Archive for the South Jersey BYOB Reviews Category

CHRISTOPHER – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Christopher, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2010 by ballymote

Open only three weeks, Christopher, on Kresson Rd (just off Brace) in Cherry Hill, had already drawn some nice reviews. Our little group of six hungry diners were anxious to see for ourselves what it was all about and that is what brought us there last evening. Nicely designed on the inside, Christopher features an alcove in the center that is unique and provides a more roomy feel to the room. With Sinatra-type music playing softly in the background, our server, Michaelangelo, painted us a picture of the evening’s lone “special” (sorry, couldn’t resist). It was a stuffed flounder with a three cheese sauce. It sounded pretty good. As our wines were opened, Michaelangelo suggested some appetizers and you could tell he took pride in being a part of this new culinary adventure. In fact, the entire staff seemed to work as a team in re-filling water glasses, removing dishes, stopping by to see if everything was OK.

As usual we had a few bottles of wine to go with our food. I had the 2007 Cameron Hughes, Lot 125, Pinot Noir, Carneros. I found this at Monster Beverage in Glassboro a few months back and I was pleasantly surprise how well this showed for a $20.00 Pinot Noir. Excellent notes of cherry and strawberries with a soft, smoky nuance. Joe B. has a very interesting wine, the 2007 O. Fournier, Centauri, Maule Valley, Chile. I have to confess, I have never been a big fan of Chilean wines but this one could convert me. It had loads of red and black berries with hints of tobacco and chocolate. It was exceptionally smooth and had a nice lingering finish. Jerry and Sue B.’s daughter, Katie, had just returned from a summer holiday in Greece and they had a .375 bottle she had brought home with her. The only word I could read on the label was Kastelli. The rest of the words were all Greek to me (I know…I know…I’ll stop). Anyway, it was from Santorini, on the island of Crete and it was light and, as stated on the label, dry and red.

One of the signature dishes at Christopher is the appropriately named, Christopher’s Signature New England Clam Chowder (cup 4.95…bowl 5.95). Five of the six of us opted for this as our appetizer. I was glad to see Carol B. show some individuality and order what would have been my choice had I not felt like I had to choose the soup. Carol ordered the Pot Stickers. Wontons filled with pork, garlic and ginger, served with a honey-soy dipping sauce. She shared one with me and they were very tasty and a good value for $6.95. The soup was excellent. It was served at the perfect temperature and was chock full of nice pieces of clam, potato and veggies in a yummy broth with a couple of secret ingredients that Michaelangelo made me take a blood oath not to reveal, so I won’t. I have had some really good soups and chowders during the past year and although Christopher’s was not the absolute best it certainly does not have to make any apologies.

Joe B. and Jerry C. both ordered the Christopher Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with Portabello, a portabello musroom, basted and grilled then topped with a jumbo lump crab cake (actually TWO), melted provolone and served over spring mix and drizzled with a vinaigrette dressing. Carol had the Crab Cakes without the Portabello and it was like a Tale of Two Cities. Jerry and Joe enjoyed theirs very much. Carol found her crab cake to be mushy with a distinct absence of crab and a preponderance of filler. It could have been she just had a bad batch. I actually tasted both and the addition of the portabello definitely was an added plus for the dish (and this from an avowed mushroom hater). Bottom line recommendation, for three more bucks get the Portabello!

I was totally pleased with my choice, the Spicy Crab. Linguine with jumbo lump crab meat in a homemade spicy marinara sauce. The sauce was good and the amount of crab meat was generous. I was able to take half home for another meal and I am looking forward to it.

My wife, Kathy, chose the Scallops & Shrimp, served over a bed of linguine with mushrooms, scallions, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. She enjoyed the shrimp and scallops but felt the linguine was over-cooked. I might add that most entrees are served with either a baked potato or a serving of summer veggies. They had run out of baked potatoes and so we settled for the vegetables.

Sue C. can’t eat a lot of seafood so she searched the menu and found an 8 ounce Angus beef filet which is normally served with shrimp or crab meat (add $1.00). Sue passed on both of the seafood items and thought the steak was good.

Michaelangelo came by to tempt us with his dessert tray and although we tried to be strong we were simply unable to utter the words “No Thanks” and consequently sampled the Chocolate Cake (light and luscious) the Carrott Cake  (sweet and creamy goodness) and his personal favorite, the Key Lime Pie (excellent thanks to the addition of Meyer Lemon). We did pass on the Double Chocolate Strawberries so it’s not like we had NO willpower.

Overall, I’d have to say that Christopher is off to a good start and that it shows lots of potential. Certainly, it merits another visit in the future.

BLACKFISH – BYOB

Posted in Blackfish, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2010 by ballymote

Not too long ago, as I was working on a post about the Top FIVE Restaurants I had been to in the first year of my blog, I ran into a problem. Two of my favorites did not live up to expectations on a second visit. That’s what prompted me to change the title of the post to the top FIVE Restaurant Experiences of the past year. It’s difficult to be consistently great and lots of really good restaurants struggle with this challenge. There are a few who manage to meet and exceed expectations time after time. These restaurants are usually mentioned by many in any list of BEST restaurants. I have not been to all of them, or even most of them. From my own experience, a few notables come immediately to mind; Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, Gilmore’s in West Chester, and Shanahan’s on the Green in Dublin, Ireland (pre-blog days). All three of these places stood out from the culinary crowd by creating an ambiance that radiated confidence. It wasn’t just the presence of a great chef, it was a pride reflected in the entire staff. From the busboys to the Maitre’d, everyone involved was intent on making sure your dining experience was first class. On Sunday evening, following a wonderful afternoon of art at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, our friends Gerry and JoAnn B. joined my wife, Kathy, and I at Blackfish in Conshohocken. I knew it was a highly regarded dining spot but I went without expecting to be overly impressed. They surpassed my expectations.

The exterior of the Fayette Street restaurant is totally inauspicious and belies the elegant black and white motif on the inside. We were the first patrons at 5:30 P.M. and our server, Emily, seated us in the back room and opened our wines. Naturally, the stemware at Blackfish is excellent and extra glasses were readily provided to accommodate our three different wines.

Good wines are a given when Gerry and I meet for dinner and this evening was no exception. Gerry delivered with two interesting reds from the current Chairman’s Selection list at the PA State Store. The first was the 2004 Erba Mountainside Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. A great example of a Napa Cab at a great price. Gerry was so impressed with it from an earlier tasting that he tried to get in touch with the winery to see if we could visit in October. I could tell from my research that the distinct possibility exists that this winery is no longer in business because the 2004 vintage seems to be the only one I can find available on the web. Also, after a week he has had no reply to his e-mail. Nevertheless, the wine was excellent with smoky berry flavors mingling with tobacco and chocolate. Wine Enthusiast Magazine bestowed a 94 rating on this once $40.00 cab and they weren’t far off. He also brought with him the 2007 Quinta Do Vallado, Touriga Nacional, Douro. This spicy red fruit-filled bottle from Portugal was a perfect blend for the food we were enjoying. Another 94 pointer, this varietal is used in the famous Port wines and was a welcome addition to the meal. I chipped in with a 2004 Chalk Hill, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma, CA. This one also deserved its 92 rating and delivered lots of blackberry flavors with plum and lavender. Three very nice wines to go with a bevy of lovely dishes.

Emily informed us that there were no specials this evening and that was probably just as well as the menu made it difficult in itself to make final selections. Amazingly, all four of us chose different appetizers and four different entrees. In retrospect, it’s hard to say who made the best choices and the nice part is that we may each feel that our meal was the best.

 I started off with the sexy concoction on the right, Carnaroli Risotto with this morning’s sweet corn. Carnaroli is the very best of the Italian rices, very white in color and it blended so well with the sweet corn. I lingered over this dish savoring each salty, sweet kernel of its melt in your mouth goodness. Others were raving about their own choices and they were as adamant as I was but, nothing could have been better than this.

Kathy had what would have been my second choice from the menu, Agnolotti, ricotta salata, brown butter and sage. Agnoloti is a distant pasta relative of ravioli and the cheese filling, I believe, also had a hint of pancetta. Whatever it was, Kathy was delighted with it and she truly felt that she had made the best choice of all of the starters

Silly me, in my rush to get to the appetizers and mains, I neglected to mention that our meal started off with an Amuse Bouche, tonight’s offering was a Curried Squash Soup with some Smoked Salmon with scallions. It was a tasty beginning to our feast.

All of our appetizers were chosen from the second course offerings. Our only selection from the first course, which we passed around amongst the four of us, was the Montgomery County Tomatoes, burrata alla panna, basil, xeres. Fresh tomatoes topped with a close cousin of mozzarella and finished off with xeres, an 80 year old vinegar. Mmmmmmm.

You could have bet the farm that Gerry saw nothing else on the second course portion of the menu outside of the Foie Gras. In this case, a Liquid Center Foie Gras Terrine, sour cherries and pistachios, brioche. It was an interesting concoction and he found it absolutely delicious. My sample that he offered me seemed to confirm his evaluation.

Nobody can make more satisfied noises when she is pleased with something than JoAnn and she was making plenty of those noises while enjoying her Buffalo Ricotta Cavatelli, zucchini, summer truffles. It looked and tasted equal to her enthusiastic exaltations. All four of us were impressed and we still hadn’t seen our entrees.

The attentive service continued unabated throughout the meal as hands appeared out of nowhere at the appropriate time to refill water glasses, remove empty wine glasses and assure that our meal was proceeding at the right pace.

Once again, I have to correct a statement that I made earlier. I had stated that all four of us chose separate entrees. That was incorrect. Kathy and I both selected the Scottish Salmon, young beets, charred romaine, sorrel and creme fraiche. Kathy had hers done medium while I opted for a less pink medium-well. Half-way thru I noticed that the plates had been reversed but it wasn’t a big deal and we made the switch at that point. The dish was beautifully presented and was very good. In my estimation, though, it took a back seat to the sweet corn risotto. Kathy enjoyed hers but I did not hear “the best salmon I have ever eaten” which she stated during a previous meal.

Gerry decided he would have the Magret Duck Breast, compressed endive, bing cherries and chantrelle mushrooms. This is a special “cut” of duck with “magret” meaning literally, “breast of a fat duck”. It is referred to by many as “duck steak” as it is the most savory and flavorful portion of duck. It’s no wonder Gerry felt it tasted not unlike beef. Another creative presentation and we could safely add Gerry to the “happy diner” category.

JoAnn was equally pleased with her Lancaster County Poulard, ratatouille, fairy tale eggplant and thai basil. It may have been a “young chicken” but it didn’t die in vain as the intense flavors had JoAnn raving about her entree. Her thumbs up made it four for four and our expectations had been exceeded.

Because Blackfish had performed so well on the appetizers and entrees, we couldn’t leave without trying one or two of their desserts. We chose the Cinnamon-Sugar Beignets, spiced anglaise. These tasty pastries were every bit as good as you’d find at Brennan’s in New Orleans. The nice part was that with four of them we were each able to enjoy our own. Our other delectable post-dinner treat was the Warm Chocolate Cake, Coffee Gelato and Malt Powder. Four quick-moving forks made speedy work of this yummy concoction and our meal was complete. Kathy had asked me in the car on the way to Blackfish if we would still be hungry when the meal was over. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure. Suffice to say, our hunger was abated and we left totally impressed with the ambiance, the food, the presentation and the service. It’s easy to see why Blackfish is one of those places that makes a lot of people’s “Best of Philly” lists. Congratulations to Chef Chip Roman and his entire staff.

SWEET LULA’S – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Sweet Lula's, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2010 by ballymote

For years, our friends had always lamented the dearth of restaurants in Pitman, NJ. A quaint little town that featured a theatre that booked some good acts and some interesting plays; it was like a miniature Collingswood, without the eateries. In the past couple of years, there have been  two notable dining spots that have opened to fill the needs of theatre goers. Our group of eight had been to Barcelona in the past and last night it was time to check out Sweet Lula’s. Located almost directly across the street from the theatre, Sweet Lula’s is owned by Anthony Asbury, a local puppeteer with film credits to his name. The unique dining spot shows old-time silent movies continuously on it’s back wall. Eight of us had  7:30 theatre reservations and were not about watching movies on a wall.

Our wines for the evening were the 2002 Thorn-Clarke Barossa Shiraz Having spent a few years in my cellar I thought this one had lost a little of that intense peppery shiraz note but Kathy still felt it was too sweet and much preferred drinking Gerry C.’s wine the 2005 Cantina Zaccagnini, Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Riserva, a medium bodied dry wine with bright cherry flavors mingled with cracked pepper. It was a very food-friendly wine. While Katie, our capable server, described a couple of specials, we carefully studied the menu.

Probably the most unusual item selected was Tom T.’s choice of the Spaghetti Squash which consisted of summer squash, baked, the meat removed and shredded, the core basted with butter, garlic, paprika and nutmeg and then refilled and baked once again before being topped with fontina cheese. It was certainly an interesting treatment. The rest of us settled for more run of the mill choices like the  Caprese Salad with fresh Jersey tomatoes and mozzarella topped with a balsamic dressing.

Jerry C. had the Spinach Salad with bacon and mushrooms and a creamy peppercorn dressing.

I went with the Soup du Jour which on this night was a Chicken and Sausage Gumbo that had some nice seasonings and that distinct Cajun treatment. I though it was quite tasty and would have been improved by being served slightly hotter. My soup was warm, at best.

It looked like a decent crowd and it was apparent that most of them were headed to the theatre, also. The bright interior of Sweet Lula’s features a preponderance of round tables which seem to be at a premium in most restaurants and provide a much better seating arrangement when we have six or eight friends gathered for a meal. Kudos to them for that.

Joe B. ordered the Basa Florentine. The menu doesn’t offer much description but the Basa is a Vietnamese or Thai catfish and how it found its way to Pitman, NJ, I have no idea. Joe’s dish, as was true for the majority of our entrees, came with mashed potatoes, green beans and carrots.

Pictured from left to right are my Pork Fillets with Candied Apples, Tom’s Prime Rib and Carol B.’s Shrimp and Scallops (hold the Scallops and give me extra shrimp). I thought mine was good. It was very reminiscent of a home cooked meal.

 Barbara T. had mixed feelings about her Lobster Ravioli. She very much liked the fact that each ravioli was full of real lobster pieces rather than a compressed mousse of lobster. She was not quite as thrilled with the bacon flavored sauce that she felt overpowered the entire dish. It was a case where she felt there would have been an addition of flavor by a subtraction of sauce.

My wife, Kathy’s dish, the Mushroom Ravioli looked very similar to Barbara’s. Kathy was not quite as concerned with the amount of sauce. She kinda liked the bacony flavor but she thought the mushroom filling was a bit bland. Overall, there were some hits and some misses. There also seemed to be a shortage of ice at Sweet Lula’s. I neglected to mention earlier that Joe B. had brought a Rodney Strong Chardonnay which spent the evening basking in a small pool of water and maybe three ice cubes in what looked like an ice bucket. Our water glasses were also noticeably devoid of those little frozen cubes. My guess would be that Sweet Lula’s gets a future visit from our group although it may be more result of their proximity to the theatre than any culinary magic performed during our initial visit.

BLACK SEA RESTAURANT – BYOB

Posted in Black Sea Restaurant, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , on August 25, 2010 by ballymote

Our final dinner during our week in Avalon ended up being in a place where it was not supposed to be, and that was OK. Here is what happened. Four of us had made reservations for a 5:30 P.M. table at The Diving Horse at 21st and Dune. The Diving Horse is the new “IN” spot BYOB at the Jersey shore and draws great reviews and large crowds nightly. My friend, Gerry and I, screwed up during the afternoon while our wives were visiting the Rt. 9 antique shops. We had a Chicken Panini and a few beers at Harbor’s Bizarre (I love that name!) in Stone Harbor. Fearful that we had ruined our appetite for an early dinner, our wives insisted we move our reservations back to 7 or 7:30. At the same time, my wife’s sister, Pat, and her husband Bob decided to join us for dinner. When I called the Diving Horse to change the time I was informed the only time available for a party of 6 was 10:00 P.M. They informed us we were welcome to take our chances at an outside table earlier than that, but without a reservation. We certainly didn’t want a midnight snack and didn’t want to risk being shut out at the few outside tables so we cancelled and called the place next door to the Diving Horse, another BYOB named the Black Sea. I knew nothing about this restaurant but they happily took our 7:30 reservations. We parked on 21st. Street and walked past the throng of diners both inside and outside of the thriving Diving Horse. Upon entering the Black Sea we tried to be quiet so as not to disturb the ONLY other occupied table in the place. During our two-hour stay one other couple entered and, the truth is, that’s a shame because the Black Sea serves very good food at very reasonable prices.

While our capable server, Ted, opened our wines, the six of us studied the interesting choices on the menu. There were some nice seafood items and a limited number of chicken and steak offerings.

We even had a white wine with us this evening as Bob and Pat G. brought a 2008 Peter Mertes, Platinum, Spatlese, Rheinhausen, Germany. A little sweeter than the basic Kabinett it was still pleasant along with the fish selections. I dug into my cellar stash and came up with an Aussie version of the French Chateauneuf du Pape’s with a 1999 Grant Burge, “The Holy Trinity”, Barossa Valley, Australia. This 11-year-old beauty started out a bit dull in the glass before quickly opening up in both color and flavor, revealing a minty tang to the dark fruits. A combination of 46% Grenache, 27% Shiraz and 26% Mourvedre gave off great aromatics with licorice and lilac scents. It was drinking very well and gave no indication of heaviness despite its almost 15% alochol content. Gerry B., who is always content with a good California Cab had the 2005 Merryvale, Beckstoffer Vineyard, Vineyard X, Oakville, Ca. There are few vineyards in California better than Beckstoffer and this deep, dark, inky concoction which spent 24 months in French barrels prior to bottling did not disappoint. Tons of rick blackberry flavors with tones of leather and anise made this a great dinner companion.

Lest I forget, there was food involved. My wife, Kathy, had the Prince Edward Island Mussels, in a light garlic, tomato and fennel broth. She thought they were very good and used some of her bread to gather up the tangy juice leftover after the shellfish had been consumed.

I had little trouble deciding on my appetizer once I spotted the intriguing Crab Meat and White Asparagus Soup, jumbo lump crab meat and tender white asparagus in a light cream made for a super marriage of tasty ingredients and provided my dinner with a great start. This was a really nice soup.

Gerry B. chose the Tomato Caprese and was quick to acknowledge that this one was leaps and bounds over the one he had the night before at Cafe Loren. Three nice large slices of room temperature Jersey tomatoes topped with tender mozzarella in a light balsamic vinaigrette quickly disappeared from his plate amid a few satisfying sounds of gratification.

Those who zeroed in on the Arugula Salad had no complaints either as the fresh, baby arugula provided a delicious resting place for the blue cheese crumbs, pine nuts and raspberry vinaigrette.

After two nights of fish selections, both of which I totally enjoyed, it was time to head in another direction. Kathy and I both selected the Chicken Embassa as our entree. For some unknown reason, I neglected to take a picture of the dish but you’ll just have to trust me that the pan sauteed chicken breast, topped with baby spinach, tomatoes and fontina cheese looked every bit as good as it tasted and Kathy totally agreed with my evaluation.

Pat G. felt comfortable in ordering the tuna after Ted assured her it didn’t absolutely have to be rare. She had it cooked a little more than usual and her Grilled Tuna Steak with Asian slaw, sweet red chili sauce and wasabi was spicy and delicious. I don’t think I have ever ordered tuna for an entree so I was glad when Pat let me sample hers and it really was tasty.

 Gerry, JoAnn and Bob all went with the Shrimp & Bulgarian Feta, pan sauteed shrimp with house-made marinara sauce over angel hair pasta, topped with Bulgarian feta. The shrimp were cooked to perfection and the sauce was reportedly right on target and all three of them had rave reviews for their entree.

I think we ordered a couple of desserts and six spoons not so much because we were still hungry but rather we were enjoying the wines and the good conversation and were trying to prolong the dinner. Although we were now the lone table in the Black Sea, Ted was putting no pressure on us to depart. We all liked the Tiramisu but it was the other dessert that drew the ooohs and ahhhs and smiles of pleasure.

The Avalon Swan was not only artistically pleasing but the flavors of white and dark chocolate, the ice cream torso of the swan and the yummy sauce on which the entire presentation rested made this one a sweet culinary masterpiece.

The Diving Horse may be an excellent restaurant; certainly most of the reviews seem to indicate that diners are pleased. I can’t say because I haven’t been there. I do know the menu items are quite high and the few negatives that I have read all seem to mention the prices. I will say this, The Black Sea deserves better than the three tables they had on this night. It’s an excellent choice for dinner in Avalon. Let the crowds fight it out next door. Go and enjoy a really good meal in an appealing setting. I know six of us did just that.

CAFE LOREN – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Cafe Loren, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on August 24, 2010 by ballymote

By Sunday evening our group of ten had been reduced to six as Val and Patty S. and Ange and Arlene C. had previous commitments. Fortunately, the remaining sextet were more than capable of combining fine food and good wine at another nice BYOB at the Jersey shore.

Tonight’s choice was Cafe Loren in the heart of Avalon 23rd Street and Dune Ave. The place has been an Avalon institution for 33 years but this was my first visit. The two room dining spot is decorated in calming shades of blue and it’s a perfect beach decor.

We had three nice wines for the evening and our server, Brad, opened them for us as he recited the evening “specials”. Joe B., our Malbec fan, brought with him a 2008 Gascon, Malbec, Reserva, Mendoza, Argentina. This is another in a long line of deep, dark, fruit-driven wines from South America. I went with a 2006 Phillips Hill, Touluse Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, CA. A great wine with fish, the subtle fruits and soft tannins helped me greatly in choosing my entree and appetizer. Jerry B. brought one of the always dependable 2005 Franciscan, Magnificat, Napa Valley. Bright berry flavors, hints of chocolate and licorice and a long, smooth finish  make this a great wine for any setting. As the bread was being passed around the six of us focused on our appetizers.

Carol B. chose the Caesar Salad, and although I thought the presentation looked very nice she found the salad to be bland. So much so that she asked for more dressing which did little to improve the offering. She termed it “disappointing”.

Equally disappointed was her husband, Joe, whose selection of the Jersey Tomato Salad was far from “special”. He pointed out that the tomatoes were very cold and that Jersey tomatoes should never see the inside of a refrigerator. A lifetime of experience in the produce business certainly gives him the credentials to recognize the shortcomings of a tomato salad. Jerry B. had the same salad and also felt it was lacking.

My wife, Kathy and I, fared considerably better with our choices. Our pan-seared scallops with smoked bacon, potato and apple hash, silky cauliflower puree and sherry shallot gastrique was excellent. The scallops were large, perhaps mine slightly larger than hers as she was quick to point out, cooked perfectly and full of flavor. My meal was off to a good start.

JoAnn B. ordered the Wild Mushroom Soup and although I would not have picked that even on a double dare, she thought it was tasty. I’m not sure where I got this mushroom phobia but it seems to be pretty deeply engrained in my head.

When it came time to select our entrees, Kathy, Jerry and Joe were all on the same page with the Sauteed Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes, on a bed of sauteed arugula, roasted peppers, shitake mushrooms, grilled asparagus and lemon-caper aioli. The presentation was lovely and the crab cakes nicely done. I heard no complaints from any of the trio of crab lovers.

Carol B. must have not had her fill of steak last night because once again she chose the Grilled Filet Mignon, carmelized onions vegetable and manchego cheese stuffed zucchini, roasted garlic Yukon mashed potatoes and red wine reduction. This was another beautifully presented dish and Carol thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Joann’s entree was the Veal Larousse, medallions of veal in garlic cream sauce, sauteed jumbo lump crab, asparagus tips and olive oil poached potatoes. Another classic looking presentation. Obviously someone in the Cafe Loren kitchen knows something about what a finished dish should look like. Joann emphasized that her sauce was good, the crab was VERY good, but the veal itself was distinctly lacking in flavor. This one came under the heading of “looks can be deceiving”.

I hit a bullseye with my selection of the Black Pepper & Coriander Crusted Wild Scottish Salmon, chick pes & hummus salad and cumin yogurt sauce. It looked so pretty on the dish that I wasn’t sure if I should eat it or have it matted and framed. Fortunately, I decided to eat it and it was delicious. I was very happy with both by appetizer and my entree. I know some of the others were a little disappointed and the prices are a bit on the high side, even allowing for “seashore dining inflation”. Brad, our server for the evening, did a good job, he was attentive and charming. We decided to skip dessert, said goodbye to Joe and Carol who had to head back home, and went to Springer’s in Stone Harbor for ice cream.

THE BLACK DUCK on SUNSET – BYOB

Posted in Black Duck on Sunset, BYOB Restaurant Reviews, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by ballymote

Our vacation week in Avalon began with 7:00 P.M. reservations at the Black Duck on Sunset in Cape May for my wife, Kathy, and myself along with four other couples who were spending the night at our “house for the week”. All of us were looking forward to a good meal and although we arrived on time we had to wait outside for about 20 minutes as our table for ten was occupied by a group that was reluctant to leave. Eventually, our patience was rewarded and we were seated in the back room with the women at one end and the men at the other.

Our server, Jessie, read off the list of the evening specials and it was apparent from some of the ooohs’ and ahhhs’ that a few folks had heard something that would influence their choices. There really was quite a diverse selection and our appetizer picks emphasized the many different items available. I must confess that a week after the dinner my mind is fuzzy as to exactly who ordered what but I know several  items.

We had quite a few wines available. The 2003 Chateau St. Jean , Cinq Cepages, a Cabernet blend from Sonoma County. This one is smooth and creamy with lots of black cherry and chocolate and, at $29.99 as a Chairman’s Selection awhile back, a true bargain from its normal $60.00 price tag. Joe B. brought with him something he had purchased a few years ago on a trip to Italy, the 2000 Contucci, Vino Nobili di Montepulciano, Riserva. Dark plum fruit and a smooth, round mouthfeel added enjoyment to the food. Gerry’s 2006 Epiphany, Petite Syrah, Santa Barbara County, showed dark cherry, cinnamon and cedar and would have been perfect with any red meat. Although I didn’t taste them we also had a 2007 Sauvignon Republic, Sauvignon Blanc, Potter County, CA and a 2006 Fattoria di Magliano, Morellino di Scansano, Heba, a Sangiovese-based Tuscan wine. I believe I also spotted a 2008 Artesa, Chardonnay at the ladies table that was perfect for the fish dishes offered.

With a ton of mouth-watering choices to choose from I picked the Duck Confit eggrolls with a fruit salsa and blackberry sauce for dipping. It was a good choice and a fine beginning to the meal.

One of the “special” appetizers that caught a lot of people’s eyes and ears was the “BLT”;  bacon, lobster and tomato with an arugula salad tossed with Caesar dressing. I heard no complaints from any of those who selected this unusual offering.

There were some very attractive salad offerings with lots of fresh fruit, the one on the left featuring naval orange slices and the one on the right highlighted by blackberries and fresh goat cheese in a raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

The one soup offering that sounded delicious and attracted at least one of our group was the Lobster Bisque w/ corn fritters. It looked excellent, and from the happy murmurings emanating from the recipient, it undoubtedly was just that.

The main dishes were plentiful and included several very tempting offerings from the “specials” list. Several in our party chose the Grouper, a flaky white fish that was prepared with a potato crust and served over fresh green beans, jumbo lump crabmeat and came with a lobster butter sauce for dipping. Everyone was pleased with their dish.

Several others were unable to resist the other “special” which was 3 petite filets served with sauteed mushrooms, asparagus, jumbo lump crab meat and lobster pieces. The filets were enough for two meals, which my wife, Kathy, did and everyone seemed to think the entire dish was tasty and flavorful.

I turned out to be the “Black Duck” in the group (no bad pun intended) when I chose the Salmon as my main course. I may have been influenced by the fact that it was served over a  corn and sweet pea risotto but it arrived crisp and perfectly cooked. The sauces were just right and added a nice fruity touch to an entree that I was quite pleased with, to say the least.

It was hard to believe that we still had room for dessert but we decided to order four and a bunch of spoons and we passed them around, and each of us got to sample some tasty endings to the meal. Left to right above are the Creme Brulee, a trio of icy fruit sorbets, and a Blueberry compote with vanilla ice cream.

The star of the dessert line-up, as far as I was concerned, was the Black Duck Chocolate Cake which was served with fresh cream on top and some vanilla ice cream with a chocolate “duck” emerging from the frozen concoction. I tried each item once but may have snuck three or four bites of this one. It was awfully good.

When we took our leave of The Black Duck it was almost 10:00 P.M. and there were still a considerable number of people milling about outside waiting for a table. I took this as a sign that meant one of two things. Either The Black Duck was very good, and very popular with locals and tourists, or they were slow at serving meals. Since I didn’t think that service was slow, I would say that many agreed with our group that The Black Duck serves good food in a welcoming environment.

SMITH’S MARINA – THE CLAM BAR

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Smith's Marina - The Clam Bar with tags , , , on August 21, 2010 by ballymote

I usually don’t do reviews on lunch spots but my former co-worker and friend, Michael M. asked me to meet him last Tuesday afternoon at “Smitty’s” on Bay Ave. in Somers Point. Evidently, I am the only person in South Jersey who was not familiar with the place because everyone I have mentioned it to during the past week seems to know it well. It’s certainly not a fancy location as it sits on the bay with a small dining room and stools that ring the outside of the place, which is where we ate.

Smitty’s doesn’t open until Noon. We were there early and sat on benches until the waitresses came out at 5 till 12 and started setting up the stools. This was a signal for hungry diners to flock to the tiny eatery to partake in a a seafood lunch.

I opted for one of the “daily specials”, a chicken and crab salad sandwich. It sounded like a unique combination to add crab meat to the standard chicken salad and it came on a nice fresh roll with a side of creamy cole slaw. It was certainly a tasty sandwich but as good as it was it was NOT the highlight of the meal.

Michael insisted I try the New England Clam Chowder. The bowl was over-flowing with hot, creamy soup that was chock full of tasty clams and assorted spices and veggies that would have made the visit worthwhile all by itself. There is nothing quite as satisfying as a really good bowl of soup and the New England Clam Chowder served at the Clam Bar is right up there with some of the best.

Our server, Hannah, did a great job of filling our order and checking with us frequently to assure that we were enjoying our lunch. It was good to see Michael again, and in between catching me up with the latest misadventures at the AC casino where I once worked, he suggested a take home the seafood salad for another meal. My wife, Kathy, and I shared this back in Avalon and although it was decent, it wasn’t nearly as good as the sandwich or the excellent soup. It appeared to contain too much orzo as a filler and not enough fresh seafood. Overall, Smitty’s was a nice experience and it’s quite clear why the locals and the “shoobies” seem to gravitate to this little shack on the bay in Somers Point.

SAPORI TRATTORIA – BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Sapori Trattoria, South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , , , , , on August 9, 2010 by ballymote

Having been to most BYOB’s in Collingswood at one time or another over the past few years, it’s a little surprising that Sapori slipped thru the cracks. In all honesty, for some time I thought it was a Japanese restaurant (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Anyway, last night, after some confusion on just how many we would have in our party, Carol and Joe B. joined my wife, Kathy, and I for a Saturday evening, pre-movie (Inception) dinner. Parking was easy for a change and we both had nice bottles of wine with us to enhance our meal.

Joe’s contribution was the 2007 Ca di Rocchi Montere’ Ripasso, Valpolicella. Often referred to as a “baby amarone” this wine displayed ripe black cherries and a spicy pepper note with raisins lurking in the background. Joe said it was recommended by one of the staff at Hops n Grapes and I thought it went well with the rich red sauces. I had been thinking of having fish, maybe the Atlantic Salmon I read about on the web menu for Sapori, so I brought along a 2007 LaFond, Santa Rita Hills, Pinot Noir. The Lafond proved slightly darker than most Pinots with a vibrant nose of earth and flowers. Cherry cola  and ripe berries gave this wine a smooth, flavorful taste that has me mentally adding it to my list of good Pinot Noir at reasonable prices. I believe this was just under or just over the $20.00 mark.

Our server, Nick, who is actually a better looking guy than this photo would suggest, opened our wine and cooly and efficiently recited several “specials” from both the appetizer and the entree choices. As we chomped on some nice bread and a unique butternut squash/eggplant spread, he made some suggestions that were helpful in arriving at our selections.

Kathy can seldom pass up a dish of mussels and tonight was no different as she chose the Cozzi Saporite, mussels steamed open in a tomato broth with garlic, oregano, parsley and an ample amount of white wine. Kathy seemed a little surprised when the sauce appeared more red than white but that did little to hamper her enjoyment of her appetizer.

I didn’t have a whole lot of trouble in deciding on my starter and boldly ordered the Salsiccia ai Ferri, pork, parsley and sweet provolone sausage, grilled and served over polenta and sauteed beans with goat cheese dressing. It was good. I felt like I was at a villa in Tuscany eating something truly native to Italy. It could have been the best appetizer of the night except for two things. The first was the appetizer that Joe ordered, which was from the specials of the evening. Joe ordered the Hand-made Gnocchi stuffed with butter-nut squash and served with Oxtail ragu. Joe offered me a sample and it was scrumptious. Joe thought it was among the best “tail” he had ever had(sorry, I couldn’t pass that up). This would have made an excellent entree with just a slightly larger portion.

As good as mine was, as better as Joe’s was, Carol’s was the best of all! She had the Fettucine al Ragu d’Astice, Maine lobster meat sauteed with shallots and cherry tomatoes in a white wine tomato, touch of cream sauce with fettucine served over a layer of pesto. This was actually an entree selection which, like many of the items on the Sapori menu, can be ordered as an appetizer. This one was exceptionally good.

We could have left Sapori at this point quite content and pleased with our meal but we would have missed the entrees. Joe stayed with the “specials” and opted for the “fish of the day”, a Grilled Sea Bass, fileted tableside.

This creature of the sea was seasoned with sea salt and stuffed with butternut squash and served with a salad and some unknown dressing. Joe thought the flaky white fish had lots of flavor and he had no complaints about his selection.

Kathy was tempted by Nick’s powerful description of another evening special, the lamb shank. After he assured her it would fall off the bone it got her vote and came to the table with side servings of both beets and broccoli rabe. The lamb was tender and flavorful and Kathy was pleased with her choice.

Carol was set on some type of veal dish but wasn’t sure she wanted the accompanying sweet peas. Once again, Nick used his power of persuasion by hinting that not only were these the best tasting peas ever made but, he would be willing to exchange them for another veggie if she didn’t agree. Hey, not even your local Ford dealer will give you a guarantee like that so Carol selected the Spiedini di Vitello, tender filets of veal rolled with pine nuts, raisins, bread crumbs, pancetta, onion and caciocavello cheese, grilled and served with onion and bay leaf, topped with a lemon-olive-oil-almond butter sauce, with a side of sweet peas. Whew, that is easily the longest, most involved set of ingredients in any entree I have ever written about. You would think they needed three plates to serve all that but there it was resting nicely on a single plate. For you pea lovers out there, don’t be conned by Nick’s passionate plea for the joy of peas. Carol felt they were still just peas and just passable peas at that. She did like her veal choice very much and that’s what counts.

After being assured by “you know who” that the chicken thigh I was about to order was “boneless” I settled on the Braciola di Pollo, all natural chicken thigh stuffed with butternut squash (thinking it must have been on special at a local produce stand this week), provolone, sage and scallions and baked in a lemon zest-sage butter sauce and served with spinach and potatoes. It was a nice change of pace to be served thigh meat instead of the breast which is usually standard at most restaurants. My meal was excellent.

We passed on dessert but three of us gave a thumbs up when offered a strawberry flavored “lemoncello” ( I know that doesn’t make sense but, you know what I mean). It was the perfect topper on an excellent meal. Sapori, on Haddon Avenue in the heart of the BYOB capital of New Jersey (Collingswood), certainly has earned another visit in the not too distant future.

CAFE CAPRI – BYOB (2ND REVIEW)

Posted in Cafe Capri (2nd review), South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , on July 31, 2010 by ballymote

Last night, exactly nine months after our most recent visit we were back at this almost local eatery in Williamstown, NJ. In October there were just four of us but last night all eight of our Friday night diners were present and accounted for.

My wine for the evening was a 2004 Three Miners, Pinot Noir, Earnscleugh Valley, Central Otego, New Zealand. I picked this one up at the Wine Library up in Springfield, NJ and I would have to say I was a little disappointed. There was very little on the nose and it took awhile for it to open up in the glass before finally revealing some muted cherry and soft lilac. There are much better Pinots available at the price of this one.

The menu at Cafe Capri is pretty extensive and they even have six or seven additional specials each evening. Our server, Dan, suggested we start with a couple of table-size appetizers and we agreed on a plate of bruschetta, which naturally, Jerry C. would have ordered even if not prompted, and a plate of crab bites, which I had been planning to split with my wife, Kathy, had we not gone for the larger offering. The bruschetta was as I remembered it from last time; a decent offering with fresh tomato, basil and pecorino romano cheese on a very crisp toasted crouton. The crab bites were tasty enough but they obviously came from a package of frozen seafood from the local supermarket as their completely uniform shape was a dead giveaway. We have to deduct a few points for lack of creativity for this one which appeared on the night’s “special” menu.

The item pictured on the left is NOT my entree which was the Capellini Positano, tossed with garlic, basil and jumbo crab meat. It is rather Tom T.’s Linguine Al Sapore di Mare, in which he had substituted capellini for the linguine and which was placed in front of me and looked almost exactly like mine. Tom was right on top of it and spotted the mistake before I could plunge my fork into the tempting dish. I passed on a photo of mine when it did arrive because the two plates looked identical. I am happy to report that I totally enjoyed my dish. The capellini was perfect, the sauce, absolutely delicious and the crab meat, generous and nicely prepared. I had the remainder of it at home tonight for dinner and it was every bit as good as it was last night. Tom T., on the other hand, was picking out the scallops from his dish and did not seem as pleased as I was.

Jerry C. ordered the “fish of the day” which was tilapia, in a basil and pesto sauce smothered with mussels. I didn’t spot the tilapia until he had devoured a several of the mussels. There was also some shrimp surrounding the fish and he seemed to enjoy it although he did not feel that the sauce resembled in flavor any pesto sauce he had experienced prior.

Sue C. ordered the Vitello Limone, medallions of veal, sauteed with shallots, shiitake mushrooms, and green onions in a limocello sauce. When I looked to her for her comments on the dish she simply kissed her fingers and gave it a big A-OK. Most of the other dishes did not fare as well.

Kathy was not thrilled with her Pollo Parmagianno, she didn’t care for the sauce and felt there should have been much more cheese topping the somewhat bland chicken breast.

The two dishes above belonged to Joe and Carol B. I honestly don’t remember who had which,  or what they were called on the menu. I do know they were both chicken dishes and neither Joe or Carol were overly impressed. Carol defined hers as having “too much gobbledygook” and Joe didn’t care for all the “gaga”. As you can see, both Joe and Carol have a way with words and a possible future career as food writers. I think the translation was that the sauce overpowered the meat but, what do I know.

Barbara T. had the entree on the right but I also can’t remember what that was either, Obviously my own career as a food writer is in serious jeopardy. I may edit this review later when I get more info on those last few dishes. Overall, it was one of the most hit and miss dinners I can remember. I totally enjoyed by meal, several others thought it was fine but a few had serious reservations. Anyway, as usual, we still managed to have a nice evening and hopefully, next week will find us doing this all over again with me taking better notes on who ate what.

CATELLI’S RESTAURANT – NOT A BYOB

Posted in BYOB Restaurant Reviews, Catelli's Restaurant (review), South Jersey BYOB Reviews, Wine Dinners with tags , , on July 25, 2010 by ballymote

This Farm to Fork Week in South Jersey is proving to be a culinary endeavor. So many restaurants, so little time. Last night the eight of us were at Catelli’s in Voorhees, NJ for their four course $35.00 meal. Either my friends all have a limited vocabulary, or the meal was off to a great start, because I heard the word “DELICIOUS” uttered by everyone, and we were only 3 minutes into the appetizers. Let’s take a look at some of the starters that evoked such prolific usage of this descriptor.

Carol B. and I had both selected for our first course, the Cheese Steak Egg Roll- Tender Steak “Wit” & House Made “Whiz”.  This tasted about how I thought it would, a simple offering that should taste good if it has anywhere close to the makings of a cheesesteak. The sauce was very good as were all the sauces, all night.

Some of the other amazing creations were Sue C.’s Tasting of Jersey Tomatoes, Tomato Water Shooter, Heirloom Tomato, Roasted Pepper & Mozzarella Napoleon, Roasted Tomato Sorbet. I had no idea there were that many different ways to serve tomato. Sue enjoyed the unique starter. Joe B. went with the Crispy Stuffed Jersey Long Hots, Short rib filling, Roasted Garlic Aioli. Joe has a penchant for “hot n spicy” so he felt right at home with his choice. Jerry C. & Tom T. each picked the Crab Cake and Seafood Corn Chowder which must have been what they were hoping for because they were part of the “delicious” voters. My wife, Kathy was totally thrilled with her Eggplant Rollatine filled with ricotta, basil and mozzarella actually declaring it to possibly be the BEST eggplant rollatine she has ever had. Barbara had trouble finding the words to adequately describe her Jersey Shore Shellfish Plate, Local Oysters, Farm Raised Clams, (seriously, farm raised…what a sheltered life I must live having never been to a clam farm) Blue Crab Fingers, Chilled Shrimp with a trio of Dipping Sauces. The meal was off to a good start.

Catelli’s, not being a BYOB (except on Monday nights), seemed like a place to skip wine for the evening and Jerry and I went with beers. I had a Bass Ale many of the others chose martini’s of one exotic type or another, and we enjoyed our drinks while anticipating the second course. These next dishes proved to be just as exotic as the first and had my erudite friends fumbling for new superlatives. Most sounded something like, “excellent”, spectacular and I belive Barbara T even managed to use “scrumptiolicious” which she assures me can be found in Webster’s 12th edition. I did hear one not very enthusiastic “ehhhh” from Carol B. but we will talk more about that in a minute.

The eight of us chose three different second course items from the 7 offerings. Two of the ladies had the Roasted Pear Salad, Candied Cashews, Dried Cranberries, Cinnamon Croutons, Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette. The reviews on this were thumbs up from both of them. The Roasted Beet Salad, Goat Cheese, Granny Smith Apples, Spiced Walnuts, Baby Arugula, Beet Sorbet, Holt’s Farm Wildflower Honey Vinaigrette was enthusiastically received by my wife, and a few others. I had a taste of this and was pleasantly surprised what can be done with beats in the skilled hands of a creative chef. The other item that several of us had as our second course, the Crab Bolognese, Jersey Hard Shell Crab “Gravy”, House Made Fettuccine, Jumbo Lump Crab (pictured on the right above) was slightly less than I expected. I enjoyed it but the flavors were more subtle than I would have predicted. Joe B. had no problem with it but Carol B. searched long and hard to come up with her descriptive “Ehhh”. I didn’t totally agree with her but I did know what she meant.

The packed restaurant was beginning to empty out as it was now past 10:00 P.M. (we had 8:30 reservations) and it was time for our main entrees.

Joe B. had the Filet & Crab, Smashed Local Fingerling Potatoes, Local Green Beans, Roasted Garlic and Parsley Bernaise. It looked delicious (there’s that word, again) and Joe remarked that it tasted even better than it looked. He had made a great choice from the nine offerings.

Sue C. and Tom T. both ordered one of the 5 fish offerings, theirs being the Basil Crusted Tilapia, Pistachio Crust, Eggplant Caponata, Citrus Butter Sauce, Crab and Potato Filled Ravioli. Despite the fact that this tilapia did NOT come from a local tilapia farm, they still thought the blend of seasonings were just right in making this a great entree.

Barbara T. had the Lobster and Shrimp Fra Diavalo, Baby Lobster Tail, Jumbo Shrimp, Rigatoni Pasta. OK, it was sorta like that. Actually, she requested they hold the “Fra Diavalo” and skip the Shrimp. They were nice enough to substitute another baby lobster tail and she declared the dish to be exquisite, which, I believe, is two steps up from delicious.

My wife, Kathy, after some serious deliberation and thru a personal process of elimination settled on the “Back Yard Barbecue”, Peach BBQ Boneless SHort Ribs, Grilled Corn on the Cob, Seasonal Vegetable Slaw. Carol B. also picked this item and both thought it was very good with just a tad too much salt in the sauce. Cathy enjoyed the veggie slaw but Carol thought it wasn’t something she would pair with the dish and gave her share to Joe.

I went back and forth on no less than five of the nine selections before finally deciding on the Stuffed Soft Shell Crabs, Shrimp & Crab Filling, Sauteed Crispy Sweet Corn Risotto, Dijon Cream Sauce. Quite honestly, it was the inclusion of the sweet corn risotto which swayed my decision. It was a great blend of flavors and I was pleased with the dish. I was tempted to get the Basil Crusted Salmon based on last week’s shockingly good salmon enjoyed at this very same restaurant.

Any mention of the word L-A-M-B on a menu usually draws the immediate attention of Jerry C and tonight was no exception. He deftly chose the Lamb Loin Chop, Marinated and Grilled Lamb T-Bone, Basil Mashed Potatoes, Garlic Spinach and Shallot Au Jus. The dish looked terrific and Jerry silently immersed himself in his food which could only mean he found it to be, dare I say it, DELICIOUS (where is my thesaurus when I need it?).

We had debated which of the three dessert offerings we would select to complete our four course dinner and wondered why we had not been approached by our server, Nick,  to make our choices. Our quandary was answered when a plate with ALL THREE of the dessert offering was presented as part of a birthday acknowledgment for Joe B. who will be celebrating his 29th (again) this coming Tuesday. Left to right on the plate below we have the White Chocolate Tiramisu with raspberry Puree, the Blueberry and Vanilla Filled Crepe and the Peach Crisp with Cinnamon Peach Gelato. Most of us had planned on ordering the Peach crisp but as it turned out we all unanimously agreed that the Blueberry crepe was easily the best of the trio.

It was a very enjoyable evening at Catelli’s. The restaurant offered a wine pairing with each course for an additional $20 per person. I wasn’t enthralled with the wines they had selected so I was fine with an evening without my vino. It appears that several local restaurants are going to extend Farm to Fork Week for another few days so it just could be we will all be gathered somewhere else next Friday for what we hope will be an equally great experience.

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