Tag Archives: Ben Nerenhausen

Let’s Go Crazy! Chefs’ Crazy New Year’s Stories & ‘Crazy for Cookbooks’ Event

Midnight Madness: NJ Chefs Share Zany New Year’s Tales

Most of us get a little nutty when New Year’s Eve rolls around. But chefs – who have a loony job every day of the year – seem to go to extremes more than most. Here in the holiday 2015 issue of Edible Jersey (starting on page 71) I poll chefs around the state for their most memorable December 31st. They live up to their profession’s reputation in spades.

Edible Jersey cover holiday 2015

My thanks to Juan Mercado (One53), Ben Nerenhausen (Mistral), Christine Nunn (Picnic on the Square), Larry Robinson (Ceriello Marketplace, Medford), Marilyn Schlossbach (Langosta Lounge & others), & Chris Siversen (Maritime Parc & BURG).

‘Crazy for Cookbooks’ Panel Discussion at Princeton Public Library. Join Me & Other Food Writers, Chefs, Cookbook Authors, & Publishers

I jumped at the chance to participate in this fun evening, coming up on Wednesday, December 2, at 7 p.m at the Princeton Library:

Cookbook Panel Flyer RevisedThe event is free and will be followed by the participating authors’ book sale and signing. Attendees are encouraged to bring along their own personal favorite cookbook because there will be a photo booth set up where they can be photographed with it in tow. The resulting pics will be shared by the library on social media.

Drink It In: NJ’s Newest Brewery; Mistral Bar’s Mixologist; Rome’s (Literal) Food as Fashion Exhibition

Conclave Brewing Opens in Hunterdon County

Carl Alfaro of Conclave Brewing

Carl Alfaro of Conclave Brewing

My story at njmonthly.com  has the scoop on the brews (espresso milk stout; farmhouse ale, e.g.) and the buds (Carl Alfaro; Tim Bouton) behind Conclave, which opens its tap room on July 11 in Raritan Township/Flemington.

Jamie Dodge Mixes Up Magic at Mistral Bar

Jamie Dodge, courtesy Elements Princeton

Jamie Dodge, courtesy Elements Princeton

This longtime favorite behind the bar at Elements in Princeton has moved over to its newest sibling, Mistral Bar, which opened in June. The Witherspoon Street bar is adjacent to Mistral the restaurant and downstairs from the soon-to-reopen Elements. I interviewed Dodge about his plans and potions for the July issue of The Princeton Echo. Here’s the story:

It’s two weeks into the June opening of Mistral Bar and bar manager/master mixologist Jamie Dodge is playing with flowers. Not just any flowers, and not as garnishes for the inventive craft cocktails he gained a following for when he was behind the bar at Elements, sibling restaurant to Mistral before it closed for relocation. And decidedly not as table decoration. No, he is playing with ten garbage bags full of black locust tree blossoms, which he has personally collected. (They are said to taste like fresh sweet peas and, like peas, are available only for a short time each spring.) “I made black locust syrup three weeks ago and can’t wait to play around with it,” he says, excitement palpable in his voice. “It may go into one of the kambuchas I’m currently making.”

Dodge, 31, is known for incorporating hyper-seasonal ingredients into the infusions, tonics, tinctures, and bitters he concocts that find their way into his creations. This bigger stage – the old Elements bar seated 10, this space 38 – has earned him some perks: a freezer for such things as large ice cubes (“I don’t have to go downstairs!”), a dishwasher, extra storage space, two mirror-image work stations, and a self-proclaimed “beautiful” bar back. He characterizes his opening menu of nine specialty cocktails as streamlined. “The first couple of weeks I wanted to ease into things,” he explains. “It was kind of an interesting way to introduce folks to a new bar. The focus was on getting the bar itself up and running.”

Dodge has already tweaked that menu, but one cocktail that remains is the Damn Son, which he characterizes as “very refreshing and on the lighter side – citrusy and spicy.” It’s concocted of Averell Damson Plum gin, Velvet Falernum (“notes of clove”), fresh lime juice, and Tiki bitters, which has primary flavors of cinnamon and allspice. Another is the Gibstress, comprising Hayman’s Old Tom gin into which Dodge has infused saffron, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and housemade chamomile bitters. Instead of a cocktail onion as garnish, he uses pickled ramp bulb. “I went out and gathered bulbs in the spring and pickled enough of them to use as my version of a cocktail onion the rest of the year,” he says. He likes to instruct guests to first take a sip of the cocktail, then bite into the bulb, then take another sip. “They’re totally different experiences – totally different flavor profiles,” says this cocktail wonk.

Mistral Bar has its own 672-square-foot-space adjacent to Mistral, and is downstairs from the new Elements, which is scheduled to open within weeks. The flattened-by-the-Mistral-wind tree sculpture has been moved over from the restaurant and fits well with the beautiful bar top – a highly polished slab of dark, dramatically grained wood. The natural stone, wood ceiling beams, and muted colors that characterize Mistral’s rustic-modern vibe are carried over here.

Dodge is also in charge of the bar’s selection of craft beers (NJ & PA are well represented), which are available on draft, bottled, and in cans, while Element’s wine director, Carl Rohrbach, has curated a short but interesting wine list. Those who dine at the u-shaped bar’s 16 seats or at the hi-tops and regular tables surrounding it, which accommodate another 22, can choose from a menu of a dozen bar bites – some of which Mistral’s chef, Ben Nerenhausen, has created for the bar alone – and a selection of some of Mistral’s small plates and other specialties, including the Mistral burger.

Dodge no longer has duties at Elements per se. Says that restaurant’s executive chef, Scott Anderson, “What I hope for every one of Elements’ guests is that they come in, get a drink downstairs to try what Jamie has to offer, and then move upstairs and sit down to a tasting menu and see the vision I’ve been building. Other than that, there’s no overlap. I mean, we’re one company and I would like to think that everybody has the same vision and ideas, but they’re different experiences. What I find fascinating is watching each person’s creative process. And it all works together.” Anderson says he purposely “does not get in the way” of Dodge or Nerenhausen and has enjoyed “watching Jamie grow over the years.”

What does Jamie Dodge drink in his free time? “Personally I love gin,” he says. “My favorite right now is Barr Hill from Vermont and my favorite gin drinks are martinis and Negronis. I also like rye, and I’m a big beer guy.” And in the dead heat of summer, he might opt for something as simple as a glass of rose or “even a margarita.”

Fashion Made of Food

italyamonews.com

italyamonews.com

My thanks to Mary Ann Fusco for bringing to my attention an exhibition at Mercati di Traiano in Rome through November 1 that examines how food has served as muse to fashion designers. You don’t need to understand English to admire, as Mary Ann advises, the spaghetti necklace and licorice root and bread dresses depicted in this story in Italyamonews.

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.

Mistral’s Ben Nerenhausen; Upcoming Sit-down Dinner @ Trenton Farmers Market; Lunch @ Estia Taverna

We Have Applebee’s to Thank for Chef Ben Nerenhausen

Edible Jersey Fall 2014

Edible Jersey Fall 2014

These days he’s garnering accolades for his creative, globe-trotting small plates at Mistral in Princeton – like the chicken liver spread with charred strawberry, celery, and peanut with toast, pictured above. Yet despite a childhood spent mostly in Pakistan and Egypt, this Wisconsin boy points to a college job at Applebee’s for sparking his chef fire. Read my full interview in the Fall 2014 issue of Edible Jersey. (It starts on page 36.)

Buttons Creperie + Trenton Farmers Market + Teresa Caffe + HomeFront = Farm-to-Table for a Good Cause

From last year's Button's Creperie fundraiser. Frank Caponi & Lauren Sabogal, center

From last year’s Buttons Creperie fundraiser. Frank Caponi & Lauren Sabogal, center (All photos courtesy of Andrew Barrack of Great Heights Media)

I’m going on Sunday, September 21 to a special fundraiser that brings together some of my favorite people and establishments to benefit one of the most effective nonprofits around. Here’s why I hope you’ll join me there:

Courtesy Buttons Creperie

Courtesy Buttons Creperie

  • I’m partial to the made-to-order sweet and savory crepes and other fare that Lauren Sabogal, Buttons‘ young owner/chef, and her crew cook up at both the Trenton Farmers Market and the Stockton Market.
  • She’s teamed up with another local chef on the 5-course seasonal dinner that’s planned: Frank Caponi of Princeton’s Teresa Caffe. Caponi, a graduate of Mercer County College’s culinary program, is also Sabogal’s fiance.
Trenton Farmers Market, courtesy Button's Creperie

Trenton Farmers Market, courtesy Buttons Creperie

  • The dinner is being held inside the historic, wonderfully ungentrified Trenton Farmers Market, which has been around since 1948.
  • Best of all, a portion of the proceeds goes to HomeFront, which helps families in the Trenton area break the cycle of poverty.
Button's Creperie Tablescape

Buttons Creperie Tablescape

Other draws: The dinner utilizes the harvest of many area farms, is limited to 50 guests, includes live music, and, as in years past, features a lovely sit-down setting that Sabogal creates just for the event. Here’s this year’s menu:

Courtesy Button's Creperie

Courtesy Buttons Creperie

Appetizer: Three crepe chips with different toppings: roasted corn and tomato salsa, marinated Shibumi Farm mushrooms with goat cheese, and end-of-summer salsa verde and eggplant.

Salad: Terhune Orchards butter head Bibb, carrot puree, toasted almonds, agrodolce (i.e. sweet and sour) carrots, warm shallot-fennel vinaigrette.

Soup: Shibumi Farm mushroom soup with Oak Grove cornmeal dumpling.

Entrée: Lima Farm braised short ribs with Terhune apple cider reduction, new potatoes, Brussels sprouts, whole grain mustard, and roasted fennel. (A vegetarian and gluten-free option will also be available.)

Dessert: Seasonal fruit trifle.

Buttons Creperie’s Third Annual Farm-to-Table Fundraiser takes place on Sunday, September 21, from 5 pm to 8 pm at the Trenton Farmers Market, 960 Spruce Street, Lawrence Township. Tickets cost $45 and must be purchased in advance at Button’s Creperie. For information phone (609) 865-5063 or visit buttonscreperie.com.

Lucky Marlton Gets Sister Restaurant to Philly’s Popular Estia

Entrance to Estia Taverna, Marlton

Entrance to Estia Taverna, Marlton

Be honest: Couldn’t you be convinced the above photo is of a tiny roadside taverna on a Greek isle, or maybe one tucked away in Athen’s ancient Plaka district? In truth, I carefully cropped my photo of the entrance to Estia Taverna to evoke just that – in particular memories of a glorious day I spent years ago on Aegina, a small island that’s a half-hour boat ride from Athens. (If you could pan out, instead of a shack along the waterfront on that charming island, you’d see the stucco facade of a rather sizable restaurant located on busy Route 70 in South Jersey.)

Display at Estia Taverna, Marlton

Display at Estia Taverna, Marlton

But the lunch of traditional Greek fare that I and a guest were treated to recently at Estia Taverna in Marlton (there’s another one in Radnor, PA) really did evoke that long-ago meal because of its emphasis on fresh, simply prepared seafood, its generous handfuls of fresh herbs and greens, and its lighter-than-customary hand with even hearty staples like this moussaka ($16):

Moussaka, Estia Taverna, Marlton

Moussaka, Estia Taverna, Marlton

Not only is it more photogenic than most, but that beautifully bruleed bechamel is made with kefalograviera cheese. Other pluses include very fresh tasting pomodoro sauce and the merest wisp of cinnamon.

The signature starter here is Estia chips ($14), this dramatic presentation of paper-thin slices of zucchini and eggplant, lightly fried and served with tzatziki:

Estia Chips

Estia Chips

That same tzatziki – rich, fluffy, and thankfully not too heavy on the garlic – features in the platter of 3 Mediterranean spreads ($9). From a choice 5 we chose that, plus eggplant (nicely smoky) and tarama (carp roe) that my companion termed “like a cloud.”

Mediterranean Spreads, Estia, Marlton

Mediterranean Spreads, Estia, Marlton

My single favorite dish, though, is charcoal-grilled octopus over fava (the Greek term for yellow split-pea puree):

Charcoal-grilled Octopus, Estia, Marlton

Charcoal-grilled Octopus, Estia, Marlton

Fish of the day was succulent broiled dorade ($14), classically enhanced by a drizzle of fine Greek olive oil, fresh herbs, and a squeeze of lemon. (The mushy, one-note ratatouille-like vegetable mix with it didn’t do it justice, though.)

??????????

Sweet, generous desserts include baklava (of course) and ekmek, which has thin layers of toasted pistachios and egg custard smeared between shredded phyllo and whipped cream:

Ekmek & Baklava, Estia, Marlton

Ekmek & Baklava, Estia, Marlton

Estia Taverna also boasts a handsome setting, Greek-themed cocktails, a beer list that includes 3 Greek beers as well as local craft beers, and a global wine list that puts the spotlight on Greece, too.

 

 

Beard Awards: Big-time Semi-finalists from NJ; Food Photography Lesson; Marvelous Meyer Lemons

Jersey Chefs Up for National & Regional Awards

I was thrilled to see 3 Garden Staters on the national lists and another 3 up for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic among the semi-finalists for the 2014 James Beard Awards, which were announced earlier this week.

Maricel Presilla

Maricel Presilla

Marc Vetri

Marc Vetri

Congrats to Maricel Presilla and Marc Vetri for their nominations as Outstanding Chef in the U.S. – Presilla for Cucharamama in Hoboken and Vetri for Vetri in Philadelphia. But because he crossed river this year with Osteria in Moorestown Mall, I’m claiming him for NJ! I can’t stop myself from including another name here: Gabrielle Hamilton, who’s nominated for her work at her NY restaurant, Prune. But since she was raised in Lambertville, I’m labeling her NJ, too.

Ben Nerenhausen & Scott Anderson. Courtesy PrincetonInfo.com

Ben Nerenhausen & Scott Anderson. Courtesy PrincetonInfo.com

Congrats also to Ben Nerenhausen of Mistral in Princeton, who is nominated for Rising Star Chef in the U.S.

Congrats, finally, to these 3 who are among the 20 nominees for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic region: Scott Anderson, Elements; Joey Baldino, Zeppoli; Lucas Manteca, The Red Store. What’s particularly gratifying to me is that all 3 restaurants are in the southern half of the state – Princeton, Collingswood, and Cape May, respectively – which has long played second fiddle to the more populous metropolitan areas up north.

A dandy showing! Good luck to all.

Want to improve your food photography?

Lord knows I need to! We’ll get the chance on Sunday, March 9th when professional photographer Frank Veronsky of Princeton Photo Workshop presents “Shoot It & Eat It” at Tre Piani in Forrestal Village. During the 3-hour class, guests will first photograph and then down a 3-course dinner. Click here for details and to register.

My Meyer Lemon Madness (with recipes)

(Adapted from my “In the Kitchen” column in the Princeton Packet of 2/28/14)

Meyer lemons 006

A few years ago I fell hard for sweet, floral Meyer lemons at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmers Market. At the time they weren’t regularly available around these parts, so my San Fran-based daughter, witness to my infatuation, thoughtfully gave me a dwarf Meyer lemon tree for Christmas. My sapling arrived months later, complete with excellent instructions for potting and growing, from Four Winds Growers based in Winters, CA.

Meyer Lemon brochure 002Here in Zone 7 the tree must winter indoors. It took three growing seasons, but this past summer mine produced 5 big beauties (pictured above) that ripened just before the first frost. (A 6th was still small and green; more on that later). I was so excited, I planned an entire dinner party for 4 guests around those 5 lemons.  For inspiration I turned to this L.A. Times article: “100 Things to Do with a Meyer Lemon.”

Here’s my menu:

Meyer lemon feast 013Nibbles & drinks: Marcona almonds; hefeweizen beer with slices of Meyer lemon
Main: Roasted monkfish with Meyer lemon salsa; basmati rice; zucchini and sliced Meyer lemons
Dessert: Meyer lemon-almond cake with Meyer lemon Chantilly cream

As you can tell, I stretched my quintet as far as it could go. I even used the lemon leaves for table decor. ??????????

Amazingly, the dinner did not result in Meyer lemon overload and, with one exception, was wildly successful. Beer and Meyer lemon is a match made in heaven, although it takes a few minutes for the lemon to assert itself. I chose monkfish for its dense, meaty, snow-white flesh, but found the salsa, which contained shallots and olives as well as the fruit, bitter and overpowering. Next time I’ll substitute the compound butter I’ve included in the recipe below. On the other hand, the combination of thin rounds of zucchini and even thinner ones of lemon sautéed together in olive oil was a revelation! I may never make zucchini without lemon again.

??????????Without a doubt, though, the Meyer lemon-almond cake, a variation on one of Claudia Roden’s, stole the show. It has the texture of a tea cake and is as simple to make. It’s good on its own, and its flavor even deepens overnight, but I felt compelled to gild the lily by adding Chantilly cream flavored with Meyer lemon.

??????????

As to the fate of that last green fruit left on the tree: It continued to grow indoors, albeit at a greatly reduced pace. Just as it became full, ripe, and ready for plucking, this recipe from Bobby Flay for Meyer lemon potatoes the New York Times. It turned out to be the perfect coda to my Meyer lemon season.

ROASTED MONKFISH WITH MEYER LEMON COMPOUND BUTTER
Serves 4.

1-1/4 pounds monkfish, in one piece (tuna can be substituted)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 cloves garlic, sliced very thin
Salt & pepper, to taste
For the Meyer lemon compound butter:
1/2 stick butter, softened to room temperature
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
1-1/2 teaspoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme, leaves only
Salt & pepper to taste

  1. Make the compound butter: Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Mash and stir until well blended. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat an oven-safe baking dish with oil.
  3. Make a series of small incisions on both sides of the fish, and insert a sliver of garlic into each cut. Rub or brush fish with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Place fish in prepared dish and roast in preheated oven for about 15 minutes, or until just opaque and cooked through. Slice fish into thick, diagonal slices and serve with compound butter at room temperature.
    Serves 4.

Chefs’ 1st & Best Food Memories; 2 Reviews: Montclair & Bernardsville

Happy New Year and, if you’re on the Eastern Seaboard, Happy Snow Day!  A good occasion for cozy reading by the cyber fireside – especially the following recollections by luminaries of the Princeton food scene about their earliest food influences.

From Disney World to Lahore, Pakistan: What Food Experiences Made Big Impressions on Future Foodies

(Adapted from my column in the December 16, 2013 issue of the Princeton Packet)

Each year my final In the Kitchen column is a compilation of answers to a question I pose to a different group of Princeton-area chefs and restaurateurs. The theme is always personal and often lighthearted, such as “My Craziest New Years Eve Ever.” (I just may have to reprise that 2005 gem next year.) This time around I asked two veterans of and two newcomers to the dining scene for their first and/or best food memories.

Newcomers are Ben Nerenhausen, chef at the critically acclaimed Mistral, which opened in May, and Lisa Shao. Shao has owned Hamilton’s Szechuan House for three years, but just weeks ago debuted Peony Pavilion, her Japanese and Asian fusion restaurant on Farber Road (in the space where Sunny Garden reigned for years). The vets are Jim Weaver and Jessica Durrie. Weaver’s restaurant, Tre Piani, celebrated its 15th year at Forrestal Village earlier this year, while Durrie’s Small World Coffee kicked off its 20th anniversary celebration in December. Below, in their own words, are this quartet’s reflections.

Mistral-Logo

Ben Nerenhausen, Mistral, Princeton: While I’m not sure if it’s my best childhood memory, I sure know it’s one of my most memorable.  It happened while we were living in Lahore, Pakistan. I must have been around eight or nine years old at the time, and we had some local friends of ours who invited us out to one of their favorite places for lunch.

We arrived in the neighborhood, which was in one of the poorer areas of town and parked our car. We met our friends who told us from here we would continue on foot. They proceeded to guide us through the maze of side streets and back alley ways, all of which seemed to get smaller, shorter, and dirtier. We finally arrived at our destination. My family and I looked around quizzically. “Where’s the door?” my father asked.  Our friends pointed to a dark staircase that disappeared through an archway. “It’s upstairs” they replied. So our journey continued… After about three rickety flights we finally arrived.

There were no lights. There was no electricity. The soda placed in my hand was warm. Around us were maybe four or five dusky tables set with silverware, napkins, and bowls. In the corner of the room bubbled an enormous vat which smelled of fragrant spices and chilies. We sat down, and immediately warm naan and chapati were laid on the table. The “chef” – or at least the guy standing over the cauldron – began ladling the contents into our bowls. “What was it?” I thought. In my bowl was what appeared to be a boiled hoof surrounded by a bright red broth, thick with gelatin. “Goat” our friends announced emphatically.

Now, over the years I have come to love goat; it’s one of my favorite meats to work with. But for my eight-year-old self, the hoof sticking out of that bowl was a bit of a shock. I picked at the meat. The jelly and collagen stretched and melted away. A wave of panic and disappointment washed over me. I was hungry! I hadn’t eaten breakfast! In my desperation, my eyes fell on the broth. “Aha! There’s no sticky, melty goo in there,” I thought. I cautiously dipped a piece of bread into the savory jus and took a bite. It was amazing! The flavors from all that cooking, the richness of the broth, the complexity of flavors!  I was ravenous, and I quickly sopped up all of the broth in my bowl. To this day I have a fond nostalgia for the flavors and food of this part of the world, and experiences like this one have helped to shape me into the chef I am today. A little more adventurous, a little more appreciative, and a lot more happy.

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Peony Pavilion Chilean Sea Bass

Lisa Shao, Peony Pavilion, West Windsor & Szechuan House, Hamilton: One of my fondest childhood memories of food is a home-cooked dish that my mother used to make for me. It was simple goodness, was satisfying, and always cheered me up. It was fresh farm eggs scrambled with ripe, juicy red tomatoes, a splash of soy sauce and topped with bits of green onions that looked like confetti.

All the ingredients came from local farms in Szechuan Province – an agricultural-rich region – and purchased that day from the market by my mother. I loved the sound of my mom cracking and scrambling the eggs, their mouth-watering fragrance, and finally the beautiful colors presented to me on my plate.

This is my first recollection of when my passion for art, culture, and food began to blossom. Music and dance followed soon thereafter and whenever I heard music I would start to dance, at home or in front of crowds. I still dance today and I also serve my son my favorite dish from my childhood days. I have found that owning restaurants has enabled me to express my love for the arts in a much broader sense to many more people every day. (It is why I have included over 200 photos of the famous 16th century Chinese opera into the interior design of Peony Pavilion.) Being surrounded by and sharing great food, art, and music makes me very happy.

locavore_adventuresJim Weaver, Tre Piani, Forrestal Village: My childhood food experiences were pretty vanilla, but we did get a few fun things from time to time. My earliest memories are of cooking with my grandmothers and learning how to make such masterpieces as scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, and chocolate milk!

I can say I was ruined for life when it came to a couple of items that I did enjoy very much, but I was more like eight or ten years of age. In my town one of my best friends had apple, pear, and peach trees. Eating those crisp, tart apples off the tree was amazing. Come to think of it, when I was even younger we were at Disney World and my father walked me into an orange grove and picked a couple of the fruits. They were like eating candy! Today, I cannot enjoy most of the fruit that you find at the supermarkets or out of season. (If you read the chapter on tomatoes in my book, Locavore Adventures, you’ll learn that fruits have been engineered purposefully to not have the “bite” like they were meant to have because most people prefer bland! UGGGGGGH!!!)

My other experiences were eating super-fresh seafood on Cape Cod where we spent summers. Fishing in either freshwater ponds for bullhead catfish or pickerel, cleaning them in the backyard, and frying them up with cornmeal at my grandfathers side was always a treat. We also went clamming and then enjoyed them within an hour of harvest. Saltwater fishing was also typical and we used to catch ridiculous amounts of wild striped bass – some over 60 pounds each!  Incredible fish, still illegal to buy or sell in NJ due to dated laws and the [lobbying of] recreational fishermen. I was privy to Wellfleet oysters long before they were in vogue and today when it comes to oysters – which I adore and would eat raw long before I could summon the courage to eat a tomato – I cannot eat them unless they are super fresh. Even a few days out of the water and my palate can taste it. Ruined for life!!

Small World Coffee Cafes

Small World Coffee Cafes

Jessica Durrie, Small World Coffee, Princeton: My Dad’s job [he worked for General Motors] took us to Italy in 1969 when I was three-and-a-half years old. We moved into an old farmhouse outside of Rome with eleven acres of vineyards, orchards, vegetable gardens, rabbits and chickens. It was all taken care of by an old farmer, Carlos. During the summer those trees and vines were bursting with fruit. We ran free on this property, and had a big bell to ring so we would know when to come home for meals. I remember the smells of the fields, especially the wild fennel.

One of my favorite activities was collecting pinecones and picking out the seeds, which I would crack with a rock so that I could extract the delicious kernel, a pignole. I’m sure my older siblings showed me how to do this! I also remember the local neighborhood store where we could buy bread smeared with slices of gianduja. I remember afternoons at our babysitter’s house, where the smell of cooking in the kitchen was a constant: tomato sauce, pesto, homemade pasta, pine nut brittle.

As much as all of these memories are so strong and wonderful, I also have to say that when we would go back to the States for “home leave,” my siblings and I would rush to the 7-Eleven, near our beach rental at Stinson Beach in California, and binge on American candy and a Slurpee!

Reviews: Escape in Montclair & Bistro Seven.Three in Bernardsville

Sometimes a restaurant critic just gets lucky. These two are winners.

Escape, Bryan Gregg’s modern takes on Southern food, opened in Montclair earlier this year. Here’s my review, from the December issue of New Jersey Monthly.

That same issue includes my review of Bistro Seven.Three, the latest Mediterranean restaurant from a team of seasoned Bernardsville restaurateurs.

All-Princeton: Review of Scott Anderson’s Mistral; Savory Spice Shop Sweeps Salsa Slam

Mistral

So, was I blown away by Mistral, the self-proclaimed “breath of fresh air in Princeton?” Does it stack up to Elements, the first and highly acclaimed restaurant by the same team of Scott Anderson and Steve Distler? And can its chef, Napa Valley import Ben Nerenhausen, make it here on the East Coast? In Jersey? With Princetonians?  All and more are elucidated in the September issue of New Jersey Monthly. NJ Monthly Sept 13

Salsa Slam 2013


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For the second year in a row, I was delighted to be a judge at the Princeton Library‘s Annual Salsa Slam, which involves both the condiment (that’s where I came in) and the dance. Congrats to first place winner Savory Spice shop, with its sweet-hot mix of Asian pear, mango, and chile pepper. Close behind were Masala Grill and Mediterra from a field of 10 Princeton-area businesses. Masala Grill’s pureed salsa containing green chiles, fenugreek, and cinnamon (as well as other ingredients) also took the People’s Choice Award. Fellow judge and food writer Sue Gordon writes it up and shares photos here in the Examiner.