Thursday, May 31, 2012

On two sides of the food tracks in Englewood

Englewood's Palisade Avenue has been in flux. One of the changes was Blue Moon Restaurant moving next door to a bigger space in the shuttered Ann Taylor store.

The Kitchen restaurant also moved, to the old Blue Moon space next to Starbucks.

Recent additions include Simply Seafood and Teita, a Dominican restaurant, below.

El Paso is an inexpensive Mexican place.

Las Maravillas de Tulcingo is the third restaurant from Jesus Pita; the others are in Passaic. The food is more authentic and cheaper than at Blue Moon, but on Memorial Day, the staff left a mess on an outdoor table, a sure way to turn off potential customers.

Palm BBQ Grill, above and below, is the second place to open in the space occupied for many years by the popular Vietnamese restaurant, Saigon, which moved to Tenafly.

The Palm BBQ menu offers pita and po' boy sandwiches, plus falafel and hummus.
A popular Panera Bread was replaced by a bank, above. On the same block, Victoria's Secret closed after more than a decade at the entrance to the ShopRite shopping center.


Englewood is a classic two-sides-of-the-tracks community, even when it comes to dining out.

Wealthy, mostly white residents live on one side of the tracks all the way up the East Hill, and send their children to large private schools.

On the other side, a long-established Jamaican community and Hispanic residents occupy modest homes, sending their kids to elementary and middle schools that have few white students.

Food lovers will find the better restaurants on the east side of the tracks, while most of the cheaper ethnic restaurants and bakeries are on the other side.

Food city

Baumgart's, It's Greek To Me, Starbucks, El Prado and others have had staying power. 

In other parts of the city, Jerry's Gourmet & More and Balthazar Bakery draw customers from far and wide.

The city also boasts two good Thai restaurants, popular Colombian restaurants and bakeries; excellent Jamaican takeout; H Mart, a large Korean supermarket; and Korean dumpling and kimchi factories.

But the food scene is always in flux, and I would be hard pressed to name all of the restaurants that have opened, operated for several years or more, and disappeared.

Sushi to tacos to pizza

Wild Ginger, an expensive sushi restaurant, closed in 2011 after a 16-year run, and was replaced first by a Mexican restaurant and then by an upscale pizzeria.

The businesses on the first floor of the Town Centre at Englewood luxury rental building on Palisade Avenue change constantly, and at least two food markets have failed there.

What factor ever-escalating rents play in the closing of popular businesses is unclear. 

Bittan Group

Little is known about Michel Bittan, owner of the Bittan Group of Englewood, whose signs are on several vacant commercial spaces.

Bittan is the owner of Solaia, a fine-dining restaurant on North Van Brunt Street, between the performing arts center and City Hall. 

He also owns a casual restaurant next door called Caprizza, and the 201 Club, a party space.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A buffet of photos to whet your appetite

Non-meat eaters will be disappointed, if they look for catfish and waffles at The Pink Tea Cup, a  restaurant on Sixth Avenue near 14th Street in Manhattan.

Can you guess which low-cost Manhattan restaurant offers this comfortable corner?
A customer of the Paramus ShopRite is on a soda diet.
What's next, the Doo-Wop Apple?
Il Porto is a restaurant at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, below.
Just when I wanted to use the bathroom at Pier 17, a busload of Chinese tourists ran for the building's front doors.
At Costco Wholesale in Hackensack, there is no extra charge for a second topping.
Beefsteak tomatoes from Costco give the Jersey tomato a run for its money.
Near Manhattan's Madison Square Park, a Cuban sandwich is made with pig's head. Stick with the original at La Pola -- "King of the Cuban Sandwich" -- in West New York.

A lobster roll at this stand will set you back $16.

The food stands will be shutting down on June 3.
Court Street in Brooklyn is lined with food businesses, cafes and restaurants. All of the photos below were taken along Court Street, near Atlantic Avenue.

A single fish taco, made with tilapia, costs $4.50.

A bottle of Singha beer from Thailand is $3 on some days.

This meat market has a beautiful pressed-tin ceiling.

Four-legged residents have their own food store.
A traditional produce market.

A Trader Joe's uses a cavernous former bank building from the early 1920s.

The prices here are the same as at Trader Joe's stores in Manhattan and Paramus. 

Answer to the question posed above: McDonald's, where I stopped for coffee ($1).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

At Mantra in Paramus, mandatory 18% tip ruins a great meal

The interior of Mantra on Route 4 west in Paramus.


I couldn't resist an e-mail from Groupon offering dinner for 4 at a stylish Asian Indian restaurant in Paramus for $75, including a bottle of wine.

The voucher said the restaurant, Mantra, would serve us 2 appetizers (up to $11 each), 2 orders of bread ($4 each), 4 entrees (up to $28 each) and 1 bottle of house wine ($28).

I bought the deal and printed out my voucher, which said I should tip "on the total bill (Groupon value, plus anything else you order)."

But Groupon didn't do its homework.

Mantra automatically adds an 18% gratuity for "parties of 4 or more," though most restaurants do that only for groups of 6 or more.

Boldly flavored sauces of tamarind and cilantro.

And on Saturday night, if I expected the gratuity to be applied to the discounted price of the food and bottle of wine ($75), I was in for a rude awakening.

Mantra applied the 18% tip to the total value of food and wine ($148) -- $26.64. 

Groupon replied to my e-mail, saying the "Groupon value" is not what I paid for the voucher; it is the total original value of the meal.

My $75 voucher cost me only $52 after a credit of $18 and a special $5 discount. So, my total cost was $52 plus $26.64.

At first, the waiter gave me a bill for $26.64, labeled "an 18% service charge," and only brought me an itemized bill when I asked for it.

That listed all the dishes we had ordered, plus the bottle of wine, and their full value. There was no mention of the $75 Groupon voucher on either bill.

A Crab Chaat appetizer, bound by thinly sliced cucumber, was as delicious as it looked.

Our entrees were Lamb Vindaloo, Goat Curry, Fish Curry and Lobster Masala.

I usually don't order a full bottle of wine, and if I do, I don't tip on it.

I have enjoyed many promotional $24.07 three-course lunches during Restaurant Week in Manhattan, and have never been asked to tip on the full value of the meal ($40 to $45).

Garlic naan.

Some of the meat in the Lobster Masala was sinewy and tough.

When our appetizers of Mango Shrimp ($9) and Crab Chaat ($10) were brought to the table, they tasted as good as they looked, and I began thinking we'd return to Mantra, with or without a discount voucher.

My son wanted to order lamb chops, but they were $30 and the waiter said we couldn't order entrees averaging $28; each one had to be $28 or under.

Our entrees were Lamb Vindaloo ($19), Goat Curry ($20), Lobster Masala ($28) and Kerala Fish Curry ($26). Two bowls of rice were included.

This is the best Indian food I've ever had and the service couldn't be faulted, but getting muscled for an 18% gratuity on the total value of food and wine left a bad taste in my mouth.

I won't be returning to Mantra.

These tables remained empty during our visit to Mantra.

Mantra, 275 Route 4 west, in the Shoppes at IV, Paramus; 201-342-8868.

Web site: Hey, big spender

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Are New York prices always higher?

A Trader Joe's in lower Manhattan sells fruit by the piece.
Would you pay 79 cents for an orange, even if it's organic?

This seaweed snack weighs far more than the same product sold in Korean markets.

This sliced Yogurt Cheese costs the same in the Manhattan and Paramus stores.

I paid the same price in Paramus for this excellent extra-virgin olive oil.

At the charming Cafe Cluny in Manhattan, a cup of coffee will set you back $4, plus tax. 

Have you seen an intelligent discussion -- on TV or in newspaper food pages -- comparing restaurant prices in North Jersey and Manhattan?

You'd think the city's presumably higher labor, food, rental, insurance and transportation costs would translate into much higher prices than across the river in Bergen County.

But prices in Manhattan restaurants appear to be competitive, and in some cases lower.

Liquor profits

One reason is that most city restaurants can rely on big profits from ridiculously marking up wine and beer, a luxury not afforded a large number of BYOs in North Jersey.

City restaurants offering naturally grown or raised food on their menus also far outnumber their counterparts here.

Again, liquor profits allow them to buy and serve higher quality food.

Another factor is the number of times a restaurant can turn over its tables each night.

A Manhattan restaurant, in the course of the day, can seat 5, 10, 15 or more customers at the same table, while a place in Bergen County is lucky to turn over a table 5 times. 

Food-market prices

At the Whole Foods Markets in SoHo and Columbus Circle, prepared food is sold for $8.49 a pound -- 50 cents more than in the Paramus market.

But I was surprised to find several items I buy at the Paramus Trader Joe's -- including extra-virgin olive oil and sliced yogurt cheese -- are being sold for the same prices in the Trader Joe's on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan (Chelsea).

Table service

Great service also is more common in Manhattan, as we experienced last December at Lupa, an osteria from Chef Mario Batali, though a slow kitchen and small portions detracted from the experience.

I've had nothing but great service during Manhattan's winter and summer Restaurant Weeks, when a 3-course lunch is knocked down to $24.07, from about $45 on the a la carte menu. 

Service can be the undoing of a North Jersey restaurant, though some of our favorite ethnic BYOs still manage be attentive and deliver orders quickly.

Three that come to mind are Wondee's and Lotus Cafe in Hackensack, and So Gong Dong in Palisades Park.

Friday, May 25, 2012

My wild-salmon boat comes in

The first wild-caught salmon arrived on Thursday at Costco Wholesale in Hackensack. The fresh sockeye fillets, from Alaska's Copper River, fetch a premium of $13.99 a pound.

Shopping at Costco Wholesale on the Friday before a major holiday weekend isn't for the timid, but  something drew me to the warehouse store in Hackensack today.

In the past few days, I've called the store and had my wife ask employees about the arrival of the season's first fresh wild salmon, which docked on May 21 last year at $13.99 a pound, a dollar less than in 2010.

This year, the deep orange-red fillets from Alaska's Copper River arrived on Thursday, and the price is the same.

In a couple of weeks, if that, the Copper River fish will be replaced by other fresh wild salmon at $8.99 a pound, guaranteeing good eating through the first days of October.

I sprinkled six portions with salt, squeezed on lime juice; and added Aleppo pepper, chopped fresh mint and oregano from the garden. I roasted them at 450 degrees.
The fresh fish needed only 10 to 12 minutes for medium rare.

I pulled the fish out of the oven after 7 minutes, but the fillets were still raw in the center, so I cooked them some more. 

I ate a medium-rare fillet with organic whole-wheat pasta, Black Tiger shrimp from Costco, a salad of organic spring mix and white wine.

A can of anchovies and oil added to bottled marinara sauce will cook away, but leave behind a wonderful robustness. I cooked the pasta for the last 3 minutes in the sauce.

Whole-wheat spaghetti from Trader Joe's is terrific morning, noon and night.

Four pounds of Black Tiger shrimp from Vietnam are $41.99. They are designated U-15, meaning there are about 15 per  pound. I also saw U-8 farmed shrimp at Costco today.

My wild-salmon fillet weighed 1.69 pounds.

I spent more than $108 on food at Costco today.

I bought our third or fourth watermelon of the season for $5.99, but there is no scale to tell you the price per pound. 

Other customers thump the melons, listening for I know not what. I choose the biggest and heaviest I can find, and I've never been disappointed.

With fresh wild salmon only a couple of miles away, life is good.

I didn't see organic carrots, so picked up a 10-pound bag of Bolthouse Farms conventional carrots for $5.99.

Three half-gallons of Organic 1% Milk were $9.59, six Champagne Mangoes from Mexico were $5.79 and 1 pound of Kirkland Signature Smoked Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon was $15.79.

Seedless watermelon and fresh carrots.

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