A Reply From 9 North

I received a polite comment about my 9 North post…from the chef! I sent him the link because it’s tacky to criticize him behind his back. To his credit, he was nice, and didn’t tell me to stick my amateurish, asinine comments. He also pointed out that his steaks are indeed 21-day dry aged from a local company.

I think that Mr. Bernstein is a serious chef trying to create a serious restaurant, and I am going to take his food seriously. That means holding the experience to the standard that he is trying to reach, but hasn’t achieved yet. I think that he will get there.

9 North — Wayne, NJ [closed]

New restaurants should be like Avis in their old commercials: “We try Harder.” And although the folks at this very new (they opened last Tuesday) Wayne restaurant certainly tried hard, it obviously is still a work in progress. Our waiter told us that two of the waiters quit on Saturday at 5:00pm, so I certainly will not ding them for being overwhelmed. And even if it isn’t true, we knew what we were getting into. After all, it just opened, plus it’s a pretty ballsy story, so he gets credit anyway. The remaining waiters really hustled, and someone recruited a 12-year-old kid, who shows great promise setting a table.

What I didn’t find to be lacking was the service, which was confused but earnest. And the presentation was excellent and interesting, so no problems there. I didn’t like the fact that both fish dishes were overcooked, while the steak and lamb were cooked perfectly. That tells me that whoever is running the kitchen either doesn’t have a handle on what is, at least to me, the most important part of cooking besides cleanliness . . . cooking both fish and meat to the correct temperature . . . or that he just isn’t too interested in fish — which is fine, but don’t put it on the menu.

But on to the meal. We started with crab cakes — excellent, served with a simple mustardy sauce — that were a bit small. A weird “Lobster Strudel” that I really didn’t like, but nobody else complained, so maybe I’m the one with no taste. A well-made onion tart, and a mushroom risotto (I can’t resist risotto). The risotto was well executed but a bit on the simple
side. . .just sautéed mushrooms and rice. I enjoyed it, but it should have been a more complex dish. The menu says “Wild Mushroom Risotto, Duck Confit, Port Syrup.” Not a chance. They were out of the duck confit appetizer, and obviously, there was no duck available for the risotto. And port? Nope.

The aforementioned steak, which they claim on the menu to be “dry-aged,” was perfectly cooked, but if it was dry-aged, it was in dog years. The rack of lamb was, once again, a simple preparation but obviously good enough that my brother-in-law finished it before I could snag a piece. He is a card-carrying carnivore, so I will trust his judgment. But how do you screw up salmon? I could tell it was overdone from across the table. My sister-in-law, a much, much nicer person than I, said, “oh, I like my fish well-done.” And my pancetta-wrapped monkfish? What a nice idea — and one that I will steal quite soon. But it just doesn’t fly when the monkfish is as crisp as the pancetta. Okay, I am exaggerating slightly, but it was dry and tough.

Wayne, New Jersey, is not a hotbed of fine dining. If these folks can iron out the significant kinks in the service (and figure out how to cook fish), they will succeed, and I will return. The prices were reasonable, it’s BYOB (always a wonderful thing), the decor is stark but not unpleasant (decorated with the chef’s girlfriend’s artwork, which isn’t bad), and they have a small room off to one side that can be used for private parties. I also would suggest to the owner-chef that he come out of the kitchen and take a look at the dining room every once and a while. The service was pretty ragged on his first Saturday night — so bad that some people left without eating — but I didn’t see him once. I am not owed a chat with the chef simply because I have eaten at his restaurant, but come on, on your first weekend? Ask how everything was. I would have told the truth, and then I’d come back!


I received a polite comment about my 9 North post…from the chef! I sent him the link because it’s tacky to criticize him behind his back. To his credit, he was nice, and didn’t tell me to stick my amateurish, asinine comments. He also pointed out that his steaks are indeed 21-day dry aged from a local company.

I think that Mr. Bernstein is a serious chef trying to create a serious restaurant, and I am going to take his food seriously. That means holding the experience to the standard that he is trying to reach, but hasn’t achieved yet. I think that he will get there.

Union Square Cafe

What do you say about a restaurant that does everything well?

One of my (many) pet peeves is the lack of professionalism in most, if not all, suburban restaurants and bars. And our dinner (at the bar, of course) last night at the 22-year-old Union Square Cafe highlighted the painful differences between what we in the hinterland accept as service and what real restaurants demand from their employees. From the moment I walked in, I was treated as though I were a regular and excellent customer which I am most decidedly not (well, maybe I am excellent…). And I was wearing a sweater and a pair of not-quite-clean khakis (The dirt was a result of spending a lovely several hours in the bowels of JFK, helping my sister and her life partner track down some stuff they had shipped from Morocco.). My wife, as usual, looked lovely, so maybe they thought I was a charity case and took pity on me. The maitre d’ took my name, told me “30 to 35 minutes,” followed up a few minutes later, and was pleasant and practiced in everything he did. When my wife arrived, he suggested that we have a drink, telling us that the bartender would know that we would be eating at the bar. And she did. And she also made an excellent martini. Yeah, yeah yeah. It’s an easy drink to make. Just try to make one and you will realize that any bartender (bartendress?) who can make a superb martini is far ahead of about 98% of the world’s bartenders.

After we sat down, I noticed, happily, that there was plenty of room around each of the bar stools. No cramped and elbow-room-less dining this night! The bartender rapidly set our places and left us with the menus. When she returned, we had several questions about the food, which she answered well and honestly. She actually gave her opinion about the dishes. I was shocked! Oh, one of my other pet peeves is the standard boilerplate that most waiters will spew out when asked about a particular dish. “That’s excellent!” “One of my favorites!” “You can’t go wrong with that choice!” So I followed her advice and got the Pappardelle with Rabbit Ragu, instead of the Black Bean Soup with Sherry (which she said was very good, but nothing special). I love pasta, I love ragu, and I love cheese. And all of these were in abundance on my plate. I was very happy. My wife got some silly salad that was nonetheless very good.

One of the challenges of eating in restaurants with my wife is her inability to appreciate red wine. It doesn’t matter how good it is; she will scrunch up her face and look like she is sucking on a lemon when she tastes reds. So joints that offer good wines by the glass are always fun, because I get to taste reds that I wouldn’t drink normally, and she gets her usual Chardonnay (yes, boring, but what can I do?). Union Square Cafe did not disappoint. But what I really liked were the tastes and advice that the bartenders (Victoria and Beth) were happy to supply. They chose well, and we were both happy with our wines. They made us feel as if we were special guests, and that was during an evening when the restaurant was packed, both tables and bar.

Our main courses were perfectly executed, but I expected nothing less. I had halibut with some weird (but good) greens that seemed to have been lightly fried, accompanied by beets and sunchokes. The fish was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Just what the menu said and just what I wanted. My wife got the Tuna Tartare, but she couldn’t decide which side to have. So the bartender offered to bring her small portions of each. The garlic potato chips were spectacular, and the whipped potatoes with a fried leek garnish weren’t far behind. Even dessert was good, and I’m not a fan of restaurant desserts. And once again, they accommodated us by bringing small portions of two desserts. The little woman likes chocolate chip cookies, and these were certainly good, but nothing out of the ordinary. But the other half was doughnut holes with a lemon curd that was great fun to eat and great tasting too!

Union Square Cafe has had 22 years to wear a huge rut in the New York restaurant scene. But the service is as good as ever, the food is excellent, and the restaurant shows no signs of losing the edge that has made it one of New York’s favorite places to eat for so many years. I just wish that Danny Meyer would open a restaurant in my town.

There Is No Accounting For Taste In Barbecue . . .

. . . including my own!

We were shiftless and lazy last night and decided to get some takeout barbecue from a local restaurant that has received some positive reviews in the press and glowing comments from a few local bloggers. Barbecue is one of my favorite foods, and I take it fairly seriously. I think that most restaurants make abysmal, bordering on inedible, barbecue. Sweetness is not a substitute for all other flavors, but it is one of the easiest to dump into a dry rub or pour into a batch of sauce. And I can’t stand cloyingly sweet ‘que (and neither should you!). Of course, most restaurants are guilty of this misuse of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, as well as bottled smoke, and that’s why I always am suspicious of barbecue coming from any place that has other foods on the menu. Barbecue requires an intensity and a focus that isn’t available to most restaurant cooks when they’re slinging other foods. But I had read the entrails of a chicken, and all indications were that this place was going to be good.

And it was, but not to my taste. The barbecue was well made, tender and juicy, with interesting spicing. And I could really taste the smoke! The sides were very good, another indication of seriousness. Even the white bread was homemade and good. They clearly know how to make barbecue. But I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t like the combination of spices that their pit master used, and they’re depending too much on the smoke and not enough on the flavor of the meat. However if anyone asks me for a recommendation for barbecue in my town, I certainly would mention this place. And if friends want to go there for dinner, I won’t hold my breath and stamp my feet. I will happily go and order carefully and realize that my palate does not approve of all good food.

P.S. I am not trying to be coy by not naming this place. I don’t want to be critical of a restaurant that does something well, but just not the way I want it done. If anyone is curious, I would be happy to spill the (baked) beans; send me an e-mail. Oh, they also have a more casual barbecue-only restaurant a few miles away, which also is a serious place.

My Worst Restaurant Meal

This is a tough one. If I were to be objective about every restaurant meal that I have eaten, I could find something wrong with every joint in the world. From unspeakably dirty bathrooms to rancid butter or short-and-curlies in the soup to slightly overdone steak to fois gras with just a bit too much tartness in the fruit sauce — we all could find something wrong with every meal. But the enjoyment of eating at a restaurant shouldn’t be based solely on the quality of the food or the physical plant. I have many happy memories of great times at restaurants, and some of those memories have absolutely nothing to do with the food. In fact, I am sure I can pick through the cobwebs of my mind and find a few meals about which I can’t remember a single thing that I ate or drank, but I still remember them as grand times.

Of course, there must be another side to this equation. One such example was a meal that I had at The Water Club, but it was Christmas Day, so the restaurant gets a pass on that particular abomination of a dining experience. Still, just imagine a request for a serving spoon for a bowl of whipped potatoes (the meal was semi family-style) ending with the waiter walking past the table and tossing a spoon into the bowl. The spoon disappeared into the potatoes but not before splashing a few of us with some admittedly excellent spuds. And that wasn’t the worst of it. By far, the most horrific part of the evening was the irritating fact that when the food finally came, it was pretty good!

The winner of my unofficial and very personal “Absolute Worst of The Worst” contest has satisfied some stringent requirements. Obviously, the restaurant must be a serious place. I have had plenty of awful meals at diners and greasy spoons and pizza joints, but they are disqualified from the competition because of the unseriousness of the food and the trivial shock to one’s wallet when the meals are less than satisfactory. To be considered for this award, the restaurant must provide some expectation of an excellent meal, excellent service and decor that is a cut above Burger King.

I don’t know how to insert a drum roll, so you will have to imagine it. And the winner is… Chez Panisse Cafe. I love taking shots at Alice Waters just as much as the next guy. I think she is a pompous airhead who has never had a rational thought. Her pontificating about “sustainable agriculture” and “cook the season” and the rest of her Berkeley blather does nothing for the state of food in America. It is easy to cook with perfect, organic, new age, zero-footprint ingredients when you are wealthy, well-connected and have producers falling over themselves to be touted by this aging hippie. It’s another thing entirely when you actually have to work for a living and can’t afford $30 lamb and $5 tomatoes.

But in addition to being a self-important, affected jerk, she can’t run a restaurant. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t know what consistency means. The reviews of her restaurants are always positive, so obviously she is doing something right. But I have been to both the restaurant and the less formal and less expensive cafe a few times, and the meals ranged from abysmal to excellent (end rant).

The perfectly awful evening began with the waiter being snidely critical of our gall. We had the nerve to bring a child to dinner! The child in question was my perfectly behaved nephew, whose manners were infinitely better than those of the the waiter. But he got back at us by spilling a large glass of water onto the table and then didn’t clean it up for a very long time. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but some of the highlights included the following: We had to ask three times for the wine we had ordered; the pizza tasted like someone had spilled cleaning fluid on it; my nephew’s meal was cold; my meal was cold; and my sister’s meal was cold. I tried to attract the attention of the waiters using the usual technique of eye contact. That didn’t work, and neither did the more aggressive method of waving my arm in the air. They would look over and then turn away. Oh, it took 20 minutes to get the check.

Actually, this was a great meal. I love remembering the evening, because at some point, it became a farce, and we were amused, rather than angry or irritated. Had it been a conventionally good meal, I would have forgotten it almost immediately. So, thank you Alice Waters for a great time and some great memories.

Garden Cafe (Brooklyn)

I will eventually write a real, but amateurish review of this lovely little restaurant, but for the time being, I had the best venison I have ever had outside of New Zealand. The meal was impressive, reasonably priced, and the tiny kitchen puts to shame some of the most highly regarded restaurants in New York.

Garden Cafe
620 Vanderbilt Ave. (Prospect Pl.)
Brooklyn, NY


My wife and I have been to Picholine several times, and we always have enjoyed the experience. Before its recent remodel, the restaurant reminded me of a genteel, subtle brothel — but in a good way! And the food always was excellent, especially the lobster in vanilla brown butter. Actually, that was an incredible dish, one of the best I’ve ever had. And their wine list was reliably interesting, and expensive, but this is New York City, after all.

I have read that after the renovation, the restaurant experienced a rocky moment or two, but judging by our recent experience, the food is as good as ever, and the service certainly is more refined. Now, I am easily swayed by a great bar, with a great bartender standing behind it, making me a perfect martini. So I was primed to enjoy the evening, and Picholine did not disappoint. We started with the aforementioned martinis, sitting at the bar. When we told the maitre’d that we would have drinks at the bar, he said that our table was ready and that we should tell him when we would like to sit down. I liked that. We aren’t regular customers, and I didn’t tip him on the way in, although my wife was looking particularly lovely, so…Anyway, we were shown to our favorite table (note the attention to detail — our favorite table from previous visits), in the corner of the larger of the two rooms. It’s a great place for people watching and taking in the restrained bustle of the restaurant. And the seats are at right angles (I am not a big fan of side by side seating for two), so conversation is easy.

The service, from the very beginning, was professional, subtle, and attuned to our needs. We never felt rushed or deserted, and the pace of the food was obviously based on the waiter’s observation of us, not the convenience of the kitchen. We ordered wine by the glass, and once again, the waiter was professional and knew what was being poured. He brought a taste of a Mersault for my wife, who promptly puckered up and spat it across the room (just kidding. She smiled demurely and asked for another wine). The waiter whisked the glass away and brought another, more appropriate wine for her palate. I asked for a Zinfandel that I had never tried, and he suggested the Foley Pinot Noir which, I must admit, was an excellent choice. And his suggestion of a sweet white wine (I was thinking port) to go with the cheese course was perfect.When we were last at Picholine it seemed as if management had flooded the place with well-meaning, but not terribly accomplished waiters, or perhaps waiters-in-training. This time the wait staff was skilled and unobtrusive.

But on to the food! My wife had the lobster appetizer, which was not the same as the classic from the old menu, but it was superb in its own right. The sauce was a simple, intense reduction that went well with the sweetness of the lobster. I had the sweetbreads, and although it was an interesting dish, I wasn’t thrilled. The sweetbreads were fried in a cake, accompanied by some interesting pickled vegetables and a flavored mustard that was quite good. But the sweetbreads were mild, and a bit underwhelming opposite the bright flavors of the rest of the dish.

My next course was a mushroom risotto, recommended by the waiter. The rice was perfectly cooked, but the mushrooms had a texture that may be disconcerting to some. They were almost crispy!. I liked the dish, and I especially liked the contrast of the creamy rice with the crunchy mushrooms. The waiter brought my wife a bowl of the pumpkin bisque, presumably because it would be unseemly to bring just one dish to a table for two (again, note the attention to detail). We appreciated the gesture, which was unexpected, and the bonus was that the bisque was excellent.

The main courses were less successful. My wife ordered the loin of lamb, which was cooked perfectly, but it didn’t mesh well with the very aggressively flavored tapenade. It also came with a garlic flan that I liked very much, but she didn’t find interesting. It was mild, and the texture was on the light side. My venison also was cooked exactly as ordered, and it was served with a very nice parsnip puree that my wife ate with gusto. The dish was very good, but it wasn’t exciting or particularly interesting.

As we expected, the dessert and the cheeses were excellent. The cheese director, Max McCalman is certifiable, but incredibly knowledgeable, and amusing to boot. And one of the cheeses, a Spanish hard cheese called Zamorano, may have been the best cheese that I have ever eaten! The liquid chocolate tart was a delight (at least the small taste that my wife allowed me to have), with interesting ice creams, a beautiful presentation, and a lovely crisp outer shell that hid great chocolate on the inside.

One of the difficulties in evaluating a restaurant is being dispassionate about the food! Everything else about our evening was wonderful. The service was excellent; the restaurant was elegant (maybe not beautiful, but still nice); the experience was even better than we expected. But the food was the least impressive part of the evening. That is not to say that there were no “wows,” but judging the meal as a whole? I would say that the food was very good, perhaps excellent, but at the prices that Picholine is charging, I expected more. Will we return? Yes, without question. But we will order more carefully, probably taking advantage of the relative bargain of the prix fixe, or just drop in and have something light at the bar. That might be the best way to take advantage of this restaurant’s strengths, and avoid the pitfalls of a menu that is, at least in part, a rote recitation of the typical and expected.

Picholine does so many things so well, that it is a bit of a disappointment that the food does not quite match everything else. But we had a marvelous time, truly a special night, and as I have said before, food isn’t everything!

I Am In A (Local) Restaurant Rut

We had another crappy meal last night. And I chose the word “crappy” carefully. My wife has told me that using the words that came out of my mouth during the dinner would not be appropriate. Lest you think that I am a curmudgeon whose only joy is in criticizing others, I would have happily ignored the 25-minute wait before a waiter showed up at the table. My wife is an excellent dinner companion, and we were enjoying ourselves. But a glass of wine might have been nice, or even a menu? The service issues just got worse from there. When I finally got up to complain to the greeter ( I hesitate to call him a maitre’d), our waiter happened to be chatting with him, and he promptly (the fastest thing he did all night) chastised me for not speaking with him directly! I then looked him in the eye and told him that my wife’s side of crispy French fries was cold and soggy, and my “medium-rare” pork tenderloin was well-done, dry and inedible. When he finally arrived at the table with a fresh (not really — they were warmer than the first batch but not crispy at all) batch of fries, he looked down at my uneaten pork and said, “I guess we can’t please you at all tonight.” Charming!  He did recover slightly  by  bringing  the dessert in a reasonable amount of time, and he even threw in a taste of their signature chocolate mousse. To be fair, he did improve his service once he realized that I was really, really irritated. And he took the pork and the fries off of the bill. Fortunately for him, my wife is a sweet and gentle soul who believes that all waiters are starving students who deserve a good tip, no matter how badly they screw up.

Oh, the rest of the food? Great crab cakes, an excellent crab bisque, a thoroughly mediocre Caesar Salad, and a flourless chocolate cake that was edible. The sad (for me) part is that the place was full. Who are my fellow suburbanites who can’t tell the difference between good service and truly awful service? And why do they think that this quality of food is worth paying for? I have ranted before about this problem, and it won’t get any better until my fellow diners decide that eating at home is more desirable than being treated shabbily, and being served a bad meal in a local restaurant.

Underage Drinking In Restaurants

Frank Bruni, The NY Times food critic, also blogs in the newspaper’s Diner’s Journal. Last week he wrote about the appropriateness of  close-to-legal customers being served alcohol, and linked to an interesting article in the Detroit Free Press. Both are worth reading, but I can’t help thinking that the issue is simple and clear. Regardless of what one might think of our country’s laws governing the consumption of alcohol (and I think they are ridiculous), we have to respect the rule of law. This is not a civil rights issue, where civil disobedience may be appropriate, or in fact the only correct and right behavior. This is about twenty year olds wanting to drink at restaurants.