Saturday, June 30, 2012

A hair-raising seafood lunch

The Lobster Cobb Salad at McCormick & Schmick's in Hackensack.
The Ahi Niciose Salad includes fingerling potatoes.

I sat back in our booth on Thursday, proud of cleaning my plate and completely satisfied by a beautiful salad with seared ahi tuna at McCormick & Schmick's in Hackensack.

Then, my wife broke the silence, "There's a hair on your plate."

I looked down at the dark-colored, curved hair, and gulped. Had I eaten other hair?

When our server, Stephanie, came over to clear our lunch plates, I pointed out the hair. She returned shortly and said the manager would take care of the problem.

'Hair in food'

When she brought the check, I saw the words "Did Not Like" and "Name: HAIR IN FOOD" next to a deduction of $15.95 for the Ahi Nicoise Salad I had enjoyed so much.

But she had forgotten to apply a coupon I had for a free chef's appetizer of the day with the purchase of two lunch or dinner entrees, so she had to get us another check.

Bring lots of money

I had eaten at McCormick & Schmick's only once before in the 10 years it has been open, part of the "Restaurant Row" in the mall now called The Shops at Riverside.

I remembered the chain restaurant served premium seafood and that it was expensive, but not much else.

Looking over the lunch menu on Thursday, that impression was fortified by such prices as $32.95 for halibut with risotto and $27.95 for mahi-mahi served over succotash.

Only a handful of tables were occupied during our lunch in the 150-seat restaurant, which has an open kitchen. 

Farmed salmon only

We also got a summer lunch menu, but it didn't list wild salmon from Alaska -- this at the height of the season.

We started with Calamari Frito Misto ($12.95), the free appetizer, and got beautifully fried artichoke, carrot slices, banana pepper and jalapeno along with the squid and small cups of mild tomato sauce and tartar sauce.

Canadian Atlantic Salmon is a farmed fish.

Great seafood salads

My wife's Lobster Cobb Salad had plenty of delicious, tender lobster meat as well as sliced avocado and crumbled blue cheese and bacon ($19.95). She took about half of it home.

I loved the Ahi Nicoise Salad, especially the luscious, sushi-grade tuna that was served closed to raw, just how I like it.

But I certainly could have done without the hair. 

McCormick & Schmick's, 390 Hackensack Ave., in The Shops at Riverside, Hackensack; 201-968-9410.

Our free appetizer was beautifully fried and grease-free.

Dark wood and subdued lighting lend a clubby air to the place.

Part of the lunch menu at the chain restaurant.
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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Blurring the line between meals

Breakfast without bread relies on organic brown rice bibimbap to give me a full feeling. In restaurants, bibimbap is usually served with a cooked or raw egg on top.

I've given up bread and pizza, but not foods that leave me satisfied and allow me to keep off the weight I've lost.

I often rely on 100% whole-wheat pasta from Trader Joe's and organic brown rice from Costco Wholesale -- and other dinner leftovers -- as substitutes for bread at breakfast.

My body seems to process whole-wheat pasta and brown rice better than their conventional counterparts or bread.

I miss pizza, but get the same gooey pleasure by adding sliced, reduced-fat cheese to omelets.

A gooey cheese-and-wild-lox omelet goes great with whole-wheat spirals.

Leftover sauteed cabbage and boiled squash add body to another cheesey omelet.
Stewed pollock, a prepared item from H Mart; smoked wild salmon and canned fish salad taste great for breakfast with tofu, radish kimchi and tomatoes in a za'atar thyme mixture.

I bought shredded vegetables from H Mart, and prepared a Korean comfort dish called bibimbap for dinner one night last week.

But I ate most of it at breakfast instead of bread (top photo).

For bibimbap, I made 2 cups of organic brown rice in an electric cooker, then added prepared vegetables from H Mart, a hot-pepper paste called gochujang and sesame oil.

H Mart Fresh in Fort Lee sells vegetables for bibimbap ($6.49).

This hot-pepper paste from Korea is one of the few without high fructose corn syrup.
H Mart Fresh (1379 16th St., Fort Lee; 201-944-9009) is the smallest of the Korean chain's stores in Bergen County, but it has a lot of prepared food and seafood, below.

H Mart Fresh draws shoppers from nearby high-rises. You see the word "fresh" repeated a number of times inside the store.

I did find a hot-pepper paste, called gochujang, made without high-fructose corn syrup or sugar (see photo). A 2.2-pound jar was $7.49.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

For Chinese food, why go anywhere else?

Steamed whole striped bass with ginger and scallion at Lotus Cafe.

Lotus Cafe -- a small, unassuming Chinese restaurant tucked away in a shopping center in Hackensack -- is approaching its 20th anniversary and still delivering simply prepared food that is both fresh and delicious.

A simple spinach and tofu soup with spicy chili oil.

On Saturday night, we ordered soup, seafood and vegetables from the a la carte menu, but we could have chosen the Dinner for Four from Lotus Cafe's Special Price-Fixed Dinner and Banquet Menu.

A six-course meal for four is $66, plus tip and tax. Other multi-course dinners are for six or eight people, and there are two 12-course banquets for 10 ($238 and $288, plus tip and tax).

Popular BYO

Lotus Cafe is a BYO, and the opening of a chain Chinese restaurant, P.F. Chang's, in the upscale Shops at Riverside a few hundred yards away, hasn't made any difference: 

You still have to reserve a table in the small, tastefully decorated dining room on weekends. With large plate-glass windows in the front, lighting is subdued.

We started with soup, and three of us shared simple spinach and tofu in a clear broth ($4.95). My son had wonton soup ($2.80).

Great seafood

Our entrees were Prawns with Mixed Vegetables (actually large shrimp) for $15.95, and Steamed Wild Bass with Ginger and Scallion for $28.95.

Lotus Cafe serves a 2-pound fish for the price of what some North Jersey restaurants charge for a smaller whole fish or fillets. 

These large, great-tasting shrimp came with mixed vegetables.

The presentation of the steamed wild bass made the fish appear to be swimming in the sauce (top photo). It tasted as good as it looked, and the light soy-based sauce was wonderful over rice.

Our vegetables were fresh spinach ($8.95) and leafy Chinese broccoli ($9.95), both sauteed with fresh garlic. 

Water spinach with garlic.

We asked for the Chinese broccoli well-done to soften the stalks.

Shrimp and vegetables in a bowl of brown rice.

Leaving the teapot cover open signals you want a refill.

We received a complimentary warm rice pudding for dessert.

One of the messages in the chocolate-flavored fortune cookies.

Don't expect a typical Chinese menu or one that is all Szechaun or Cantonese and so forth.

The owner, Philip Su, is from Taiwan, and the menu draws inspiration from that island, as well as Hong Kong and mainland Chinese provinces.

The restaurant offers more complex dishes, such as a beef casserole with an X.O. sauce of shrimp roe, dried shrimp and herbs.

We've tried some of the great noodle soups, including Seafood Soup Noodles, which is filled with fresh, tender shrimp, scallop, squid and other items.

And you won't be able to top Zar Jiang Mien -- thick noodles topped with "Zanadu meat sauce -- Marco Polo's favorite."

Our waiter has been working at Lotus Cafe for many years, and he treated us like family, even asking whether we wanted to take home a little leftover brown rice.

We did, and I had it this morning with a gooey cheese omelet.

We also took home half the fish and most of our rice-pudding dessert. 

Lotus Cafe, 450 Hackensack Ave. (in the Home Depot Shopping Center), Hackensack; 201-488-7070.

BYO is open 7 days. Lunch specials from $6.95 to $8.95 with rice and soup. All dishes are prepared with 100% vegetable oil and without MSG.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Quality of Costco produce raises concerns

A display of bulk produce at Stop & Shop in Teaneck, where prices are competitive with Costco Wholesale in Hackensack and lower in one or two cases.

Do I have to pay a fortune for good produce?

I can't think of a store where the fruit and vegetables have always been perfect, including Costco Wholesale, which sells premium produce at a lower price than most other retailers.

From ShopRite, I've brought home fruit that either never ripens or rots when left out overnight.

At H Mart, I returned mangoes that were brown and rotting inside.

At Costco, I got a refund for mealy pears, and when we cut open "Washington Extra Fancy" Fuji apples, they were brown inside.

I asked for a refund when Trader Joe's organic pears never ripened on the kitchen counter.

In April 2011, I said produce prices were rising and quality was slipping at Costco in Hackensack.

A few days ago, a reader commented on that item:

"I have come to your site after an online 'review'
of Costco produce. Everybody I know is saying that Costco has gone to hell as far as produce goes. Their quality is gone. I'm totally bummed. I used to buy all my produce there.

"Now I go to Hy-Vee grocery stores. Only a little more, price-wise, but 10 times the quality."

I don't know about "Costco has gone to hell," but we spend thousands of dollars on food there every year, and would like to see an improvement, especially when it comes to fruit.

We'd also like to see customers who don't handle every piece of fruit or sample it before buying a package, like the man who popped a few grape tomatoes in his mouth.
Playing chicken

On Friday, my wife went to the Hackensack warehouse store for more fresh wild sockeye salmon from the Copper River in Alaska ($10.99 a pound).

She also picked up a package of Empire kosher leg quarters, which are from free-roaming chickens raised on a vegetarian diet and without antibiotics, according to the package.

When she got them home and opened the shrink-wrapped package, the chicken stank and she saw that it was rancid.

She returned it for a refund and Costco offered her a 50% discount on another package, but she said her time, the need to fight traffic and a ruined reusable bag were worth more than that.

She wanted another package for free.

She had to talk to a few employees, but the general manager granted her wish.
Part of the produce section at Fairway Market in Paramus. Fairway charges 79 cents for a pound of bananas, compared to about 47 cents a pound at Costco.

"Violators will be embarrassed," a Fairway sign warns. Maybe the store should be embarrassed selling olives for $6.99 a pound. Italian olives are $3.99 a pound at Jerry's Gourmet & More on South Dean Street in Englewood.

I went to Fairway Market in Paramus for coffee, selecting the only beans on sale -- French Roast for $6.99 a pound -- and asking an employee for the Turkish grind.

No other North Jersey store has the selection of whole beans available at Fairway, and most are roasted in the store.

There is a huge selection of coffee beans, but only one was on sale this week.

An employee at the coffee-bean roaster in Paramus.

At Fairway, I also bought 2 pints of Jersey blueberries for $5 or what I paid last week at ShopRite in Paramus, and two heads of green-leaf lettuce for $1.49.

A wedge of Spanish Fig Cake with Mixed Nuts was $6.19 ($9.99 a pound), and the only other store with this item is Whole Foods in Paramus.

The fig cake is wonderful with cheese, such as Grana Padano.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wild-salmon price goes down, then up

Fresh wild sockeye salmon is veined with heart-healthy fat.

Costco Wholesale has lowered, then raised the price of fresh wild sockeye salmon from the famed Copper River in Alaska.

This past Friday, we bought our fourth weekly fillet from the warehouse store in Hackensack, and paid $10.99 a pound. 

We paid $13.99 a pound a day after this wonderful fish first appeared on May 24, then $8.99 a pound and $9.99 a pound in the following two weeks.

I add a sprinkle of salt, lime juice, Aleppo pepper, and chopped mint and oregano in that order to flavor the fish, which cooks in 10 minutes or less.

The portions are ready to roast in a preheated 400-degree oven.

The fish comes out rare after 7 minutes, above, and medium after 10 minutes.

Right out of the oven, this fresh salmon melts in your mouth. The veins of fat liquify, and the salmon is juicy and fragrant with garden herbs.

We bought this package on Friday and prepared the fish on Sunday.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Korean food is ready for its close-up

Fresh, crunchy cabbage kimchi is one of four side dishes served at So Gong Dong.

So Gong Dong -- a popular soft-tofu restaurant in Palisades Park -- has been making a number of changes, from adding new dishes to changing servers' shirts from burgundy to red.

But the signature soft-tofu stew, rice, fresh eggs and four side dishes are as good as ever, and a complete, filling meal costs only $9.99. 

The second-floor entrance to So Gong Dong.
I ordered my soft tofu "more spicy," and broke two eggs into the bubbling broth.

A seafood pancake comes with a soy-based dipping sauce.

The Korean table is one of the most approachable, especially if you don't eat meat, but I see only a handful of non-Asians at So Gong Dong and other restaurants in Palisades Park, a center of the cuisine.

There is a good selection of non-spicy dishes, and an abundance of healthy tofu and vegetables.

The broth for soft-tofu stew is made from beef bones, but on request, So Gong Dong will use hot water, and make the stew as spicy or mild as you like.

A second kimchi is made from cucumbers, but you also get fresh bean sprouts.

Korean beef ribs are available for carnivores.

The four complimentary side dishes served with the tofu stew include three vegetables and highly spiced raw squid.

In addition to soft tofu, available plain and with meat or seafood, So Gong Dong is now serving rice-based bibimbap, and cold and hot noodle soups.

We've always had great service, but a button on each table allows you to ring a buzzer (or is it a bell?), and summon a server.

So Gong Dong, 118 Broad Ave., 2nd Floor, Palisades Park; 201-313-5550. Valet parking and free parking on side streets.
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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Witnessing petty theft at Starbucks

A plaque at the 9/11 memorial and reflecting pool in Weehawken notes more than 60,000 people were evacuated to this waterfront on the day the Twin Towers fell. The plaque also praises the role of township agencies in the operation, and lists all of them.

Editor's note: Today's buffet explores the wonderful food shopping and take-out available in North Jersey.

We went for a drive along North Jersey's Gold Coast and saw hundreds of new town homes and apartments in what still is one of the biggest construction zones in the metropolitan area.

We passed through Fort Lee, Edgewater and Weehawken, and entered West New York, most of the time along the Hudson River.

We saw the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail Line and its last stop opposite the ferry into Manhattan. 

On the way home Thursday afternoon, we stopped for coffee and iced tea at Starbucks, and to buy organic pasta, cheese, olive oil and other food at Trader Joe's, both in Edgewater.

At the Starbucks in Edgewater, the heavy set man on the right put a small bottle of orange juice in his red bag while waiting on line to order and pay for coffee.

At Starbucks, most of the outside tables were occupied by smokers, forcing us inside.

An employee said Starbucks tried to designate outside tables for smoking and non-smoking, but that didn't work.

When the cafe put out ashtrays, they disappeared, and a pole ashtray was used for garbage and set afire.

We ordered iced tea and hot coffee, and I brought them to our table opposite the counter before going to use the restroom. 

That's when my wife saw another customer steal a small bottle of orange juice while he waited on line to order coffee.

Starbucks, 457 River Road, in the Edgewater Commons shopping center, Edgewater; 201-945-5343.

Trader Joe's organic whole-wheat pasta is a relative bargain.

Good food, low prices

At Trader Joe's, we bought 16-ounce packages of organic whole-wheat spaghetti, fusilli and penne ($1.39 each).

They are 100% whole wheat and cheaper than smaller boxes of whole-grain pasta sold in ShopRite and other supermarkets.

One-liter bottles of 100% Italian and Spanish extra-virgin olive oil were $5.99 each, a 12.3-ounce jar of Whole Grain Dijon Mustard from France was $1.79, and a 20-ounce box of Trader Joe's Whole Grain Raisin Bran was only $2.79.

We also bought Applegate Farms antibiotic-free cold cuts, which are cheaper at Trader Joe's than at supermarkets.

Another favorite item is sliced Yogurt Cheese with Jalapeno ($4.79).

Trader Joe's, 715 River Road, Edgewater; 201-945-5932.

This beautiful plate of takeout food cost only $5.99.

Jerry's in Englewood cuts the price of Meals To Go in the late afternoon.

For a great dinner at home, I plated the fish and other food in this container, heated it up in the microwave, made a small salad and poured myself a glass of red wine.

Best take-out bargain

The restaurant-quality Meals To Go at Jerry's Gourmet & More in Englewood are a bargain at $7.99, but they are an even better buy in the late afternoon, when the price is cut by $2.

Unfortunately, Meals To Go often sell out early in the day. 

But around 5 on Wednesday afternoon, I was lucky enough to find two Tilapia Francese dinners and another of Chicken Pizzaiola at $5.99 each.

I had the delicious tilapia fillet, which was unusually large; pasta and crunchy vegetables, including fresh fava beans. Magnifico.

Jerry's Gourmet & More, 410 S. Dean St., Englewood; 201-871-7108.

Cubed radish kimchi from the source in Englewood.

For a change of pace from the usual cabbage kimchi, I picked up a large jar of crunchy Arirang radish kimchi from the small brick building in Englewood where it is made by hand.

A 5-pound jar is $10.99 at the factory. All-natural kimchi complements any meal, and it's a great snack. 

Arirang Kimchi, 191 W. Englewood Ave., Englewood; 201-503-1314.

I began the day Wednesday with fried organic eggs with pesto, brown rice and Korean side dishes from H Mart, above, and ended it with a big salad and vegetarian lentil soup I brought home from the Garden Cafe at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, where I volunteer. I added grated sheep's milk cheese, below, and drank a glass of wine.