I Say a Fond Farewell to My First Writing Gig

Thanks for the Memories, Princeton Packet!

Twenty years ago I wrote my first journalistic piece ever: a modest recipe column for the Princeton Packet. As you’ll read, this propelled me on a career and lifestyle I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. But I believe that two decades is long enough for any one voice in any one place, so in the March 20 issue I said sayonara – and thanks for the memories. Here’s the transcript:

“Hard for me to believe, but I’ve been contributing food stories to this space for two decades now. My first column appeared in the Packet on April 11, 1995. It focused on recipes for Passover desserts, and I used as my source the folks behind what was then the Princeton Bakery in the Princeton Shopping Center. At least, that’s what memory tells me was the bakery’s name. A clipping of the story is lodged somewhere in the deepest recesses of my attic, to be unearthed the day I move out or they take me out feet first, so I can’t say for sure if that was the bakery’s official name. Nor can I recall the names of the owners, but I do have a clear memory of blithely showing up there to ask if they would share their best family recipes for Easter desserts. They summarily informed this so-called journalist that they were (and are, I imagine) Jewish. Oops.

??????????That the Packet would give me – a good cook and erstwhile caterer, but not a journalist – the chance to try my hand at food writing is something I will always be grateful for. It changed the arc of my career path, eventually leading the way to full-time freelance food writing, restaurant critiquing, and even talk-radio hosting. Early on, I discovered that what the great Julia Child once said is a universal truth, to whit: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Over the years, I’ve been privileged to profile hundreds of wonderful home cooks, restaurant chefs, caterers, farmers, food artisans, shopkeepers, and cookbook writers from around the Princeton area.

Speaking of the inimitable Julia Child, it was because of my Packet work that I actually got to meet her. Around 1999 or 2000 I was trying to figure out if I should give up my then day job and, to help me decide, I signed up for a well-regarded food writers workshop. Ms. Child was one of the speakers, and she graciously talked to and posed for photos with the many attendees. (One of the main regrets of my life is that I was too insecure at the time to ask her to pose with me.) But because Princeton is a cultural locus, I did eventually get to interview national and international stars of the culinary scene, among them Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Tom Colicchio, Marcella Hazan, Pierre Herme, Rick Bayless, Mark Bittman, legendary New Jersey chef Craig Shelton, and two governors of our fair state.

Pat Tanner & Emeril

Pat Tanner & Emeril

Two celebrity encounters in particular stand out in my memory: Emeril Lagasse and Alice Waters. When Emeril came to MarketFair in 2003 for a book signing at Barnes & Noble, he agreed to sit down for a live, hour-long interview from the middle of the mall for my radio show, Dining Today with Pat Tanner. I was floored, first to think that he would be so generous and then, during our time together, to find that, contrary to his blustery “bam!” television persona, he is a thoughtful, kind, soft-spoken gentleman (a side of him that viewers of Top Chef have come to see as well).

Alice Waters in the Princeton Packet

Alice Waters in the Princeton Packet

As for Alice Waters, I marvel for two reasons when I think back on her visit to Princeton in 1997. She was in town to speak at an event of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), and as part of that made a visit to the Waldorf School of Princeton, which even back then had (and still has) a biodynamic garden tended by students. Local and statewide press was invited to tag along. Only I showed up! That’s because, eighteen years ago, Ms. Waters was known primarily to foodies, for her groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, CA. Her then-nascent Edible Schoolyard program had yet to attract national attention, and school gardens in general were on nobody’s radar. The other reason I shake my head when I look back on that day, is that I was given sole and unlimited access to this national treasure and, rookie journalist that I was, I ran out of questions early on. What I wouldn’t give for a do-over!

Another story I wrote around that time provides perspective on how the national and local food scenes have changed for the better. In 1999 I had to virtually beg George Rude of Griggstown Quail Farm for an interview. That was because his quail, pheasant, and other game birds were sold wholesale, to restaurants and meat purveyors like D’Artagnan. The thought of publicity that would bring locals trampling all over his farm trying to buy a bird or two was not a welcome idea. These days, his farm not only has its own full-scale retail market, but its own chef and kitchen as well. And hardly a seasonal farmers market in the state doesn’t boast Griggstown as a vendor.

Mauritian Fish Curry, Pat Tanner

Mauritian Fish Curry, Pat Tanner

Without doubt, though, my very favorite stories turned the spotlight not on celebrities or food professionals, but on our area’s talented home cooks. My second column, after the debacle that was the Easter-make-that-Passover desserts, focused on Orthodox Lenten foods. For that, two women – now dear friends – laid out a virtual feast for me, including a recipe for fish with tahini sauce that I make to this day. That column set me on an unending search for Princeton cooks with interesting or little-known heritage cuisines. To name just a few: Moroccan Sephardic Seders, Persian New Year’s feasts, Ethiopian Passover, Filipino street food, Colombian arepas, and, just last month, Mauritian fish curry.

These stories reflect the reason I accepted the offer to write a recipe column in the first place. It wasn’t to meet celebrities (which I didn’t even fathom would be part of it), but rather to research and become familiar with foods and cuisines that I knew virtually nothing about. To quote another American food legend, James Beard: “When you cook, you never stop learning. That’s the fascination of it.” This column gave me a legitimate way to indulge, expand on, and share my fascination with cooking.

Slow Food Central SnailI discovered early on that, as others have noted, every food story is really a people story. Chronicling the lives behind the recipes – the stories of regular folk as well as chefs and food professionals – has been my honor and privilege. Many have become fast friends as well, including Faith Bahadurian, who shares this space with me. Jim Weaver, chef/owner of Tre Piani, rolls his eyes whenever I retell the story of, after profiling him shortly after he opened his Forrestal Village restaurant, I told friends that, while he seemed nice enough, he and I just didn’t seem to connect. A month after that interview, Jim called me to ask if I would be interested in helping form a local food group dedicated to espousing “the pleasures of the table.” We, and others, went on to form the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food in 1999, one of the very first in the U.S. Back then so few people had heard of this Italian-based movement that the most common question we got asked was about slow cookers. As with Alice Waters, few publications were interested in the movement. In no time, I had published more stories on Slow Food, and in more places, than any other U.S. journalist, for which I was invited as a guest to Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto in 2000 in Torino, Italy. It all started with this column!

card-catalog-210x300

In 1999 I was still researching and producing stories the old-fashioned way. If I needed to find out about, say, persimmons, I would have to go to my local library, riffle through the card catalog, and check out a book or two. (Or worse, I’d have to page through microfiche.) Then I’d type up my notes on my home computer, save them to a 5-1/4-inch floppy disk, and drop that disk on my editor’s desk at Packet headquarters on Witherspoon Street. And finding persimmons in Princeton back then? Fuggedaboudit.

Jell-O Salad, wikipedia

Jell-O Salad, wikipedia

It took me longer than it should have to realize that the columns readers responded to most were my most personal. It’s fair to say my friends would agree that I am a very private person, and for a long time I kept myself out of my columns. But three in particular that received the most feedback were personal reminiscences. One had as its opening sentence, “It’s a wonder I like blue crabs at all,” and went on to tell of scary (but funny) childhood episodes of crabbing with my father at the Jersey shore. Another recounted how I scrimped and saved up my childhood allowance and the requisite box tops so I could send away for my first ever cookbook: The Joys of Jell-O. And I foolishly put myself at the center of a report on the work being done at Rutgers University by Dr. Beverly Tepper of Rocky Hill about the science behind “super tasters.” Only after I agreed to publish the results of my taking her test which would determine if I was a super taster, a regular taster, or (heaven forbid!) a non-taster did I realize how bad the outcome could look. Happily, I turn out to be a super taster. (Not that there’s anything wrong with tasters or non-tasters).”

I ended the piece with gratitude to all my loyal readers. I hope they will follow my food-writing exploits as cataloged in this space – just as you are doing now!

Pork Roll Mania: Cookbook, Signing, Festival, Recipe

Why did it take a publisher in Maine to recognize the potential of NJ’s favorite porcine foodstuff? I can’t say, but thank goodness there’s now Pork Roll The Cookbook – and Pork Roll The Festival. Check them out – and more – here in my post on NJMonthly.com. (Including, btw, a dip recipe for your next party.)

Pork Roll Cookbook

Brooklyn Comes to Princeton; Best Coffee Houses in NJ

Frankies Spuntino @ Whole Foods Princeton for a Good Cause

So how often do I make it to Brooklyn to dine? Try almost never. So when I heard that The Franks – Frank Falcinelli & Frank Castronovo – from Frankies Spuntino were cooking a meal at my local Whole Foods to raise funds for the Whole Planet Foundation, I jumped at the chance. I knew I was in for a great meal, and that happened. But the evening came with several unexpected bonuses.

Courtesy Whole Foods Princeton

Courtesy Whole Foods Princeton

Among the surprises? That the evening’s 5-course menu was Sicilian from top to bottom, that assisting The Franks was their director of operations who turned out to be a longtime chef at Princeton’s Nassau Inn (and an old friend), and that the 24 guests included luminaries from the current Princeton-area restaurant scene AND  a 13-year-old whom I predict will someday be a noted restaurant critic.

Frank Falcinelli & Frank Castronovo @ Whole Foods Princeton

Frank Falcinelli & Frank Castronovo @ Whole Foods Princeton

CrudoBeetThe Franks led off with these two light courses: fluke crudo with Sicilian sette anni peppers & pistachio, and blood orange segments with 1 sunburst of a golden beet topped with shards of caciocavallo. The unbilled star of both dishes was the zingy, deep green Sicilian extra virgin olive oil (made from nocellara del belice olives) that Frankies imports and which Whole Foods carries. The can made for a gorgeous centerpiece:

TulipsThese dishes were followed by a pasta course. Not just any pasta: fettuccine with jumbo lump crabmeat in ricci de mare sauce. For the uninitiated, that’s sea urchin. This dish had the evening’s 24 guests unabashedly going back for seconds.

Frankies Spuntino Pasta & Jumbo Lump Crabmeat, Ricci di Mare Sauce

Frankies Spuntino Pasta & Jumbo Lump Crabmeat, Ricci di Mare Sauce

Among those who named it as their favorite of the night was Shaun Orssaud, age 13, who came from Moorestown with his mother, Lisa.

Budding restaurant critic?

Budding restaurant critic?

Perhaps Mr. Orssaud owes his sophisticated palate  to the fact that he was born in France and lived there until he was 6.

Ribeye with Catanese Olivd Relish, Frankies 457 @ Whole Foods Princeton

Ribeye with Catanese Olive Relish, Frankies 457 @ Whole Foods Princeton

The centerpiece of the meal was this amazing slow-roasted ribeye. It was served with Ca’ Di Ponti Barbera, 1 of 3 wines poured.

Josh Thomsen, Chris Harkness, Jim Nawn

Josh Thomsen, Chris Harkness, Jim Nawn

Seated in this photo are Josh Thomsen, executive chef at Agricola in Princeton, and its owner Jim Nawn. (Sitting across from them, not pictured, were Lambertville’s famed Canal House duo, Christopher Hersheimer & Melissa Hamilton. As I said, even the guest list was star-studded!) Serving the 2 men is Chris Harkness, who I knew years ago when he was chef at the Nassau Inn, and who has been working with The Franks for years now. The photo below shows those 3 plus Scott Allshouse, president of Whole Foods’ Mid-Atlantic region.

??????????Proceeds from the dinner went to the Whole Planet Foundation. Maybe I’ve been under a rock, but up until now I’ve been oblivious to the good work this organization is doing. Through its mission to alleviate poverty by providing micro-loans, it has assisted 875,158 women entrepreneurs in 61 countries (89% go to women) with $62 million in credit. To talk about Whole Foods’ charity work was an unexpected star of the evening – Michelle Mac Arthur:

Michelle MacArthurMs. Mac Arthur has been a part-time cashier at the Princeton store for only six months, but during the last holiday season she single-handedly brought in $8,000 for another Whole Foods initiative, Feed4More. By asking customers to donate $10 (or any amount) at checkout, she alone beat out 13 other Whole Foods stores in the region! She’s standing in front of an end display featuring, among other things, Frankies olive oil and the Frankies Spuntino cookbook.

New Jersey Monthly Features Best Coffee Houses from High Point to Cape May

NJ Monthly cover April 2015See if your favorites made the cut in this April 2015 cover story. I contributed these 6 from Central NJ that the powers-that-be deemed among the best:

Buck’s Ice Cream & Espresso, Lambertville
Grovers Mill, West Windsor
Infini-T Cafe, Princeton
Lambertville Trading Co., Lambertville
Rojo’s Roastery, Lambertville & Princeton
Small World, Princeton

Clearly it was a tough assignment, drinking all those wonderful brews. But two in particular linger in my memory: the sidecar at Rojo’s espresso bar in Princeton, which are tandem, half-size espresso and cappuccino ($4) and a small pour-over of Crispy Hippie Dark Roast at Small World ($3.25).

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the Culinary Legends of Cape May and the Barrister behind the Alchemist & Barrister’s 4 Decades

The First Ladies of the Chalfonte

Edible Jersey spring 2015It is with a tinge of sadness that I share the link to my latest work. Recently, for the spring 2015 issue of Edible Jersey I interviewed sisters Dorothy Burton & Lucille Thompson, both in their late eighties. They have been in charge of the kitchen at Cape May’s venerable Chalfonte Hotel for decades, having followed their mother and grandmother before them.

The sisters, who arrived at the hotel at the tender ages of 9 and 7, became famous for their skillet-fried chicken and crab croquettes. Interviewing these warm and indomitable women and recording their story was my honor and privilege.

Dot Burton. Lucille Thompson & the skillet that Ms. Burton wielded to make her famous fried chicken

Dot Burton. Lucille Thompson & the skillet that Ms. Burton wielded to make her famous fried chicken

Just as the magazine hit newsstands, I learned that Dorothy (“Dot”) Burton died on February 24th. The latest word from the Chalfonte is that “Lucille will be back this summer,” as will Dot’s daughter, Tina Bowser, who has worked alongside her mother and aunt for several years.

My story begins on page 46.

Meet Frank Armenante of Princeton’s Perennially Popular Alchemist & Barrister

3-11 Cover & Front (1-7).inddWhen I was assigned to interview the lawyer who in 1974 bought the old King’s Court bar-restaurant with his cousin-chemist (aka alchemist), I expected a buttoned-up, old-school Princeton type. What I encountered, to my delight, was a bit different. Read his take on the A&B’s past, present, and future here, in the March 11 issue of U.S. 1.

A Nearly 100% Food-free Post!

No Food Involved! Where to Clean or Fix Almost Anything

NJ Monthly cover Mar15

This is one you’ll want to print out and keep handy. For the March 2015 cover story the folks at  New Jersey Monthly scoured the state for top-notch pros who can fix everything from slate roofs to antique dolls. I was thrilled to contribute these Central NJ artiste-specialists, but there are many more categories & entries in the full story:

Princeton Violins, Kingston: Violin repair & restoration
New Jersey Barn Company, Ringoes: Historical barn restoration & design
Bregenzer Bros., Hopewell: Slate & copper roof restoration & design & chimney restoration
Cane and Able, Belford: Chair caning repair (732-462-3589)
Doll Dr. Kathleen & Michael’s Clocks, Marlboro: Doll & clock repair
Olek Lejbzon Co., Newark: Astonishing range of antique and modern home furnishings repair, conservation, and refinishing
Artisans of the Valley, Pennington: Master wood-crafting design & repair

A Rare Photo Essay

I freely admit that I don’t excel at photography. But I can’t help crowing about these time-lapse-style photos I took of the (zoomed) view of the lower Manhattan skyline at sunset during a recent dinner at Battello in Jersey City. I’ll report on the excellent meal at a later date, but for now feast on these beauties:

??????????????????????????????Battello near dark - CopyBattello after dark - Copy

Finally! A Food Item: Slow Food Central Jersey Farmers Market, Sunday March 1st

slow-food-markets

As I write this, more snow and a wintry mix are expected later in the day on Sunday, so take advantage of the 10 am to 2 pm time frame to stock up on locally grown and produced foods from these 15 premium vendors convening at Tre Piani restaurant in Forrestal Village:

Beechtree Farm, Birds & Bees Farm, Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, Cherry Grove Farm, Chickadee Creek Farm, Davidson Exotic Mushrooms, Frank’s Pickled Peppers, Fulper Family Farmstead, Happy Wanderer Bakery, Jams by Kim, O Made Granola, Shibumi Farm, The Artisan Tree, Valley Shepherd Creamery, WoodsEdge Wools Farm.

Shibumi Farm Mushrooms

Shibumi Farm Mushrooms

For my personal shopping list I’m hoping to snag: Medieval levain bread & Jonathan’s cultured butter from Bobolink; Davidson’s portobello mushrooms; Fulper’s nigella seed mozzarella string cheese (I freely admit it: I am addicted); lion’s mane or any other exotic mushrooms from Shibumi; Valley Shepherd’s Nettlesome cheese; & eggs, fresh greens, and root veggies from Chickadee Creek or any farm that offers them. Wish me luck!

 

NJ Boasts 4 JamesBeard Semifinalists!; Martha Stewart Coming to Bridgewater; Mauritian Fish Curry

2015 James Beard Award Semi-Finalists Announced

These Garden State culinary luminaries are nominees this year – including in two national categories:

For Outstanding Chef (in the U.S.): Maricel Presilla, Cucharamama, Hoboken

For Outstanding Baker (in the U.S.): Marie Jackson, The Flaky Tart, Atlantic Highlands

For Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic: Both Scott Anderson, Elements, Princeton and Joey Baldino, Zeppoli, Collingswood

Congrats & best wishes to them all!
Finalists will be announced on March 24 and the winners named on May 4.
Here’s the complete 2015 list of semifinalists in all categories.

Heads Up Martha Stewart Fans

clean-slate-cover_sq

She’ll be signing copies of her latest book, Clean Slate, on Thursday, February 26 at the Costco in Bridgewater. Ms. S. will be there at 2 pm but only for one hour, so good luck! For event info phone 732.584.1003.

Homemade Fish Curry from the Island of Mauritius (via Northern VA)

Do I hear you saying, “from where?” I explain the where, why, who, what and how below. (This post is excerpted from my In the Kitchen column in the 2/6/15 issue of the Princeton Packet.)

Of the many important things in life that we have little or no control over, our children’s choice of mate has to rank right up there. So my husband Bill and I counted ourselves among the fortunate in this regard when our elder daughter, Alice, married Chris Le last year. He is all anyone could hope for in a son-in-law. But the bonus for me, a food writer, is that Chris hails from a food-obsessed family with an interesting and unusual cultural background.

Alice & Chris Le

Alice & Chris Le

Chris’s father, Thanh Le, emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam after the war. In Northern Virginia he met his future wife, Marie-Ange So Ting Fong, who was born and raised on the island of Mauritius, which is known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Situated off the coast of Madagascar, Mauritius is the only place on earth where the dodo lived. In 2010, the New York Times lauded the island’s “perfect year-round climate, talcum-soft sands, [and] crystalline waters.” This tropical paradise is multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. Languages spoken there include Mauritian Creole, French, and English, as well as several Asian tongues.

Chris and his two brothers were raised on dishes that span the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Mauritian repertoire. While his father, Thanh, likes to grill and barbecue, the bulk of the cooking is done by his mother, Marie-Ange, and her mother, Josephine So Ting Fong, who lives with the family part of the year. This past Christmas Eve the Les graciously invited me and Bill to join their extended family for what turned out to be a veritable feast.

Le Family Christmas Eve 2014

Le Family Christmas Eve 2014

I lost count after 15 dishes had hit the table, among them dumplings, egg rolls, Vietnamese grilled beef skewers, noodle dishes, abalone, and pickled eggs. All were terrific, but there was one dish that I couldn’t stop eating: Mauritian fish curry. This turns out to be a deceptively straightforward combination of fried fish with onions, a couple of spices, and a splash of vinegar. It’s a curry in the broader Southeast Asian sense of something having been cooked in spices, which may or may not include curry.

Mauritian Fish Curry

Mauritian Fish Curry

Of course, the first thing I did when I got home was to google recipes for Mauritian fish curry. But the images and recipes that popped up were quite different from what I had enjoyed. The apparently more common version turns out to be a “wet” curry, with the fried fish bathed in sauce, often tomato based. The Les’ is a “dry” curry, its moisture derived mainly from the oil that the fish is fried in. So I asked Ms. Le and her mother for their recipe, which they kindly supplied. (As is typical in recipes handed down in families, no one had ever measured ingredients, let alone recorded it on paper.) The only constants among theirs and the other recipes are onions, garlic, and fish (usually white-fleshed) fried in vegetable or seed oil. Many include – besides the aforementioned tomatoes – fresh ginger, cilantro, and thyme. Some use curry leaves or curry powder, as well as cumin or garam masala.

The Le family recipe contains none of these. Instead, spoonfuls of saffron and mustard seed provide color and flavor. Ms. Le cautions, “I would suggest that you test the recipe and adjust the amounts according to your taste.” She also suggests using your personal favorite fish. For her, that’s thick fillets of boneless tilapia, although her mother prefers tilapia (or other fish) with bones intact, and her husband favors salmon.

The recipe below is straight from the Le family, with one deviation. Marie-Ange Le and her mother allow the uncooked fish, sprinkled heavily with salt, to sit at room temperature for four hours. (Other Mauritian recipes stipulate one hour.) This helps the fish to crisp up nicely and not fall apart in the pan. But food safety experts advise never to let raw seafood sit out at room temperature, so you can skip that step and either coat the fillets lightly with flour just before frying or simply follow your normal routine for frying fish fillets. The results won’t be the same, but still good.

Elizabeth & Ryan

Elizabeth & Ryan

By the way: There’s another Tanner family wedding approaching. In October our other child, Elizabeth, will marry Ryan Ritterson. Bill and I can hardly believe that we’ve lucked out here, too. Ryan, like Chris, is all we could ask for to ensure our daughter’s happiness. His ancestry, though, is far less exotic. He’s from solid Midwestern stock. I promise not to hold that against him.

LE FAMILY MAURITIAN FISH CURRY
Serves 8 to 10

3 pounds thick fish fillets, such as tilapia or salmon, cut into large pieces
Salt to taste
Oil for deep frying, such as peanut, soybean, or canola (not olive oil)
6 cloves chopped garlic
1 teaspoon powdered saffron, or 12 strands (1 gram) saffron, crumbled
1-1/2 tablespoons mustard seed
3 tablespoons white vinegar
2 white onions cut in quarters (or eighths, if large) and the slices pulled apart

  1. Wash and pat dry the fish. Salt the fish on both sides, to taste, and deep-fry the fish in oil as you normally do. Remove the fish and set aside, reserving the oil.
  2. In a small bowl mix the saffron with a little warm water.
  3. Heat one cup of the reserved oil and stir-fry the onions and garlic until the onions are soft and translucent but not brown. Add the saffron mixture, the vinegar, and a pinch of salt. Combine and turn off the heat.
  4. Immediately add the mustard seed, then the fried fish and gently combine. Turn the heat back to medium-low and cook only until the mixture is just heated through. (Make sure that you do not overheat the mixture at the end, or the mustard seed will turn bitter.)
  5. If the fish curry is too dry, add more of the reserved frying oil.

Catching Up: Speed Reviews

You Know Speed Dating? Here are 9 Speed Reviews

In the closing months of 2014 I had several dining experiences that I never got a chance to write up, including at 2 new Princeton eateries. At this point you’ve likely heard and read about the major new places, such as Jockey Hollow. Nonetheless, allow me to weigh in with these quick hits:

Crab, red onion, & aioli on cornbread squares, Jockey Hollow

Crab, red onion, & aioli on cornbread squares, Jockey Hollow Preview Dinner

Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen Morristown’s Vail Mansion is the gorgeous Italianate-meets-the-21st century setting for acclaimed restaurateur Chris Cannon’s return to the dining scene. I was a huge fan of one of his first NYC restaurants, L’Impero, and the press dinner I attended at Jockey Hollow last fall was of the same caliber. I am skeptical of press dinners because they can exceed what paying customers will get to experience, so was delighted to read the raves about the food and drink in this New York Times review of February 7, 2015.

SweetGrass Last October chef/owner Sarah Gresko took over the space in Hopewell that had been Bell & Whistle, and the NY Times rewarded her with this glowing report. She kept the attractive setting featuring natural stones and woods, but brought her modern sensibility of Southern fare. I really enjoy her shrimp & grits (with a hush puppy and pickled okra) and textbook-perfect creme brulee, but I wish the menu displayed a little more excitement and that the prices were a tad gentler. Also, am I the only one who finds the room beautiful but cold (visually and temperature-wise)?

Sweet Grass Shrimp & Grits

Sweet Grass Shrimp & Grits

Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue I loved the barbecue when Mighty Quinn’s was at the Stockton Farm Market, touting it to everyone I encountered. I was devastated when it up and moved to NY, then delighted when it opened an outpost in Clifton. So imagine my shock when I and the five discriminating diners I dragged here were disappointed with everything we ordered, which encompassed pretty much the entire menu. This place is still garnering rave reviews, which baffles me.

Under the Moon Cafe This Bordentown restaurant isn’t new, but I hadn’t visited it since it moved several doors down to a larger space (in 2011) and expanded its Argentinean menu. OMG. The best empanadas ever, plus arborio rice balls stuffed with manchego, patatas bravas, albondigas in tomato sauce, etc. Every dish a winner.

Under the Moon, Bordentown

Under the Moon, Bordentown

La Costenita This authentic Mexican market, takeout shop, and casual eatery has flourished because of the from-scratch, homestyle cooking mandated by its cheerful owner, Alicia Arango, who hails from Oaxaca. Her tacos, tamales, flautas, and other specialties are special enough to have overcome a location in a set-back strip mall in Hillsborough and having debuted during the lowest point of the recent economic downturn. Pictured below, from front to back, are sopes (including one with beef tongue) on homemade tortillas, plantanos, and tacos.

La Costenita, Hillsborough

La Costenita, Hillsborough

Washington Crossing Inn Fans of the erstwhile Za in Pennington take note: chef Mark Valenza is plying his trade at this lovely historic property just across the river in Bucks County. He’s bringing some spark to the tradition-bound menu with signatures like Navajo fry bread and Tsukiji tuna & shrimp with bok choy & fermented black beans.

Navajo Fry Bread, Washington Crossing Inn

Navajo Fry Bread, Washington Crossing Inn

Mamoun’s Falafel, Princeton Given its wide and devoted following in NYC and elsewhere in NJ, I waited with bated breath for this one to open on my home turf. You know what? The falafel IS really good. Everything else? Meh.

30 Burgers, Princeton As much as I like to support Jersey-based businesses, I have little positive to say about this place, a branch of the smallish 25 Burgers chain with locations throughout the state. I’m happy to see it succeed, but my notes about its bacon cheeseburger include “flat, foodservice-grade pattie” (for the record, they use 100% Angus beef) and “gummy, salty orange-yellow cheese.”

Mistral There’s nothing really new or changed at this Princeton sibling to Elements – if you don’t count the gorgeous, recently enclosed patio or that it now has has a liquor license – but I include it because (a) I want to end on a positive note and (b) chef Ben Nerenhausen’s eclectic small plates just get better with every visit. The menu changes frequently, but let me share two wows from this past fall: Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms roasted in chicken fat with prunes, cockscomb jus, polenta and shaved black truffle; and roasted duck ramen with duck confit, autumn pumpkin, and scallions.

Whew! Speed reviewing is exhausting. As is speed dating, or so I imagine.

Couples in the Kitchen, part ii; Local TV Cooking Show Debuts; Hopewell Restaurant Week; Slow Food Market

Love in (and out of) the Kitchen

Food biz  couples in the Princeton area who live, love and work together in their restaurants and shops recently shared with me the highs and lows, the ins and outs of their personal and professional lives. In this December 2014 post, I featured an engaged couple just starting on this life journey (Lauren Sobogal and Frank Caponi) and seasoned veterans with a popular restaurant and a toddler (Rory and Aaron Philipson of Blue Bottle Cafe).

Karen Child

Karen Child

Below, excerpted from my 1/16/15 “In the Kitchen” column in the Princeton Packet, is the final installment. This time the spotlight’s on two married couples: Jennifer & Rudie Smit of Olssen’s Fine Foods, the Palmer Square cheese shop, and Karen & Bo Child, who’s previous enterprise was the Lawrenceville Bakery.

Rudie chose to be the correspondent for the Smits and Karen for the Childs.
First up, Rudie.

Q: What are the best, most rewarding aspects of working so closely together every day?

Rudie: “Here are a few things that Jen and I brainstormed about working together in our store. For a correct understanding it should be noted that our staff and children are connected to that too as they all have to put up with all the “married-couple-with-kids” shenanigans. Our staff calls this the “Smit-swirl:” a state in the shop where our kids run around, Jen and I give contradictory instructions to the staff, new ideas are fired and mayhem abounds. Fortunately, this is usually limited to ten minutes, after which calm returns, the children find something to occupy themselves with, and Jen and I start working with our staff and our customers. Jen is the visionary in our working and home relationship and I typically execute. Whatever divides us, our passion for the store and what we sell really unites.

Q.: What are some unavoidable conflicts and how do you handle the stress and how do you keep the romantic spark alive?

“Between the paperwork and long hours, Jen and I sneak out for a nice quick lunch or make a delivery together. The busy nature of owning your own business still does not mean that you cannot have off-time together. We try to have a date night or a civilized lunch.  We try our best to avoid talking about the shop and instead talk about the things that brought us together originally.

“Early in owning the shop, a smart person told us to divide responsibilities and while there is often overlap, we have found that we always go back to “hold on, that is yours” – we might talk about a new cheese (which is my main responsibility) but I lead the introduction of the cheese.

Next up are Karen and Bo Child. Karen, a pastry chef, and Bo, a musician, are currently planning their next endeavor, which will combine both of their specialties. Here’s Karen’s report from the trenches.

“Well, here’s a perfect example of what couples do when they work together. My husband Bo is an English major and subsequently the writer in the family so I asked him to write something for your article and he thought I had written and sent you something….and , so the story goes…

“It’s tough being in business together, I won’t kid you. I think the most important thing that needs to be done is to establish who does what in the business and actually have some written job descriptions down so you and your spouse can be accountable for certain duties. However, even with these descriptions, there are going to be snafus where either one may not actually do what’s part of the job description – which ultimately means that one person might have to carry the ball and wear two hats at any given time. I think this happens routinely in any corporate environment as well, so it’s nothing new. The goal is to avoid the pitfalls and see them before they actually become a problem.

“The following are some examples of what you can expect as a couple working in the food industry. As much as you want to hire employees that you can trust, we learned the hard way that it was best to have one of us at the shop during open retail hours. This made having time off together difficult to achieve.

“And then there were the holidays. With both of us in the business and holidays being big retail days for us, we couldn’t spend time with our respective extended families like we would have liked. And snow days. You look outside and see a ton of snow and a veritable winter wonderland and you just want to stay in your pajamas, by the fire. But no, someone has to go to the shop – regardless of whether or not you’re going to open for business during a winter state-of-emergency. If the decision was made to NOT open, then someone STILL has to go in and, in the case of owning a bakery, attend to raw product that’s been sitting in the proofer. And try as we might, sometimes we each broke the promise to not bring shop business home with us. Sometimes shop-related arguments carried over into our home life. We vowed never to let that happen again.

“However, on a more positive note, there were many wonderful times when we worked together. We each instinctively knew what each one was capable of doing. You go into the partnership knowing what each others’ strengths are and when you allow each person to do what they know best, the machine hums. We had wonderful evenings at our shop, especially during the last couple of months in business when we had a lot of music and food that was put together very spontaneously. Bo acted as host and MC and talked and played music with folks who brought their instruments and I was in the kitchen with a friend preparing food that we were offering our guests. The lights were off due to the storm, candles were lit which added a soft ambiance and, although the storm left its mark financially on us, we put our concerns aside for the evening and hung out, singing and dancing (me too!) until it was time to make our way home, steering clear of trees that had fallen during the storm. It was one of the most memorable evenings we had at the bakery during our 10 years in business. We miss those times the most.”

My thanks to all these folks – Jennifer & Rudie, Karen & Bo, Rory & Aaron, and Lauren and Frank for sharing.

“Cook for the Health of It” Debuts on PrincetonTV

Dorothy Mullen, "Cook for the Health of It"

Dorothy Mullen, “Cook for the Health of It”

The first episode of this show with host Dorothy Mullen, who’s well known in the Princeton area for her Suppers Programs, features a guest who has had debilitating rheumatoid since the age of 16. Together, they discuss the healing powers of whole foods while making split pea and kale soup. New, 30 minute episodes will appear monthly on the local Princeton channel, and can be screened at www.princetontv.org.

Hopewell’s First Ever Restaurant Week

SweetGrass shrimp & grits w/hush puppy, pickled okra, Creole sauce

SweetGrass shrimp & grits w/hush puppy, pickled okra, Creole sauce

From February 22 through 28, twenty-one of Hopewell’s best eateries will offer special menus and pricing. They include established favorites – e.g., Blue Bottle, Brick Farm Market, Brothers Moon, Nomad Pizza – newbies you may have been meaning to check out (Sweet Grass, e.g.), or oldies you’ve been meaning to check out, like Peasant Grill or Paint the Roses Tea Room (which also serves Chilean food). Check it out here.

Reminder: Slow Food Northern NJ’s Winter Farm Market is Sunday, February 1

It’s a chance to stock up before the coming snowstorm on edibles from your favorite farmers and food artisans and, as I wrote in this previous post, meet some new ones. Note: a couple of the vendors I mentioned – Arturo’s and Jose Porter Farm – won’t be able to make it, but 20 others will.

My Lunch @ Seasons 52

Permit me to list all the reasons that until last week I ignored Seasons 52, the restaurant that opened in Market Fair late in 2014.

  1. It’s a chain restaurant, with 44 locations across the country.
  2. Its parent company is Darden, whose brands include Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse.
  3. It’s located in a mall – albeit a smallish, upscalish one.
  4. It boasts that no menu item is more than 475 calories. Diet mall food? Puh-leez.
  5. It boasts 52 wines by the glass. I mean, come on – quantity over quality?
  6. Its menu is all over the place. What one kitchen could produce excellent versions of banh mi, shrimp scampi, black bean tacos, Korean lettuce wraps, and venison stew?

Allow me to say, mea culpa.

1 of 2 private dining rooms, Seasons 52 Princeton

1 of 2 private dining rooms, Seasons 52 Princeton

I first became familiar with the brand from my work on the Zagat NJ guides, when the first Seasons 52 in the state, in the Cherry Hill mall, began garnering excellent scores. (Since then, one has opened in Menlo Park mall, and another is coming to Bridgewater Commons.) But even that wasn’t enough to turn my head.

What did was the deluge of unsolicited, unfailingly positive reports from Princeton-area folks that began pouring in. Everyone, from the most discriminating foodie to the least adventurous and pickiest of eaters, raved. One restaurant critic (I’m looking at you, Faith Bahadurian) even booked it for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. In no time, snagging one of its 284 seats (with another 36 outside come spring) became difficult, both for lunch and dinner.

So when the folks at Seasons 52 offered to have me and a guest for lunch – and knowing that I wouldn’t be officially reviewing it – I accepted. Clearly (or you wouldn’t be reading this), I came away impressed, just like everyone else. Before I get into specifics, let me just offer this rebuttal to the above:

  1. It’s a chain, yes, but the most common comment on Yelp! is, “This doesn’t feel like a chain.”
  2. Darden is also parent to another well respected brand, Capital Grille, which Seasons 52 resembles in décor and ambiance – but with kinder, gentler price points.
  3. A mall location means there’s always free and convenient parking.
  4. Dishes are smartly conceived to minimize calorie-laden carbs. Flatbreads, for example have a lavash-like base rather than a focaccia base.
  5. Those 52 wines by the glass (which also change seasonally) are chosen by George Miliotes, one of fewer than 250 certified Master Sommeliers worldwide. And they’re only part of an impressive international list of 100 wines on the menu.
  6. While I wasn’t able to sample the breadth of the menu in one lunch, I was impressed by 100% of what I and my guest shared.

Now on to the specifics:

Artichoke flatbread, Seasons 52 Princeton

Artichoke flatbread, Seasons 52 Princeton

We started with the artichoke and goat cheese (Laura Chenel) flatbread ($9.95) with spinach, balsamic onions, and red peppers. As you can see, it’s big enough to share. The toppings were fresh and flavorful and the crisp, lavash-like base kept the dish light.

Sea scallops, Seasons 52 Princeton

Sea scallops, Seasons 52 Princeton

My guest still hasn’t stopped raving about the caramelized grilled sea scallops ($21.50/lunch; $22.50/dinner). These 6 (sometimes 7) big boys – beautifully grilled to bring out their inherent sweetness – are brushed with lemon butter; sit on a spread of loose, creamy leek risotto; and are accompanied by cubes of tender butternut squash and excellent asparagus. Interestingly, the menu lists broccolini, not asparagus (Seasons 52 restaurants nationwide serve the same menu), but the restaurant’s executive chef, James Petersen, told us that each chef has leeway to switch out ingredients. (A full profile of Petersen will appear in a later post.)

Executive Chef James Petersen, Seasons 52 Princeton

Executive Chef James Petersen, Seasons 52 Princeton

My entree choice, venison, is typically only on the dinner menu, but Chef Petersen put it on a special “winter pairing menu” at lunch that day. (That’s another call that Seasons 52 chefs – who are also partners – get to make.)

Venison chop & ragout, Seasons 52 Princeton

Venison chop & ragout, Seasons 52 Princeton

It’s a New Zealand venison chop plus venison ragout, with sweet potato mash, roasted peppers, and asparagus ($27). The chop (larger than it appears above) is juicy, well-seasoned, and was cooked rare, as ordered, but the star of the plate is the ragout, which has the depth of  boeuf bourguignon while preserving the venison’s gaminess. It’s worth twice 475 calories! The dish paired beautifully with my wine choice: Casillero del Diablo carmenere ($8.50/glass; $34/bottle), one of two carmeneres on the menu. (Pretty impressive that a chain restaurant would have two, no?)

Mini indulgences, Seasons 52 Princeton

Mini indulgences, Seasons 52 Princeton

In keeping within the calorie limit, Seasons 52 has finessed dessert into “Signature Mini Indulgences.” Guests choose from among 7 choices, each the size of a double shot glass and costing a mere $2.75. This happens to be exactly the amount of dessert I require. I preferred my guest’s mocha macchiato parfait with caramel sauce to my lemon curd with blueberries, but I would like to try the others, which have flavors of key lime pie, pecan pie, carrot cake, chocolate and peanut butter, double fudge brownies and cannoli with raspberry sauce.

Not to mention returning for those Korean duck lettuce wraps and black bean tacos. Check out the full menu and more at: www.seasons52.com

 

 

Review: Christine Nunn’s Picnic on the Square

I can count on one hand the number of restaurants I’ve awarded three-and-a-half stars over the last (gulp) 19 years. Nunn, the award-winning Bergen County chef who’s also the author of The Preppy Chef, got me to do it a few years back with her first restaurant, named simply Picnic, in Westwood. What do I allot her latest, Picnic on the Square in Ridgewood? Check out my review in the February issue of New Jersey Monthly.

NJ Monthly cover feb15

And while I’m looking backward, I’ve only ever given four-star ratings to two NJ restaurants: Craig Shelton’s Ryland Inn and Nicholas Harary’s Restaurant Nicholas.