Thursday, May 26, 2011

Grato Ristorante, Morris Plains

You may be thinking exactly what I thought when I first heard about Grato…”another Italian restaurant in a state that has more Italian restaurants than Imelda Marcos had shoes?” But wait! This one is different. How, you ask? Well, for starters, the Executive Chef worked at Gramercy Tavern, honing his skills in the Danny Meyer school of fine dining. Second, it appears that the chef brought along the outstanding service Meyer’s restaurants are known for. This bodes well.
Grato is part of the Harvest Restaurant Group, the parent company for some of the best known and well loved restaurants in north Jersey, such as Huntley Tavern in Summit, Tabor Road Tavern (the next door neighbor of Grato), and Trap Rock in Berkeley Heights. I’ve eaten at one or two of these over the years, and while they are all good, none of them ever blew me away. Until Grato.
Grato has the winning combination of a carefully thought out menu, a stellar wine and cocktail list, well executed and delicious food, and professional, gracious service.

Entering the restaurant, to your left is a small but welcoming bar, where you won’t mind relaxing for a bit if you have to wait for a table.  Once seated, your table is capably serviced by a team of two waiters. I thoroughly enjoyed the Grato Signature Bellini (Prosecco & Passion Fruit Puree) while reviewing the menu.

Getting down to business, our appetizers included a delicious Burrata & Raspberry Salad (arugula, pistachios, mint, vincotto & EVOO), and Fried Artichokes. The creamy burrata with the tart raspberries and peppery arugula was luscious.  And the fried artichokes were the best I’ve had since discovering the gold standard of fried artichokes at the trattorias in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome a few years ago – crisp artichoke hearts dressed with parmesan, parsley, and lemon (delicioso!). We also sampled the hearty Salumi Plate, an overflowing platter of  tender prosciutto, salami, soppressata, pepperoni, cannelini beans, olives, and Italian cheeses.

My dinner entree was a special that evening – Spaghetti & Ramps. Sounds like a simple peasant dish if I ever heard one.  A glorious bowl of wild leeks tossed with guanciale (unsmoked pork jowls), ricotta, chili flakes, garlic bread crumbs & parmesan. Not a strand was left in the bowl.

Another fabulous dish was the succulent Grilled Rack of Baby Lamb, served with eggplant caponata, tri-color greens & lemon vinaigrette. Tender, perfectly medium-rare chops set on a bed of sweet caponata. One of the finest lamb chop dishes we’ve ever had.

And to top off the evening, Maple Sugar Zeppoles. Served in a brown paper bag as if they had just been ordered from a stand at the San Gennaro Festival, only better. Warm, lightly fried, dusted with maple sugar. I couldn’t ask for a better finish.
Grato Ristorante – not your typical Italian restaurant, and that’s fine by me.
Grato Ristorante
2230 Rt 10 West
Morris Plains
Lunch: 11:30am – 4:00pm Mon-Sat
Dinner: 4:00pm – 10:00pm Mon-Thurs; 4:00pm – 11:00pm Fri-Sat; 4:00pm – 9:00pm Sunday

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Walkin' in Memphis

Every city has a feel to it. A vibe. New York has the hustle and bustle of the "city that never sleeps." New Orleans has that Creole/Cajun laid back-have a good time feel. San Francisco is the cool "city by the bay." Memphis is the blues city; birthplace of Stax Records, Sun Records, home to Elvis, and BBQ. Every year, Memphis puts on a grand show called "Memphis in May," and a key ingredient to that festival is the World Championship BBQ Competition, an event that draws the BBQ elite from all over the world. And this year, we were among the throngs of visitors that descended on the town to feast on some of the best pork to ever be thrown on a smoker!

Over 250 teams compete for prizes in three different categories: whole hog, shoulder, and ribs. This is serious business. Alot of time and money goes into preparing the entry, elaborate tents are set up, teams stay up all night tending the pork; all for 15 minutes with the judges to determine who is the best at Memphis style BBQ. 

The average visitor to the competition (held over three days) does not get to taste the competitive entries, but we purchased VIP tickets which enabled us to get up close and personal with the teams and their pigs. Some of the best 'que we sampled came from teams with names like "Cool Smoke," "Natural Born Grillers," "Yazoo Delta Q," "Fatback Collective," and "The Shed BBQ." 

BBQ royalty was also on site in the form of Myron Mixon, whom some of you might know from his show on The Learning Channel (that's him in the photo below). Myron put out quite the spread for our VIP group - pulled pork with his own BBQ sauce, some of the best beans I've ever tried (made with peaches), and top-notch cole slaw. 

Since this was our first time in Memphis, we did a little sightseeing, too.  The city has a wonderful trolley system that will take you all around for a buck. It's a quaint throwback to a simpler time. Riding the trollies, we got a look at the swollen Mississippi River that has wreaked havoc up and down its shores.
Of course we didn't eat BBQ the whole time. We had a terrific dinner the first night at Sweet Grass, a neighborhood bistro offering low country cuisine. We sampled the Low Country Shrimp and Grits, overflowing with shrimp (natch), scallops, house made sausage, and Benton's country ham. 

Another fine dish was the Pork Osso Bucco, served with collard greens, smoked bacon shitake grits, bourbon peach butter, and mushroom jus (I just love what those Southerners can do with grits and bourbon!).

And for dessert, a twist on traditional Carrot Cake - more like a carrot cupcake, split in half with cream cheese frosting in the middle, a scoop of vanilla gelato on top, and a caramel swoosh across the plate!

We had breakfast more than once at the Blue Plate Cafe.  It was a nice walk from our hotel to their location on Court Street, and a good walk back to help us feel slightly less guilty about devouring the feather-light biscuits that come with almost every order.

Memphis is more than just blues and BBQ. It's also home to the St Jude Children's Hospital. Founded in 1960 by Danny Thomas, it is now a world-class research center and beacon of light to many families dealing with devastating diseases. No child is denied treatment due to the family's inability to pay. 
And no trip to Memphis would be complete with a visit to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. However, not being big Elvis fans, we opted for a drive-by, and a lovely photo of the landscaping visible from the street.
We also got a good look at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated. The hotel is now part of the Civil Rights Museum and still a powerful presence. A simple white wreath hangs on the balcony where he was standing when he was shot. The motel was used as low income housing until it was turned into a museum, and the last person to live there still goes there every day to protest the fact that the motel would have been put to better use as a home for the less fortunate, rather than a museum. She's out there every day on the corner, been there for 23 years now.

Going to the BBQ Competition was a blast! We ate BBQ almost three times a day (some days more!).  But what impressed me even more than the BBQ (cooked "low and slow"), was the camaraderie that the teams have for each other.  When the judging comes down to the final three in each category, all the other teams are present rooting on the finalists.  It's a true fellowship that these teams embrace.  And I can't wait to go back next year!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

San Francisco Weekend, Day 2

Beautiful pansies in Golden Gate Park

San Francisco. Blue skies. Warm sunshine. Flowers blooming. What could you possibly add  to make this any better?  Of course, the answer is simple.  Fabulous food and drink, and dinner at Chez Panisse!  But first, one has to have breakfast...

SF is a city with hundreds of breakfast eateries but I wanted something special.  We walked from our hotel up to North Beach, past old world Italian cafes offering traditional espresso and morning cappuccino but not much in the way of a hearty breakfast.  My trusty iPhone pointed us in the direction of a spot on Stockton Street that had terrific reviews.  By the line stretching halfway up the block, we knew we had found Mama's.
The seemingly endless queue at Mama's

Owned by the same family for over 50 years, Mama's serves up breakfast and lunch every day but Monday. Baking all their own breads and pastries, this place was right up my alley. Throw in an incredible array of breakfast entrees and morning cocktails, and B-I-N-G-O!  

We waited 1-1/2 hours (no exaggeration!). At one point, my poor, coffee-deprived husband walked 3 blocks to one of the little Italian cafes for a to-go cup.  Then three people on line followed suit!  My biggest fear was that we would find mediocre food after the interminable wait. Luckily, my fears were not realized. And once you get in the door, it is a rather efficient operation. Lining up along the front counter to place your order, you come face to face with baskets of sourdough bread, Kugelhopf, poppy seed bundt cake, and banana walnut loaf, all whispering their siren song.

Fresh sourdough baguettes

Delicious breakfast breads
Eggs Benedict with Prosciutto and Tomatoes

The Sanchez family delivers traditional breakfasts such as French toast and pancakes, and eggs Benedict, but all with a slightly different twist.  For instance, my Benedict came with prosciutto and tomatoes; my husband's was served with Dungeness crab and spinach. The portions were huge, delicious, and the eggs were cooked perfectly! And being the cake nut that I am, I had to try the Kugelhopf - it came slightly warmed and the waitress suggested I try it with a dollop of their homemade jam, which went perfectly with my Peach Bellini.  Mama's was definitely worth the wait!
Asparagus in the Chez Panisse kitchen

After a nice walk around SF (and a nap), it was time to head to Chez Panisse. I'm sure most of you reading this blog know all about Chez Panisse and the legendary Alice Waters.  So there is probably no need for a history lesson. This allows me to jump right into the dinner details. Promptly seated in the downstairs dining room, which was awash in soft lighting and  warm northern California breezes, the top-notch wait staff takes over. Our team of two servers made us feel immediately at home. A delicious aperitif (a bourbon-champagne concoction) was served along with a bread basket. The downstairs dining room offers a set menu so there is nothing to deliberate - Alice has decided for you - the only choices you need make are wine. Our waiter offered to pair wines with every course and each one was a perfect match. 
Asparagus Salad

The first course was Asparagus salad with Catalan salsa and garden greens. Now, I've had asparagus a million times, and I fully expected this restaurant to shine in the produce department, but I was blown away by the delicious, earthy flavor of these asparagus. And paired with the slightly spicy Catalan salsa, it was just divine.

Next, Steamed halibut with Savoy cabbage and crawfish butter sauce. A magnificent combination of flavors.

The main course was Roasted rack and loin of Dal Porto lamb with thyme and sage, stuffed artichoke hearts, fava beans, and spring onions. The lamb was perfect, and the vegetables were so fresh, and tender, and bursting with flavor.

Right before dessert, our waiter asked if I would like to visit the kitchen (uh, let me think about that...). Sadly, Alice was not there that evening, but I had a lovely conversation with the pastry chef as she was plating the evening's desserts. What a treat to be able to see the Chez Panisse kitchen (which is rather small, actually). 

Chez Panisse Dessert
Post-dessert treats
After floating back to the table, dessert arrived. Caramel ice cream and chocolate sherbet vacherin. In addition to this delight, the pastry chef sent out miniature, delicate strawberries coated in crystallized sugar and orange slices dipped in dark chocolate. 

Before our trip, I did copious research on Chez Panisse and read the many opinions on whether this venerable restaurant had lost its' touch. In my humble opinion, it has not. The exquisite food, warm and gracious service, and welcoming atmosphere, puts Chez Panisse in my top five all-time food experiences.