Posts Tagged ‘BYO’

The Salt Lick – Driftwood, TX

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 by virginia


We took a much-needed break in San Antonio from eating barbecue after our epic day of feasting through Luling and Lockhart, but we picked back up on the barbecue train after arriving in Austin. We spent the afternoon exploring the south side of the city, including the famed South Congress Ave. area where there are lots of restaurants and bars. It was kind of dead though, as it was still early in the evening, so we decided to make the 40 minute drive to the original location of the Salt Lick, a barbecue place we’ve heard a lot about.

It was fortunate that we made the decision to go when we did, as they were closing the restaurant early for their staff holiday party that evening. There was a short wait for a table, but we had the foresight to pick up a 6-pack of beer on our way to the restaurant (it’s a BYO) so we were able to enjoy a cold one while we waited. It also gave us time to observe the huge pit were all the meats were being cooked, which definitely helped to whet our appetites.

The barbecue pit at the Salt Lick

The barbecue pit at the Salt Lick

We ended up getting a huge table in the back just for the three of us, which gave us plenty of room to accommodate J’s high chair and spread out. We debated ordering family style, which is basically all you can eat beef brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, as well as sides, but we weren’t super hungry and didn’t want to overdo it. At $21.95/person though, it’s a pretty good deal, and a lot of groups around us appeared to be partaking. Instead, we shared combo plate and one double cut beef rib. The combo plate came with two meats, and we selected brisket and pork ribs (the other choices are sausage or turkey). It came with potato salad, cole slaw, and beans on the side, as well as soft bread, pickles, and onions.

Table of food (and you can see J's little hand reaching out to snag a rib!)

Table of food (and you can see J’s little hand reaching out to snag a rib!)

The pork ribs were very meaty, not falling off the bone but still tender. The brisket was on the drier side though, without the marbling that I like in fattier cuts. Fortunately the Salt Lick barbecue sauce was there to help, add some moisture and tangy sweetness.

Combo plate with brisket and pork ribs

Combo plate with brisket and pork ribs

The single order double cut beef rib actually came with two ribs, both massive. I felt like I was in the Flintstones, gnawing on a gigantic rib. Unfortunately, the meat was pretty tough and dry, and even the barbecue sauce wasn’t much help here. The pork rib was the clear winner of the two.

Double cut beef ribs

Double cut beef ribs – you can see the meat sort of dried and shriveling away from the bone on the front rib

Overall, we were slightly disappointed with the barbecue from the Salt Lick. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. The meat didn’t have much smoke flavor to it, which I don’t necessarily mind, but it was definitely drier than other barbecue we tasted on our trip. I don’t know if they were in a rush since they were closing early that evening so we just happened to be there on an off night, or if what we got was standard. I also think that part of the appeal of the Salt Lick (the Driftwood location at least) is the atmosphere, which is usually supposed to be crowded, noisy, and festive, with live music and plenty of seating, both indoors and out. We were there on a chilly winter night just before they were closing, and we were at a big table with just the three of us. I would definitely like to try it again, maybe on a warm day sitting outside with a bunch of friends and a cooler full of beer.

The Salt Lick (multiple locations)
18300 FM 1826
Driftwood, TX


Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 by virginia


Just wanted to take a break in between the Louisiana and Texas trip to talk about a semi-recent meal we had at Aviary in NYC in February to celebrate our 16th anniversary as a couple. It was a notable anniversary for us because we were both 16 years old when we started dating, so sometime in between this anniversary and the next, we’ll have been together for more than half our lives. I think that’s a pretty cool milestone.

Since J came into the picture, it’s rare for us to have a dinner on our own. We either bring her along with us, or if we can get someone to watch her, we’re usually meeting friends for dinner or going to a party. So when Josh’s parents graciously agreed to watch her for our anniversary, we knew we wanted to have a nice meal out in the city, which is a rare luxury for us these days. After doing a bit of research, we settled on Apiary, a fairly under the radar restaurant with a chef we were both curious about – Scott Bryan.

We had both read about Scott Bryan in Kitchen Confidential, where author/chef Anthony Bourdain sings his praises. After leaving Veritas in 2007, however, we hadn’t really heard much about Chef Bryan since then. He seems like such a talented, passionate cook who is really just focused on the food, not all the PR and other hype surrounding chefs these days, and so we were eager to sample his offerings.

As a side bonus, we went on a Monday, when the restaurant offers no corkage fees. We stopped at Astor Wines nearby and picked up a bottle of white from Tuscany and a bottle of red Chateauneuf du Pape to go with our meal. I had researched the menu online beforehand so I had a good idea of what I wanted to order, but of course I needed Josh to agree with me. Our waiter also came up with a long list of recommendations when asked what dishes he preferred. Rather than going for the 5 course tasting menu, we decided to come up with our own tasting with four appetizers and two entrees, so that we could try more dishes.

While we waited for our food to come out, we noshed on the bread, slices of sourdough with a hearty yet crispy crust. It was delicious with the fruity olive oil that came on the side for dipping.

Sourdough bread and olive oil

Sourdough bread and olive oil

We told our waiter that we planned to share all the dishes, so the kitchen thoughtfully split some of them into two plates for us. For the first course, we were each presented with our own plates of hamachi crudo, and our order of grilled quail was placed in the middle of the table. The hamachi, which is yellowtail fish, was sliced thin and served raw with slices of avocado, hearts of palm, chopped chives, finely diced jalapenos, and a microgreen salad on top. The dish was dressed with a yuzu vinaigrette, and while I loved the pop of the acid and the freshness of the fish and vegetables, Josh thought there was a bit too much citrus on the fish that overwhelmed its delicate flavors. Overall though, we both thought it was a bright dish that woke up our taste buds and was a great start to the meal.

Hamachi crudo, avocado, hearts of palm, jalapeno

Hamachi crudo, avocado, hearts of palm, jalapeno

We were more mixed about the grilled quail dish, as we thought that was a bit odd for them to have presented us with individual crudos while the quail just sort of sat on the table and got cold while we ate our fish. Maybe they expected us to finish our crudo quickly, and then move on to the quail immediately? Logistically, it was also kind of hard to eat the quail while reaching over our crudo plates. I think our waiter saw us struggling a bit and quickly removed the empty plates and provided us with clean small plates to transfer the quail onto, which was a slightly  messy affair. The quail itself was well seasoned, but the meat was pretty chewy. Josh picked up his half with his hands and ate the meat off the bone, while I tried a more delicate approach with my knife and fork, which wasn’t very successful. It came with lentils on the side, curried spiced yogurt, and drizzle of paprika oil that added a bit more smoke to the dish. The flavors were intense and exotic, which we enjoyed, but it was hard to get past the chewiness of the quail.

Grilled quail, curried spiced yogurt, french green lentils, orange

Grilled quail, curried spiced yogurt, french green lentils, orange

For our second course, the kitchen split our order of swiss chard and ricotta ravioli. There were two plump raviolis in each bowl that were topped with a piece of fried sage, brown butter, and poppy seeds. The pasta itself was perfectly cooked and gorgeously delicate, both in texture and flavor. The brown butter was a tad greasy but otherwise appropriately rich, and worked well with the sage. The surprise element of the dish was the poppy seeds sprinkled on top, which added a nice dainty crunch to each bite.

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli, sage brown butter, poppy

Swiss chard and ricotta ravioli, sage, brown
butter, poppy

The last of our appetizer courses was the grilled octopus, which they also split for us. Each portion of tentacle came with romesco sauce, chorizo oil, and arugula dressed with lemon. I took a bite and commented to Josh about how it was probably the most tender octopus I’ve ever eaten, and he looked back at me in surprise and said the texture was only ok. We traded bites and indeed, his octopus was much chewier, with a sort of bounciness to it, while I could have cut my portion with just the side of my fork. Coincidentally, this has happened to us before, where we each had two completely different tentacle textures from the same serving. I thoroughly enjoyed this particular preparation, especially the smokiness from the grill and from the chorizo oil. The arugula salad lightened up the dish and prevented it from feeling too heavy.


Grilled octopus, romesco, baby arugula, lemon

For our entree course, the kitchen did that thing again where they split one of our dishes (the duck breast) and served the other one (the pork chop) whole at the same time, where it also sat in the middle of the table until we were ready for it. Nevertheless, the duck was simply fabulous – medium rare, beautifully pink, rendered skin, and perfectly seasoned. There were whole green peppercorns in the jus drizzled on top, which had gave each bite a little peppery pop and a slight floral hint. I wasn’t a big fan of the glazed turnips on the side (I found them to be slightly too bitter and acidic, although Josh didn’t mind them), but I enjoyed the pureed parsnips and chewy farro underneath. The duck was the real star of the plate though, and it was our favorite dish of the night.

Long Island duck breast, parsnip puree, farro, glazed Tokyo turnips, green peppercorn-armagnac jus

Long Island duck breast, parsnip puree, farro, glazed Tokyo turnips, green peppercorn-armagnac jus

Josh finished his duck first and dug into the pork chop, still having to reach awkwardly across his duck plate. The pork chop was massive, probably the thickest pork chop we’ve ever gotten at a restaurant, and was cooked through to medium as the chef recommended. It was served on top of a bed of black bean tinga, which is a Mexican style sauce made with chipotles. I thought the beans were just slightly too al dente for my taste, but Josh disagreed and liked that they had texture to them. There was a spiced avocado mash on top of the pork, but I didn’t taste any of the orange ginger glaze that was mentioned on the menu. I thought the pork was seasoned well and the dish had a lot of flavor to it, but it didn’t really wow us. We felt like it was something we can make at home, and Josh’s mom has a similar dish in her repertoire that involves simmering pork chops and black beans in a combination of salsa and tomato sauce. Obviously this was a much more refined dish than the one she makes, and the quality of the pork was vastly superior, but the flavors were almost identical.

Berkshire pork chop, black bean tinga, orange ginger glaze, spiced avocado

Berkshire pork chop, black bean tinga, orange ginger glaze, spiced avocado

I was stuffed to the gills by this point and didn’t even finish my half of the gigantic pork chop, so we were prepared to pass on dessert. Plus we heard from Josh’s mom that J was getting a little fussy and was probably going to be ready for bed soon, and we wanted to see her before she went down for the night since we had left for work before she had gotten up for the day. The waiter surprised us by bringing a vanilla panna cotta with our check, in honor of our anniversary. It was an incredibly nice gesture, and helped to cap off a lovely evening. The panna cotta was smooth and creamy, and we could see real vanilla bean seeds on top. It was served with raspberry coulis that was just slightly tart, which helped cut through the richness of the cream.

Vanilla panna cotta, raspberry coulis

Vanilla panna cotta, raspberry coulis

Overall, we really enjoyed our anniversary meal at Apiary. The meal hit some really high highs (the duck, the raviolis), and didn’t really have any misses. While the quail and the pork chop weren’t our favorites of the evening, they still had great flavor and would probably appeal to a lot of other people. I loved the hamachi and the octopus courses, but the kitchen showed a bit of inconsistency in those dishes as Josh’s octopus was far from the tender specimen I received, and his crudo had too much acid on the plate. As a side note, Josh later confessed that he’s actually not a big fan of octopus in general, because he feels it has no flavor, while I vehemently disagreed. See, even after 16 years together, there are still surprises in our relationship! But in general, we had a great dinner, and service was fabulous. Our waiter was knowledgeable, enthusiastic about the food, and came by to check on us often. With BYO Mondays, Apiary is a great place to go out for a nice, upscale meal without blowing your budget. They also offer a three course prix fixe menu on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for $38, with items from the regular menu. It’s definitely worth checking out.

60 Third Ave.
New York, NY

Bibou – Philadelphia

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 by virginia


After spending the morning and early afternoon in Washington DC, Josh and I head back north to Philadelphia, the second and last stop of our food-oriented weekend getaway. While Josh drove, I used his phone to find a nice restaurant for dinner. We settled on Bibou, which had gotten rave reviews from multiple sources. We called up hoping to score a last minute reservation on a Saturday night (which I had read was pretty difficult), and while the woman who answered the phone was a little hesitant, we were able to snag a two-top for a late dinner, which worked out well for us.

After checking into our hotel, Le Meridien on Arch Street (cute boutique-like hotel right across from City Hall), we set off in search of a liquor store, as Bibou is a BYOB. Because it was late, most of the stores nearby were closed, but Josh was able to find one with a limited wine selection. We wound up arriving at the restaurant a little early for our reservation, but it turned out not to be a problem and were seated quickly.

I was starving and dove right into the bread, which was a fantastic baguette served with real French butter. The baguette had a nice crust and good chew while the butter was thick, rich, and way more flavorful than most butters that I’ve tasted.

Delicious baguette and French butter

Delicious baguette and French butter

For our appetizer course, the waiter recommended that we get the bone marrow, but because we had just indulged in bone marrow at the Blue Duck Tavern the previous night, we thought it would probably be better to try something different. I picked escargots and Josh opted for risotto with summer truffles, and we swapped plates midway through. The escargots were beautifully presented in a spiral shaped dish reminiscent of a snail shell. The snails themselves were plump and meaty, some of the best specimens I’ve eaten. The sauce was unusual to me – I’m used to eating escargot in garlic butter, but this was a deep and rich beefy-tasting sauce. I thought it was a bit heavy, but I did like the fresh fava beans mixed in with the snails, which helped brighten up the dish a little.

Beautifully presented escargot with fresh fava beans

Beautifully presented escargot with fresh fava beans

The risotto was covered in shaved summer truffle, and we were really excited to taste this dish. However, despite all the truffle shavings, there was very little truffle flavor. I guess summer truffles are less potent than the winter variety, but I was really surprised by the lack of earthy aroma in the dish. If I closed my eyes, I don’t think I would even have known that I was eating truffle. I was a bit sad, since I love truffles, but the risotto itself was fine. It was creamy but still a bit al dente. All it needed was a touch more salt.

Risotta with summer truffles

Risotto with summer truffles

For the main course, I chose the braised pig foot stuffed with foie gras, while Josh opted for a whole dorade. The pig foot was very tender, but I had a hard time finding the foie gras inside. There was a good mix of shank meat and cartilage, which I appreciated, and the crust was well seasoned. It was served with a heaping pile of lentils that were savory and delicious, but very heavy. We weren’t able to finish the portion of lentils, and I think the waiter was a bit insulted by that, as he made a comment about it when he cleared our plates.

Braised pig foot stuffed with foie gras, served with lentils

Braised pig foot stuffed with foie gras, served on top of a bed of lentils

The dorade, on the other hand, was a better dish for a hot summer’s day. The whole fish was beautifully prepared, with crispy, golden skin and moist, tender flesh on the inside. It was served with a lime sauce that was bright, complex, and positively delicious. It was our favorite dish of the evening.

Whole dorade with lime sauce

Whole dorade with lime sauce

We were both pretty full and passed on dessert. They brought us each a coconut macaroon and vanilla meringue to finish off our meal – a sweet touch.

Macaroons and meringues

Macaroons and meringues

Overall Josh and I both had mixed feelings about Bibou. We really wanted to like the restaurant but the dishes were ordered were mostly just ok. There were flashes of brilliance, like the dorade, but the escargot and stuffed pig foot, which I think are signature dishes, were unremarkable (except for the plating of the escargot, which was definitely memorable). Service was odd. It was hard to gauge our waiter, whether he was unfriendly or just had a dry sense of humor. Either way, it made us slightly uncomfortable, and we were worried that we were offending him. The chef, on the other hand, was incredibly welcoming and humble, coming out to check on our meal and chat with us for a little bit. At the end of the meal, the hostess (who I think is the chef’s wife), came around with a laptop and asked us if we wanted to make our next reservation. We thought that was slightly odd, but reading other reviews, I guess it’s standard, as reservations at Bibou are in high demand and hard to come by. If we were regulars, I would appreciate it, but as an out-of-towner/first-timer at the restaurant, it was unexpected and came off as slightly presumptuous. I would like to give Bibou another shot if we had the opportunity though. I wasn’t impressed this time, but perhaps we just ordered the wrong dishes. My selections were more suited for winter than for summer. Prices are pretty high (about $10-$20 for appetizers and $27-$35 for entrees), but it’s offset by the fact that it’s a BYOB.

1009 S 8th St.
Philadelphia, PA

The Saddle River Inn

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012 by virginia

Although I missed the blog’s third anniversary, Josh and I did celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary in May (yes, May) with a special meal at The Saddle River Inn. It was a celebration on multiple fronts, as we had also just closed on our new house the week beforehand. While I was in the middle of the second trimester and still feeling indifferent about food at the time, I was happy to go to The Saddle River Inn because it was the first “nice” restaurant that Josh and I ate in together, back in 1998 for his 17th birthday.

That was also the last time that we were there, and walking up to the restaurant, it looked exactly as how I remembered. The inside looked the same as well, although the room seemed a bit smaller and less imposing to me, 14 years later. Even though it was relatively late on a weekday, the dining room was surprisingly busy, though not packed. At the time, the restaurant offered a weekday prix fixe special on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays – 3 courses for $42, which isn’t too shabby considering entrees normally top $30.

The restaurant is a BYO, which is another bonus. Since we were celebrating, I wanted more than just a soda or water. We brought along a bottle of carmenere for Josh, and a bottle of sparkling grape juice for me. I wasn’t sure how the restaurant would handle the grape juice, since BYO doesn’t usually include non-alcoholic beverages, but our waiter initially mistook it for champagne and poured us both a fluteful to toast. Once he realized what it was, he just laughed and kept topping off my flute during dinner while Josh stuck with the wine. He didn’t make an issue about the grape juice or make me feel embarrassed about having it, which I appreciated.

Bread was served first, a thick piece of rustic sourdough bread with a heavy, crispy crust. The crust was a tad bit on the well done side, but I still enjoyed it slathered with a thick layer of butter.

Crusty sourdough bread

As usual, Josh and I went halfsies on our meal, although we had to be careful about picking items that I could eat. We started off with seared scallops and crab salad for our appetizer course. The seared scallops were served with golden raisins, almonds, and maple-lemon butter. While the scallops were cooked perfectly, I found the dish to be entirely too sweet. To me, the sauce was a bit sticky and cloying, and I didn’t love the combination with the raisins. Josh, on the other hand, loved the dish, and found it to be well balanced and flavorful. It just goes to show that we don’t always have the same tastes!

Seared scallops with golden raisins, almonds, and maple-lemon butter

On the other hand, I was a bigger fan of the crab salad than Josh was. The salad, which was a special that evening, featured lump crab meat served with cucumber, baby greens, grapefruit, and mango puree. The crab was plump and fresh tasting, and paired perfectly with the tangy fruits and crunchy vegetables. It was a light and bright dish, simple, but flavorful enough to wake up my taste buds.

Crab salad with cucumber, baby greens, grapefruit, and mango puree

For our main course, we shared the pork tenderloin and Pekin duck breast. The pork was served with a blueberry-apple compote, portwine sauce, and spaetzle. The dish sounded like it might be on the sweet side with the fruit compote, but the portwine sauce actually made the pork taste very savory, with a meaty, steak-like flavor. The pork was nice and tender, and I liked the chewiness of the spaetzle.

Pork tenderloin with blueberry-apple compote, portwine sauce, and spaetzle

On the other hand, the duck was served with a black peppercorn sauce, which I thought would be really savory, but it was mixed with raisins, which added a sweet element. Even though we asked for it to be cooked medium, the duck was pretty rare, which I would normally like, but given my pregnancy restrictions, I only nibbled on the more cooked end pieces and let Josh eat most of the dish.

Pekin duck breast with sweet potato crepe, raisins, and black peppercorn sauce

For dessert, Josh picked the frozen cappuccino, which was pretty much what it sounded like – espresso at the bottom, coffee ice cream, whipped cream foam on top. Tasty, though not very exciting.

Frozen cappuccino dessert

I chose the passion fruit tart, which really hit the spot. The passion fruit filling was slightly tart, not too sweet. The crust was subtly almond flavored, and the coconut gelato on the side really gave the dessert a tropical feel.

Passion fruit tart with almond crust and coconut gelato

Overall, we found the food at The Saddle River Inn to be pretty solid, though nothing was spectacular. We weren’t wowed by any of the dishes, but nothing really turned us off either, although the scallop appetizer was borderline for me. I thought the prix fixe was a good deal, but if we had been paying a la carte prices, I might have felt more disappointed. I think everything fell just slightly short in execution, and while it was mostly tasty, there wasn’t anything really exciting about the food. It’s a nice restaurant though, with good service, and I might give it another shot for another special occasion, but it isn’t really somewhere that we would go regularly.

The Saddle River Inn
2 Barnstable Court
Saddle River, NJ

Cafe Panache

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 by virginia

This meal took place in September so I apologize if my details are a bit fuzzy. We had heard that Cafe Panache was one of the best restaurants in Bergen County, NJ and I had read several positive reviews about the food so we decided to try it out one weekend with Josh’s parents. We called for a reservation earlier in the day and were happy to find out that they would be able to seat us that night. The restaurant is located in Ramsey and is on Main St. so it was pretty easy to find.

When we walked into the restaurant, we were seated pretty much immediately. Unfortunately, I think we had the worst table in the house. We were in an alcove away from the main dining room, and we were seated at the very last table, right in front of the kitchen. There were servers and busboys constantly coming in and out of the kitchen, and it was sort of disruptive. We probably should have asked for a new table but we didn’t realize we would be in the middle of the hustle and bustle until after we had already settled in and had started drinking our wine (the restaurant is BYO).

We figured that we got the bad table because we had made a same day reservation so we tried to brush it off. After all, we were here for the food. We made our dinner selections and snacked on the olives and bread they brought us. The olives were covered in some oil and chili flakes, which gave them a nice little kick. The bread was white dinner rolls that had a decent crust but were pretty standard.

Assorted olives

Dinner roll

Josh and I went halfsies on our meal, per usual. For our appetizers, Josh selected the filet mignon ravioli with truffle butter while I chose the crostini of foie gras mousse. We were drawn in by the truffle butter advertised with the raviolis, but also because we had never seen filet mignon as a filling before. The filling had an intensely beefy flavor, though it was sort of mushy. As for the truffle butter, we couldn’t detect much truffle flavor at all, which was kind of disappointing since we’re both huge truffle fans. Nevertheless, it was a decent dish, and rich enough that the three ravioli portion was still satisfying.

Filet mignon ravioli

The crostini of foie gras mousse was also a pretty rich appetizer. The mousse was spread on top of three fairly large pieces of toasted bread and served with a small salad and apple slices. The mousse was creamy and thick but it didn’t have the subtle foie gras flavor that I was expecting. It had a pretty strong liver taste and if I didn’t know it was supposed to be foie gras mousse, I would have thought it was chicken liver pate. The salad helped cut through the richness of the mousse, and I liked the crispy apple slices that balanced out the creaminess of the liver.

Crostini of foie gras mousse

For the main course, Josh chose a duck dish while I opted for a steak dish. To be honest, I don’t remember how the duck was prepared. All I remember was that the duck was really, really rare. We like rare meat, even for duck, but this was beyond rare. The duck had a gelatinous texture and was pretty chewy. We probably should have sent it back but just didn’t think it was worth waiting for. That would have thrown off the flow of the meal, and we weren’t so thrilled with the overall dish to begin with.

Super rare duck breast

I was intrigued by the steak dish because the menu called it a sirloin steak confit. I’ve never had a steak that was confited before, and I was curious as to how it would turn out. From my understanding, confit is usually duck cooked in its own fat. So I thought the steak would be poached in beef fat and have a soft, falling apart kind of texture to it. Maybe the steak was just pan fried in beef fat, because to me, it just had the texture of regular steak. There was nothing really different about it, and while it was a fine piece of meat, the accompanying garlic soy reduction just completely overpowered the beef. The steak was absolutely covered in the sauce, which made the meat extremely salty. My mouth was puckering after a few bites, and I ended up trying to cut the meat so that I avoided the sauce completely. It was really too bad because the steak was cooked nicely to a beautiful rare, as ordered, but the sauce pretty much ruined the meat.

Sirloin steak confit with garlic and soy reduction

Steak autopsy shot

For dessert, we all decided to share a creme brulee. It was perfectly fine, with a crackly sugar crust on top and good vanilla flavor.

Creme brulee

Our waiter brought us an additional dessert on the house, which was very nice of him. I think it was some sort of peach cake with whipped cream on the side. The cake was very moist and not too sweet. It had great peach flavor, and I actually liked the cake more than the creme brulee, though both were very well prepared.

Peach cake dessert

Overall I think we were all pretty disappointed with our food at Cafe Panache. We had high expectations for it because we had heard/read some very nice things about the restaurant but it didn’t measure up for us in the end. There were definite missteps with our meal, like the undercooked duck and the overly salty steak. While our appetizers were passable, they just don’t wow us. Desserts were the highlight of the meal, and since neither Josh nor I have much a sweet tooth, that’s not really a good thing. It wasn’t only just me and Josh who were displeased. Alice ordered a homemade pasta with lobster for her entree, a special of the evening, and while the pasta was beautifully cooked and there was massive amounts of lobster mixed in, the dish was completely flavorless. Even the lobster was bland. We were pretty flabbergasted by that. Service was fine, and we appreciated the extra dessert our waiter brought. Maybe he noticed that none of us seemed thrilled with our food but whatever the reason, it was a nice gesture. Still, I don’t think that we’ll be coming back anytime soon. I did like the fact that the restaurant is BYO but it’s still pretty expensive, and I’m not sure that it was really worth it.

Cafe Panache
130 East Main St.
Ramsey, NJ

Brown’s Lobster Pound (Seabrook, NH)

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010 by virginia

The day after our nephew Alexander’s first birthday party in Massachusetts, we had half a day to spend with the family before we had to make the drive back home to NJ. Instead of staying around my sister’s house, we decided to head across the border into New Hampshire and try out the lobster at Brown’s Lobster Pound in Seabrook. According to my sister, this place has been featured on the Travel Channel and is famous for its lobster rolls.

It was about a 45 minute drive but the restaurant is just past the border so it wasn’t bad. We pulled into the packed parking lot and there was a huge line of people waiting at the windows where you can order fried foods.

People lined up to place their orders

Since we were getting lobster, we headed straight inside to place our order. If you’re ordering lobster and fried food, you can order inside where the line was much shorter. However, if you’re only ordering fried food, you have to do it outside. We got a few 1 1/4 lb lobsters, a few lobster rolls, a fried oyster plate for my dad, and a fried chicken plate for Adam, who hates seafood (seriously, what kind of New Englander is he? I guess you can’t expect much from a Red Sox/Patriots fan… haha j/k! Or am I?) We also wanted some steamers, which we had to order from a different counter inside.

The menu behind the lobster tanks

They gave us numbers for our orders, and we settled down at some picnic tables in the corner. The restaurant is pretty big, and even though the parking lot was full there were many picnic tables still available. The restaurant serves soda, coffee, tea, etc., but you can bring your own beer and wine. Most tables had coolers of beer, and one couple behind us was tucking into huge lobsters while drinking champagne from flutes. Pretty neat idea!

Rows of picnic tables

Our orders of steamers came up first, and we eagerly dug into the piles of clams. To eat a steamer, you pull off the skin around the neck, swirl it around in a cup of hot water to clean off any grit, dip it in melted butter, and eat.

Piles of steamers

These steamers were fresh and briney, with a pleasing texture that wasn’t too chewy. We swirled, dipped, and ate them until the rest of our food was ready.

Swirling a steamer in hot water

I opted for a lobster roll instead of a whole steamed lobster. Although value-wise whole lobsters are a better deal (they were about $12/lb while one lobster roll was $12), I wasn’t in the mood to get all messy. The lobster rolls weren’t huge, but they weren’t tiny either. There were big chunks of meat, and just enough mayo to keep everything moist and together but not overpowering. The bun was the New England style top loading hot dog bun that I love, and the outside was buttered and toasted so that it was slightly crisp but still delightfully chewy. It was only the second lobster roll that I’ve had in my life, and it was pretty good.

Lobster roll

Josh opted for a whole lobster, which was just steamed and came with melted butter on the side for dipping. It was approximately 1 1/4 lbs, and the meat was sweet and fresh.

Steamed lobster

Some of the lobsters had roe and tomalley, which my mom and I both love. They have a complex flavor that turn a lot of people off so I guess it’s an acquired taste, but we consider finding roe to be like hitting the jackpot.

Lobster roe and tomalley

Josh and I also split a cup of New England clam chowder. The chowder had great flavor and lots of clams but it was surprisingly thin. When I think of New England style chowder, I think of thick, velvety, rich soup. This soup had buttery and creamy flavor, but it was watery in texture. I didn’t really mind because it was a hot summer day, but if it were wintertime, I prefer something with more body to it so that it sticks to your ribs.

New England clam chowder

My dad isn’t as into lobster so he opted for a fried oyster plate. The oysters were decently big but they weren’t as briney in flavor as I would have liked. They were also pretty heavily breaded, and while the coating was nicely fried and crunchy, it kind of made the oysters feel overly dry in my mouth. We dipped them in lots of tasty tartar sauce but I felt like that defeated the whole purpose of having oysters. We could have dipped anything into the sauce and it would have been the same. At least the fries were good.

Fried oysters and french fries

Overall I liked Brown’s Lobster Pound but I think the appeal is the kitschiness of the atmosphere. You’re basically eating in an oversized shack, and the food is simple, hearty, and straightforward. Price-wise it’s probably comparable to other similar seafood joints, but if you’re going just for steamed lobster then it’s overpriced. Lobster at the supermarket is definitely cheaper than $12/lb (we actually stopped somewhere on the way back to my sister’s house to buy lobsters that were only $3.99/lb). Lobster rolls, however, cost $15 and up in NYC, so $12 is a relative bargain. If I lived nearby this probably wouldn’t be a place we would go to regularly, but as a tourist, I thoroughly enjoyed it. While the oysters weren’t great, the steamers and lobsters were very good, and it was a fun experience. The BYO aspect is also another huge plus.

Brown’s Lobster Pound
407 NH Highway 286
Seabrook, NH

BYO Brunch at Nook

Saturday, August 28th, 2010 by virginia

I’ve written about Nook twice already, first about brunch and then about dinner, but it’s such a great little place that I couldn’t resist writing about it a third time. We went for a late brunch one weekend with our bottle of champagne in tow and got some of their tasty freshly squeezed orange juice to make mimosas. Josh was in the mood for something sweet to start, so we split an order of Nutella on a baguette with strawberries and bananas. It’s such a simple combination, but oh so delicious. The strawberries were juicy and sweet, and they went perfectly with our champagne.

Baguettes spread with Nutella and topped with strawberries and bananas

For our entrees, Josh and I split two sandwiches, the turkey sandwich and the croque monsieur. We ordered the croque monsieur last time as well, but it’s such a great sandwich that we can’t resist ordering it time and time again. It’s not the typical Parisian style of sandwich, with ham, gruyere, and bechamel. Rather, it’s a ham, cheddar, and tomato sandwich on thick, buttered bread that’s grilled until the cheese is melted. It’s salty and gooey, though the tomato helps cut the richness a bit. The sandwich comes with a big pile of rosemary fries and a small mixed greens salad.

Croque monsieur autopsy shot, and fries

The turkey sandwich was smoked turkey, tomato, cucumbers, and a spicy beet relish on a baguette. The turkey was sliced thickly and moist, while the spicy beet relish was actually horseradish with beets, the kind that Josh’s family serves with gefilte fish. I thought the cucumber was an unusual addition to the sandwich, but it added a nice crunch. The sandwich also came with a big pile of rosemary fries.

Turkey sandwich autopsy shot, with fries

The brunch at Nook is definitely one of my favorites. The restaurant is just very low key, and service is super friendly. It’s not the typical brunch scene, but the food is good and it’s a cozy place to chat. Don’t forget to bring a bottle of champagne (or two!), and I’m sure that you’ll have a great experience as well.

746 9th Ave. between 50th and 51st St.
New York, NY

Fontana di Trevi

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010 by virginia

Josh’s parents had heard good things about a new Italian restaurant in Leonia called Fontana di Trevi so we decided to try it out for dinner one Saturday night. When Josh tried to call to see if there was a wait, he got an answering machine message that said no tables were available until after 8:45 PM. So we waited until after the specified time and tried to call again but it was the same message. We decided to head over to the restaurant and check out the situation in person.

Josh went inside first and he said that they told him it would only be a 10 minute wait, which didn’t seem so bad. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of room to stand in the restaurant so we hovered by the doorway, feeling very conspicuous and bad that we were pretty much right next to the first table in the front. But we figured it would only be a short wait so we just tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. The restaurant is split into two rooms, separated by a short hallway, and the hostess stand is in the smaller room.

So we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Meanwhile, they never did fix the phone message because while we were standing there waiting, Josh called the number again and he got the same message. The phone by the hostess stand didn’t even ring. How do you operate a restaurant like that? How do people make reservations if they never pick up the phone? But we continued to wait, getting increasingly more agitated. We had been waiting for over half an hour, and no one came by to check on us. The hostess basically ignored our imploring looks and carried on a conversation with a table that had already paid for over 10 minutes. We were seriously annoyed by the time she finally came by and said that they were getting our table ready, and she kind of jerked her head towards the other room.

Another 10 minutes later (by now we had been waiting for almost an hour), they finally did get our table ready – the same one where the hostess had been chatting with the previous patrons. It was not in the other room, as she had indicated, and we were pretty much disgusted with the level of service (or lack thereof) that we had received. An hour wait is certainly unacceptable when you’re told that a wait would only be 10 minutes. The only reason we stayed was because we were starving, and because the restaurant was packed. Surely the food had to be fantastic, right?

They started us off with pieces of focaccia bread that was crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. It had good texture with a nice olive oil flavor, and things started to look up for the meal.

Focaccia bread

Alice and I both opted to have the Caesar salad for our appetizers. The salad is prepared tableside – always a nice touch. Anchovies, egg yolk, garlic, breadcrumbs, mustard, worcestershire sauce, and a few other ingredients were combined in a bowl to form a thick paste, which was then loosened with olive oil. The dressing was tossed with bite-sized pieces of fresh romaine. The flavor was great but the dressing was a tad too thick and clumped on some of the leaves, leaving some bites overwhelming with dressing while others totally bare. Dressing dispersion issues aside, they do top it with lots of grated cheese, which I liked.

Caesar salad made tableside

Josh had the spinach salad with cremini mushrooms and pancetta. It was tossed with a warm white vinegar dressing, and Josh seemed to enjoy it a lot. He thought the pancetta wasn’t too salty or overwhelming, and it was a light and refreshing salad.

Spinach salad with cremini mushrooms and pancetta

For his main course, Josh had the linguine with clams. The pasta was nicely cooked to al dente and the sauce packed a nice garlicky punch. There were lots of whole clams on top and was definitely the best dish of the evening.

Linguine con vogole

I had to go with the chicken parmesan, of course, which is always my test of a new Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t that good. The chicken itself was fine but the “famous” marinara sauce (as it says on their menu) was overly sour and too acidic. The cheese was melted but runny, not browned and bubbly like I prefer. Instead of a side of pasta, it came with some mushy, buttery vegetables and mashed potatoes. Those reminded me of bad hotel food. Harsh, maybe, but I expected better.

Chicken parmesan

Since we ended up eating later than we expected, especially with the super long wait, we just wanted to get home and decided to forgo dessert. Overall we weren’t all that wowed by the food we had at Fontana di Trevi, and we were less than thrilled with the service. Maybe because they were new was why they had so many issues, but I still don’t understand why they don’t even answer their phone. It doesn’t seem to hurt business though, as the restaurant was packed the entire time we were there. Nevertheless, the food was not so impressive to overcome the problems we had, and I don’t think we’ll be going back. Sad, because we’re still looking for a good Italian restaurant near our home in NJ, and this one was also a BYO.

Fontana di Trevi
248 Fort Lee Rd.
Leonia, NJ

Greek Taverna

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 by virginia

We were visiting our parents in NJ one weekend and decided to try out a Greek restaurant in Edgewater that Josh’s parents have been raving about, appropriately called Greek Taverna. From the outside it looks like a tiny storefront restaurant but inside it’s large and spacious, with tall ceilings and a casual, slightly rustic feel. It actually did look a bit like some of the tavernas that we ate in while we were on our honeymoon in Greece. The menu was quite extensive and there were lots of things I wanted to try, but because it was a Friday during Lent, I was limited to only seafood and vegetarian options.

The restaurant is BYO and they brought us wine glasses right away and opened up our bottle of red wine. They also brought us a basket of grilled pita bread to nibble on while we looked over the menu. The bread was served warm and had a nice soft and chewy texture to it.

Grilled pita bread

We shared a few different appetizers, including a special of the night, which was a huge platter of grilled octopus, calamari, and seppie (cuttlefish). All of these have the potential to be tough, chewy, and rubbery, but they were all perfectly prepared and very tender. They had a nice smoky flavor and slight charring from the grill. My favorite pieces were the tiny seppie, which I popped into my mouth whole and they just burst with the fresh taste of the sea.

Grilled octopus, calamari, and seppie

We also got a beet salad topped with skordalia, a garlic and potato dip with lemon juice and Greek olive oil. Again, the serving was huge and the salad was fantastic. The beets were tender and flavorful, nicely dressed with red onions, pickled garlic cloves, and a tangy vinaigrette. The skordalia packed another tangy, garlicky punch, and the combination was just delicious. This was my favorite dish of the evening.

Delicious beet salad topped with skordalia

Our last appetizer was the Greek Taverna chips, which are fried zucchini and eggplant chips served with a ramekin of skordalia for dipping. The chips were cut super thin, lightly breaded, and fried to a nice crisp. The coating was not greasy at all, and never got soggy even after the chips sat for a while on the plate. I didn’t realize that the dip on the side was skordalia until it was too late; otherwise, I might have asked to change it to tzatziki (shredded cucumbers, yogurt, dill, and garlic dip), as we already had skordalia with the beet salad. I also think the lighter tzatziki would have been a better match for the fried chips. Nevertheless, it was a great appetizer to munch on, and we kept the plate on the side to snack on throughout our meal.

Crispy vegetable chips with skordalia dip

I really wanted some of the grilled meats that were giving off tempting smells from tables nearby but I had to stick with seafood. The restaurant offers fresh whole fish at market price, which they serve grilled with olive oil, lemon, and herbs drizzled on top. I wasn’t so familiar with most of the fishes offered so I opted for the Royal Dorado, which is a Mediterranean fish with a mild flavor. It was a flaky but meaty fish, and definitely wasn’t too fishy in flavor. I liked the flavor of the olive oil/lemon/herb mixture, but the fish just needed a bit more seasoning in general.

Grilled royal dorado

For my side dish, I selected the Greek Taverna fries, which were thin slices of fried potato topped with oregano and Kefalo tyri cheese. The fries weren’t as crispy as I would have liked but they were well seasoned and flavorful.

Greek fries

Josh also opted for a whole fish and greek fries, except he chose a special of the day, the branzino. His fish was prepared the same way and had similar flavor. I’m not a fish connoisseur so I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell our dishes apart.

Grilled branzino

Overall I really liked all the food that we had at Greek Taverna. All of the ingredients were clearly fresh, and everything was well prepared. The menu is similar to that of Nisi Estiatorio in Englewood, except everything is priced much lower. Nisi is more of a fine dining experience though, and you get to pick out exactly which fish you want, which I think affects the pricing. Greek Taverna is more low key and casual, but the food is just as good. Portions are huge and everything can be shared, making it a better deal in my opinion and good for large groups. The BYO aspect is another bonus. I can’t wait for our next visit to the restaurant, and now that Lent is over, I definitely plan on trying some of the grilled meats that smelled so irresistible.

Greek Taverna (multiple locations)
55 Promenade, City Place Shopping Center
Edgewater, NJ

Great Service and Great Food at Nook

Saturday, March 13th, 2010 by virginia

In my first post about Nook, I mentioned that we hadn’t been there in years because the service was bad, but after a long hiatus, Josh and I went to brunch and thought both the service and the food were fantastic. We decided to go back there for dinner to see if the service was consistently much improved, or if our brunch experience was merely a fluke. Even though it was quite late for dinner when we arrived, the tiny restaurant was completely full, probably because it was Saturday night. The hostess/waitress told us the wait would be about half an hour and suggested we go across the street to a bar, saying she would call us when a table was available. Since neither of us were starving, and there really is nowhere to wait in the restaurant, it seemed like a good solution so that’s exactly what we did.

We headed across the street to The Snug, which, like Nook, is aptly named. It’s a long narrow bar with limited seating but we managed to snag a small table all the way in the back. Josh got a beer and we chatted for a while. After half an hour, no call. We had left Josh’s phone on the table so that we would see it ring, in case we couldn’t hear it in the noisy bar. Forty-five minutes later, still nothing. At this point we were getting a little peeved, and after almost an hour we decided cross back over to the restaurant and see what the situation was. As soon as we walked in, we saw an empty two top right by the door, and were a bit miffed that we hadn’t received a call.

The waitress came over to us and said she was wondering what happened to us because she called us twice and left a message when we didn’t answer. She then offered us the empty two top and said we could sit right away if we wanted. Josh and I looked at each other, perplexed, because we definitely didn’t see or hear the phone ringing, but we shrugged it off, gave her the benefit of the doubt, and sat down for dinner. Indeed, halfway through the meal, Josh got the beep that he had two missed calls and a voicemail from the waitress telling us that our table was ready. So she really was telling the truth, and we blame AT&T for our frustrations.

We were glad we stayed because not only was the waitress very gracious about the whole mix up, the food was great as well. She opened up our bottle of wine right away (the restaurant is a BYO) and brought us glasses as well as a basket of the same kind of bread that we received at brunch, a rustic and crusty sourdough.

Basket of rustic bread

We ordered two appetizers that we had remembered enjoying the very first time we ate at the restaurant in 2006. First was a tuna tartare served with avocado and flavored with soy and ginger. The tuna was very fresh and nicely cut into small cubes, which I like better than the mashed up tuna that we sometimes receive from other restaurants. The tuna paired perfectly with the creamy avocado, and the whole dish was well seasoned and very flavorful.

Tuna tartare

The second appetizer was mushroom cigars, which was filo dough wrapped around a filling of ground mushrooms, goat cheese, sage, and truffle oil. The pastry was lightly browned and perfectly flaky while the filling was really delicious. I love mushrooms, I love goat cheese, and I love truffle oil. The three together were simply divine. We only wished that the portion was larger, as it’s really only one small cigar cut in half. Josh and I just couldn’t get enough of it.

Mushroom cigars

For our main courses we also opted to order dishes that we’ve tried previously, and both were just as good as we had remembered. The first was tuscan chicken, which features a large boneless chicken breast stuffed with spinach and ricotta, topped with a light parmesan sauce. The chicken was tender and juicy, not at all dried out, and the filling was nicely seasoned and garlicky. The parmesan sauce bound everything together, and it was a very homey and comforting dish. The chicken came with a side salad that was tossed with a tasty vinaigrette, and it was supposed to come with chive mash potatoes but I requested the rosemary fries instead, which they gladly accommodated. The fries were slightly limp but well seasoned, and we could really taste the pleasant rosemary flavor.

Tuscan chicken

Our other entree was the Thai marinated grilled rack of lamb. The serving came with four perfectly grilled chops that were tender, juicy, and flavorful. The Thai marinade was slightly sweet, which worked well with the slightly bitter braised cabbage that came on the side. There were also chive mashed potatoes that came with the dish, which was why I had requested the fries with the chicken dish instead. Despite the casual presentation, the food was well prepared and the flavors were very refined.

Thai marinated grilled rack of lamb

Josh and I weren’t in a rush and were lingering over our meal, finishing up our wine and debating dessert when we got a call from his parents who happened to be in the city that night for a party. It turned out that they were just around the corner from where we were, so they met us at the restaurant for dessert. Our waitress had no problem letting us move over to an empty four top, and we ordered a round of coffee drinks. Unfortunately, the coffee was terrible. The espresso was weak, as was the cappuccino. Both Josh and his mom ordered extra shots of espresso to try and bolster their drinks, but even those were super weak.

Fortunately dessert was much better. Lloyd ordered the cheese and fruit plate, which turned out to be quite a large serving of assorted cheeses (I’m not a cheese person so I only recognized brie but there were others) and various fruits, including grapes, blackberries, and slices of apples, pears, and strawberries. There was plenty to share, and the waitress brought extra bread to pair with the cheeses.

Cheese and fruit plate

We also got a slice of the apple pie, which was served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The pie was more like a cobbler, with tasty, buttery, crumbly bits on top, but it was no less delicious. It wasn’t overly sweet or too cinnamony, and we all enjoyed it immensely.

Apple pie with vanilla ice cream

I have to say, I’m thrilled that the service at Nook truly has improved, as we now have a neighborhood spot that serves up good food at reasonable prices, and is a BYO to boot. Nook really is teeny tiny though so it does get a bit cramped inside, but I find the atmosphere to be homey and welcoming. If you want to dine during pre-theater or prime hours, however, it’s probably best to make a reservation. While the menu hasn’t changed all that much since the first time we were there in 2006, it’s nice to know that we have a place that we can rely on, where the dishes are familiar, tasty, and always well prepared. We’ll be back, and often, I hope.

746 9th Ave. between 50th and 51st St.
New York, NY