Dispatch from NJ: You Dim Sum, You Lose Some

Dim sum, basically Chinese brunch tapas, is something I learned about on TV, as neither Watertown nor Binghamton, to my knowledge, have any such restaurants. If I’m incorrect in this assumption, I implore you to direct me to the nearest Dimporium post haste, because even before I’d ever tasted these morsels os Asian artistry, I knew I’d love them. Like, back with Will and Grace were kvetching about going for dim sum, I wanted in.

As usual, Jill led me to the promised land without even knowing I wanted to go. That is why we will be bosom friends, always. As we were doing some last-minute Sunday shopping in Southern Jerz when I visited her earlier this month, Jill casually suggested dim sum for brunch. I think the boisterous volume of my “Yes!” surprised her a bit. She drove us to Joe’s Peking Duck House, in Marlton, without delay.

When we visited, the first thing to note is that we were the only non-Asian table in the place. A very good sign. Of course, I can’t tell you if they all were Chinese, or some other nationality, but when you’re eating ethnic food, it’s always a glowing endorsement when people of that ethnicity are eating there, too. Because I was still recovering from a pretty wicked cold, we started the meal with wonton noodle soup. This is basically clear chicken soup, no meat, but packed with handmade, thin, chewy noodles, and the best damn wonton dumplings I have ever had. I like the wonton from the local Chinese place in Endicott I frequent, but I’m sorry, those thick-skinned, bland blobs have nothing on these delicate bundles of flavor. This is the soup I will forever long for when down with the sickness. It’s a pity it lives in New Jersey and not next door! Those thin noodles were actually cooked al dente, and had the rough exterior texture you know comes from handmade, hand-pulled pasta. Each fragile dumpling was extraordinarily well seasoned, with scallion, and perfectly balanced notes of white pepper and sesame oil. I didn’t have to add a drop of soy to the two bowls of Heaven I slurped down.

Next up: Peking duck rolls, a delicacy! These are sliced BBQ duck breast and scallions wrapped in a flour tortilla-like wrapper, and served with hoisin sauce, which is China’s answer to BBQ. I felt like the duck could have been more tender in these, but loved the sweet, rich flavor, cut by the tart scallions. These were simple, fresh, delicious.

Then, one of the best things I have ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant hit our table: fried shrimp balls. These things are stupid good, y’all. The flavor was like very clean, super fresh, briney shrimp paste, covered in a very neutral batter and unsweetened rice krispies, then deep fried. The shrimp was, again, incredibly seasoned, salty and rich in a way I’ve never tasted before. The mix of crispy fried rice and salty, deep seafood was a heady, delightful mix. They were absolutely, fabulously, terrifically, scrumptious, and I would like a plate of them delivered to me on the regular.

The hargow came next, which we ordered without really knowing what they would be. Surprise surprise, more of that insane shrimp paste, wrapped in fantastically delicate dumpling dough and steamed. These were a very traditional dim sum dish in appearance, and while less ridiculously good than the fried balls, still wonderful. I feel like an interesting dipping sauce, maybe with some heat to it, would have complemented these well.

The first dish I picked, and maybe the most different from what I expected, was the BBQ pork buns. I was expecting the BBQ pork to arrive wrapped in smooth, bland bao buns, but these buns were crafted of a rough hewn, tender, snowy white, homemade dough, a bit pasty, and intentionally bland so that the pork can steal the show. Unfortunately, for me, the amount of pork was too little to stand up against that expanse of dough, and the pork was tougher than I would have liked. There was good sweetness to the sauce, but overall, not enough complexity to make this the dish I was hoping for.

This is going to be the place I beg Jill to take me every time I visit her – we were discussing that even as we were tearing in to each plate brought out to us. There are so many things off the Joe’s Peking Duck menu I need to try: honey glazed roast pork, Cantonese roast duck, honey glazed walnut shrimp, Cantonese chicken hot pot, string beans with minced pork, and soy sauce pan fried noodles! And Jill has told me that they serve the precious soup dumplings here. I hope what she thinks are soup dumplings are the same as what I think they are, because if so, I cannot wait to try these bundles of scalding hot, densely flavored broth inside gorgeous pasta dough!

If you’re in Marlton for business, shopping, or visiting friends or family, put Joe’s on your list. It ain’t fancy, and it isn’t fine dining, but the service was great, and the food was groaningly, ragingly good. Get some! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Joe's Peking Duck House on Urbanspoon


Coffeen Shop Blues

I don’t usually use my blog as a solicitation mechanism, but some friends of the family asked for a favor, and here it goes. There’s a magical little enclave on Coffeen St. in Watertown that my parents, Shawn’s Mom, and a lot of friends go to nearly every week day for breakfast served with a side of sass. The place is tiny, probably less than 20 seats, the menu is simple, and the coffee flows freely, along with the conversation and the sarcasm.

I’ve never written about the Coffee Shop before because, well, Beth, the owner, and Sam, the server/cook/sass master extraordinaire told me that if it got any busier in there, I would no longer be welcome. Shelby likes her coffee and breakfast foods served with a hefty dose of wit, so she wisely kept this place off the blog...until now.

But now, a sad day has darkened our door. Beth is selling this Watertown breakfast and lunch institution, this bastion of bacon for more than 40 years, and looking for a buyer lest this homey little diner blink out of existence. She’s staying through until the end of May, and if it doesn’t sell, the Coffee Shop will become extinct.

A potential buyer would inherit a turn-key operation with a built-in customer base. The shop is busy all morning, every week day, and into the lunch hour, and most of the clientele knows one another, making for a congenial, friendly atmosphere each day. The staff is even willing to stay on for a short time while the new owner comes up to speed. The rented space, in a plaza with parking available, seats 19, and comes with a small kitchen, a grill, and fryers with fire suppression behind the counter. I don’t know this for sure, but I bet Beth would even be willing to throw in some of the hilarious, impish, irreverent signs that plaster every inch of wall space. It’s a manageable, small business for someone who’s wanted to get their feet wet in the food business, but might want to mitigate the risk involved with buying a full-scale restaurant. And I've always seen the potential,. when I've been there, for an expansion of this simple business - I could see catering opportunities, a spot for small special events like baby showers, or a fancy coffee house set-up where JCC students could come and study. I think, if you call Beth, you'll find this a very affordable acquisition upon which to build your culinary vision.

If you’d like to carry on the good work Beth and Sam have been doing on Coffeen St., contact them at eyurack@twcny.rr.com


Dispatch from NJ: Say Good Morning to the Night

I listened to the song Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters a bunch of times over the weekend. The 1972 Elton John classic was inspired by New York City, but the line that always gets me is, “I thank the Lord for the people I have found.” I love that it’s not flowery, just plainly said, but expresses the masses of people we encounter in our lives, and how fortunate we are for the standouts who become friends, lovers, respected colleagues, or fun acquaintances. And Lord, am I thankful for the ones I’ve found!

One of those I’m most thankful for is Jill, whom I met as a co-worker in 2005, but who has become one of my very best friends. We first ate at the restaurant I’m reviewing this week back in 2007, during an uproariously fun long weekend that also included a glorious visit to Atlantic City’s Borgata Resort. When Jill brought me that first time to Bruno’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of Haddonfield, NJ, I ate so much that I justified it to her with the following disclaimer, “Well, I am eating for six.” I may not actually have been pregnant with sextuplets at the time, but the food there was so good, that I certainly ate enough to nourish at least six gestating fetuses.

New Jersey has some freaky liquor laws, and so you have to bring your own hooch to the great spots in the Collingswood and Haddonfield area. Bruno’s has mitigated this bothersome decree by opening a liquor store right next to their pizzeria and restaurant. Ingenious! Inside the restaurant portion of Bruno’s little strip mall is a cozy, old school Italian space, and both times I’ve been there, the joint has been jumping, filled to the brim with families and couple gorging on hearty Italian fare. You will start your meal with a basket of house made crescent rolls, dense and chewy with a crunchy exterior, and pizza bread, which is moist and savory, with the tomato sauce and herbs baked right in. Alongside the basket of carby goodness, the motherload: spicy, hot, fried peppers. I’m assuming theses are cherry peppers, as they pack a good wallop of heat, and that they’re sautéed in garlic and EVOO, although the sauce on them is a bit saucier than that concoction would produce, so there could very well be a tomato product at play. In any event, I have never been served these in any other Italian restaurant, but I love them, and despite the shocking heat level they pack, they make that bread basket irresistible.

Since together, Jill and I could conceivably eat enough for 12 people, we went ahead and ordered an appetizer platter. I’m not going to lie to you, Big Hungry friends, it was the size of Cleveland. We dug into the mammoth clams casino first, which were one of its strongest residents: cheesy, crabby, bacony, luscious and bursting with savory, rich flavor. Major, major clams, man. The filling was nicely homogenous in texture, so every bite carried those strong flavors, without getting one mouthful of clam and another full of breadcrumbs and bacon. Very delicious. Our second favorite platter feature was the fried shrimp, which were also huge, breaded in a superfine, super crunchy breading. If you’ve been reading BHS for awhile, you know how my Mom loves fried shrimp, and the entire time we were eating these, we remarked how much Sue Pilon would have loved them. That’s a glowing report for a shrimp, I tell you. I didn’t try the mussels, as they are the one shellfish I do not enjoy, but Jill pronounced them merely OK, and lacking spice. Sadly, the eggplant parm finished dead, mushy last. I need my eggplant to be fried up crispy, which this was not. Considering the major eggplant phase I’m currently in, I was really disappointed in this under-seasoned mess.

It should not surprise you that after a pretty standard salad/soup course, our enormous entrees were really more than either of us could manage to eat. But we tasted everything so that we could make our testimony. I ordered the osso bucco special, which came with not only the de rigeur braised veal, but also shrimp, and was served on a gigantic bed of linguine. The veal was crazy tender, and the slabs of Portobello mushrooms were terrific, but the marsala sauce it was served in could have been better, more fortified with wine, for me. That’s not to say this wasn’t a good dish! Believe me, it was fantastic – but once you’ve had Oaks Inn’s marsala, it’s tough to accept another version. I should note, though, that Jill thought this was the most delicious sauce on the table. And that is why I like to blog with other people – see why I’m glad Jill’s not a Mona Lisa or a Mad Hatter?

Jill’s entrée was veal stuffed with crabmeat, with more beautiful, huge shrimp, bathed in a gorgeous pink sauce, redolent with cream and some kind of booze. Thank God for that liquor store next door! I felt like the veal could have been better seasoned, but the crabmeat was rich and fabulous, and that pink sauce was so good, it was dizzying in its perfectly seasoned, deep, slight sweetness.

She ordered her pasta on the side, so that we could try the red sauce, and I’m so glad, because it was fab. Again, the tomato sauce was deep, made with tomato paste, and very well seasoned. So good! I should add that all the pasta was perfectly cooked – al dente, natch.

One of the most descriptive testaments to how good Bruno’s is was overheard from the table next to us, when the waitress asked them if there was anything else she could get them. The woman answered, “Two more stomachs!” Amen, sister. We may not have been able to finish our meals or order dessert, but we thoroughly enjoyed the whole meal, despite the weak eggplant and mussels. The sauces at Bruno’s are clutch, the sign of a true master in the kitchen, and the service is friendly and fun. This is a family joint, and I hope you’ve found people you would want to bring to a place like this. We awarded Bruno’s a seven on the BHS scale, and I will be back, as long as we can Jill and Tommy to stay in NJ and not roam somewhere else in this big world.

I’ll be back later this week with an opportunity in Watertown, so be looking out for that. In the meantime, stay hungry, my friends, and I hope you know if it’s dark outside or light.. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Bruno's Restaurant & Pizza on Urbanspoon


On Diners: Tzatziki Edition

If you’ve been a loyal BHS reader for awhile, first of all, thank you, and second of all, you already know all about my diner love. My parents brought me up in diners during our frequent family vacations up and down the East coast, including the long gone but not forgotten Beaver’s Diner in Halstead, PA, the first Pennsylvanian exit south of New York on Rt. 81, which we would hit for breakfast after one of our hit-the-road early 4 a.m. departures from Watertown on our way to Nags Head, NC or Chattanooga, TN when I was little. Beaver’s hash browns were the bomb.com, and my Dad would coach me to order my eggs just over medium, so the yolks wouldn’t completely run all over the plate.

Now, I’m grown up, and turned out to be a person who likes some pretty fancy food to still carry such affection for diner cuisine. You’re come with me as I’ve scarfed down pork belly, octopus, pate, fried chicken skins, raw oysters, fresh wasabi, and fine steaks. But I will crave those diner classics – chocolate milk, open-faced sandwiches smothered in gravy, monte cristos, and homemade soups - always. I’ve written about the Koffee Kove way up in Clayton, the Neptune in Oneonta, and Ponzio’s in NJ, but probably one of my favorite NY diners is Roscoe’s, down in the Catskills, along Rt. 17. In Roscoe, obvs.

And now, the owner of Roscoe’s has, for whatever reason, opened a diner right here in little old Endwell. Occupying the former Crossroads Diner, Nadius opened earlier this year, and Big Hungry Melinda and I hit it up last weekend for a post-workout lunch. And because I’d just walked four whole miles, and because I was already fighting what turned, this week, into fluzilla, I felt like a milkshake was in order. A chocolate milkshake, to be more specific:

Looks good, huh? And it was. Not out-of-this-world terrific, not about to set the culinary landscape on fire, but milky, rather than super-thick, which was really good to have alongside a meal. I feel like a really thick shake is like a dessert item, but a nice milk milkshake works along a soup and sandwich. It was a lunch shake; let’s go with that.

The soup came first, as it does. I chose the beef barley, and I liked it. It was served super hot, and was chock full of tender veggies. There was not much beef at all, and very little barely, so vegetable beef with barley may have been a better descriptor, but let’s not split hairs here, shall we? I liked that the big chunks of potato weren’t disintegrating in the broth, and that the broth itself was well-seasoned. Again, this was not a monolith of gastronomic ingenuity, but it didn’t need to be. It was tasty.

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been ordering hot turkey sandwiches in diners. For my money (or my Dad’s, I guess, if we’re talking ghosts of sandwiches past), you just can’t beat and open-faced sandwich crowned with gravy, and served with mashed potatoes or fries with even more gravy. That’s just manna, right there. So Sunday, I went for the hot roast pork sammie, with fries and gravy. I chose the pork because the specials menu has pork roast on it, so I knew the pork would be real pork, and not just thin-sliced deli pork. That is some menu jujitsu, right there. And that pork was delicious, not dried out, and thickly sliced with real meat texture. I’m really picky about that, and while I will eat deli meats, I always prefer roasted meat with the actual texture of meat. OK, have I beat that horse dead enough? I think you get it. So, the pork was good, and I very much liked the gravy, although I’m betting it would have been too salty for most palates. I can handle the salt; you might not be able. The fries were frozen in origin, but acceptable; not stale or under-cooked.

Tasty, crisp pickle, too. I love a crisp dill.

I don’t remember exactly when chicken souvlaki platters replaced hot open-faced sandwiches as my favorite diner meal. It’s been a relatively new development, and I have brought Melinda down the primrose path with me. More accurately, that path is lined with tiny, plastic, delectable cups of tzatziki sauce. Look, I know I talk a lot about tzatziki, but seriously, is there anything better to jazz up salad and chicken, and elevate something ordinary into something creamy, cooling, and exciting? No, there is not. Nadius’ contribution to the souvlaki collective, which Melinda ordered Sunday, did not eclipse The Plaza Diner, in Vestal, as our favorite in the Triple Cities, but it was good. On the souvlaki continuum, this tzatziki was more lemony, this pita less fluffy, and this chicken a little less piquant. However, Melinda liked that the salad on this platter came pre-dressed, whereas the Greek dressing at Plaza is served on the side, for a do-it-yourself arrangement that can sometimes lead to soggy pita or soggy fries. Here is Nadius’ version:

And here is Plaza’s. I encourage you to try both and give us your feedback!

Since we’re comparing the Plaza Diner and Nadius, I should note that, oddly, their menus appear identical. But clearly, the food is different. So I don’t know if the owners of the two joints are related, or what. Maybe they just happen to use the same menu vendor, or maybe there’s some other trickery afoot, but there it is. We liked our lunch at Nadius, and I’m sure I will be back, but The Plaza is still my favorite diner in this area, for now. How about you? My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Nadius on Urbanspoon


Holy Sauces!

At home up in Watertown last weekend, I talked my mother out of cooking and into dining out. Shocking, I know. Sometimes I wonder if the reason I went into PR was to learn how to manipulate my loved ones into eating where I want?

We settled on dinner at one of the newer restaurants dotting Watertown’s landscape: Restaurante de Ricardo, on Arsenal St. This joint, formerly an Indian restaurant, and before that, a Jean’s Beans, got some good early buzz from the Watertown Daily Times, but I haven’t heard much in the way of word of mouth recommendations. It’s owned by the guy who used to run the dining scene at the Best Western on Washington St, and his name is Dick Alexander, which is how we’ve arrived at Ricardo’s. But enough about provenance, let’s talk food!

Our waiter, who was exceptional, suggested a special starter of roasted garlic to begin our meal. I make roasted garlic all the time, and don’t usually get super fired up about it, but his description was intriguing, and I’m so glad we submitted to the power of his suggestion. He brought us out a sizzling cast iron dish of oil and whole garlic cloves, mashed the garlic up with a giant fork, then drizzled in some balsamic vinegar. He gave the concoction one more mash before dramatically sprinkling in some parmesan cheese. I always enjoy a tableside presentation, especially when it begets something as delicious and sweet as this jazzed up bread topper.

Dad went for the bolognese sauce over rigatoni, which is Mr. Alexander’s recipe, according to our server. The sauce was fantastic – spicy and robust, without the muddy, heavy flavor so many Bolognese sauces fall victim to. The meatballs, adorning all our plates, were killer. These tightly-packed, finely-ground beauties were juicy, just barely smoky, and had a nice, salty, minerally flavor that almost made me think there might be a little liver in the mix. But it could have just been veal? Whatever it is, it’s fabulous.

Mama chose the penne alfredo, which was the weakest dish to hit the table, but still pretty good. The sauce was creamy and smooth, but I found it a bit bland. Alfredo really needs to be made with high-quality, fresh parmigiano cheese, and I’m betting this was a cream sauce base with either domestic parmesan or maybe even an imitation parmesan-flavored cheese mixed it. It was not only lacking the salty, nutty tang you get with parmigiano, but also the slightly grainy texture it lends to a sauce. That said, Mom liked it, and she probably would have noted what a picky grump I am, if she wasn’t so nice.

I set my sights on the lasagna, and was treated to a very unique spin on what’s usually a hearty, wintry Italian casserole. Ricardo’s lasagna is light and loose, bathed in a bright, herbaceous red sauce screaming with oregano and basil. A couple of those delightful meatballs came along for the ride. And the portion size on this dish was perfect – not overwhelmingly large, but still enough to bring some leftovers home.

We let Dad be the maverick and order dessert, which we all tasted. Italian crème cake put its lemony foot forward, and really drove home the cream in its name. It’s soft and light, not too much to handle after a hearty meal, and even the cake layers managed to be creamy. I don’t think I’ve ever described a cake as creamy before, but this was.

I have more notes, of course. First off, not only were both red sauces outstanding, but every bite of pasta delivered to our table was cooked perfectly, al dente. On the downside, while the décor has been refreshed and is overall cute, the plastic, checkered, picnic-style tablecloths really distracted from the fine dining feel I wanted to derive from the service and the food. Cloth coverings for the tables would go a long way in helping the ambiance, as would dispensing with the Neil Diamond snoozak in favor of classical or less obtrusive tunes. Luckily, our funny, engaging waiter, and the excellent food made up for those small distractions. We awarded Ricardo’s a seven on the BHS scale, wondering why this place isn’t busier. It may be because people don’t trust a restaurant located in such close proximity to a hotel, or because this location has housed so many other businesses in the past. Or it may be due to the limited menu. While there are pasta, chicken, beef, and seafood dishes on the menu, you won’t find pizza here. I’ve known Watertown eaters to be pretty old school about what they want from their Italian dinners: pizza or spaghetti and meatballs. While Ricardo’s may not have pizza, I assure you, their meatballs are divine, and their red sauce is fresh and delicious – so give it a try!

One of my favorite food bloggers, Kristin at Iowa Girl Eats, is on her babymoon in Charleston this week, and I’m having so much fun reading her tweets and posts. Check her out, here: http://iowagirleats.com/ Yesterday, she had lunch at Poogan’s Porch, which I enjoyed in September, and tonight she’s doing dinner at Husk, one of the top five meals I ate last year.
If you’re in Watertown, try Ricardo’s, and report back here, I dare ya! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Restaurant de Ricardo on Urbanspoon