Boy oh boy, I can sure hold a grudge.
I was an early supporter of Chakra (shit music autoplay alert), the large, square, windowless "romantic" restaurant on Route 4 in Paramus, when it opened 10 years and several owner/chefs ago. Unnnnnntil. During one visit in 2004, we finished up our dinner, and wanted to take dessert home to enjoy on the couch in front of the TV. Here's what I wrote about this back then:
"we were a bit fatigued by the end of the meal, but we wanted to take home dessert to have with some sherry on the couch. i asked the waiter if we could take home dessert, and which ones would travel for 5 minutes, and we made our decisions. he came back and said he was sorry but "the chef won't do take-out."
i asked him if he told the chef that we had dinner and ordered wine and the whole deal, and he assured me that he did but the answer was "no." he then said that if we wanted to order dessert for the table, he could then wrap anything that we didn't finish, effectively suggesting that we order it, he brings it to the table, he then brings it back and has it wrapped to go. i told him to "tell the chef that i don't want to play games." i can appreciate "rules," but this one seemed to be applied without a consideration for customer service. tsk tsk."
For some reason I begrudgingly returned two additional times, each getting worse than the previous. I didn't return to Chakra, largely based on that chef's handling of that situation, and the rest of the ensuing kitchen and management issues, for many, many years after 2004. He simply did not deserve my money or support.
Under the latest chef/owner, Thomas Ciszak, I did visit once a few years back with a large group, and more recently about a year ago solo, but wasn't compelled enough to return. I think the above transaction was still in the forefront of my mind, tainting my opinion of the place, even though it was under a different chef and management. In fact there's no denying that's the case. Not to mention the spicy margarita was much too spicy, and the tuna tartare had an unpleasant bitter flavor.
Fast forward to Chakra's recent 10 year anniversary party, when local bloggers/media and regulars were treated to a Monday night party in celebration of the dance of receiving free meals for publicity, in the case of the media/bloggers, and being regulars, in the case of the regulars--as I sat at home making Chinese food, completely not invited. Intent on tempering the water of any gushing reviews coming out of this warm oil massage of an event, Chakra went back on my list.
More importantly, a few people whose opinions I trust are regulars and tell me that they're really, truly, doing a good job at Chakra, even when you have to pay for the food. Based on this recent visit, I can largely agree, with the exception of a few missteps.
But first, a cocktail.
Chakra gets a bit of attention for their cocktail program. Although the cocktails here too often rely on flavored vodka--which suggests to me that they are appealing to 26-year-old "woo-woo" girls rather than people a bit more serious about spirits--I managed to find a few options suitable for my advanced and heightened tastes. One of which included mezcal--which they were out of. *sigh*
I went with the "Spring Thyme" cocktail, which includes an exclamation point, which I refuse to type. It also includes gin, a blackberry-thyme shrub (a shrub sort of a fruit-infused sweet-and-sour concoction), and agave. This cocktail certainly got me in good spirits and impressed well beyond my expectations.
The thyme immediately hits the nose, with help from thyme garnish. The bright red color leads you to believe that it's going to be a sweet sip, but the gin is right up front. The blackberry shrub comes in and it finishes slightly sweet, fruity, and acidic. A well balanced cocktail and a wonderful little 10 second journey, repeated over and over.
White asparagus soup was described as having smoked trout and bacon snow. I'm not sure what bacon snow is, but I didn't detect any smoked trout at all, and the snow didn't have any discernible bacon flavor. The soup itself was fine, but I was left wondering if the kitchen forgot how to make what was described on the menu. I was really looking forward to some flakes of smoked trout. Not a success.
The crab cake, on the other hand, was exceptional. Big chunks of lump crab meat, crispy exterior, just enough binder to hold it together. Served with a bit of lightly dressed and acidic snow pea shoots as a foil. One of the better versions of a crab cake that I've had anywhere.
The ubiquitous fried calamari and hot peppers dish was executed well. Not greasy, quite crispy, with plenty of hot peppers--if not a bit too many proportionally speaking. I think the last three times we've ordered this dish elsewhere we've been disappointed. Chakra nailed it.
But first, a cocktail.
I'm a sucker for islandy rum drinks. Their "Rum Paradise" cocktail caught my eye. House-infused pineapple rum, spiced rum, muddled cardamon, pineapple juice, and a "dash of bitters." The cocktail was sweet, as I expected it would be, but satisfying in that Nevisian cocktail kind of way. I took it upon myself to apply several additional dashes of bitters to the drink, just as they do in Nevis. Lots and lots of bitters.
I ordered the Chilean Seabass dish, which I believe has been on their menu for some time. Described as "chili-cinnamon glazed," I assumed it would be more sweet than spicy. It was. But it wasn't the cloyingly sweet glaze that I had feared. Nuanced, with just enough cinnamon to give a vague impression of sweetness, while staying well away from venturing into sweet glaze territory. It all seems a bit 90s; glazed Chilean Seabass is so out that it's almost in.
The fish was moist and luscious, as Chilean Seabass tends to be. The shocker here was the potato wrapped shrimp, served along with the dish. It comes on a stick, and as you know, meat on a stick is almost always preferable to meat not on a stick, or not meat on a stick. I fully expected this to be a throw-away garnish. Throw-away garnishes, especially when they are food, annoy me. I recall a meal at La Piazza in Ridgewood many years back, when a plate of pasta was served with a garnish of three dry, sad shrimp on a skewer. I did not return. Ever.
This shrimp, conversely, can be described as fantastic. Crunchy potato wrapping, in the manner of a pastry, a big, plump, juicy shrimp inside, and probably a bit more salt that most people would appreciate. They could serve four of these as an entree and I'd order it. Better yet, three as an appetizer with some dipping sauces. Those shrimp with fun dipping sauces along with some cocktails? Well you've got yourself a little party right there boy. Hell they probably served exactly that at the 10th Anniversary party that I wasn't invited to. Those pricks.
The bar is exceedingly uncomfortable. It's not deep, the stools are too high (or the bar too low), and the large bar molding all conspire to make for a less-than-ideal sitting experience.
The bartender was friendly and knowledgeable, which is really all you really need. But, the bar wasn't completely set up even after they were open. I prefer to not see prep work going on as I'm trying to enjoy dinner. Also, no specials were offered. It was Saturday night, and I'm not sure if they had them, but this info would have come in handy.
The restaurant isn't as dark as I recall, as most tables have a spotlight shining on them. But the bar is still pretty damned dark, which clearly doesn't help my questionable abilities to take clear pictures.
Overall we were very impressed with Chakra this time around, and will surely be back.
Chakra : 144 W. Route 4 (eastbound side) : Paramus, NJ : 201.556.1530 : Parking lot on Arcadian Way