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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