About Me

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Chef David Martone is the owner and executive Chef of Classic Thyme Cooking School. Pursuing his interest in food, in the early 1980s, David owned an Italian market specializing in home cooked items and exceptional produce. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in 1989, under the direction of world renowned Chef Jacques Pepin, David went to work at the Chez Catherine Restaurant in Westfield, NJ. David started teaching in the Westfield area in 1991 and pursued a higher level of culinary education earning the designation of C.C.P. (Certified Culinary Professional). David worked as a board member of The New York Association of Cooking Teachers, (NYACT) for several years. David is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Founder of ‘The Italian Club of Westfield’ he is also the host of the popular cable television cooking show, 'Cooking Thyme," which airs on TV 36. Chef David has been featured in numerous publications such as the Dining In section of The New York Times, Garden Plate Magazine, Savor section of The Star Ledger and New Jersey Monthly.

Monday, June 8, 2009

When Institutions Franchise

When institutions franchise you can't always be guaranteed the quality of it's original location. I recently had 2 bad experiences that made me question the whole franchising idea of single 'stand-alone' institution type food establishments.

First was Nathan's. Everyone here in the tri-state area knows Nathan's hot dogs of Coney Island. To truly enjoy Nathan's you should visit the original Coney Island location. Now, it's not quite the same as it was 40+ years ago but there is still something about the original location that simply can't be transformed into an airport or mall food court. The original location has a certain ambiance that remains regardless of the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood. The look of the original boardwalk location coupled with the unforgettable smells wafting from the deep fryers and griddles simply can't be reproduced. You need to be in Coney Island to appreciate it in it's intended state. The smell of the air off the water puts you in a different mindset that perhaps transforms you back to simple childhood days visiting the beach. The frys are always piping hot and much crisper than the franchise locations as well as the hot dogs having that crisp texture that almost snap when you bite into them. Slathering on the mustard from the original tap is also a small perk that adds to the experience.

While flying home from Miami a few months ago my son and I arrived at the airport, and with only a short time before boarding and decided to grab some fast food. I saw Nathan's and figured we would have a few dogs before getting on the plane. What a mistake! The dogs were rubbery, the chili was thick like glue and the fries were oil soaked and limp. This has never been my experience at the original location. Why is it that something I remember as being so good was so bad? The answer is that people simply don't understand that you can't always replicate, in vast numbers, quality, atmosphere and memorable food. Institutions are meant to be stand alone locations. Sometimes, in busy metropolitan areas such as NYC, multiple locations can work but as soon as they are franchised out to other areas the quality starts to diminish.
Here's another example; Papaya King. My kids called it 50 cent hot dogs. Whenever my son and I would go into NYC we would go for 50 cent hot dogs. Of course we were going to Papaya King. There are many spread out in NYC. Most of them are OK but visit one outside the city and you have a completely different experience. Again the dogs are rubbery, the chili was thick like glue and the fries never as good as the NYC locations.
After these two experiences I had to rush back to Journal Square, in Jersey City, to visit Boulevard Drinks, next to the Lowe's Theater, to suck down 4 chili dogs, a hand pumped orangeade and a container of chili to go. Still the same as I remember as a kid when my Dad's friend owned it. The only difference is that these days I have to pay. Years ago we never paid.

Here's something else to think about, Italian ice. We all know the Rita's Italian Ice franchise. Is it ever as good as Kaye's nut shop was on Central Avenue in Jersey City, or how about DiCosimo's in Elizabeth or the original Grillo's when it was in Plainfield and not to forget Mimi's in Roselle? If you have ever been to any of these places the answer is, not in a million years.

We need more little businesses that become institutions instead of franchises that pretend to have character. Pay a visit to your local favorite before someone gets the bright idea to try and franchise them. Patronize your favorite local eating establishments or they will go away only to be replaced by production line substandard places that are simply not memorable.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Hidden Treasure - Restaurant Blu in Montclair NJ

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.
David's Rant:
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.
The Restaurant:
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."
The menu:
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!!!


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Philly Finds and a Prosciutto Tasting

Prosciutto, Jamón serrano and Jamón ibérico - 'The Holy Grail' of dry cured hams.

While visiting my son Andrew in Philadelphia, back in November, I discovered DiBruno Bros. Italian gourmet market. There are 2 locations, 1 located on South Ninth Street in Philadelphia’s Little Italy and the other Chestnut Street in the prestigious Rittenhouse Square section. While the Rittenhouse Square location offers a more glitzy posh 5th Avenue feel, I prefer to original location on South Ninth Street, nestled in the Italian Market since 1939.

With a vast selection of everything imaginable I was immediately drawn to the Charcuterie area, mainly the Prosciutto section. I am never good at making choices when such a variety is available so I bought a few slices of eight different cured hams, from Italy, Spain and yes, even the United States. For a fraction of what a pound of any individual prosciutto cost, I walked out with a fabulous tasting of eight for under $20. It was the best $20 I ever spent! Later that evening, back home in Westfield, I opened a bottle of a very nice 100% Sangiovese wine, aged in wood for 24 months, which I brought back from a family trip last summer. The wine is called Morellino Di Scansano, Roggiano Riserva 2005. What made this tasting memorable is that I was reliving my trip to Tuscany where we ate wonderful prosciutto and enjoyed locally produced wine daily. It was truly a mental vacation.

Throughout my tasting I thoroughly enjoyed each and every ham! Both refined and immeasurable differences, these hams offered a carnival of flavors. Flavors and sensations included sweet, salty, buttery, gamey, nutty, dry, young, aged, creamy, rich and smooth. Hands down, my favorite was Jamon Iberico de Belloto from the Iberico Peninsula $130.00 per pound, of course the most expensive. Don’t judge quality by higher price as this is not always the indicator. My least favorite was the next most expensive, Prosciutto Di Parma riserva $34.99 per pound.

My personal recommendation is to do exactly what I did. Next time you are privileged to have a great selection of anything you love to eat, buy a small amount of as many as you can and then make your own tasting. Take your time and make an evening of it. Perhaps invite a friend to join you and sit back, sip a nice complimenting beverage and take that mental vacation.

If you have time, a trip to Philadelphia’s Italian Market on South 9th Street makes for a great day trip. It’s what New York’s Little Italy looked like 50 plus years ago. You won’t be disappointed. If you’re considering staying for dinner make a reservation as the most popular local restaurants book up in advance. We tried to get in at Ralph’s Italian restaurant, also on South 9th Street, but we had no reservation and they laughed as they told us they might be able to get us in at 10 PM. Villa Di Roma, again on South 9th Street, is a good alternative as they do not accept reservations. It’s ‘first come first serve’ so get a glass of wine at the bar and hope to get seated in a reasonable amount of time. We had a good dinner there. Try the steamed mussels; you’ll be licking the bowl!

My DiBruno Prosciutto tasting included:
La Quercia Domestic Prosciutto $24.99 per pound
Classico Parma Ham aged 12 months $24.99 per pound
Jamon Serrano aged 12 months $26.99 per pound
Jamon Serrano Riserva aged 18 months $29.99 per pound
Prosciutto Di Parma Rotondo Dolce $29.99 per pound
Prosciutto Di Parma riserva $34.99 per pound
Culatello $59.99 per pound
And my personal favorite:
Jamon Iberico de Belloto from the Iberico Peninsula $130.00 per pound
Unavailable in the United States until December 2007, Jamon Iberico could be the most sought after cured meat on the planet. Rich and nutty, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, a single slice of this meat can satiate the most critical of palates for hours. Made from Spain's rare black footed pigs, which during the last few months of their life feed solely on fallen acorns, this jamon carries flavors reminiscent of those pigs' diets and eating habits: intensely woodsy and nutty with a high degree of marbling (it turns out that feeding solely on acorns is quite a workout for the pata negra, resulting in a highly marbled meat). Only 8-9% of all Spanish jamon is Jamon Iberico and only a small percentage of all Iberico is designated bellota, meaning the highest, most acorn-fed pigs were used. We are lucky to carry this product, for it is a delicacy that cannot be missed...(Courtesy of DiBruno Bros. website.)
Visit DiBruno Bros. at: http://www.dibruno.com/