutably, one of the most exciting new restaurants to hit North Jersey in a long time. After three meals it is, without a doubt, a favorite. I cannot imagine ever tiring of Chef Kahlon's cooking--although his dashing good-looks are starting to grate on me.

I should talk about the food.

Novo bread

The first thing that hit our table was a loaf of house-made bread. A steaming log of olive oil coated, airy bread, sprinkled with sea salt. The bread alone is reason to return. I can't imagine how good a sandwich made with this stuff would be. Throw some ham in there and call it a day. If at the moment that bread hits the table you don't realize that you're in the hands of an excellent chef, you'll only have consider the punch of flavor packed into house-made za'atar to be convinced. I couldn't figure out what was in it, and I don't care; some things are too good to ponder. 

I'm bloviating enough as it is, and I know you people have a very short attention span, so I'll just move on to some photos and brief comments.

Novo salad

This salad was popping-bright, with crunchy, fresh vegetables, appropriately dressed, and adorned with fried chickpeas and shaved cheese. This dish may very well encapsulate Chef Kahlon's approach to cooking. Lots of exciting acid, herbs, fresh ingredients, and textural contrast. He cooks like I like to eat.

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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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Bogie's Hoagies in Hawthorne, NJ: the best sub shop for miles

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Bogie's Hoagies has been quietly sitting in a nondescript strip of stores on Lafayette Ave in Hawthorne for some years now. I've driven past the place countless times, never thinking the sub shop behind the door could be anything other than mediocre. I have recently come to learn that this couldn't be further from the reality. I sure do love being wrong.

Bogie's Hoagies, to break it down for you, is simply the best sub shop for miles, and certainly one of the best sub shops that I've ever visited. There's so much that they are doing right that it's a bit mind-boggling. 

The place is essentially a sandwich shop, but it's run like a restaurant. The owner, who has owned and run full-service restaurants in the past, has been present every time I visit. He wears crisp, clean Chef's whites, and seems to be very much engaged in the operation.

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Dim Sum Villa: Proper dim sum in New Providence, NJ

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File under: where the heck is New Providence, NJ?

I certainly had no idea. Never heard of it, as far as I can remember. I know the area, but not this New Providence. Luckily I have a map, so I was able to locate this lovely little hamlet and the fabulous dim sum restaurant tucked into its bosom. Dim Sum Villa is the name of the place, and they've got some proper dim sum.

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They've got cart service at Dim Sum Villa. This neither excites me nor bothers me. I really don't care if a restaurant has carts. But it's nice to see the selections up close and in person and do the pointing routine.

Here's a brief rundown of a recent dim sum lunch:

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Menya Sandaime: Ramen in Fort Lee, NJ

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Fort Lee is probably one of the most exciting food destinations in New Jersey. Sure, the restaurants mostly lean toward Korean and Japanese, but the sheer volume of options alone make this town worthy of multiple return visits. I've been returning whenever I get a chance.

On this return trip, we headed over to Menya Sandaime--a Korea-based Japanese restaurant situated in a house on a side street. Ramen was calling us on this chilly autumn morning, and this newly-opened place seemed as good a spot as any.

I'm not sure if my lack of experience with ramen informs my opinions to a fault, or if the ramen I've been eating has actually been really super. But my recent experiences have really left me wanting more. Menya Sandaime was no exception.

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