Fine Foods of the Tri State

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Mini-Post: Draught 55 in NYC

Before I went to 21 Club, I stopped by Draught 55 earlier with my friend. We decided upon this bar using this as our guide. Honestly, my first impressions of the bar were not that positive. It seemed very off to the side, and wasn’t on the more populated areas. Let me tell you though, that this should not deter you from checking out the joint. My experience here has been nothing but positive, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

I was greeted by quite a large man at the door, like you would at most bars. My first contact with the staff here could not be much better. After checking my ID, he was very elated to see that my birthday had just passed, and congratulated me in very high spirits. This definitely made me think pretty well of the staff, and it was just the first person there. The atmosphere is nice; dim lighting with tables, but also plenty of seating at the bar. The bartenders are also extremely friendly. They do their utmost to make your experience enjoyable. If you are wondering about how their selection tastes, they are able and willing to give you a sample of them. Or at least the ones they have on tap. Two bartenders were working the night that I went, and they were extremely knowledgeable about their drinks. Easily able to make recommendations off of beers that you enjoy, they also pay attention to you when you order (big ups!). I had three beers that night: the Speakeasy Witness, the Hitachino Nest, and the 21st Amendment Almond Milk. I will not go into details about their taste, but I personally really enjoyed the 21st Amendment Almond Milk. If you’re ever in the area and looking for a place to drink, make this one of your considerations!


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21 Club at New York City

Perhaps one of my favorite things about  winter is the holiday of Restaurant Week (Yes, this is a holiday. Or at least in my book). For those of you unaware, Restaurant Week is a period of time where you can dine at some of the finest restaurants while paying only a portion of normal price. Twice a year, NYC hosts Restaurant Week; it is held once in the winter, and once in the summer. Notably, this year’s Restaurant Week in the winter was held at a later time frame than usual because the Super Bowl was held in New Jersey this year. For all of you who wish to dine at an upscale restaurant without having to pay the premium price, keep your eyes open for Restaurant Week in the winter and in the summer!

New York City is a hub for some of the finest restaurants in the country. 21 Club is an upscale traditional American restaurant located in New York City. The establishment is at 21 West 52nd Street, it is surrounded by the Paley Center for Media and the Empire Steak House. Interestingly, the street feels inconsistent with the quality of the restaurant; when you turn the corner from 5th Ave, it feels poorly lit comparatively. I would also like to mention that it is a little confusing for first timers to find the restaurant. It may have a unique design with the statues lined outside, but there is actually no sign to designate it as 21 Club. My friend and I had to second-guess ourselves. This is definitely something I feel as though they can, and should change.

If you go to 21 Club, you will notice that there are stairs past the fences that go downstairs into the restaurant, and ones that go upstairs. The stairs that lead down lead into the “Bar Room,” which, as its name suggests is the home to their bar. It does, however, also encompass the dining area and the lounge. The upstairs lead to a separate portion of 21, that notably has a separate page on Yelp under “Upstairs at 21.” Unfortunately, my dinner plans did not pertain to this section of the restaurant, but it is definitely a place I would be interested in checking out. There is a doorman at the entrance to the Bar Room who to engages in friendly greetings with the customers. This is definitely a small factor, yet also gives a very positive first impression in regards to the staff.

Upon entering the restaurant, you will notice the lighting. The lounge is dark, with extremely minimal lighting. I agree with this lighting; it certainly gives the lounge a calm feeling. As soon as you enter, there is a host to your right, who I assume is for the bar, and a coat room to your left. Further away is a host behind a counter, who is the host for the dining area. My first interactions with the staff with the doorman and the hosts were definitely positive, as they are extremely friendly.

After checking in with the dining room host, we were shown to our table. I would like to note that the dining area feels very different from the lounge and bar. The dining area feels very separated from the lounge. A wall stands between the two sections, with an opening obviously for movement between the two areas. The ambiance of the dining area is also significantly different from the lounge. Although you see that the lounge is dark and minimally lit for a calming atmosphere, the dining area is warm with dimmed lighting. If anything, it is akin to more romantic lighting. You will also notice the decor the instant you get into the dining area. There are toy planes, trucks, and football helmets suspended from the ceiling. They are not low enough to be a nuisance to any customers, but are close enough to be noticeable to any. Do not let their presence fool you regarding your outfit for the day, however. 21 Club strictly enforces customers to wear a jacket for men, and prohibits jeans and sneakers for all. Do yourself a favor and abide by the dress code. They are likely to turn you away should you not dress accordingly.

We were seated at a table along the wall perimeter, with a long, singular banquette bench on one side, and a chair on the other. This seating is a little awkward, as the bench cushion sinks in very deeply and puts you at an uncomfortable height with the table.  The tables along the perimeter are spaced far enough that there is no collision of conversation between parties. Although I have an issue with the banquette bench, I give kudos to the good spacing between the tables.

Like most places that participate in Restaurant Week, the customers for this activity are presented with a minimal menu. Participating restaurants offer a three-course dinner (appetizer, main course, dessert) for a total of $38. At 21 Club, you are given four choices per  course, which is actually more than most places for this event (you can find the menu here). My choices were the Cornmeal-Crusted Crab Cake, Prime Beef Short Rib, and Chocolate Ganache Cake. My friend decided upon the Tuna Tartare, Faroe Island Salmon, and Mixed Seasonal Berries. I will refrain from commenting on his items because I did not sample them myself.

Upon ordering, we were presented with complimentary bread and butter. The bread had two regular rolls, two raisin rolls, and several raisin bread crackers. Nothing too special to note about them, other than the fact that it is uncommon for complimentary bread to have raisins. One of the things that did irk me, however, was the water. The staff is quick to fill your glass, but a big part of it is ice. In fact, it was quite annoying when I wanted to take a large gulp of water, only to notice that there was not much liquid in the full cup.

Our appetizers were quick to be served, and  were plated very pleasantly, as expected from such an upscale establishment.  The crab cake was topped with winter squash and ginger puree, and was laid atop the corn. Citrus glaze was spread presentably on the plate. Notably, the squash was very bland, and had very minimal taste. The crab cake is soft and flavorful, however, and was complimented very well by the corn. The citrus glaze adds that extra excitement that is often lacking in a pure seafood dish, while managing to not take away from the taste.

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Next, we were brought our entrees. The time between these two courses were minimal. In fact, they came out within just a few minutes after we finished our appetizers. This is a trend you will notice at most upscale restaurants. The beef prime short rib was presented with baby carrots on top, encircled by parsnip puree and sprinkled with gremolata, making for a very artistic presentation. The short rib was very flavorful, and was complimented really well with the puree. The puree manages to add a smooth, creamy texture along with a sweetness that adds to the tangy and tenderness of the short rib. Notably, you won’t need a knife to eat the beef; it pulls apart nicely with just your fork. I would, however, like to draw attention to the staff. Although the host and doorman were friendly and attentive, our waiter was inconsistent with them. Although he came by for the occasional “how is everything,” that was about where his attentiveness ended. He was quick to disengage from us, and notably, other tables. At best, his service was mediocre.

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Finally, we were given our desserts, which was the chocolate ganache cake for me. Presented on a triangular plate, the vanilla ice cream laid atop chocolate chips. The plate was streaked by raspberry coulis, with the cake over it, and chocolate ganache on the top of the cake. This presentation was probably the most appealing out of all three courses.The ice cream is very flavorful and cold as ice cream should be, and was obviously not scooped from a Ben & Jerry’s container. The chocolate chip underneath added a good textural contrast to the ice cream, and remained consistent with the chocolate of the cake and ganache. As far as the cake goes, I would describe it more as a glorified brownie in terms of taste and texture. The ganache adds a unique experience to the cake, however. Although I feel it overdoes the chocolate aspect of the dessert, it manages to contribute a smoothness to the cake that works well.

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Overall, I must say it was a somewhat pleasurable dining experience. The food was plated and presented very artistically, while simultaneously being absolutely delicious. Although our waiter was somewhat detached, the rest of the staff was very focused in making our dining experience a positive one. Restaurant Week was definitely a good opportunity to check out 21 Club, and I think the price was well worth the quality of the food.


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Catherine Lombardi at New Brunswick, NJ

Recently, I have had the opportunity to dine at Catherine Lombardi for dinner. An Italian restaurant that is located in New Brunswick, NJ, Catherine Lombardi boasts an expansive menu, and remains true to the idea of a multiple-course meal (their menu can be found here). Their selection of drinks are even larger than their actual menu, with a cocktail list that spans several pages on its own.

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One of the first things that you notice upon arriving at the restaurant is the location. It is notably located on the second floor, with its sister restaurant, Stage Left, located just underneath. The State Theater of NJ is just beside these two restaurants, and attributes to the name of the Stage Left restaurant. The entrance is small; a single door is the only entry/exit to the restaurant, and it is difficult to differentiate as a door to Catherine Lombardi instead of Stage Left. Upon entering, there are signs to direct you to the elevator that takes you up to Catherine Lombardi itself. The interior is bland up to this point. There is nothing special about the decor leading up to, or in the elevator.

The doors of the elevator open to an open area, with a part of the dining area to your right, and the coat/reservation check to your left. I arrived with my dinner partner approximately 10 minutes before the reserved time, and after checking in our coats, were seated immediately. As we walked through the restaurant, there were several things I consciously took note of. Customers are expected (and evidently cooperative) to dress in a certain manner, described by OpenTable as “casual smart.” For those of you unaware, this means clothing that is neat and inoffensive, while remaining informal. This means no mid-riffs, sneakers, or open-toed shoes, ladies and gents! The ambiance of Catherine Lombardi is classy yet relaxed. The decor gives a sense of warmth; the restaurant is a conservative red, with a dim lighting and a fireplace to boot. The bar for the restaurant is in a section that is far away enough to not take away from the dining experience, which is always a plus.

http://www.catherinelombardi.com/sle/cl/gallery/dining/index.asp?img=2

http://www.catherinelombardi.com/sle/cl/gallery/dining/index.asp?img=2

We were seated somewhat close to the fireplace, without an actual view of it. Albeit a small corner, it was cozy and granted us a view of the outdoors, although the surrounding area is nothing special. Notably, our table of two was very close to another table of four, which I assume is often used to seat a group of 6 should the situation require. There is a slight discrepancy in my conceived notions of entering the restaurant and the moment we were seated. It is actually much noisier than one would expect of a restaurant this upscale, although it does by no means make it trashy. I must admit, however, that it there were times where it was difficult to hear my company over the collective noise in the restaurant.

A topic I would really like to touch on about this restaurant is the staff. The entire visible staff is dressed just as, if not better, than the customers. Everyone from the hostess to the waiter are dressed in full suits, complete with ties. Trust me, if you are not dressed to impress, you will feel extremely out of place. I would like to mention that the staff is very attentive, and adamant about making your dining experience at Catherine Lombardi a treat. Our waiter was extremely knowledgeable about any questions we had about the menu. He was able to describe all of the dishes well, and was able to make recommendations for wine based off our orders. Within minutes, we came to the decision of very garlic bread as our accompaniment, parmgiano-reggiano, sopressata, and eggplant capponata as our cold antipasti, shrimp scampi over basil fettuccine and tortelloni as our primo (we decided to skip a secondo), and later a zabaglione with fruit as our dessert. I was recommended a white wine to compliment my primo (unfortunately, I forgot which), and my dinner partner settled with water.

The garlic bread was the first to come out, and the restaurant was very quick about it. According to users on Yelp, it is a very popular item of the restaurant, and I can see why. Served on a square metal basket with a linen napkin between the bread and the basket, the garlic bread is plated well. Contrary to my long-held belief that bread is always served by simply throwing them in a basket, these came out plated neatly and organized. You can tell from the texture of the bread that it is a higher quality, and possibly even baked inside the restaurant. Akin to the item’s name, it was very garlicky, but was not overpowering. There is a good balance between butter, garlic, and bread, where one ingredient does not upset the other. Bread was hot upon arriving at the table; I recommend you do not grab for them immediately. I agree with the majority that the bread is a great item on their menu, and should not be overlooked simply by the commonality of garlic bread in Italian restaurants.

Our cold antipasti course was served as we were about 3/4 of the way finished with the bread. Our three selections (parmgiano-reggiano, sopressata, and eggplant capponata) were served on three separate, triangular dishes, all atop one single plate. The eggplant and cheese were diced; they were small enough to eat without cutting, but big enough where it was not difficult to pick them up. The cheese was aged well and served at room temperature- the taste was quite strong and sharp, but sophisticated. It is what one would expect from cheese at a upscale restaurant that is used as a dish, rather than an ingredient. The eggplant caponata was served cold with a nice, very slightly acidic sauce. The eggplant was cooked soft, and contrasted against the hard texture of the cheese well. I did have a slight issue with the sopressata, however. It was notably sliced, but not cut into smaller pieces. It was the one item in the antipasti that called for the use of a knife in order to eat. Although not something to make a fuss over, it is definitely something that breaks the continuity that the two other items have built. The sopressata was simply dry salami. There was nothing special about this particular portion of the dish, but nothing wrong about it either.

The staff was prompt in clearing our table as we finished the dishes. Like most upscale restaurants, the waiter even clears the table of crumbs to set things up for the primary course, or in this case, the primo. The dishes came out simultaneously, and I noted that the staff knew where each dish was to go. They did not need to ask. Definitely a bonus when it comes to structure and knowledge of the overall staff. The shrimp scampi over basil fettuccine was plated as expected. The shrimp were spread evenly  over the basil fettuccine, which was spread out nicely across the plate. One thing I would have expected was the so-called “spiral” that many upscale restaurants execute when plating their fettuccine/linguine dishes. The tortelloni totaled six, and were placed in a circular formation, with the marinara sauce in the middle, and the white sauce on the entire bottom of the plate. At the arrival of our dishes, we were offered fresh grated cheese, which we both graciously accepted. Their grating of the cheese over your food is done at the table. Don’t worry, it’s sanitary. The shrimp scampi over basil fettuccine is what I had expected, and what you would expect from most dishes that have “shrimp scampi” in the name. I do, however, would like to compliment the restaurant on the use of basil fettuccine. Although this would have otherwise been a very basic dish, the use of basil fettuccine adds a certain color and flavor that is not achievable using regular noodles. The addition of the fresh grated cheese was also critical in making the taste go from average to delicious. Highly recommended that you take them up on the offer. Do not be afraid to ask them what wine they would recommend for your meal; they are knowledgeable on their entire menu, and will be able to suggest you a wine in your price range to compliment your order. As far as the tortelloni goes, they had me at the plating. Plated well, with convenience in accessing the marinara while sitting in the bolognese sauce, the tortelloni had a soft yet thick shell, with a very creamy filling. I would recommend the tortelloni over the shrimp scampi dish.

Tortelloni (Julienne Cham)

Tortelloni
(Julienne Cham)

Dessert was zabaglione, a custard-based Italian dish. As suggested by the custard ingredient, it is very creamy, like many other Italian deserts. The dessert was served with blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. AS my company for the night was allergic to tree fruit (apples, pears, etc.), there were some fruit missing. The fruit is mixed in with the zabaglione, so it can be eaten as presented. The custard had a very slight hint of citrus, which leads me to believe the custard was orange based. If you like traditional creamy desserts, this is the way to go.

(I apologize for the goofy picture)

(I apologize for the
goofy picture)

All in all, I would recommend Catherine Lombardi. The restaurant has nice decor that balances dim lighting with atmosphere really well (some upscale restaurants seem to overdo the dimming of lights). From my dining experience, their food is delicious, and their service is definitely top notch. The friendlier you are to the staff, the more attentive they will be to you (this is a golden rule to eating outside, ladies and gents). Make this place one of your destinations should you be around the New Brunswick area!


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Welcome!

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Hello everyone, and welcome to Fine Foods of the Tri-State. As a self-proclaimed “foodie,” I have always found joy in food. One of the things I love the most about food is not only the taste, but also the experience. I find that food is also an art, although an obscure one. A dining experience can be something memorable, made better by the quality of food, service, and company. Here I will relate the my food outings to various fine restaurants across the Tri-State. So here it is, my experience at Catherine Lombardi. This post will be the first of many!

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