Dispatch from NJ: Cheap Wine and Fancy Pastries

I grew up thinking a few very limited things about New Jersey. 1) That the most predominant business in the state was Garden State Brickface & Stucco, which advertised on the NYC TV channel we somehow received in Watertown, and 2) That it was all industrial waste and beach contamination. How was I to know any better? And really, this view didn’t alter much in my teens and early 20s. Then came Jill, whom I met as a colleague and turned to a bestie. After her short stint with me at Lockheed Martin in Owego, she moved on to a site in Southern Jersey, which allowed her to live in an absolutely charming little town called Collingswood. Visiting her there began my love affair with small towns in NJ, so much so that this week, I’m recommending one as a rare out-of-NY weekend getaway destination for Big Hungries looking for quaint villages, historic architecture, worldly cuisine and fabulous antiquing.

Lambertville, NJ is a town of less than 4,000, kind of like Sackets Harbor. It hugs the banks of the Delaware River, across which you find New Hope, PA, Lambertville’s rowdier cousin. Like Clayton and Alex Bay, Lambertville and New Hope share their slice of the tourism pie, and there are unique delights to experience on both sides of the walk-able bridge. The Lambertville side hosts antique stores, upscale jewelry shops, cafes and art galleries, while the New Hope promenade features larger restaurants with atmospheric outdoor seating, tarot and palm reading shops, gift emporiums and about six ice cream parlors.

There are tons of adorable bed and breakfasts on both sides of the river, but if you’re looking for hotel or motel accommodations, your best bet is to look for ones in Bucks County, PA. Also in Bucks County and worthy of your time if you like to spend your time eating and shopping: Peddler’s Village. It’s only five miles from New Hope, and is sort of a planned community of boutiques, outlet shops, and fun restaurants. The Cock ‘N Bull Restaurant is sort of the golden child of these, serving colonial fare in a traditional setting, but I like Sweet Lorraine’s Café and Bar. My parents and I ate there last November, and I adored Aunt Bea’s housemade mac and cheese, while the mess o’ fries had all three of us groaning with pleasure. The atmosphere here is fun and funky, which invigorated us after a long day of holiday shopping.

Another bright spot at Peddler’s Village is Casa Casale, an Italian house wares and gourmet food store. I ravaged this jewel box this past Sunday, snapping up jarred artichokes and zucchini, imported pasta and oil, colorful EVOO bottles and Italian specialties. The women who run this shop are interested in what you’re going to be cooking, eager to share samples of wine and food with you, and extremely engaging. I cannot recommend a stop at this celebration of all things Italia enough: one taste of the pasta at the cooking demo station will convince any foodie that they have arrived in mini-break Heaven.

The considerable charms of Casa Casale

This past weekend’s Lambertville-centric visit was a girl’s weekend. Joining Jill and me were Leslie, Meg and Taylor. We kicked off the weekend’s festivities with dinner Friday night at Tortuga’s Cocina, which is literally a block from Jill’s fab townhouse. One of the best things about Lambertville is that you can walk to almost everything – I feel like walking to dinner automatically sets the mood for a relaxing, pleasant evening.

We chose to sit in Tortuga’s idyllic courtyard, adorned with twinkle lights and graced with a view of a soaring church tower and stained glass windows. It’s the first time I’ve eaten outdoors so far in 2011, and I was glad for the opportunity. Tortuga’s complimentary chips and salsa are outstanding. While I don’t believe the chips are homemade, the salsa is fantastic: bright and spicy with lime, fresh jalapeno, and cilantro. I love a really fresh, pico-style salsa, and Tortuga’s delivered it. Jill also steered us in the direction of her fav appy: nachos, half with pulled chicken, the other with guacamole. Sign me up! These were crispy and gooey, both important in nacho domination. Hmm, Nacho Domination would be a hilarious name for a band. Anyway, the chicken on these was slammin’. I can’t tell you how often chicken of this sort is dry and chewy. Tortuga’s is juicy and tender, with tons of actual chicken flavor. I don’t know how they did it, but I wish they would teach me. I am a willing student, as well as lead singer of the world famous Nacho Domination!

Nacho Domination

I had the Enchiladas Oaxaca (Wah-HA-cah), or pork tenderloin wrapped in tortillas, baked in a spiced, vegetable-based sauce and crowned with bubbly, browned cheese. I prefer proper carnitas, or shredded pork, in my Mexican treats, but this dish proved a worthy substitute. While the pork was tender, the star of the dish was the wonderfully warm, savory sauce. I believe it employed a generous amount of cinnamon, as well as some subtle spice (maybe chipotle chilies?), which was foreign to me yet also comforting and yummy.

Pico de gallo

Jill’s dish was the winner, winner chicken dinner of the table, for me. She ordered the chicken chimichanga. God, chimichanga is fun to say. It’s even more fun to eat, and why is that? Because it’s essentially a deep-fried burrito! Hurrah! What made this dish a stand out were the bright, clean flavors of the chicken and cilantro juxtaposed with the crispy, crunchy, satisfying shell. Next time I’m back here, I’m ordering the shredded beef iteration of this, for sure.
Les and Meg had the steak fajitas and fish tacos, respectively. Both were well done. The proteins were perfectly cooked, everything was spiced with care, and again, all of the flavors were clean and not muddled, as so often happens with Mexican food.
We enjoyed several rounds of margaritas with our dinner, and while service was slow, our waitress was knowledgeable and friendly. A quick table vote placed the experience at 7.5 on the BHS scale, meaning we were full and happy as we walked home. Put this place on your list.
The next morning, we walked, again, just a block, to Baker’s Treat for breakfast. OMG, you guys, eat breakfast here when you go. Ok? For less than $25, the five of us had great coffee, fresh fruit, rockin’ croissants, epic cinnamon rolls and one macaroon brownie the size of Latvia. The croissants were buttery perfection, not too moist, not too flaky: juuuuust right. I am the goldilocks of croissants, and Baker’s Treat hit the nail on the head with this one. The cinnamon rolls, too, were mouth watering, ooey, gooey, soft, sweet and much more satisfying than their small size would suggest.
After a sun-dappled morning of antique and jewelry shopping (my favs were Peoples Store and Vecere Jewelers), we stopped in to the Tomasello Winery shop for a tasting. When I visited Jill last August and beat her to town due to her commute, I wandered around by myself, and made a friend in this gorgeous little store. Tomasello is a bona fide NJ winery, and their tasting room on N. Union St. is decked out with every wine accessory or home décor item you ever could want. Of all the wines in our generously-poured, $5 tasting, which included a souvenir glass, the Atlantic County Nevers Oak Chardonnay really stood out to me as a favorite. It was buttery and bright, but somehow managed to have a rich vanilla finish. Lovely.

Beautiful girls weekend endorses Tomasello

Lunch was enjoyed across the river, in sunny New Hope. I’d spied Bitter Bob’s BBQ + Comfort Food on my last trip and couldn’t wait to try it out. And because the day was sunny and warm for March, we were able to sit outside and enjoy the bustling main drag of New Hope while we ate.
There were things we really enjoyed at Bob’s, and things we did not. On the downside, our server was a bit surly and detached, and she served our appetizer at the same time as our entrees, which is a major pet peeve of mine. Jill opined that she probably never put in the appy order until she had already taken our lunch orders. I suspect she was right. Anyway, the BBQ pork fries with cheddar and bacon were awesome, and yet another notch on the list of gooey treats for the weekend. I have never used that word so many times in two days! Another plus was Bitter Bob’s BBQ sauce, which was sweet and thick, but not so sweet that the spice was outdone. It was a remarkably balanced tomato-based sauce, and I really enjoyed it.
A bunch of us ordered varying BBQ platters. Of these, the ribs were very tender, the pork verged on greatness but lacked much-needed salt, and the brisket and pulled chicken were average. The mac and cheese I ordered as a side dish was surprisingly good – it packed a punch with sharp cheddar and a sprinkle of fiery cayenne, and the macaroni was al dente. Our two Georgia-born gals reported that the collard greens weren’t great, but this Yankee liked them – they were savory, tender and salty. Leslie reported that her burger was nothing to write home about, but her fries were homemade, cut on-premise and crispy. Meg’s salad topped with BBQ chicken was really pretty, and the cornbread croutons on top were fab and different.

BBQ salad at Bitter Bob’s

One more in the negative column at Bob’s was the vinegar-based BBQ sauce. For as good as the tomato-based sauce was, this was insipid and plain. I love me some Carolina BBQ, but my southern friends would balk at this watery, too-tart imitation. Skip it in favor of the thicker option. It’s too bad the service was lacking, because we had some elements of a really fine meal here. I still recommend Bitter Bob’s for your visit, especially if it’s nice enough to sit out front. Just try not to get the waitress who looks like a teenager who’s been grounded since last Thanksgiving, and you should be good. We gave our experience a 5 on the BHS scale.
I highly recommend Lambertville/New Hope as a girl’s weekend destination. Everything is within walking distance (save Peddler’s Village), including day spas for mani/pedis, fun bars and clothing boutiques. A couple members of our group got our tarot cards or palms read, which was super fun, and just the thrill of being outdoors and walking to everything made it the perfect setting for a weekend this time of the year. You know, when spring fever is at its height? I would suggest planning to spend one day perusing the shops and cafes of Lambertville and New Hope, and another day at Peddler’s Village, if I were Julie, your cruise director.

So shed all your preconceived notions about New Jersey, and give Lambertville a try. I plan on hitting it up at least once more this summer, and I’m hoping to dine at Marsha Brown, a totally cool church converted into a fine dining creole restaurant in New Hope. If you beat me there, let me know how it is! Or take this as a romantic antiquing weekend with your honey, enjoying wine and beer tasting and indulgent baked goods! There are lots of opportunities for tons of fun in this area of the Northeast, and I feel like it’s an undiscovered locale, just 3 hours beyond NYS’s Southern Tier. And an easy drive, to boot: I’ve traveled this stretch three times in the last few months, and never hit traffic.

So give NJ a chance. I promise Snooki won’t be there. And join me next week for more tasty treats. Something yummy this way comes, you know. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Tortuga's Cocina on Urbanspoon

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