Just over the Jersey border

Best Dishes: of 2016

Another year, another list. Who doesn't love a list?

I was very fortunate to have eaten some amazing food this year. Some dishes were indeed in NJ. Some were pretty close to NJ. Some were not very close to NJ. The one thing they all have in common is that made my eyes light up with joy for one reason or another.

Dishes can get my attention and fill me with glee for many reasons. They can be simple but executed flawlessly. They can be intricate affairs that leave me wondering what the hell is going on. And they can be something that I've simply never experienced. If there's one thing I love, it's eating something completely new to me.

Here are some of the bet dishes that I ate in 2016. And please, no arguing, these are the correct answers. They were all exceptional dishes.

 

Squid Ink Pasta with Guanciale and Squid
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow pasta

I really can't get enough of this squid ink pasta, guanciale, and calamari dish at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ. It is, without a doubt, one of the best pastas dishes, and best dishes, I've ever had.  A symphony of flavors and textures and perfectly executed. The whole dang restaurant is great.

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Taiwanese Gourmet: Elmhurst, Queens, NY

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Hardly anything is what I know about Taiwanese food. And that's a lot more than what I knew before I rolled into Taiwanese Gourmet, in Elmhurst, Queens.

The fantastic blog Chopsticks and Marrow had a brief and very convincing post on this little Taiwanese restaurant, which compelled me near-immediately to cross the 13 or so bridges that it takes to get to Elmhurst, and, as it turns, out have essentially the same meal.

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I went in thinking Taiwanese Gourmet is BYO, but alas they do serve beer. The "Taiwan Beer" that we spied in the fridge seemed to be a good a choice as any. As with many Chinese beers, it's a bit sweet, and goes perfectly well with spicy foods. Better than Bud, you are assured. I mean it says "World Class" right on it, so, there's that.

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Eating in Philadelphia: a.bar for wonderful cocktails and lunch

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There was nothing about a.bar that I didn't like.

I can typically find a few nitpicks in any restaurant. Crappy cocktail lists. Boring food options. Poorly executed food. Shit service. Uncomfortable bar. My list of complaints goes on. And on. Of this you are assured.

But nothing from my vast list of bitches applied to a.bar. The place is bright and comfortable. Plenty of room under the bar for my legs. The menu was short and concise and everything sounded good. The cocktails were appealing and well-crafted. Hell, two of them showcased amaro with a base, including one with tequila and Montenegro, and another with Mezcal and Meletti. Well done.

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The bartender was good-natured and more than happy to indulge me when I asked him to just surprise me with a cocktail. He also suffered through my game of "let me guess what's in this one."

The food, also, is no slouch.

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Best dishes: of 2015

  Orvieto

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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Eating Arthur Ave: Roberto's Restaurant

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I've probably been doing it wrong, but I don't find Arthur Ave all that exciting.

While my first trip to Arthur Ave was good but not exactly life-altering, a recent trip affirmed that perhaps Arthur Ave is just not for me. That's not to say there aren't great places to buy food, including fantastic seafood at Randazzo's and salumi at Calabria Pork Store, but the restaurants just leave me wondering what the fuss is all about. Except for that Mexican place that kept catching my eye, taunting me with visions of corn tortilla tacos filled with tongue and al pastor.

The menus at the few Italian places left on and around Arthur Ave all look the same. It's hard for me to get jazzed about "Spiedino" and "Insalata Tricolore" and "Marsala" and "Francese." "Scarpiello," also, does little for me.

Now, I'm sure there are some gems on these menus. Perhaps they even have specials at these restaurants. Maybe I'm missing something fantastic. I'll still entertain that possibility, even after trying Roberto's recently.

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Twisted Olive: Eating in Bethlehem, PA

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I spent a few days in Bethlehem in September (thankfully during tomato-growing season), and did quite a bit of "research" on restaurants. Research typically means reading some articles from traditional media outlets, and then ending up on TripAdvisor, or, God-forbid, Yelp (where I'll only read the really negative reviews, just for amusement). One place that grabbed my attention was Twisted Olive. For some reason I wasn't convinced it would be exceptional, but I kept it in the back of my mind. Eventually, we went for lunch. And boy am I glad we did.

At first glance, the menu seems unexceptional. The lunch menu has a variety of sandwiches and salads and pizza. Boring, right? But look more closely and you'll see the use of house-made corn tortillas for the fish tacos, house-smoked meats for sandwiches, and house-made syrups and infused-booze for the cocktail list. It's these little touches that illustrate to me that someone is paying attention to what they are putting on the plate and in the glass. This, alone, puts Twisted Olive in a rare league.

But first, a cocktail...

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The Franklin Bar: cocktailing in Philly

Franklin bar cocktail flamed orange peel

Are they transitioning the name from "Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co." to "The Franklin Bar?" Let's bloody well hope so. I am into the brevity thing. "The Franklin Bar" suits me just fine.

And The Franklin Bar suits me just fine. A speakeasy-style cocktail bar set in a candle-lit basement, you sure wouldn't know anything of note is behind that nondescript black door unless someone told you (or you read about it). Luckily for me, during a dinner at Village Whiskey, the bartender suggested I give the place a try. For some reason he must have gotten the impression that I like cocktails. And since it was on the way back to the hotel, stumbling distance even, well you just know I had to check it out. A good piece of advice from this bartender to be sure.

Franklin Bar (the downstairs bar, not the new, upstairs bar) lets only a certain number of people in the place at a time. This isn't due to an occupancy limit set by the city, but rather because they don't allow people to stand. You will sit, you will enjoy your cocktails, and you will behave. I think you have to ring the doorbell when you get there, although on a recent visit two gentlemen were minding the door. "Have you been here before?" "Yes" is always the correct response.

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Franklin bar cocktail4

Perhaps I'm exaggerating the rigidness of the experience at Franklin Bar.  Compared to some newcomers like Hop Sing Laundromat, which by all reports is known for being a bit over-the-top with its rulebook--No sneakers? No shorts? A "screening process" to get in?--getting into and enjoying Franklin Bar is a relatively relaxed affair.

Don't go in expecting to sit at a proper bar. The bar (downstairs) seats about 4 people IIRC. You'll be at tables or perhaps the bar rail. It turned out I was alone during my first visit, so they were able to seat me at that tiny bar. I bellied up and dug right into the cocktail list.

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Franklin bar cocktail1

I was hoping to get into some light discussion on cocktails with the bartenders, given my ideal position at the end of the bar. But, alas, they were way too busy. At least two bartenders that night, making their craft cocktails non-stop. These are not simple cocktails. They're messing with the right ice, flaming peels, splashing bitters and tinctures, garnishing with foods, frothing with egg whites, shaking aggressively, tattoos rendering to nothing more than a fleshy blur.

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Eating in Philadelphia: Parc and oysters and white wine

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There was no doubt about it. I knew Parc (shit music autoplay alert!) was a completely uninspired choice for a meal, especially given Philadelphia's phenomenal food scene. But, it was our first afternoon in Philadelphia, we had just rolled into town, it was a beautiful day, we wanted to sit outside, the idea of a seafood tower was appealing, and we were staying in the Rittenhouse Square area. Given this set of circumstances, Parc seemed as good a choice as any.

Thinking about it, I can't recall a time that we've been in Philly and not stopped into Parc. Typically for a drink and to take a load off.  A lively and large Parisian-style bistro, outdoor seating for as far as the eye can see, with a great view of Rittenhouse Square, there's much to draw your attention to this Stephen Starr restaurant. As much as I try to avoid Starr restaurants, as to my mind they are cookie-cutter contrived affairs--and some are--, they tend to be well-run and can be quite decent. Parc seems to be no exception in this regard.

With no seats available outside, the hostess took my cell number and said she'd text when one opened up. Perfect. We went next door to Devon Seafood Grill, which I have come to learn is a small chain, to have a drink. I've had some food and drinks here in the past, and thought it was just fine for what it is. Anyway, before we could order a drink the text came in from Parc, so back we went to claim our spot facing Rittenhouse Square.

This is riveting stuff here, I know. I'll get on with it.

But first, a cocktail....

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New York Italian Style Bakery: Tomato Pie in Philadelphia, PA

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On our way out of Philadelphia, we stopped at New York Italian Style Bakery to get a few slices of tomato pie. I knew I was going to try a slice when I got in the car. I didn't think I'd be eating two in quick succession. Maybe the excitement stemmed from this being my first experience with tomato pie (a style of pizza that seems to be unique to Philadelphia and its suburbs), but this pie really made an impression on me.

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We would have never considered this stop or knew about New York Italian Style Bakery if not for a conversation with a lovely bartender at the pretty-damed-good Lolita during lunch one afternoon. We got to talking about food, as I do, and she recommended this small bakery that makes bread, and also this tomato pie. "Just get a few slices and bring them back to the hotel for later tonight," we were advised. That sounded like a fine idea, but once I saw they open at 6 am on Sunday, stopping on the way home seemed like an even better idea. Now I can't imagine visiting Philly without incorporating this stop into the itinerary.

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They are giving this stuff away. A slice (about 6 inches in length) is about $1.50. We got four, and the pleasant girl dutifully laid two slices together, sauce side to sauce side. The other two packed into the paper the same way, perfect for taking this stuff to go. Indeed, there is nowhere to sit at New York Italian Bakery. It's a strictly to-go operation. And don't expect a hot slice from the oven. It seems that this pizza is served room temp.

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I tried a slice as soon as we got into the car (well, soon after I laid the slices on the backseat and snapped a few shots). Frankly I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed that first slice. As we were making our way to the Turnpike, I couldn't get it out of my head. I finally caved and had to grab a second slice. It was, just as good as the first.

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Straight Up New York Craft Spirits Festival: Warwick, NY

 

 
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It was a beautiful day, and the idea of trying some cider and wine and gin at Warwick Valley Winery & Distillery seemed like the most perfect way to spend an hour. After a great lunch at The Grange, we headed on over to the winery.

As we pulled in, there were a few parking guys who asked "Are you here for the [inaudible to me] or the winery." Well, I was there for the winery, so that's what I said. I figured the inaudible part was a wedding or something. "Just park over there then." As I started pulling away, the missus turns to me and says "distillery event?"

"Wait, what?!?!?!?!" I threw the car into reverse and backed right the hell up. I got so excited I'm not even sure I looked in the rear-view mirror.

"Distillery event!?!?!?" I frantically asked the guy. "Yeah, there's a distillery event up on the hill. Twenty distillers, live music, food."

"Uhh, yeah, we're now here for that."

It's a good thing my wife's ears work better than mine, or we would have completely missed the first Straight Up New York Craft Spirits Festival.  And this was an event not to be missed (although you probably did). Indeed, even a more perfect way to spend an hour (or two) than the cider-wine-gin thing I was looking forward to at the winery.

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We paid the admission fee ($40), got our little glasses, and entered the tent. Distillers lined both sides, as far as the eye could see (probably an exaggeration--in addition to my ears, my eyes suck, too). We were giddy.

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