Monday, September 19, 2011

Daniel's Bistro - Point Pleasant, NJ

Booze clues: No liquor license? No problem. One of the best parts about central Jersey is that there’s a limited amount of liquor licenses given to restaurants, but that doesn’t mean you can’t drink. Being able to bring our own wine (no corking fees) to Daniel's, wiped out the chance of a pricey, bar bill and let the dollars focus on the food.

First bite delight: There’s nothing I love more than an amuse bouche (free food!), so I couldn’t have been happier when I received a mini-bowl of creamy, tomato bisque with a buttery crouton…not exactly an amuse bouche (= one bite), but I was on board with the showmanship.

Though, I did get a bit confused when seconds later a bowl of olives came out, quickly followed by tomato bruschetta. It seemed a bit disjointed, but I figured the more taste tests the better.

Our waitress, Courtney, was always there when needed, especially when I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any bell pepper in the crab-cake appetizer*, and although she was almost 100% certain, she went back to double check.

*I HATE when there’s no mention of bell pepper on the menu and then I’m confronted with a patty studded in giant chunks of uncooked veg…it happens more than you think.

Let them eat (crab) cake: Cooked, bell pepper was barely in the mix (but note, still there), so I decided to chance it because these were made with lump crabmeat. And though there was plenty of crab and no excess fillers, its stringy quality left me longing for my lumps, my lumps, my lovely-lady-lumps…but there were none to be found. Sautéed spinach and lemon aioli were complimentary touches, but didn’t make it worthy of a re-order.

Hail the snail!: My usual reason for ordering escargot is that it creates a socially acceptable setting for me to drink garlic butter, even if I have to chew on a rubberband-like protein in exchange. But these snails were treated with respect. More tender than Elvis’ plea for love and bathed in a white wine butter sauce, they shone as the centerpiece and were brought out of their shell in the best possible way.

Pesto Change-o: It seemed a bit rich for an appetizer, but roasted figs stuffed with pistachio pesto changed my mind in a mouthful. A balance between fruit and nut was struck with the help of a sticky, fig reduction and an erected statue of proscuitto was proudly hailed by the surrounding figs as a symbiotic and salty counterpart.

Duck, duck, goose (liver): Whoever came up with the expression, “with a cherry on top”, clearly didn’t have any foie gras on hand. This was the finishing touch that couldn’t be outdone, especially when its buttery perfection landed on top of sliced, duck breast.

Well, normally it wouldn’t be outdone. But what if the duck topped with foie gras was then topped with a duck-filled ravioli? Add the deep, berry tang of a sumptuous, currant sauce and this was the stackable sensation that Daniel’s built…a tower where I would have willingly locked myself away forever.

Crustacean Frustration: I wish I could will myself to like scallops. Scallops are like dating a great guy that everyone else loves, but for me there's zero chemistry. That didn’t mean I didn’t covet them from time to time, hoping it could work, and Daniel’s caramelized jewels of the aquatic made me consider giving them another chance…still not a fan, but can’t say I won’t applaud the preparation, especially since they were accompanied by real, lump crabmeat risotto. Now these were lumps – the double D’s of the deep sea – I couldn’t help but let my eyes linger. The “risotto” (not a true risotto – didn’t spread on the plate) was more firm than creamy, but fabulous all the same.

Humble Halibut: This halibut hung its hat on home-style simplicity and let the fish speak for itself. The few components that did appear on the plate harmonized as a whole while letting the halibut remain the star. Sautéed porcini mushrooms brought an earthy chunk and delicate base to its broth, while fresh green beans and grape-sized, heirloom tomatoes sang songs straight-from-the-garden, delivering crisp crunch and acid that resonated with the earthiness of the mushroom.

Brownie Points: The crème brulee was good, but even better were the complimentary, brownie bites brought to our table as a final farewell.

The Real Deal: Some people might say it’s a bit pricey (entrees in high $20s – low $30s range), but when you consider the quality of ingredients, creativity and don’t forget the absence of a bar bill, Daniel's is a deal...the real deal.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chef Sean: Coast to Coast

West Coast - Cali

On the Lamb: Chef Sean knew he wanted to cook lamb shanks, so I decided to take him to Iowa Meats. $7.99 a lb - wow! That was a bit more than we expected (especially when we saw them later at Whole Foods for $3 less a lb.), but I’ve never been so pleasantly shocked by a shank. These lambs must have been using Thigh Masters with the amount of meat lodged on their legs.

But their pumped up gams didn’t make them tough guys and with Chef Sean’s method of searing, then braising them in homemade Harissa sauce (tomato, coconut milk, cumin, allspice, coriander, honey, chilies), he'd been successful in creating a full on, fall-off-the-bone, flavor factory.

Using the old noodle: Well, stick a feather in Sean's cap and call it macaroni. Elbow macaroni was the key to this Mom-style, mac-n-cheese that reminded me of a savory M&M with its crisp, outer shell and gooey inside that melted in your mouth (not in your pan) with a cheddar base and handful of jack cheese for extra creaminess.

Dressed to impress: A simple salad of mixed greens, shaved carrots and heirloom tomatoes highlighted the chili/honey dressing that I could have drank by the glassful. But I did feel it needed one more element of crunch – maybe croutons - either way, the dressing should be bottled.

Dessert-ed Island: But I was most impressed with dessert for its elegant splendor, ingenuity and depth of flavor (apparently I was too busy eating to take a picture). Chef Sean married the suppleness of crème brulee and bright notes of citrus in his coconut milk & lime crème anglaise that was accompanied by a small island of mango sorbet. A refreshing getaway, in both taste and perspective, from the average dessert.

East Coast - Jersey

Major Rib-off: With Jersey's suffocating, summer humidity, it would have been torture to turn on the oven, so barbequing was the natural choice. We hit up Drew’s Market where baby back ribs were $7.99 a lb – again?! What were they, platinum ribs? Five racks cost over $100! Apparently our meat buying abilities were horrendous on both sides of the country and if we didn’t have a $65 gift certificate, we would have walked.

But I had other worries running through my mind when Chef Sean decided that the ribs would be cooked from start to finish on the grill. I usually begin mine in a low temp oven with a shallow, beer bath, but he insisted that 100% grill time would work. And with over $100 of meat riding on it, I hoped he was right.

Show us your tomatoes: Summer in Jersey = tomatoes and sweet corn. But I didn’t want to go to down the street to Matt’s Farm Market because they will rape you…well, your wallet anyway. That’s why on the way home from Manasquan beach (yet another reason I was nervous – ribs were grilling away while we were in the ocean!), we noticed Smith’s stand* flashing their tomatoes from the side of the Highway 71 and had to stop.

Smith’s basket of Jersey tomatoes, eight ears of corn, fresh romaine lettuce, avocado, an orange = around $15.

Matt’s basket of Jersey tomatoes, eight ears of corn, fresh romaine lettuce, avocado, an orange = bend over.

*There's another Smith's Farm Market on Allaire Rd that I remember being more expensive, so I don't know that they're affiliated with each other, but this stand was very reasonable.

With veggies taken care of, it was time to check on the ribs. I don’t know why I ever doubted Chef Sean because these babies were beauties. Their “low and slow” phase had tenderized and now it was time to get sauced. The homemade, barbeque glaze with Karo syrup and Mexican coca-cola formed a candy-apple-eque shell surrounding a juicy, meaty center…how many licks does it take to get to the center of a rib pop? *Crunch*...the world may never know.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Vic's Pizza - Bradley Beach, NJ

A Thin Crust Must

My grandfather always ordered a cup of pasta fagioli with his pizza, so of course I had to do the same. Patiently waiting with the Shore’s summer swarms or seated immediately during the secluded winters, Vic’s was always our family meeting place. And that never changed. Even with my grandfather gone, Vic’s was always my first stop whenever I was back in Jersey.

Serving Superheroes: First order up, a carafe of $8 wine – that’s always a good idea, right? The all-female, serving staff are the Harlem Globe Trotters of the waitress-ing world, including our W-cubed (Wonder Woman Waitress), who read back our order and prevented a miscommunication (our fault) from going to the kitchen.

Blast from the (Anti)Past(i): This antipasti had been a staple of my childhood and the roughage flew as I dove into my favorite chopped salad of provolone, salami, olives, pepperocinis and house vinaigrette. Word of advice: Always get the house dressing when visiting Italian moop (= mom + pop) restaurants around Jersey…magical elixirs of the vinaigrette world.

Shellfish Promises: It’s so hard to trust a shellfish (a thin line between fresh and foul), especially mussels, but these were worth making yourself vulnerable. Mussels marinara were plump Pop-Rocks of the sea, exploding in briny bursts under the cover of a simple, red sauce.

Food Feud: Now this was Jersey thin crust pizza. Sure, there’s always the on-going battle with Pete & Elda’s (actually Carmen’s Pizza, but everyone calls it by this adjoining bar’s name) for ultimate paper-thin pizza, but P&E is just too cracker-y for my liking. My loyalty stuck with the sturdy, yet delicate dough of Vic’s swirled with a rich tomato base whose subtle notes of garlic and oregano sang with the eloquence of Ella Fitzgerald. Plus I loved their pepperoni - the size quarters and thick as poker chips.

All in the Family: This was old school. Not much has changed, a little updating here and there, patio dining added. But its core remained the same. The only noticeable loss was the absence of the old man that ran the place, a permanent fixture since my childhood. Somehow his presence had become synonymous with good times, good eats and family.

It’s funny the things you notice when they’re gone, what they represented. How a stranger’s presence or a bowl of pasta fagioli can bring you back to a certain place in time. And at Vic’s, every bite will bring you back.