Friday, April 20, 2012

Curtain Up in Newark!

A world class performing arts center needs a restaurant of the same caliber, and NJPAC in Newark is no exception.  So without further adieu, please welcome Nico to the stage.

Brought to life by the capable hands of Ryan DePersio, Nico recently opened in the space previously owned by the Theatre Square Grill. And while Theatre Square made for a decent place for a quick bite or a drink before or after a show, it was never a destination restaurant. That’s all about to change.

Between the soaring ceilings, dramatic drapes, gorgeous bar, and seductive lighting, Nico invites you to spend some time here. Order a perfectly made martini or a luscious Pinot Noir and peruse the “Italian Without Borders” menu.

Mr DePersio, along with his family, is the force behind a growing mini restaurant empire in Essex County. You may know them from Fascino in Montclair, or Bar Cara in Bloomfield. Nico is the latest entry in this culinary kingdom. All of the restaurants are grounded in their Italian heritage, but Nico pushes the envelope just a little.  At a recent press dinner, Mr DePersio showed us how far his culinary creativity reaches.

Chef DePersio is ably assisted by a wonderful team at Nico, both in the front of the house and in the kitchen. The Chef de Cuisine duties are handled by Adam Rose, and desserts are headed up by Binicio Salas, Pastry Chef.

The evening began with a Trio of Tartares consisting of Scottish Salmon, Truffled Beef, and Yellowfin Tuna, served with small slices of toasted Italian bread. I loved the mix of flavors as the seafood played off the beef.  But the Beet Pinwheel was the star of the first course. Paper-thin slices of beets dusted with goat cheese “snow” and topped with a red wine syrup and mache salad were incredible. If beets were cooked like this more often, they wouldn’t be such a maligned vegetable!

The second course brought us some of the Chef’s pasta that we know and love. No one beats Ryan’s Ricotta Gnocchi – little pillows of lightness enveloped in a sweet sausage Bolognese – heaven here on earth. The other half of the pasta course was equally delicious, but diametrically opposed - black as night Squid Ink Cavatelli with peppadew peppers, pomodoro, and gremolata. Perfectly spiced with just the right bite.

A Quattro Formaggi Pizza arrived next. One of the first things Chef DePersio did upon taking over the space was to install pizza ovens, along with other significant kitchen renovations. These thin-crusted babies should be a big hit for hungry theatre goers. The crispy crust was topped with ricotta, goat, pecorino, and Parmigiano cheeses, black truffles, and lardo!

A fine new entry to the “Italian Without Borders” menu is the Cumin Scented Lamb Meatballs with roasted peppers and crumbled feta. Reminiscent of an Italian grandmother’s old world meatballs but with a hint of the Middle East peeking through – these were delectable.

But wait - there was still another course before dessert!  Direct from Fascino’s much lauded menu, the Porcini Dusted Sea Scallops sitting on a crispy eggplant round, gently floating in a peperonata, red pepper emulsion. I have enjoyed these many times at Fascino, but the lightly fried eggplant platform gave the scallops a whole other delicious dimension.

Following on the heels of the scallops, Thyme Roasted Beef Tenderloin – read this description slowly and let it sink in: bone-marrow crusted tenderloin with Yukon gold rosti, and wilted Swiss chard. Cooked to a T, butter tender, and exuding all kinds of wonderful beefy flavor, this might have been my favorite dish of the night. Except, of course, for dessert, which brought down the house.

A chef’s selection of artisanal cheeses served with Acacia honey, seasonal fruit compote, and crostini was a wonderful choice for those not afflicted with a demanding sweet tooth (yours truly!).
The parade of desserts began with Praline Ricotta Cheesecake with Grand Marnier Sauce, followed by Chocolate Sour Cream Cake with Fudge Pot, Cherry Compote, and Pistachio Mousse; and bringing up the rear, but by no means a lesser player, Rum Raisin Bread Pudding with Caramel Pecan Gelato

For those of you who know me and read my articles on JerseyBites and The Cook’s Tour, you know that I am a passionate home baker (and former dessert caterer). I believe that dessert, as the final course, can make or break a meal – it’s your last impression of a restaurant. Mr Salas’ desserts deserve multiple curtain calls. All three desserts were delicious and unique, but the Chocolate Sour Cream Cake stole the show. Incredibly moist, not overly chocolate-y, with a delectable dark sour cherry compote that had us all scrambling for the last drop. But sitting innocently next to the cake, was a small white pitcher filled with what appeared to be chocolate sauce. This was no ordinary dessert sauce. This was a silky, fudgy pot de crème like I’ve never had before. After finishing the one closest to me, I started anxiously scanning the table to down another before leaving. It was that good (and let me just say, that I am not a chocolate fiend).  Mr Salas has graciously supplied the recipe for the cake and fudge pot, which I am happy to share with you. Make this for your next dinner party and you take the curtain calls.

Nico brings a level of dining to Newark that hasn’t been seen here since the early 60s. When I was a child, my family frequently dined at The Newarker, an elegant restaurant set inside the original Newark Airport. With huge window panes looking out at the tarmac, we ate magnificent meals served by tuxedoed waiters, and watched as planes with names from the past like Pan Am and TWA, came and went. Men wore suits, women donned their finest dresses, and genteel waiters made a fuss over little girls – picture the Mad Men cast at dinner (without the debauchery!). Of course, that was a long time ago, in a very different world.  Nico is all modern and sleek, and you don’t need to dress up to visit, but the food and service lives up to that very high standard.  A welcome addition to the north Jersey restaurant landscape for sure, that should be on your must-visit restaurant list. This is not just a place for when you have tickets to an NJPAC event. Although isn’t it nice to know that there is a restaurant worthy of taking a bow right outside the stage door?

Nico @ NJPAC
One Center Street
Newark, NJ
Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30am to 3pm
Happy Hour: Monday through Thursday 3pm to 6pm
Dinner: Monday through Thursday until 10pm | Friday and Saturday until 11pm
Sundays in conjunction with selected performances


Yields 96 servings (2”x 2”)

4 eggs
6 yolks
4 oz. unsalted butter melted
16 oz. brewed coffee
4 oz. buttermilk
12 oz. sour cream
28 oz. granulated sugar
15 oz. all-purpose flour
7 oz. cocoa powder
4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt

1.    Place parchment paper in a full size sheet pan and spray with Pam 
2.    In a bowl, sift all the dry ingredients
3.     Melt butter
4.     In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolk until combined
5.     Add melted butter while you are whisking the eggs, add coffee, butter milk, sour cream and vanilla extract, mix until combined
6.     Add the dry ingredients to the liquid ingredients
7.     Pour into the prepared pan, bake at 300*F until cake springs back when touched or test it with a toothpick, about 10-15 minutes.


Yields 10 servings

4 ½ oz. milk
4 ½ oz. heavy cream
2 yolks
2 oz. granulated sugar
3 ½ oz. semi sweet chocolate
1 Tbs. pomegranate liquor
½ tsp. vanilla extract

1.     Heat milk, cream, vanilla and half of sugar to boil
2.     Temper into the yolks with rest of sugar and cook over low heat until slightly thick
3.     Strain over chocolate and mix
4.     Add pomegranate liqueur and mix
5.     Put over ramekin and refrigerate at 2 hours
6.     Tightly cover each ramekin with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic does not touch the surface of the custard

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Am I Blu?

Zod Arifai’s well-known restaurant, Blu, in downtown Montclair offers a sleek, professional, comfortable dining experience.

At a media dinner a few weeks ago, we were treated to Zod’s take on modern cuisine with French, Asian, and Italian influences. Blu has been in business for six years, and truth be told, when I visited a few years ago, I was not as happy as I would have hoped. But the years have been good to Blu.

The road to the food business for Zod was paved through the music industry. As a musician, he traveled alot and one of his favorite things about being on the road was experiencing the food in different cities. At a crossroads, he decided that he wanted food to be his life’s work and opened his first restaurant in Lyndhurst. The kitchen wasn’t a totally unfamiliar place to him. When he was young, his best friend’s family owned a restaurant and Zod worked there as a busboy. And maybe it was in his blood. His father was a cook in the army and then at hotels in Italy. Zod learned at an early age from his mother that salt is the most important ingredient.

The menu at Blu changes constantly, based on Zod’s creative impulses. In fact, there are no recipes at Blu; it’s all done by eye and taste. One of his favorite ingredients is featured prominently on the menu – duck. The Montclair Thighs are his take on Buffalo wings. Composed of a duck thigh and leg, with skin so crisp and meat so moist, framed by whipped bleu cheese, celery root, and homemade hot sauce, I could have eaten an entire dinner of this appetizer. This beats traditional Buffalo wings any day and I sense this dish could become a classic.

We also loved the lightness and sweetness of Bay Scallops with Fennel, Almond, Lemon Puree, and Poppy Seeds. And a bonus appetizer of Cod with Fresh Fava Beans and Truffle Foam blew us away!

It was not easy to choose an entrée from the small, but well crafted menu. A Black Angus New York Strip Steak with Sautéed Spinach, Strawberries, Peppercorns, and Bleu Cheese was perfectly seared and bursting with flavor.  The strawberries were such an unusual plate-mate to the steak but their sweet juiciness was the perfect foil to the rich, meaty steak. This is a fine example of how Zod’s mind works!

Our other entrée was the Veal Short Ribs with Soft Polenta, Wild Mushrooms, and Black Vinegar. The short ribs were tender and flavorful, with a delicious black vinegar glaze. But, for me, the real winner of this dish was the “transport me to Italy” polenta. Thick and creamy, cooked to perfection, I’m ashamed to admit I considered licking the plate! A big bowl of Zod’s polenta is on my must-have list the next time I visit Blu.

Our waiter, Giorgio, appeared with the dessert menu. Your next question might be, could she really even be considering dessert after all that food? What do you think? Remember, in my world, dessert is my reason for being. The desserts at Blu are the definition of “thinking outside the box.” Consider our choices: Black Olive Cake with Orange Custard and Basil Ice Cream; Frozen Mocha Mousse with Coffee Foam and Hazelnut Crumbs; and Chocolate Truffle Terrine with Peanut Butter Ice Cream and Peanut Brittle. Has your mind exploded yet? The chocolate truffle terrine was so incredibly light it could have floated away, had it not been anchored by the crunchy house made brittle.  And the icy mocha mousse surrounded by ethereal coffee foam was heavenly. Have you ever had basil ice cream? Until my dinner at Blu, I never had. It’s like your best summer day in a bowl.

When I asked Zod to describe his restaurant, he said, “not pretentious, very casual, but the food is sophisticated.” He didn’t want to open a fine dining restaurant, as it was perceived. People sometimes think of upscale food as stuffy and that is not true at Blu. With rock music playing softly in the background, and a friendly wait staff standing by, Blu invites you to relax and enjoy a fine meal.

Next door to Blu, is, well, Next Door, Blu’s sibling serving lunch and dinner. Started as a spot for serving comfort food, such as meat loaf, burgers, pastas, and salads, Zod slowly added some of Blu’s specials and noticed they were a hit. So he changed the menu at Next Door and revamped its feel to be “more restaurant.” The two restaurants share a kitchen so it made sense.

Zod also recently opened Daryl Wine Bar in New Brunswick. I wondered if it was difficult juggling three restaurants, with one being quite a distance away. The chef at Daryl worked with Zod for three months and then Zod did something unique in this business. He closed Blu and took his entire staff to New Brunswick to train the Daryl staff for three months. This might be the secret to Zod’s success – smart expansion.

So am I Blu? Only in the best sense of the word.  

554 Bloomfield Avenue
Montclair, NJ

Open for Dinner Tuesday-Sunday