NJ: Restaurants

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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Tang Maru: Korean food in Palisades Park, NJ

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When Chef Bobby Cho of Kimchi Smoke tells you to go to a restaurant called Tang Maru in a town called Palisades Park and order the pork neck soup, you wait 2 years and then do just what he says.

This dude isn't messing around. Not only does he know his BBQ, but he knows his pork neck soup.

Tang Maru is a pleasant, bright restaurant, with friendly service and a big connected parking lot, in an area near saturated with Korean restaurants. Since I have so little experience with Korean food, I can't say it sticks out from the pack, but damn if it isn't fantastic. And pretty cheap.

Barley tea hits the table, and then out come the banchan. I was very pleased to see whole fried fish in the assortment. The wife, however, wasn't as pleased. So I ate two. Fleshy, moist, fried fish. Guts and all as far as I could tell. But being gutless, I avoided the really flavorful parts and went to town on the regular bits.

Also included were spicy squid (I think), white radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, and a salad. At that point, I'm pretty much full. But moments later the cauldrons come out of the kitchen.

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Joyce Chinese Cuisine in River Edge: still on track

Don't believe the naysayers.

I've been hearing that Joyce Chinese Cuisine is slipping. That's it no longer good. That something has changed for the worse. Ignore all of those wrong people. I'll be the judge of "good" thank you very much.

Indeed, everything seems fine at this Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ. In fact, on a recent trip, I had one of the best dishes of this year.

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I wanted some Sichuan comfort food, and for me, fried fish is comforting. I ordered the Fried Spicy & Aromatic Fish, which hit the spot.  Tender pieces of fried fish, chili oil, chili peppers, and a load of Sichuan peppercorn. Classic Sichuan flavors here. "Boy, this has a spicy kick" I thought. I had no idea what I was in for next.

Tripe has been entering my face whenever I see it, especially following a recent trip to Tuscany, where I ate tripe as much as possible. So when I saw Tripe w/ Long Pepper and Peppercorn on the menu, well you know I just had to check it out. "You like hot?" the server asked. "Yes, of course," I confidently replied. I'm no rube, after all.

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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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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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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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