Right now, 10's of people all over New Jersey are wondering, "When is t:e coming out with his lists!?!!? I can hardly wait!" they say. But damn if I wasn't so busy putting together my 2007 lists that it's already 2008.
Some background first.
2007 was a funny year for t:e. Not "ha-ha" funny, but strange funny. Not strange "weird", but strange unusual. I visited very few restaurants, although for about 6 months I ate out every single night. I guess I stuck to the old standards, which are for another post.
But for this post, I'm going to focus on the negative, the places that sort of let me down for one reason or several. Oftentimes it was because expectations were set too high. Other times the food was just plain not good.
<quick aside>Anyone who reads this blog (you two know who you are) knows that I don't focus on the negative: I try to find the interesting stuff, and I like to share it. If you want to hear people complain about some server who made them feel less of a person, or some other restaurant-goers who were acting so horribly as to ruin their meal, or about the chef who was clearly out to get them, go to egullet or nj.com or one of the hundreds of websites seemingly devoted to the lowest common denominator, negative, nasty discussion that is just so darned easy to generate. Go now, don't let me stop you. Please. I'm simply not going to be able to give you what you want.
For my part, I'll say I didn't like something, and I'll explain why. And usually it's not because someone hurt my feelings. </quick aside>
So here they are, the let-downs of 2007:
Harvest Bistro: Closter, NJ
Oh boy does this place get hyped. It's extremely popular. It's "even better than Bacari Grill" I've heard. Yikes.
I had several meals at Harvest Bistro in 2007, and you are assured that I really wanted to like it. It's a beautiful restaurant in a lovely part of the state, not too far from my home. It's got a nice big bar room, and a wonderful dining room. The hosts are always pleasant and the nice kids take your car and park it for you. But that's about where the excitement stops.
Cassoulet wasn't very good. A few days later the cassoulet at Pourquoi Pas? in Westwood simply put it to shame, and made my Best of 2007 list (not yet posted).
A salad with shrimp came with 4 very very small shrimp and over-dressed lettuce. A little restraint with the dressing and 3 shrimp of notable size and texture could have turned this dish around, as the dish had wonderful avocado and herb flavors.
The burger is OK, but not great. Nothing to run back for.
The bartenders don't seem to care if you're there or not there.
A bottle of Banfi Rosa Regale (42 dollars) was not listed as dolce (sweet). And make no mistake about it, this is a sweet sparkler. I should have checked the alcohol level before OK'ing it, and read the back label to see that it was a dessert/apertif wine.
A perfectly wonderful (and large) piece of raw tuna was compromised by a sickly sweet sauce that tasted of butterscotch.
French fries, which should kick ass at a place like this (or any place with "Bistro" in the name), were ordered well-done, and came out limp. Ugh.
The people around you look monied and not too interested in food, except for the guy next to us on one visit, who ordered a "Prime dry-aged shell steak", which came out pounded thin, and pale. Whaaaaaa?? He just shook his head and ate it. I felt for him.
I give Harvest Bistro props for serving olive oil with anchovies in it along with your bread. That just can't be a popular condiment, but they continue to serve it. I love the balls.
Rare Steakhouse: Little Falls, NJ
This eagerly awaited restaurant managed to bum me out on both of my visits.
Bartender's boobs had glitter. What, is this the Hitching Post?
Extremely generous pour (a good thing) of Falaghina (a good thing). On a second visit, a more reasonable pour was offered. I would think the huge pour had to do more with lack-of-training (a bad thing) than policy. Sparkley boobs were also noticeably missing from my second visit (hhmmmm, bad thing, NO -- good thing. I really can't decide).
Tuna tartare was served with "Asian condiments", which included a blob of fake wasabi, candied and pickled ginger, a few slivers of seaweed, and wasabi peas. None of which needs to be anywhere near good raw tuna. Pretty, though.
Reasonably priced wine list (prices in the 20's, 30's and 40 pepper the list).
Starship's "We Built This City" was on the soundsystem. Whaaaa?!??!
Two sauces were served with the steak, but not explained. They seemed to be au poivre type sauces.
A bottle of that (on the right in the photo) was placed before me, seemingly de rigueur. At a steakhouse. A1 sauce. When I buy expensive meat for home, I make people beg for A1 including the missus, and then I lie and say that I don't have any. Any serious steakhouse should do the same.
Ribeye was fatty, chewy, and just a horrible piece of flabby meat, all falling apart on the plate. A strip steak on the next visit? Eh. Nothing special at all. Not top-shelf steak housey, that's for sure.
No lunch at the bar + No burger at dinner = No tommy either time.
E&V: Paterson, NJ
Old-school red sauce place. Wine and beer only. Enormous portions of standard food. They do serve a nice bowl of soup to start you off, though, and it's really quite good. Go for the experience, but there's really not much going on here beyond that.
Campania: Fair Lawn, NJ
I was excited to learn that a local restaurant would be featured on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (a TV show where sort-of-super-star Chef Gordon Ramsay makes restaurant owners and staff look foolish, quite successfully, and in a quite entertaining manner). After watching the show, I couldn't wait to get back to this place, which has been around for years (it's under new ownership since 2005 or so).
I found that sometimes reality TV is better than reality.
Just like the program, the waits for food bordered on uncomfortable. With only a few tables filled in the dining room, I don't expect a 1.5 hour meal for two courses.
Enormous portions are a turn-off for me. An otherwise decent salad of wonderful tart ricotta salata (a cheese that finds its way in to many dishes on the menu), a nut of some sort, and fresh greens, was held back by its size. It could have been a meal. Cut down the size, and hell, leave the price the same, and I'll think I'm getting something a little special. I don't like to waste food, and places that serve enormous portions give you no choice.
A pork chop, ordered medium rare, was cooked to well, and as dry as sheetrock. Contrasted with a ethereal pork chop at Park Ridge's Esty Street a week before, and you have to wonder if the meat came from the same type of animal.
On a recent visit, the same 5 songs cycled over, and over, and over, on the sound system (and if I'm not mistaken, they were songs used in the Kitchen Nightmares episode?).
The soap in the bathroom is scented (a no-no to my mind...i don't want to go back to the dinner table smelling like chemical roses). Attention to detail folks, let's get with it.
I do like that the chef uses pancetta in various dishes. Pancetta is good meat, and should be used in just about everything.
I also dig when a restaurant sends out an amuse-bouche, which the you will get at Campania. It's a nice touch, and his amuse-bouche of bruschetta are quite tasty.
Creamless (a good thing) carbonara included some nicely sized wonderfully cooked shrimp, but I couldn't help but think they didn't serve the dish very well.
I should probably mention their meatballs, which were universally enjoyed by everyone at the table. Nice and crusty outside, soft inside, and wow were they salty. But in a good way.
On one visit a wrong entree was sent out. They took it back and promised the correct dish soon. It was soon, but the sausage might have been a little underdone in the haste. However, they comp'd both appetizers because of the SNAFU, which I thought was above and beyond.
While overcharging on your bill can easily be an oversight (and probably happens more often than anyone realizes), it's just makes for an awkward ending to a meal. We noticed this on our last visit. It was corrected with an apology. It was still awkward, though.
I saw, I went, I went again, and I think that's about it. It's a nice place, and the food can be pretty good, but you'll find me at Glen Rock's Rocca, which I think is just a wonderful local restaurant.
Moksha: Edison, NJ
There's a thread on the Egullet Society for the Culinary Arts and Letters, started by its founder, which will have you believe that Moksha is the most amazing Indian experience around. Apparently he has had some sort of business dealings with the owners, or staff, or something not made entirely clear, so that might be a consideration when weighing his opinions on the place, wouldn't you think? He suggests that people who live in NYC are missing out if they don't jump on the train to get down to Edison to Moksha (and then walk to the restaurant from the train station presumably).
OK, so, it's a nice place, with good service. The food, apparently, is largely Southern Indian, which you may not find everywhere. Some dishes were good, some lacked any sort of punch or, well, flavor. Like the shrimp dish below.
A shrimp dish was wonderful, although the shrimp were somewhat smallish and quite frankly overwhelmed by the sauce.
They have incense or some sort of fragrance in the place which serves to only make my nose stuffy. It cleared up literally as soon as I walked out. Details, restaurateurs, details.
Silverware was not changed between courses.
The light at the tables is great for food photography, if that's your thing (it's not mine...mine's eating, and experiencing).
The wine list included only one wine that I would consider Indian food friendly, and that was a somewhat horrid sweet Riesling.
It took me a little over 40 minutes to get there by car, and that's basically a straight shot down the Garden State Parkway. I can't imagine living in NYC, with all of those options (hell, Devi blows me away every time I'm there), making my way to Penn Station, getting on a commuter train, and then walking to the restaurant, and then doing the reverse, mindful of train schedules. You'll find me fighting traffic into the city to go to Devi before I drive there again. Assured, you are, of this.
City Place Steakhouse: Rutherford, NJ
The ESPN van parked outside should have tipped me off. An ESPN truck is almost always a bad sign for a guy like me, who doesn't know if it's baseball or football season.
Interesting wine selection by-the-glass.
1.50 Bud and Miller Light on Mondays (no thanks).
Choice and Black Angus meats. The Black Angus strip was served with nothing else on the plate (a good thing), but just didn't have much flavor. It was also kind of skimpy by steakhouse standards. Nice char, though. And they give you an option of an egg on top. Egg on top is almost always preferable to no egg on top.
French fries were exceptional, and probably worth the trip alone.
I spied a few decent enough tequilas on the top shelf, which got me wondering if they were able to simply mix tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice. Easy enough you'd think, yes? So I asked the bartender if he uses a mix in margaritas. "I never use mix", he shot back. Sounds good, right? I green light the deal. One sip, actually, one *look*, and I can tell there's more than just tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice in this thing. It was a sweet glass of crap. So I ask the guy I asks, "Did you use any sort of mix in here?" He says, "Well, yeah, sour mix". I guess I looked baffled. He said, "You asked if I use a mix, I don't use a mix, I just use sour mix." Whaa!?!??!!?!
Arthur's Landing: Weehawken, NJ (closed)
Update (2/2009): Arthur's landing has closed.
Much has been made of the arrival of Michael Haimowitz, the new chef at the restaurant with the most stunning views of NYC. When I heard that the food had been improved, I put Arthur's Landing back on my list.
I wanted to like it, I just didn't. The burger wasn't very good. The rest of the food wasn't my style. The waitress was nowhere to be found. A glass of beer was priced at the maddening amount of $6.42 (can't you just round it up?).
Chef Haimowitz made the effort to contact me privately via this blog in response to a less-than-favorable comment that I made in passing elsewhere. He was interested in my experience, and what aspects didn't live up to my expectations. I offered some detailed comments, we disagreed on brining pork chops, and he then graciously offered me and a guest to come back, on his dime. Quite a stand-up move. However, I don't accept free food, on principle (the principle being that I can pay my own way, and I don't use this blog or any other vehicle to garner favor or free food or special treatment from restaurants: I'm capable of doing that by being myself and a good customer), so I declined, with the promise I'd return at some point (I did, and some of the aspects of that meal are noted above).
Go for the views, keep your expectations in check, and you won't be disappointed. You'll be probably very pleased, in fact.