I was truly pleased to discover Restaurant Blu in Montclair, NJ.
What to do for dinner:
Craving seafood, my wife and I were laboring over what to do for dinner last Sunday night. Yes we have a good seafood restaurant, here in Westfield, but we were looking for something different, new, fresh and exciting. We were also looking to take a small road trip to another town where we could have an early dinner and then enjoy each other's company with a nice stroll in a quaint downtown with interesting shoppes. We narrowed it down to 2 destinations; it would either be Asbury Park or Montclair. Given the unseasonably hot day we thought we would have an easier ride to Montclair, rather than fight the shore traffic home on the Parkway. We jumped in the car and set off on our mini adventure. It's always an adventure dining out with me as I always seem to find something to complain about. While my friends and family say I am picky, I like to think of it as just being honest.
If I order a hot dog I don't expect anything but a good hot dog. That applies to everything I eat. I only expect gourmet when the restaurant advertises that it is gourmet. Be the best at what you do...don't try to make food something it's not or something you are not capable of. So many restaurants try to be something they are not. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Think of any good restaurant that is an institution and has been around for years. They do what they do and do it consistently well. There are so many places I remember as a kid, most of which are gone now because they were run by families that put their blood, sweat and tears into making their business an extension of their home and many people today don't get that. This is true for all the basic local favorites we grew up with. It's very difficult to pass that on to someone who is just looking to acquire a business to simply make a living. It's all about passion. Sometimes change is good but more often than not tradition is better. A good pizza and macaroni restaurant should always make good pizza and macaroni. New is OK but always offer what your name was built on. If I go to any restaurant that I have been going to for over 30 years they still serve the basics that brought me there for the first time. And, those basics still taste the same as they did 30 years ago. Let's not try to commercialize tradition, simply celebrate it. Well, enough of this rant and on to my wonderful experience at Restaurant Blu.
We arrived at the restaurant a bit late but had called ahead to inform them of our delay so they would hold our table. We encountered a bit of Parkway traffic. When we reached our destination we secured a parking space right across the street from the restaurant which was a good sign. I was a bit surprised at how empty the restaurant was but it was still early, only about 6 PM. The main street was also a bit quiet. When we walked in there were only 2 other tables occupied and I couldn't really smell food. I was starting to get nervous. I later realized the kitchen was a bit insulated from the dining room probably preventing the cooking aromas from penetrating. The decor was modern and a bit minimalist with a hint of Zen. Since we didn't bring any wine, as we had a bit of a drive home, the pressure was on to be satisfied by the food alone. In the past I've been know to say, "It wasn't a total loss, at least we enjoyed a good bottle of wine."
I perused the menu and started to be lured away from ocean's bounty by a hanger steak that looked interesting. I think it was served with a caramelized sweet onion puree. It sounded interesting but then I saw the sea scallops served with sunchokes, barley, crispy fried olives and apple olive oil emulsion. I'm getting ahead of myself, let me back-up. When I looked at the menu on-line I saw they were offering Skate which is truly a wonderful fish with sweet flaky meat and never a bone. Skate on a menu takes me back to my days working at Chez Catherine next to Sous Chef Jeffrey and of course Catherine. We would have Skate on the menu when available. For most people it takes some courage to try it, having to clear the hurdle of knowing they are eating a stingray. Whenever I go fishing, especially if I'm on a large party boat, anyone who hooks a skate curses and throws it back as soon as they pull it up. I'm always the guy asking to keep it which makes people think I'm crazy. One time we were cruising back from a day of fishing and the crew-mates were cleaning fish, for a nominal fee, for all the people who were lucky enough to have made a catch, when I presented my skate for filleting. The crew member snarled and refused to clean it claiming it was a devil fish and that it would ruin his knife. Later that night I laughed thinking about the other fisherman trying to figure out what to do with their big oily bluefish while I was dining on my wonderful skate fillet gently sauteed in a lemony brown butter sauce with parsley.
I also saw some interesting appetizers on the menu. One was a charred octopus and the other was crispy sweetbreads. Although I love grilled or charred octopus I always order sweetbreads whenever I see them on the menu. It's so rare to see them these days. If I see sweetbreads on a menu I immediately think of being in a country bistro with a classically trained chef who celebrates the true spirit of gastronomic excellence. On the other hand ordering sweetbreads while in unfamiliar territory is like playing Russian Roulette. The results can be horrible. There are few things worse than bad sweetbreads.
OK, let me regroup. I was torn between ordering the octopus and the scallops or the sweetbreads and hanger steak. Being a true carnivore I was leaning toward the beef but I remembered that we had originally set out to find good seafood so I decided to compromise and get the best of both worlds; I ordered the Crispy Sweetbreads with Red Cabbage Slaw, Apples, Raisins and a Red Wine Balsamic Demi-Glaze appetizer and for my main course, Sea Scallops with Barley, Crispy Fried Olives, Sun Chokes and Apple Olive Oil Emulsion.
Some of the ingredient combinations sounded bold and perhaps overly contrived but I was prepared to be adventurous. Later I was floored, after tasting each course, by the symphony of flavors that worked so well in perfect harmony. When I ordered I never asked a single question regarding the preparation method or anything else. I surrendered myself to accept the food as a true reflection of the Chef's interpretation of his menu.
Each course arrived on different size and shape stark white plates. When the sweetbreads were presented the plate had a large swirl on one side. I thought it was a design in the plate until I touched it and realized it was a sauce swirl. At first I thought it was a pointless design simply put there as a meaningless enhancement. Later I would appreciate its true purpose as I wiped it clean with a piece of crusty country style bread. Majestically sitting on top of a nice foundation of red cabbage slaw were perfectly crisped lobes of sweetbreads. The red cabbage slaw exploded with vibrant flavor. The diced apple and raisins added a nice balance to the creamy smooth texture of the slaw while the hint of balsamic in the red wine reduction married it all together. Tiny pools of the reduction bordered the plate down one side in addition to being swirled on one side. When the waitress cleared our appetizers my plate was wiped clean. My wife had a salad with roasted beets, gold and magenta, and goat cheese over micro greens. While she said it was an incredible version of a well appreciated standard I was totally hypnotized by my sweetbreads and never even tasted it.
I was so nervous that my experience couldn't get any better until my entree arrived. My mind was simply racing trying to decide where to start; should I taste the apple sauce, the barley, the sunchokes, crispy fried olives or dive right into a scallop? The enticing aroma of perfectly seared scallops won me over. As I cut into my first scallop I could see they were perfectly cooked; crusty exterior with a pink and wet center, a dream come true. The sweet creamy texture could only be enhanced by the unbelievable pairing with the apple olive oil emulsion. Nestled in the perfectly prepared barley were tender morsels of sunchokes with tiny bits of crispy fried black olive. All I could only think to myself was, Oh MY God, Pure Genius!
Again being held captive under the spell of my entree, I didn't pay much attention to my wife's entree. Only after practically licking my plate clean did I think about tasting my wife's entree. She had ordered halibut which was a special that evening. It was prepared in a very fragrant coconut milk broth. The fish was perfectly prepared, moist and juicy. The sauce was very similar to a dish I frequently make with mussels.
My wife and I were so totally satisfied that we didn't even consider dessert or coffee. We requested our check, paid the bill and walked the town just relaxing and enjoying each others company. Sometimes it just can't get any better.
Montclair is a very bohemian town filled with interesting shoppes, clubs and eateries. Definitely more independently owned businesses than anything else. It has something to offer for everyone. I highly recommend a trip to Montclair.
I not only recommend Restaurant Blu I urge you try it. If you have half as good of an experience as we did you will be satisfied. Bring a nice bottle of wine and prepare to be pleasured gastronomically. Bravo Chef Zod Arifai!!!