The Cook's Tour

Friday, November 21, 2014

Visiting Samba in Montclair!

Mango Mousse
Recently I took a spur of the moment trip to Brazil. Without having to dig out my passport, pack a bag, or exchange currency. How did I do that? Well, I was invited to visit Montclair’s only Brazilian restaurant, Samba.
Owned by Ilson Goncalves, a native of Brazil, Samba recently installed a new chef and new menu. Chef Roberto Carnero, a graduate of the International Culinary Center in NYC, took over the kitchen in March, and has transformed the menu into a delicious, virtual trip to Brazil.
Chef Carnero offered one of his signature dishes, Butternut Squash Soup with Shrimp. Presented in the hollowed-out squash, the soup was luxurious and the shrimp were perfectly cooked. I scraped up every bit of the squash to make sure I didn’t miss one delightful mouthful. 
Butternut Squash Soup

One of Brazil’s traditional dishes has been transported to north Jersey with the Chef’s Bolinho de Mandioca.
Bolinho de Mandioca
Lovely little pastries made with yucca and filled with dried beef and more of that fabulous butternut squash. This was followed by a Roasted Beet Salad topped with Strawberries and creamy Goat Cheese.
The main act was Chef Carnero’s tender Skirt Steak served with roasted cauliflower and “farofa,” (toasted yucca flour). Make sure you try farofa when you visit; this side dish reminded me of polenta, and had a tender nuttiness that I loved. Because farofa does not seem to be well known here, I asked the Chef about this dish. He told me “through my research many restaurants use only the southern farafo. I personally like the northern farofa. I like the texture. We use a Brazilian purveyor from the ironbound section of Newark. Preparing the farofa is tricky as the more milled southern farofa can burn quickly, which obviously changes the flavor. We bloom garlic and onion until it browns but doesn't caramelize adding saffron when the time is right. We then add the raw farofa until it's cooked. If it not cooked, you get that raw chalky taste in your mouth.”  

Two terrific desserts completed my little weekday visit to Brazil, a luscious mango mousse, and a flourless yucca-coconut cake with dulce de leche and passion fruit sauce.
Yucca Coconut Cake
Samba’s warm casual interior invites you to linger awhile, and candles and wall sconces provide a romantic atmosphere. 
I understand there is a lovely outdoor patio that I look forward to enjoying next summer. But I don’t think I will wait that long to return to Samba. Chef Carnero’s inventive Brazilian-inspired cuisine in nearby Montclair may just satisfy my culinary wanderlust. 

7 Park Street
Montclair, NJ 07042
Serving lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Weekend in Maine, September 2014

Downeast Maine is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Around every bend in the road is another awesome view. From the New Hampshire border to Bar Harbor, the coast is just one fabulous water view after another. Not to mention the winding country roads that a week ago were just starting to sprout their leafy fall oranges, yellows, and browns. Just driving around Blue Hill, Castine, and Orland, lowers my blood pressure.

But, of course, no weekend away for me is complete with great food. And, man, did we hit the mother lode on this trip!  We were disappointed that our favorite peeky toe crab shack in Bayview was closed already for the season, but we persevered and rewarded ourselves with dinner at The Lost Kitchen in Freedom. Set in a renovated 1834 gristmill so perfectly picturesque, you can’t help but want to linger. Erin French, chef/owner, has created something very special in this little off-the-beaten-path town. Walking over the footbridge, on a crisp early autumn evening, and then down a few steps to the Foundation Wine Cellar, I had the distinct feeling this was going to be a culinary experience.
Foundation Wine Cellar

Due to the town’s blue laws, the restaurant has no liquor license, but they’ve assembled an impressive wine list from which you can purchase wine to go with the evening’s menu. The very cool “wine cave lady” guided us to a terrific Pinot Noir (Folk Machine) from Central Coast California. With our bagged wine, we headed up to the restaurant. This is where the real magic happens.

In this gorgeous space, Ms French has built a beautiful open kitchen where she prepares dinner Wednesday through Saturday evenings for a very lucky 30 diners. Everybody sits down at 6pm, and the food begins to flow. We started with a deliciously porky pate, served with good, crusty bread, two kinds of mustard (stone ground and Dijon), and cornichons, alongside a bowl of delicious Mediterranean olives.
Lost Kitchen Pate

Next to arrive at our table was a lovely offering of cherrystone clams drizzled with a delicious lemon-butter sauce. Fresher, sweeter clams I have not tasted.

A few minutes after devouring the clams, Ms French came by with two teaspoons on a platter.  The spoons were filled with a frozen dollop of apple cider-rosemary sorbet. OMG (I really am beginning to hate the OMG thing, but sometimes it just fits)!  When I mentioned to her that so far everything was wonderful, she giggled and said, “I’m so glad you are enjoying it, and we haven’t even really started yet.”   Well, if we hadn’t started yet, I couldn’t wait to see what lay ahead.

It’s at this point, that Ms French clinks a wine glass and welcomes everyone to her restaurant. She tells us about her journey thus far, and then regales us with the night’s menu. You feel like you are at an intimate secret party that you were lucky enough to score an invite to.

The first “official” course of the night’s menu was Fried Basket Island Oysters served with a Crabapple Kohlrabi Slaw and Horseradish Aioli. The oysters were beautifully set on a bed of seaweed and sea salt, like a painting.
Fried Oysters
Endive and Red Lettuce Salad
The second course was an Endive and Red Lettuce Salad topped with luscious Pulled Duck Confit, a sprinkling of the last gorgeous raspberries of summer, tart purple plum slices, and topped with pecorino and honey.  Yes, it was wonderful.
Skillet-roasted Hake
Our last course was beautiful skillet-roasted Hake with adorable baby fingerlings, buttered croutons, and a mélange of olive, tomato, and spinach.  The fish was cooked perfectly, and the accompaniments were just right.

 Just when you think this meal could not get any better, you are presented with a delicate Earl Grey Crème Brulee for dessert.  And when you must leave this little oasis of food heaven, to make your transition to the real world a bit easier, a to-go bag of wonderfully crisp ginger cookies is presented to each diner. Ours didn’t make it past the parking lot.
Earl Grey Creme Brûlée

I can usually tell if a restaurant is going to be good way in advance of actually arriving.  It’s just a feeling or vibe that I get – I really can’t explain it. My culinary sixth sense was right on this time.  The Lost Kitchen has all the elements to become the Chez Panisse of the east – a talented chef, a well-trained staff, the bounty of the Maine coast’s sea and land, and warm, gracious hospitality (something that eludes far too many restaurants).  As Ms French says at the end of her welcoming speech, here’s to Freedom.

Sunday morning we started our long drive home. There are not many places open for breakfast along Rt 3 between Belfast and Augusta at 6am, so we dragged our coffee-deprived bodies a bit farther to Biddeford. I squirrel away restaurants in my mind for future trips and I had a breakfast spot in mind for us. The Palace Diner in Biddeford is Maine’s oldest diner, originally opened in 1927, and brought back to life by current owners, Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell. These two are not your average diner owners; they have real culinary chops, having previously worked at Hugo’s in Portland (Conley), and Gramercy Tavern in New York (Mitchell).

There are just 15 counter stools and we nabbed two with prime viewing into the little window into the kitchen. There, we could see Conley and Mitchell, calmly prepping, cooking, and laughing. Cool music is playing from somebody’s iPhone hooked up to a Bose speaker. The Sunday brunch menu is pure diner delight, kicked up a notch. I chose the Challah French Toast with Maine Maple Syrup, while my husband chose the Corned Beef Hash (natch).

Let me tell you about the French Toast – a huge thick slice of custardy eggy Challah, with a crème brulee crust that I could not get over. Luckily, I opted for the single slice, instead of two, but I mopped up every crumb and left my plate spotless. THE best French Toast ever!

Palace Diner French Toast

Palace Diner Corned Beef Hash

Now, if there’s corned beef hash on a menu, my husband is going to order it; he just can’t help himself. But all too often he is sorely disappointed. Not this time, my friends. A chunk of tender, savory corned beef, with minimal potatoes, topped with done-right eggs over easy, and terrific rye toast. Really good coffee from Tandem Roasters in Portland rounded out our “good-bye, Maine” meal.  I was tempted to order a side of the Brown Butter Banana Bread for the ride home, but that damned common sense prevailed (I’m so regretting it!) 

My sixth sense was on target here, too.

22 Mill Street
Freedom, Maine
Serving Dinner Wednesday-Saturday

18 Franklin Street
Biddeford, Maine

Serving Breakfast and Lunch Wednesday-Sunday

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fall Road Trip - NJ/NY

If summer must end, and end it must, I like to make the transition a tad easier. How, you ask? Road trip!

There is something quite cozy about a road trip in the fall. Rev up the convertible; pick a spot on the map, and go! The still-warm sun on your face, a gentle wind in your hair, and the promise of a beautiful day. We like to head up the Garden State Parkway to Irvington, New York (just over the Tappan Zee Bridge). If you time it right, the leaves will be starting to change, the air will have just a hint of crisp to it, and you’ll score a table outdoors at Red Hat on the River.

We discovered Red Hat this summer when I was searching for an outdoor dinner spot. I put a challenge out to my Face­book friends with the following crite­ria: outdoor dining, great food, within an hour of home base. Extra points were given for “on the water” venues. In my book, noth­ing beats water­front/waterview dining. One friend suggested Red Hat and, after doing some preliminary research, off we went!

Nestled on the banks of the mighty Hudson River, Red Hat is situated in a beautifully reno­vated industrial space. And what a gorgeous space it is. Soaring floor-to-ceiling windows provide a front-row view to the patio and the river.

The menu can be described as French bistro, meaning you can get anything from a burger to handmade ricotta ravioli. Our group shared the Arugula and Jersey Peach Salad, made all the better with dried cherries, roasted pepita (pumpkin) seeds, applewood bacon, local apple, goat cheese, and apple cider vinaigrette. We also enjoyed the Crispy Peekytoe Crab­cake, something I never pass up since having it many years ago on the Maine coast. Red Hat’s version is served with a wasabi and lime remoulade sauce, and Napa cabbage slaw.

Our entrees ranged from a juicy Grilled Double Cut Berk­shire Pork Chop, to perfect Steak Frites, to Moules Frites steamed with garlic, white wine, and shallots. Quintessential bistro fare very well done.


Check the long-range weather forecast – sunshine and 60-70 degrees, is optimal. You shouldn’t have to think about anything heavier than a light jacket or sweater.

Make a reservation! Trust me, you will not be the only one with this idea on a gorgeous fall day. On one of our subse­quent trips, there was a two-hour wait, inside and out. Red Hat does not take reservations for the outdoor tables. It’s first-come, first-served. There is a lovely, although small, rooftop bar to pass the time (the Melon Mojito was deluxe!). If there are no seats, head to the indoor bar on the first floor.

Make a day of it. The area is full of beautiful historical sites. Visit Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home (author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) in Tarrytown. I bet they’ve got some great Halloween activities planned… Or how about Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate? This estate was home to four generations of the Rockefeller fam­ily, beginning with John D., founder of Standard Oil. In his day, he was the richest man in America. The site is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The tour covers their exceptional col­lection of 20th century sculpture, a collection of Picas­so tapestries, and a priceless collection of classic automo­biles and horse-drawn carriages. Visit for all the details on these sites, plus many others.

If you get shut out of Red Hat, there are a number of other restaurants on Main Street, a short drive from the waterfront. You can get more information here (http://www.irvingtonny. gov/) on Irvington.

Red Hat on the River
One Bridge Street
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533
Open for lunch Monday-Friday.
Dinner served Monday-Sunday.

Sunday brunch returns in the fall (call for details).

Photo credits: The Cook's Tour and Red Hat on the River

Friday, August 22, 2014

Late Summer Peach and Tomato Salad

That title should read Peach and “JERSEY” Tomato Salad because it’s at this time of year when New Jersey produce shines brightest. We had a terribly late spring, which means the tomatoes that are our pride and joy did not really come into their own until just. about. now. So here’s a recipe that takes full advantage of beautifully ripe peaches and luscious Jersey tomatoes.

We enjoyed it with crispy grilled chicken drumettes (thank you, Goffle Poultry Farm), fabulous potato salad (thank you, Christine), and sweet JERSEY corn (what, you were expecting our corn to be from somewhere else? Come on!). The salad is courtesy of a wonderful nutritionist at Morristown Memorial Hospital who sends out a terrific weekly recipe roundup. So you know this is healthy!

With only two official weekends of summer left, you’ve got to jump right on this!

PS: If you are in the north Jersey area this Sunday, August 24, I'll be a judge at the annual Fairway Firefighter's Food Face-off in Woodland Park, 12noon. Stop by to say hello!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sublime Summer Dinner

Well, we’ve reached the midway point of summer. The days, which are (mostly) sunny and warm, stretch easily into beautiful evenings. Perfect for relaxing dinners on your deck, patio, what have you.  I’ve got two wonderful (and easy) recipes you should think about adding to your summer dining menus.

We like to start with drinks & nibbles on the lower deck and then move upstairs for dinner. For this particular evening, we set out an assortment of fresh vegetables (cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, small carrots) with delicious hummus and baba ghanoush from a local Turkish store (these ain’t your garden variety Middle Eastern appetizers!). I add fresh pita triangles (cut from the pita breads we also buy at the Turkish store) and this time I threw in a stand of Grissini sea salt breadsticks for a little crunch. I had never tried these before but saw them when I was buying the burrata at Fairway (more to come on that later) and figured I’d give them a try. They were delicious!  Add a refreshing vodka tonic or glass of wine and you’re all set!

On to the main event. We are huge lovers of soft shell crabs and grab them whenever we can. For this dinner, we built a menu around the gorgeous crabs we got at Peter’s Fish Market in Midland Park. We began with a shot of chilled gazpacho picked up at Peter’s and while Barry was sautéing the crabs, I put together the Pickled Nectarine Salad with Burrata. I found this recipe while going through some old magazines (like from 2013!). I’m glad I didn’t just chuck this Bon Appetit issue because this recipe is a definite keeper!

The mix of flavors in this salad is what really draws you in. You start with thinly sliced ripe nectarines, which you “marinate” with some red onion, white wine vinegar, and a teaspoon of sugar. Add to this arugula, fresh mint, some extra virgin olive oil, and plate around the burrata. A sprinkle of salt, a grind of pepper, and a drizzle more olive oil, and you’ve got a salad masterpiece! If you are not familiar with burrata, it’s similar to fresh mozzarella but WAY, WAY better. Delicate and creamy, it blends beautifully with the fruit and greens. If you can’t find burrata in your local store, fresh mozzarella will do but it won’t be quite the same.  As I mentioned above, I got mine at Fairway, and it was excellent. I’ve also used burrata in a genius Brussels sprout recipe from Paul Kahan and it was fabulous there, too.

We rounded out the meal with fresh, sweet corn, cole slaw, and a perfect Herman Wiemer 2012 Riesling that we picked up on our Finger Lakes weekend last November.

But, as they say in France, the piece de resistance, was dessert.  Ripped from the pages of Food and Wine, we enjoyed (that’s putting it mildly!) Cardamom-Oatmeal Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches. The cookies are delicious on their own, but when you put two together to make an ice cream sandwich, well, you’ve just hit the jackpot.  And I didn’t use plain old vanilla (although I adore really good vanilla ice cream), chocolate, or strawberry. No, no…I went right over the top with Haagen-Dazs Black Cherry Amaretto gelato. Oh, yeah.

So there you have it, a perfect summer evening dinner. Add good friends, a pretty table setting, cool music, and this is one you’ll remember for summers to come.