The Cook's Tour

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A Work of Art in Rutherford

It had been a long time since I visited Café Matisse (like at least 10 years). Sometimes you become enamored of the shiny new “objet d’art” and forget about the old masters. So when I received an invitation to try their new a la carte menu, I thought it was time to return. And I’m very glad I did.

Chef/owner, Peter Loria, has been operating Café Matisse for 27 years (a feat not often heard of in today’s restaurant climate).  The restaurant inhabits an historic building that once housed a horse and buggy firehouse, now renovated to a lovely jewel box setting. Interested in a romantic dinner with your significant other? This is it. The dining room is just the right amount of dark and intimate. Beautiful chandeliers provide soft lighting and the banquettes along one wall are perfect for sitting side by side.

Of course, in my world, for the perfect love-in, you need delicious and beautifully plated food; and this is where Chef Loria excels. Each plate is a tiny work of art. Visually stunning, creative, and delicious. We began with the tender and delightful Smoked Duck Breast with grilled radicchio, chestnut goat cheese, and pear ginger jam.

The Lobster White Bean Bisque is one of the most unique lobster bisques I’ve ever had. It is served with a crab guacamole fritter and peppered shrimp. It was wonderful, but I would have loved a slightly larger fritter (this was such a tease!).

For our main course, we could not pass up the Cabernet Glazed Beef Short Ribs (yes, they were as good as they sound). They are served with a pumpkin squash puree, potato fontina fritter, caramelized Brussels sprouts, toasted pumpkin seeds, and apple cider vinaigrette. The composed dish may read like a fall menu item, but it was sublime on the early spring night I visited.

We wrapped up our little weeknight date with an Amaretto Soaked Chocolate Cannoli Cake. Can you say “wow?” I did. This cake hit all the right notes: chocolate mousse, cannoli crème, crumbled candied almonds, chocolate espresso sauce, and balsamic raspberry vanilla seed jus. Yeah, wow. A perfect cappuccino completed the dessert.

You might think that in a restaurant of this type the service would be stuffy and pretentious. Not so, in fact, quite the opposite. The servers were enthusiastic, friendly, and patient as we asked again to explain the nuances of some of the dishes. And lest you think they did this just for us since we were invited guests, I saw them treat all the other customers this way.

The new a la carte menu at Café Matisse is offered Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday evenings. The Chef’s Tasting menu is available Friday and Saturday. They also have a lovely garden for al fresco warm weather dining.

Chef Loria created the a la carte menu to give customers more flexibility during weeknights when they might not have the time or budget for the full chef’s tasting menu.

In addition, the restaurant is in the process of expanding their footprint to add another 30 seats, which will be complete by the fall of this year. So in case you’ve been shut out of reservations in the past due to the popularity of Café Matisse, this should encourage you to try again.

Ordering from the a la carte menu gives you the opportunity to try several small works of art during one visit.  Now there is no need to wait for a special occasion to visit Café Matisse. Make a date for a romantic weekday escape to one of the most charming and acclaimed restaurants in the area.

Café Matisse
167 Park Avenue
Rutherford, NJ

Open six days a week for dinner. BYO.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mighty Quinn's Barbeque - Clifton, NJ

I consider myself somewhat of a BBQ snob (but in a good way!). If I bite into a rib and the meat just falls off the bone, I’m outta there.  After attending the World Championship BBQ Contest in Memphis two years ago, I learned a thing or two about BBQ, such as ribs from a true BBQ pit master should tug just a bit when you bite into it.  And the rib should have that all-important smoke ring. 

As an aside, if you really, really love barbeque, you should make the Memphis pilgrimage at least once in your life. It is an experience! Memphis, along with Kansas City, Austin, and Lexington (NC), comprise what I call the “BBQ Bucket List!” These are the capitals of authentic barbeque in the US. I’ve done Memphis and Lexington; two more to go!

Now, back to our original programming. I had just about given up hope of enjoying the real thing without getting on a plane or crossing the Hudson, when what should appear on my radar? Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque!

They call this “Texalina” BBQ, a melding of two great BBQ traditions. There’s nothing fancy here, “they just focus on making great food,” as partner Micha Migid told me when I spoke with him. They slow smoke for hours over wood, use quality ingredients and house made rubs.  And let’s not forget about technique. Anybody can throw a brisket on the smoker and hope (hope!) that it turns out moist and tender. But Pit Master, Hugh Magnum, learned at a young age in Texas how to create the slow smoked goodness that people crave.
SPICY wings!
Ribs & Beer
The choices are simple at Mighty Quinn’s:  ribs, brisket, pulled pork, burnt ends, wings, smoked sausage. I’m proud to say I sampled them all!  You can get any of these items as a sandwich or “naked,” but really is there any need for bread to get in the way of all that smoky flavor? I think not. The only choice on the menu that I backed away from was the $23.00 “brontosaurus rib.” Not that I wasn’t intrigued, especially after I saw one go by (it was huge!). Maybe next time.
Burnt Ends
I had been aware of Mighty Quinn’s before they opened in NJ, as they have been touted as one of the best (and most authentic) in NYC, and I’m always on the hunt for good barbeque. So did it live up to the hype? Indeed! Belly up to the counter to place your order and the servers will be slicing the ribs and the brisket and pulling the pork when you order. It doesn’t get any more real than that. The pork literally melts in your mouth. The brisket and the ribs are divine. But in my humble opinion, the burnt ends are the stars of the show. Small delicious chunks of exactly what they proffer – the burnt ends from the brisket – heaven. And like gilding the lily, the burnt ends are also in the baked beans! Never too much of a good thing.
Sweet Potato Casserole, Baked Beans with Burnt Ends
Mighty Quinn’s offers some interesting sides (did I mention the baked beans with burnt ends?), including a very nice sweet potato casserole with maple and pecans, cole slaw two ways (mayo or vinegar – both very good), and two salad-type items that I didn’t try (hey, I came for the Q) - edamame and sweet pea salad, and a buttermilk broccoli salad with bacon.

I love the fact that they offer some great craft beers on tap and wine (alas, wine only by the bottle).

It’s a simple premise; order at the counter while ogling the gorgeous cuts of pork and beef, choose sides and drinks, take your silver tray heaped with luscious barbeque, head to a plain wooden table to engage in an age-old primal carnivorous feast. Listen carefully for the “yummy” sounds coming out of your mouth.

The Promenade Shops at Clifton
850 Rt 3 West
Clifton, NJ

Sunday-Thursday – 11:30am-10:00pm
Friday & Saturday – 11:30am – 11:00pm

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Nutella Brownies

I came across this recipe on Leite’s Culinaria who got it from a Gourmet 1998 article detailing the history of gianduia, otherwise known as chocolate with finely ground hazelnuts, in the Piedmont region of Italy. The editors of Gourmet pronounced these “the best brownies you will ever taste.” I may not be the best person to critique, since brownies are not my first dessert of choice, but I gotta tell ya, these are pretty damn good. Besides the obvious ingredient of Nutella, the recipe adds in chopped bittersweet AND milk chocolate, AND a generous helping of toasted hazelnuts.

The icing on the cake here (so to speak) is the utter ease of the recipe. Everything gets combined in one bowl with the melted chocolate, and then loaded into a baking pan. Facilmente!

I served them to dinner guests,
along with coffee and after-dinner drinks, and they were pronounced a hit! They are everything I would want in a brownie: chocolaty (duh), nutty, fudgy, and oh so moist. So if no less an authority than the late, great Gourmet Magazine proclaims these the best brownies ever, who I am to judge? I’m just here to eat.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Flourless (Sugar-free) Chocolate Fudge Cookies

Photo: King Arthur Flour
If you are a regular reader of The Cook’s Tour, you know that when it comes to desserts, I am a full-on butter, sugar, all-in kind of girl.  But recently the hubby’s doctor advised him to cut back (way back) on refined sugars. This forced me to rethink things a bit.  I could continue to bake fabulous sugar-y desserts, which would be all too convenient for him to reach in the kitchen. Or I could look for recipes that either reduce or omit sugar altogether, but are still delicious (this is paramount!). Obviously, I chose the latter. Now that doesn’t mean I won’t bake with sugars for parties, friends, etc., but when it’s just to have some goodies around the house, a new regime is in place.

All this leads me to telling you about the wonderful cookies I discovered at King Arthur Flour and a sugar substitute called “Whey-Low.” This all-natural product is perfect for low-cal, low-carb dieters, type-2 diabetics, or just plain health conscious folks (and who isn’t these days?). For baking purposes, it measures 1 for 1 like regular sugar, which makes recipe conversion (or non-conversion in this case) super easy.  Whey-Low comes in several varieties, including substitutes for brown sugar and confectioner’s sugar. And that brings us to these luscious cookies, brimming with fudge-y, espresso-y goodness.

I’m a huge KA fan (don’t tell anyone, but one of the items on my bucket list is to spend a week in bucolic Vermont attending a KAF baking workshop!) and visit their site regularly for inspiration. A few weeks ago, I came across their Flourless Chocolate Fudge Cookies. At first, I made them according to the recipe, which calls for two cups of confectioner’s sugar. They were outrageous! But given the husband’s new mandate for no sugar combined with his serious chocolate addiction, I knew I had to try the Whey-Low substitute. I’m happy to report that they were still just as fabulous with the Whey-Low confectioner’s sugar. I also tried them out on a friend at work who is a serious connoisseur of gluten-free baked goods, and she declared them a winner!  And even though I don’t have any gluten or sugar issues, it probably doesn’t hurt to cut back where I can.

They are ridiculously easy to make, but a couple of tips I want to pass along to you: in order to obtain the soft, batter-like dough called for in the recipe, I had to use four egg whites, instead of three. I also made these smaller than the original recipe just because I am not a fan of huge cookies, but don’t let that influence you one little bit. Read the original recipe here.

Hope you enjoy these wonderful little cookies!  Drop me a note to let me know if you try them and how they turned out.

Happy Baking!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Super Bowl New Jersey!

Believe it or not, not everyone in New Jersey is excited to have the Super Bowl in our backyard. Especially if you live in northern NJ. Which I do. Fifteen minutes away from Met Life Stadium. Can you see the back-up (without any, a-hem, "bridge closures") on the major arteries in/out of the Meadowlands? Can you picture the rest of us average folks trying to go about our daily lives? Get the picture? I thought you would.

Now that we're all on the same page, the Super Bowl is a perfect excuse for a party and it's not too early to start planning. If you're having a house party or going to one, I've got two great recipes for the start and finish of your Super Bowl festivities!

We begin with my award-winning South of the Border Super Bowl Baskets. A few years ago, I entered a ConAgra Super Bowl snack contest and won! These little appetizers are perfect party food - they are easy to make, delicious, and can be held in one hand while balancing a beer or glass of wine in the other (not that I'm advocating drinking during the Super Bowl). Made with spicy chorizo, guacamole, refried beans, and shredded Mexican cheese, they really hit the spot!

When the party starts to wind down, that's your cue to brew some coffee and trot out dessert.  I'm a big fan of coffee cakes. Not only are they delicious, but they invoke a warmth not found in other desserts. And at the end of a long day and night of Super Bowl fun, you want to send your guests home feeling warm and cozy. And this cake does just that!  Epicurious' Pear Streusel Coffee Cake is baked in a 9x13 pan so you'll have enough for a crowd and it can be made a day ahead, which is always a plus. A moist, sour cream cake topped with a delicious streusel full of crunchy pecans, hearty oats, and sweet pears. A great combo! And a nice use of a lovely winter fruit.  It doesn't really need it, but if you want to dress it up a bit, add a dollop of creme fraiche.

So even if your favorite team doesn't win on February 2, your party contributions will definitely split the uprights!

South of the Border Super Bowl Baskets

Pear Streusel Coffee Cake