Char, Raritan, NJ

I was seriously craving a steak this past week. I’ve been trying to cut down on meat, especially red meat and going from red meat 2-4 times a week to 2 times a month left me with an itch for a steak. And when you have an itch, you really do have to scratch it. There are a few decent steakhouses in the Princeton area, including Ruth’s Chris, KC Prime and Char along with good steaks at other, non steakhouse restaurants. I’ve been to Char many times since it first opened a few years ago, and have previously blogged about it. I really do like Char, it is an excellent steakhouse.

I made a reservation for 8.15 on Saturday. We got there around 8.10, our table wasn’t ready and we were asked to either wait upfront or at the bar. Ended up waiting upfront since I had my kids with me. We didn’t get our table until 8.35 which seems excessively long to me. 10-15 mins is acceptable, but 20 mins? Would it be acceptable if I turned up 20 mins late for my reservation?

The restaurant was completely packed. It really is testament to how good the restaurant is. Not just the steaks, but also the vibe, the bar, the decor and I love the outdoor seating. They are opening a second location in Red Bank in the next 2 weeks. And oh yes, the hostesses are probably some of the most attractive in the NJ restaurant scene.

After finally getting to sit down, our waiter came over, introduced himself and his trainee. She was going to start in 2 weeks at the Red Bank Char. He then proceeded to tell us that Char had wonderful steaks. Really? Thanks Sherlock, I didn’t know I was in a steakhouse. After that he proceeded to explain steaks to us and pretty much rattled on for 10 minutes, and I let him becuase I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. I think he assumed we didn’t know the difference between the steaks. My 12 year old daughter could’ve explained it to him. His information wasn’t bad, I just take exception to the condescending manner and his assumption that we didn’t know anything. He could’ve asked if we needed any information. And while his oratory tour de force continued, his trainee was completely disinterested and not paying attention at all.

We did eventually get a porterhouse, perfectly cooked along with crab cakes which were really good, no filler with mushrooms, mac & cheese and potato gratin as sides. Everything was great. Thank god the food is not a reflection on our waiter. My one quibble was the poor selection of wines by the glass. I love red wine and since nothing caught my eye, I had to drink Chimay.

Char did “scratch my itch” and I think I’m good for a couple of months before I’ll need a steak again.


ME Casa, Jersey City, NJ

Over the weekend I was in Jersey City at Pole Position Raceway with my kids racing go karts and I was looking for something nearby for dinner. I was in the mood for either asian or Latin. I went onto Yelp and just couldn’t get into anything and just wasn’t feeling it. My niece recommended ME Casa and having previously read a number of positive reviews I figured that I might as well give it a shot. Plus they would have something my foodie, carnivore kid would probably like. So ME Casa it was.

The restaurant scene in Jersey city seems to have taken off in the last couple of years. There seem to be quite a few restaurants where the chefs are doing interesting things like Thirty Acres, a restaurant I really want to check out and Maritime Parc which looks like a beautiful restaurant with the kind of food I like. Add the great ethnic food scene and you have the ingredients for possibly a great foodie destination. I think it’s time I explored it more extensively.

Ok, back to ME Casa. The restaurant is in an obscure little spot down a few steps off a main street. I actually missed it the first time driving by and then after driving around for 10 minutes to find parking, I eventually made it to the restaurant. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I was quite surprised when I opened the door and walked in. The restaurant is tiny, perhaps 8 tables of so. The place is so small that a table of 6 women completely dominated the conversation in the entire place. They were having a good time but were getting on my nerves. So glad they left mid way through my meal.

Service is eagar. The waiter came over a little too quickly to take our order and after we asked for a a little extra time he was back over quickly. The hostess / waitress / possible owner was charming, welcoming and ever so helpful and eagar to please. Service overall was great. Even the chef was out in the restaurant a few times to check on things. BTW, the restaurant is BYOB. Most people seemed to know that (I didn’t) which suggests it’s more of a neighborhood place.

Onto the food. We ordered the mixed empanada plate and calamari to share. The empanada’s included one each of beef, chicken and shrimp. All tasted great. The calamari was perfectly fried, not greasy whatsover. It came with pickled onions which were pretty good. Along with our apps we got a basket of garlic bread. The bread came so hot that I burnt the inside of my mouth. It should come with a warning just like coffee does at Starbucks. I would have to say it was a pretty great start to the meal. The food to come offered great promise, unfortunately it didn’t live upto the billing. Between us we ordered the traditional marinated roast pork (ordered by my pork centric son), steak with caramalized onions (for my steak loving 12 year old daughter) and mofongo with chicken stew and also beef stew. The portions are huge. The sides of rice & beans with the pork and steak could be main courses on their own. They could cut the main courses by half and we would have sufficient food. The beef stew was pretty good. The chicken stew was ok. The roast pork was a little dry and the steak was over cooked. While the food was generally ok, it suffered from way too much garlic. It pretty much overwhelmed the good. Damn shame. Despite the vast quantities of food, prices are quite reasonable, roughly $17 for entrees. Great value.

ME Casa isn’t exactly a restaurant I would crave returning to, but I’m glad I went because it has helped put Jersey City on my culinary map.


Roussillon – A French Spanish Wine

I am a huge fan of Spanish Priorats and Chateanuef Du Pape’s. The challenge is that they get to be pricey. And while I have a relatively large collection of both, drinking them as everyday wines is a little indulgent, but life’s too short to be drinking bad wine (and the calories aren’t worth it). There are just so many different wines out there and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface (though I may scratch a little more than the average person when it comes to wine). As a result, I’m always on the look-out for wines I have never tried before, particularly less popular wines in the hope that I can discover something new, great and affordable. Roussillon may be the new answer.

Think of Roussillon as a cross between Priorat and Chateaneuf Du Pape. The same grape varietals are used – Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre. The Roussillon region is actually in France, in the Languedoc area though the locals call themselves Catalans due to their history where the region passed between Spain and France a number of times.

I first heard about the wine a couple of weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal. The Journal has been the source of a number of new wines discoveries in the past year. As soon as I read the article, I knew I had to try it. I immediately went online to check my favorite wine store – The Wine Library in Springfield, NJ. They had a few different ones in stock. I ended up there a few days ago and picked up 2 different ones. They only had 3 in stock which took a little work to find, but I did with some help. The great news is that the wines were $12, $14 and $22. All very reasonably priced compared to a either a Priorat or CDP.

The question is whether it’s worth it. The answer is an absolute YES! The wine is real nice, approachable. Earthily characteristic of a French wine, a distinct Carignan flavor reminiscient of a Priorat, though not as full bodied. The wine has liqourice, black currant overtones. Yummy!. Defnitely a wine I am going to make a regular addition to my wine repertoire.


Village Whiskey, Philadelphia

Village Whiskey is one of Jose Garces’s Phildelphia restaurants. The Jose Garces who is an Iron Chef. He also owns Amada and Tinto and more recently Garces Trading Company. I’ve been to Tinto, a tapas place which I love. I so love tapas, it really is the way to explore food but that’s another blog. This one’s about Village Whiskey which is actually more a bar with it’s 100 odd varieties of whiskey but being a Jose Garces joint, it’s also known for it’s food, especially the burgers!

I recently went for lunch on a work day so I focused on the food, not the drinking. I’ve wanted to go try the burger ever since I saw a feature on the restaurant on The Food Network, or was it The Cooking Channel? Before I get to the burger, let’s talk about the “restaurant” itself. I really like the look of the place, kind of like an old, worn bar. It’s a pretty narrow place with some booths and a bunch of stools along a long bar. It’s like a long standing, small neighborhood bar. Very cool.

The clientele is an interesting mix of guys in suits (like me), trendier and younger people in their 20s, blue collar workers and attractive model types. It makes for a nice mix and great people watching.

There were 3 things I wanted to try – the pickled tomatoes, the duck fat fries and the whiskey burger. The picked tomatoes come in a cool jar along with whipped ricotta cheese and slices of baguette. The way to eat them is to spread the ricotta on the bread and then add the tomato. This is so simple and so good. They taste so fresh, slightly tart from the acid in the pickling liquid along with the different spices. I’ve made these at home. Very simple and a real crowd pleaser at parties.

The duck fat fries are perfectly fried. They have the right thickness, the right crunch and so damn good. One word describes them – yummy! That is high praise since I am so finicky about my fries. I’ve eaten plenty in my time, so I do know my fries.

Onto the main event – the burger. I decided to indulge in the whiskey burger that comes with foie gras. Normally I’m not a huge fan of foie gras on burgers since I think it’s over indulgent and unnecessary but I’d heard so much about it that I had to try it. It also included caramelized onions. The burger arrived and it look wonderful and then I took a bite. My first thought was yummy, I so wanted to like this burger and then I actually started processing what I was tasting. The burger was a little dry, a little bland and the onions were way too sweet. And the foie gras, over indulgent and unncessary. This was becoming disappointing. A few more bites later and I knew that this truly was disappointing. It’s all the more disappointing when you’ve just expended all those calories and saturated fat on something that wasn’t worth it. Damn!

Overall I would say that everything else about Village Whiskey was great, but the burger was disappointing. Perhaps I should have gone with the basic burger. Oh well!


Metro North, Princeton NJ

Metro North in Princeton NJ occupies the space that was previously occupied by JL Ivey, a restaurant that had a confused identify and food to match – confused and lousy. It really wasn’t surprising that they went out of business pretty quickly. The good news is that Metro North does actually have an identity, the question really is whether the food is any better then it’s predecessor.

As a restaurant space, Metro North is quite nice. I really did like the restaurant and bar area, especially the bar area. They’ve created a comfortable, inviting bar area with it’s flat screen TV and sofas. The bar scene is vibrant and has an energy about it. Not surprisingly it was completely packed. The dining area was packed too which was surprising since it was pretty easy to get a same day reservation for 6 people on a saturday night. The restaurant is quite noisy, but it seems to work for them.

Service was willing but a little haphazard and slow. It seemed like they were short staffed. Getting our drinks, paying the bill all took way too long. Talking about drinks, I wanted to get a glass of wine but the list was short and not inspiring. Actually, I couldn’t fine a single wine I wanted so I ended up ordering a beer which is always my reluctant fallback position. I should have known what kind of wine list they would have as soon as I saw that Blue Moon was a “bar special”. Seriously? Blue Moon!

Onto the food. We decided to share calamari, polenta fries and chicken wings with a chili lime bbq. The calamari was tasty but seemed like they had been cooked earlier, the polenta fries are better forgotten and the wings were pretty good though a tad on the sweet side. For the main course I wanted the short rib special but 10 minutes after placing the order the waitress returned to tell me they were out of it. It was only 8.30. How could they be out of it already? And I couldn’t see any of the tables eating it. Come on, if you are going to have it as a special, how about ordering a couple of extra? I ended up with the pork chop. They had 2 types, 1 seemed overly fussy so I went for the grilled version, substituting my veggies with broccoli rabe for an extra charge. The pork chop was underseasoned and just didn’t taste great even after adding salt and pepper. When compared to the versions I’ve had at One 53 and Eno Terra, this was a poor facsimile. Others at the table ordered italian sausage bolognese, 2 other pastas and a burger. The burger was ok, the pasta with shrimp was bland and the pasta with porcini seemed completely drenched in sauce.

Overall, the food was nothing to rave about, though prices are quite moderate. The restaurant is reminiscent of strip mall pasta & pizza joint that is trying to go upscale. The restaurant space is great but unfortunately the food, wine and service do not deliver, blending in with the bulk of mediocre Princeton restaurants. I won’t be back.