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The Pass

  • August 20, 2014

It’s the rare restaurant that inspires me enough to write a blog post, and through the years, readers of this blog know I’ve written about a few memorable restaurant meals, including those at Le Bernardin, Per Se and Del Posto. It’s been a long while since a restaurant bowled me over, but on my recent visits to “The Pass,” located in Rosemont, New Jersey, my dinner companions and I were pleasantly surprised — no strike that phrase — we were truly wowed by the delicious, inventive take on food presented there by the chef/owner Matthew Ridgway, including this pre-dinner offering of cured tilefish, caught off the coast of Long Island. It was like no crudo I’ve ever eaten – unctuous, with the unusual and deliciously melding flavors of black cardamom, cinnamon, thyme and salt.

When you enter the casual, homey place, (named for the space in a restaurant kitchen where the chef oks food ready for serving), the decor gives no hint to the excellence of the dishes that are served. It once was home to the popular Café at Rosemont, and looks much the same still – almost like an old-fashioned general store along a country road.
There are even artisanal products for sale in one section of the room.
A large meat grinder in another corner is apropos, since Matthew makes his own charcuterie (which he has sells at The Pass and to high end restaurants like New York’s Café Boulud.)
The wild boar’s head adds a touch of whimsy and serves as a reminder that aside from the excellent fish dishes, meat is also given due respect here.
Including this appetizer, which we didn’t order but happily gobbled in short order. At The Pass, two dishes — meant to be shared, and chosen by the chef — are placed in front of diners before the first course. They’re larger than the typical “amuse bouche” but smaller than a true appetizer course. What’s in this one, you ask? Well, it may look unappetizing, but it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve been lucky enough to place in my mouth this year. It’s ……. (drum roll) …. beef tongue, something I rarely order. But this unusual take on beef tongue… where have you been all my life?
I’m sure if beef tongue tasted this divine at all restaurants, we’d see a lot more mute steer. This was cured “pastrami style,” then steamed, rough chopped and tossed with nuc mom, or a Vietnamese fish sauce. It was like eating a Vietnamese hoagie on toast points and we only wished there were more.
Another night one of the freebie aperitivi was this tomato gazpacho with hot smoked steel head salmon that was cured with mug wart grappa, made in-house. Betcha you haven’t seen mug wart grappa in too many places, right? We licked every last drop.
These initial lagnaippes got better and better and were an auspicious taste of what was to come the rest of the meal. Take this, for example — (well, yes, thank you. We did and with pleasure) — fried shishito peppers with garlic in sweet vermouth and sherry vinegar, topped with ricotta salata cheese. Use some of the bread that’s set before you to wipe the plate clean. The bread — made in-house using a very wet “poolish” or “sponge”– and flavored with za’atar, is so deliciously addictive, you’ll be tempted to ask for more. But be warned, you must leave room for the rest of the wonderful taste sensations coming your way.
OK, now let’s go to the printed menu. It’s a small menu that changes every two weeks, with a surprisingly reasonable fixed price of $49 for three courses (four if you’re including the apertivo). The selection is slim, but there are usually two other “extra options” listed on the side of the menu that will add a little more to your bill, if you’re so inclined. Or, if you’re hankering for a Lucullan feast, The Pass offers a six-course chef’s choice menu too, for $79.
There are only two possibilities for each course, but that hasn’t been an issue so far, because everything has been excellent and highly creative. For example, here’s a first course of Maine sardines, that had been pickled for three days, then removed from the pickle and packed in oil. It’s topped with foie gras, and green raisins plumped with brandy. Who’d have thunk? Fois gras with sardines? Matthew Ridgway, that’s who, and the dish was a big hit at the table.
And how’s this for an unexpected combo? Local peaches from Manoff Market in Solebury, Pa., served with shaved truffle and a tumble of salad greens, plus a small toast smeared with uni, or sea urchin. I don’t know where Matthew comes up with these ideas, but this was another winner that left me wanting more.
OK, so on to the main event, which in this case is tile fish again, but this time roasted and served with thin slices of sweet and sour globe zucchini, floating in a pineapple vinegar broth. Slurping encouraged.
Another entree was this perfectly cooked tuna pavé, accompanied by fried haricot verts, and more of those sweet yet tangy shishito peppers, all sitting in a puddle of satay sauce. The sauces at The Pass are all so complex and delicious. This one was made with red curry, kaffir lime leaves, peanuts, coconut milk, coconut vinegar, garlic and onions, then finished with butter. Uh-huh. That’s why it tastes so darn good.
For beef lovers, this beautiful and succulent New York state braised beef shin did not disappoint. And that’s an understatement. It was served with heirloom tomatoes from Blue Moon Acres farm in Pennington and a pillow of burrata cheese imported from Puglia. The entire dish was surrounded by a sauce made from the meat stock, French vinegar and extra virgin olive oil.
I loved the desserts too, but to me, the other dishes on the menu are really the stars. There’s a good reason that New Jersey Monthly named The Pass as one of the 25 best restaurants for 2014.
Still, The Pass knows how to create a delightful end of the meal course. This crème fraîche soufflé tart served with steamed plums in an olive oil and fennel jus, was ethereal and disappeared far too quickly.
For those who prefer cheeses to dessert, excellent offerings are an option from the always reliably delicious Bobolink Dairy in Milford, N.J.
One last thing — There’s no liquor license, so bring your own (a bonus for those of us who enjoy fine wines but don’t want to pay inflated restaurant prices.)
Thanks Matt, we’ll be back again — and again — and again.


Per Se Perfection

  • October 1, 2012

Dear Mr. Keller – I would like to thank you sincerely for opening Per Se, the East coast satellite of your Yountville, California restaurant “The French Laundry.”  Sure, it’s taken me a while to get here, given that Per Se opened in 2004. Until now, the closest I’ve gotten was a goodie bag from your restaurant given to me by my son a few years ago. But now, having finally dined at Per Se and been transported to culinary nirvana, I can easily see why The New York Times awarded your restaurant four stars, the same accolades given to my other two favorite restaurants in the city – Del Posto and Le Bernardin.  

You’ve got a few things going for you that they don’t have though — one is that dynamite view across New York City’s Central Park and Columbus Circle. Another is those fabulous salmon cornets that arrive as little amuse bouche before the main event. How did you ever come up with that idea? I mean, the way that salmon is minced so finely and blended with shallots and chives, it almost feels like a mousse. But then that cool, subtle soft texture and taste gets jumbled at first bite with the crunch of the buttery tuile cone stuffed with crème fraîche. That was really an inspired combination of flavors and textures. Seated by the fireplace, my daughter and I could easily have polished off a few more of these.
Oh Mr. Keller, I forgot to mention those gougères that came before the cornets. We were advised to eat them quickly, while they were still warm. We obeyed and were immediately rewarded with oozing melted cheese gushing out from these little puffs. The only complaint so far was we were wishing for more. But not really — we knew there was plenty to come and we needed to leave room.
 OK, enough with the amuse bouche. The intention was to whet our appetite and you certainly succeeded. Bring on the first course please. My daughter ordered this little gem – the Peekytoe crab beignet. It was resting on a creamy “panna cotta” made with hearts of palm, and accompanied by a smidgeon of avocado jam and cilantro shoots. Perfection.
But Mr. Keller, if everything else that preceded this was perfection, then I’m not sure how to describe one of your signature dishes — “oysters and pearls.” How about “Divine” – because it was certainly out of this world. When you die, you should get a special entrance into heaven just because of this dish. I loved that warm tapioca sabayon cuddling those plump oysters and the dollop of white sturgeon caviar beside it. You know how some people say they don’t like caviar because it’s too salty? Well, they’ve never had THIS caviar – this is the good stuff, not that briny salty junk that masquerades for caviar at Christmas cocktail parties. And I loved how you served it with that mother of pearl shell spoon. Yea, you know what you’re doing alright. Eating this dish ranks right up there with a few of my all time memorable experiences – hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing at the Met, Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and my Aunt Carla’s anolini.
Oh, before I forget, I have to tell you that I love the dinnerware you use in your restaurant. There’s nothing like a beautiful white porcelain plate to showcase your food and you sure showed optimum flair in picking that Raynaud Limoges houndstooth check pattern. Those domed covers are pretty nifty too and heightened the drama.
Now it was onto the next course – and my daughter and I both chose the same – a pork jowl “fricasee” served with caramelized black mission figs and corn mousseline. Again, we loved how that outer crunch of the pork jowl contrasted with the soft textures of the rest of the dish. Who’d have thunk? Pork cheeks at a four-star restaurant? Yes, pork cheeks — delicious pork cheeks — at a four-star restaurant – another big “Wow.”
Let me mention the bread at this point, because I forgot to let you know how much we loved the selection. The little parkerhouse rolls and two kinds of butter at the table never got photographed, but rest assured Mr. Keller, we scarfed them down. It was thoughtful of you to include four other types of bread as well, but we both passed on the whole wheat and whatever the other one was, since we both had eyes for the crusty little bagette and pretzel-style roll. They did not disappoint.
We also choose the same thing for the next course – sea scallops with a crunchy sesame coating, resting on a generous swirl of olive puree and grapefruit marmalade. Your chef showed a really deft touch with the perfectly cooked scallops and that sheath of filmy, milky shaving on top. The teensy addition of celery and sprig of cilantro added a colorful accent.
I like your sense of humor too, Mr. Keller in your “tongue and cheek” dish.  You created a fun and delicious dish of braised wagyu beef cheeks and grilled veal tongue with a softly cooked tomato and a tumble of baby artichokes and meyer lemon confit, all nestled in a brown butter sauce. Although I ate every morsel, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite dish on the menu (the oysters and pearls take that spot), but I loved the playfulness.
 And then there was dessert – an artistic masterpiece called “cookies and cream.” Three small puffs of meringue accented one side of the plate, while the other was dominated by a small disk of chocolate, topped with another thin sheath of lacy dark chocolate. A quenelle of vanilla ice cream crowned the cake. A decorative swoosh of chocolate swirled the confection like a thin, dark ribbon. It really looked almost too pretty to eat Mr. Keller. The key word is “almost” so I dug in.
And wow, what a surprise when I did. The warm flood of chocolate came gushing out and begging to be scooped up. I had no problems in complying – and practically licked the plate clean.
We didn’t really need another chocolate treat, but our eyes lit up when we were offered our choice from a box of artisan chocolate confections. Each flavor was explained to us twice since we had forgotten the first one by the time the server had gotten to the last description. And you know what, Mr. Keller — she didn’t seem to mind repeating herself. In fact, all the service we encountered that day was exceptional and everyone was eager to please us.
This was my cache – mostly dark chocolate – and one covered in a gold dusting. My daughter included some white chocolate in her selection.
But we hadn’t even eaten the second chocolate when this appeared on the table – two little bites of popcorn ice cream with a sprinkle of popcorn on top.
The dessert deluge continued with coffee and donuts. But not an ordinary cup of coffee – this was a coffee semi-freddo accompanied by little spheres of cinnamon-sugar coated donut holes.  Again, so cleverly playful and so delicious.
Take a look and see for yourself.
Then the perfectly made macarons.
To sum it up Mr. Keller, We feel lucky to have had the experience and shared it with each other. Thanks for the recipe for the salmon cornets too, so people who can’t come to your restaurant can enjoy that stellar dish at home.
Sincerely, Linda and Christina

If you can’t get to Per Se, here’s Thomas Keller’s recipe for those unforgettable salmon cornets.

Thomas Keller’s Salmon Cornets
printable recipe here

makes three dozen

Lidia’s Italy In America

  • October 30, 2011

It’s here! The latest cookbook written by everyone’s favorite Italian chef is out in bookstores and it’s wonderful. Lidia Mattichio Bastianich, along with her daughter Tanya, has done it again. Lidia has criss-crossed the country to talk to and write about Italian-Americans who have left their mark on their communities and cuisine – recipes that include crab cakes from Baltimore to prickly pear granita from California.  They may sound like American foods, but as Lidia explains, the recipes have their origins in Italy and pay homage to their homeland in a delicious new way.

Gracious and generous as always, Lidia agreed to an interview to talk about her latest book.


Ciao Chow Linda: Why did you write this particular book? What is there to say about Italian-American cuisine that you haven’t already said or written about in prior cookbooks?
Lidia: “I have dedicated my career to transporting the real Italian culture, its history and its products to Americans. I came here as an Italian, but I also feel very American and I wanted to bring the two cultures together. I’m a good conduit. It was all about bringing the real Italy to the real America. I said I want to find out about the Italians in America. How is this Italian culture part of America? Yes, there is Italy in the memories, but this is about America. This book does just that. It traces the immigrants’ contributions, the happenings and the flavors that are important to them.
There are still all kinds of hubs of ‘Italianissimo’ in the U.S., if you will, three or four generations later – neighborhoods where the original immigrants settled, and the roots are still there. Not only did they settle, they brought their cousins, their brothers, and other relatives to places like Napa Valley, for instance. The Swiss Colony was one of the first wine businesses in Napa Valley and it was started by Italians from Northern Italy. One could say the Italians were the great initiators of wine in California.
Vegetables like artichokes and broccoli rape are easily available to Americans now, but it took four generations for this to happen. The California company ‘Andy Boy’ was founded by Italians who brought seeds of broccoli rape from Italy. The need to have the food they know from home – that quest to have those ingredients, to grow, to manufacture – was strong.”

Ciao Chow Linda: “Speaking of broccoli rape, (pronounced RAH-pay) is that the right way to say it, rather than rabe (RAHB)?”
Lidia: “Yes, that is the correct way to spell it and say it. But as cuisine changes, language changes too. It’s constantly in evolution.”

Ciao Chow Linda: “What is the biggest misconception people have about Italian food?”
Lidia: “I think the most common misconception I see is that when you serve pasta as the big center of a meal with lots of sauce. The pasta is smothered in the sauce – the heaviness of it – that’s not really Italian. Italian cuisine delivers a lot of flavor but it’s not heavy.

Ciao Chow Linda: How do you feel about the cooking that’s presented in Italian-American chain restaurants?
Lidia:  They really don’t get it.  That kind of cooking doesn’t represent the Italian cuisine. Nowadays, everybody can really cook true Italian cuisine. The products are there. Chains are doing an injustice to the Italian cuisine. There’s a lot of economics and costs involved and many times they use the cheaper products – putting a lot of fat into it and all of that. It doesn’t represent Italian cuisine – it’s a shame they’re missing the boat, because they could really do justice to the Italian food and their customers and still make a profit.

Ciao Chow Linda: What do you eat when you don’t feel like cooking? Do you ever get take-out food?
Lidia: It’s almost always antipasto foods that deliver a lot of flavor – a slice of prosciutto, a little anchovies, if I’m not very hungry. If I’m more hungry, I’ll cook some spaghetti with garlic, oil, and peperoncino.
I do take out, but usually it’s from a different culture. I like Asian food – sushi, Korean and Chinese.

Ciao Chow Linda: What’s in your refrigerator that people would be surprised to see?
Lidia: Very prominent in front is peanut butter and jelly – and I love it. I’m trying to stay a little off of starches, so I use it on those rice cakes. That’s not part of my heritage but it’s part of me coming to America and it was an introductory food. But I eat it on rice cakes, not on Wonder Bread.

Ciao Chow Linda: Everyone loves seeing your family and especially your grandchildren and your mother on your tv show. Was your mother your greatest influence in the kitchen and does she ever take over the cooking at home?
Lidia: She was a good cook, but not a great cook. She worked as an elementary school teacher. It was her mother – my grandmom – who influenced me more in the kitchen.  There are certain things my mother does cook for me. If I’m traveling you can bet she has some soup waiting for me when I get home. I get organic chickens for her, and split them for her, and separate them. She’ll take all the bones and all of that and makes soups – she adds all the veggies. She’s still digging carrots out of the garden and celery still in the garden. Most likely when I come back I’ll find a little soup. She also loves to make palacinka. She makes the crepes and fills them with jam and the children love that.

     Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother because my mother was at work. She had chickens, ducks, rabbits, and goats, and pigs that we slaughtered It was a seasonal cycle of products. I was exposed to that and I appreciate that. They would send me out to get the bay leaves, to pick basil, to pluck the chickens, to clean the potatoes. All of that is recorded in my mind and that’s the reference library for my cooking.
     We would dip the chicken in hot water first, then pluck the feathers. Then my grandmother would burn off the little hairs on an open fire. Then she took the chicken and opened it up. I remember the feet – she would chop off the nails because they were dirty, but the rest she kept – even the intestines. I would take the intestines and press everything out of them. Then I would take scissors and cut them open, washing them two or three times in vinegar and water. The liver was used in a frittata as a snack, a merenda. Nothing was wasted. That was ingrained in me when I was very little –  a respect for food. From one chicken we had a merenda and then a full meal that was enough for eight to ten people.
     I have so many more memories –  the slaughter of the pig for example. Butchers went around from one home to another. It would take about two days to slaughter and cure everything and divide it so it would last a long time.  Neighbors would all come and everybody would go to each other’s house and help. It was like a festivity and we all brought pot luck.
Ciao Chow Linda: Is there one more recipe that you would like to have included in the book that you couldn’t?
Lidia: A few of rabbit – I saw it in the stores when I was in Philadelphia, but it’s fallen from favor. It yields a lot for the investment, especially in today’s time when we want perfectly marbled steak and you have to put in 200 percent value above what we get. It doesn’t make sense. We use a lot of resources to feed the animals to produce a special steak. Rabbit doesn’t use a lot of resources to get there.
Ciao Chow Linda: Were your children picky eaters? What advice do you have for parents whose kids are picky eaters?
Lidia: With vegetables, we never had a problem because we used so many different vegetables. If they didn’t eat broccoli we used swiss chard. Soups are another great way of introducing veggies to children. Diversity of foods in the home is important.  It’s a progression, like wine, like music – you need to develop this growth but you need to develop it in the home.

     Children need to grow in a setting and need to be familiar with a food to eat it. If you cook broccoli at home when you have a newborn, the newborn will be accustomed to the smell, so when he’s a year old he will begin to investigate it. Children need to evolve into their smell, sight and ultimately they’ll eat it. You can’t never have cooked a certain vegetable and go someplace and say ‘Now you’re going to eat it’ to a four -year old.  Even a mother when she’s carrying a baby or nursing is familiarizing the child with these flavors.


Ciao Chow Linda: Many people see your family on TV and how they are in and out of your home because they live so close. What’s it really like to have them in close proximity?
Lidia: Overwhelming. Having a family is work, but there’s also a lot of gratification. As a grandmother, I know that the children will be so much more stable, more connected, will know who they are, and have a sense of belonging. They know that there’s a part of the world that belongs to them and their family – it’s kind of like a tribal effect.
Ciao Chow Linda: It seems like you’ve done it all – from cookbooks, to restaurants, to cooking shows, to wineries, to a line of food products and cookware. What’s left that you haven’t tackled?
Lidia: There’s been a natural crescendo for me from the stoves into the dining room into the books and into TV. I  would like to remain to be a mentor and guide and have the time to give back a lot more of all the information I’ve accumulated over the years. I’d like to share it with the next generations.

I think they’re will be more restaurants, but not with me on the front page – with my children. I’m sure there will be new restaurants on the horizon but they have to be led by son, by Mario (Batali), my daughter, or somebody else.

Ciao Chow Linda: You have a lot of book signings and personal appearances in the next few months. What’s it like being on the road so much?
Lidia: You can be as idealistic as you want but unless you have a platform – and here in America – the platform is being economically sound and savvy. Part of my success is doing those things together. If these people who come to see me will follow the recipes, buy the books, come to my restaurants, it is an exchange. I appreciate all of them out there. I want to go out there and touch people. I get energy from that as well.
To see the schedule of Lidia’s upcoming appearances and book signings, click here.
To view other Ciao Chow Linda interviews with Lidia as well as a few more of her recipes, click here and here.



Boston Cream Cake
Dolcino di Boston alla Crema Pasticcera

From “Lidia’s Italy In America”

printable recipe here

Boston cream cakes do not sound Italian, but this recipe was given to me by Italians. At Scialo Brothers Bakery in Rhode Island, we found trays upon trays of little chocolate- covered spheres. I thought they were some version of a cassata (a Sicilian domelike cake stuffed with ricotta cream—see page 318), but instead they were individual Boston cream pies. The French chef Sanzian, who worked at the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House) in Boston is credited with having invented the Boston cream pie. Italian or not, these were delicious.

Make the pastry cream: Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium pot. While whisking, pour in the milk. Set the pot over medium- low heat, and heat the mixture to just below boiling. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Remove the pot from heat, and pour the milk slowly into the eggs, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, and stir constantly over medium- low heat until the mixture thickens and just begins to simmer. Immediately scrape the mixture into a clean bowl. Let it cool slightly, then cover the surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap. Refrigerate several hours or overnight, until chilled and thickened.

Make the cakes: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a twelve-unit cupcake pan with paper liners. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a piece of parchment.

Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Crack in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Stir in the olive oil, vanilla, and zest. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes, to lighten and smooth the batter. Mix in the flour in three additions on low speed, alternating with the orange juice, beginning and ending with the flour. Once everything has been added, beat the batter on high speed for about 20 seconds.

Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from pan, and cool completely on a wire rack.

Makes 12

For The Pastry Cream

1⁄2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
Pinch kosher salt
2 cups milk
2 large eggs

For The Cakes

1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest
3⁄4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

For The Glaze

2⁄3 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons dark rum
Pinch kosher salt
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

Make the glaze: Combine the corn syrup, rum, salt, and 2 tablespoons water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Put the chopped chocolate in a heat- proof bowl, and pour the syrup over the chocolate. Stir until the glaze is smooth and shiny and all of the chocolate is melted. Let cool until thickened and just warm to the touch.

To assemble the cakes: Remove the cupcake liners from the cakes.
Split the cakes at the base of the cap with a serrated knife.

To finish: Invert one cake, and place the cake cap on a plate, cut side up. Spoon the pastry cream onto the cake top, then top with inverted cake bottom, like an upside-down mushroom. Spoon the hot chocolate glaze onto the base facing you, letting the glaze run down the sides of the cake, spooning on more if necessary. Repeat with the remaining filled cakes.

Excerpted from Lidia’s Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich. Copyright © 2011 by Lidia Bastianich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.