Northside Trattoria is now "16 Prospect"

Ok, ok, ok. I'm listening to my readers. Yes, I didn't post anything over the last few weeks and a few of my readers e-mailed me asking what is happening and some even complaining.

Unfortunately, blogging is not my day job and that day job was quite a bit more demanding recently and I had to travel a lot. But still, I'm planning to continue this blog, but maybe a bit less frequently going forward.

Also, my favorite photographer Andrea Ewald who is taken most of the pictures in previous posts is in India for a photo project for almost a months. So I won't have pictures for the next few weeks.

Northside Trattoria has been a reliable source of good Italian food for several years. They recently closed for renovations and a few weeks later re-emerged as "16 Prospect - Wine bar and bistro".

I felt "Northside Trattoria" was actually a pretty good and well established name so I'm not sure why the name needed to change. I'm not a particular fan of this very uncreative and impersonal naming style "Street Number - Street Name". Imagine what would happen if all the place at Elm Street would adopt that.

Interestingly enough their Web site is still operating as Northside Trattoria and "16 Prospect" is nowhere to be found on that side. A new web site does not yet exist.

So what is the difference between a Trattoria and Bistro. A trattoria is typically a somewhat less formal Italian restaurant, but still a full-fledged restaurant. Which was is a pretty good characterization of what Northside Trattoria offered. Now a bistro is in the first place a french concept: It is less than a full-fledged restaurant with a limited menu of rather straight forward food. And yes that is also true for 16 prospect: The current menu is a sub-set of what they had before, with classic Italian offerings. They still have pizza, but they don't seem to promote it much, no specialty pizze only the "basic plus select your toppings" approach. But they certainly are not a French place at all, thus "Bistro" is a bit misleading.

The restaurant in the back of the place has changed much with the remodeling. It is still fairly large with different areas that are more or less separated, each having a different atmosphere. It is not the most comfortable or stylish interior but it is pleasent. Service was efficient, fast and friendly but not particularly refined. Ok, that is what you expect from a bistro.

I had the "House Pasta" salad, which is not really a pasta salad (as in maccaroni salad) but a classic lettuce based salad with farfalle pasta and a pesto type vinaigrette. An intresting combination that could work well. But it doesn't here. There is nothing wrong with it but somehow the combination of ingredients doesn't get beyond the sum of its parts. It feels like what is in the salad doesn't want to work together.

As a main entree I have the maccaroni and cheese. I had these before at Northside Trattoria and was quite impressed. And fortunately they have lowered the price. At $16 for a huge portion (I ate only half of it) this is really a good deal. This "Mac&Cheese" comes with a flavorful combination of italian cheeses, bacon, herbs and few other ingredients. The texture, the mouthfeel and the very pronouced flavor make this a pleasant sensual experience. Yes, comfort food, but comfort food at a higher level.

The bar in the front of the establishment is now larger. In addition to the actual bar there is now a bar area with high tables and stools. (where there was previously some kitchen/operational space.) I didn't have a chance to check out the wine selection or the service at the bar area so not rating of the "wine bar".
Westfield isn't really saturated with bars so this is a welcome addition. Certainly more refined than Jolly Trolley and a bit larger and more "hang out" type than Jeffery's, it is still not the stylish cocktail lounge that I think is truly missing in Westfield. I believe there would be more than enough demand for such an outfit in Westfield.

From a food perspective the metamorphosis from Northside Trattoria to "16 Prospect" isn't that much of an event. Pretty much the same thing with a reduced menu. For the winebar, I need to check that out at one point later.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger.


Coolvines: A Stylish Competent Wine Source in Westfield

When I walked through Westfield this evening looking for something to eat, to my very pleasant surprise I realized that Coolvines (on Elm Street, former location of Planet Smoothie) has finally openend. Their web site still says that they will be opening in August and there is currently not much information there, but I'm sure that will change pretty soon.

I blogged about CoolVines before and at one point I stated that they would open end of July. Ok, I was wrong. It is now two months later. And I'm sure it was not their plan to dragg this out. If you invest serious money into building a store, every day you are not open to generate revenue cuts into your profits. So you are very interested in opening as soon as possible. The fact that our bureaucracy makes things difficult for business owners and delays store openings significantly, should make us think and act. It doesn't have to be that way.

As reported before, CoolVines is not planning to be just another wine store. They actually do have an interesting concept that I'm quite excited about. It is not about selection, they are not trying to offer all of the mainstream brands you can get in every liquor store in town. I would estimate they have "only" about 200 to 250 different bottles. That is not a lot compared to other stores. They focus on unusual wines that are a good value at their respective price points. They have bottles in the $10 space as well as up to $50 and beyond and they claim they have them specifically selected to represent something special at the given price.

I was quite impressed with the wines they picked. There were only a few that I had tasted before or where I at least knew the producer. And there is a huge selection outside of the typical Chardonnay, SB, Merlot, CS range, which makes this a very interesting place. For me, wine is all about exploring new tastes, new varietals and new wine makers and CoolVines is a great opportunity to do just this.

Not only is the selection very enticing to me, their staff is also very competent. I briefly chatted with owner Mark Censits and later spent some time talking to head sommelier Arnaud Devolder. He was not only very knowledge about wine but also quite fun to talk to. He has tasted all the wines on offer at CoolVines. So - no surprise - after I briefly explained to him what I liked (and what not) he developed a very good understanding of my taste and preferrence and recommended quite a few interesting bottles.

As I had walked into Westfield, I only got two bottles, one of them a Kerner from Alto Adige which I look forward to enjoying with my wife on the weekend. But I'm sure I will be back, in particular for the tastings they will have on a regular basis twice a week.

They are open till 10:00 pm, so they are also a good source for your BYOB bottle when visiting a place in Westfield's restaurant row. They even do have a special section for wine to match certain Westfield eateries.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Rock'n Roll Legend: Chuck Berry comes to Cranford

This year's Union County MusicFest was quite an experience. We had a legend on stage in Nomahegan Park: Chuck Berry made his way to Cranford. I think (and I'm sure I'm not the only one) that this is pretty cool. After having one of the all-time great rock bands - Cheap Trick - there last year, they were able to surpass themselves this year and present Chuck Berry!

I will certainly not try to add anything meaningful to the millions of paragraphs that have already been written about Chuck Berry. There is not much I could add. I can only say that I really enjoyed the concert. For me it was the first time to see Chuck Berry live. And even at an age of almost 81 he was pretty dynamic. Of course I would have been even happier had he played for more than the one hour but, hey, I'm not complaining! The rest of the band, which included Chuck's daughter Ingrid on harmonica and son Chuck jr. on guitar, was great too.

Overall, the Union County Music Festl is a pretty cool event. The caliber of bands playing is pretty outstanding. And this year the weather couldn't have been better, even so it sure hadn't looked good in the morning. While we were there it was sunny with a few clouds so it didn't get too hot.

They even sold beer this year, albeit you had to stay in a restricted fenced in area. I really don't understand what the harm would be if people brought some beer or wine and enjoyed it while listening to the music. I'm convinced the majority of people are very reasonable in their alcohol consumption.

Thanks once again to Westfield photographer Andrea Ewald for letting me use her images.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Breakfast at Lora's Tea Room in Cranford

I have blogged about "A Toute Heure" in Cranford recently. In addition to this place there are a couple of other restaurants in this neighborhood called "Centennial Village". So when we checked it out we also found "Lora's Tea Room". Originally we thought they were more like a British style tea place. But that evening they were closed and so we decided to come for breakfast.

So today, after our early morning workout at the Westfield Y we went back to the Centennial Village. It turns out Lora's is more a Russian style (or at least Eastern European) tea room and not a British one. Not that that's bad, just different. It starts with the decor. It is an interesting combination of somewhat tastefully arranged kitsch (including the obligatory samovars) with a rather sterile and sober overall atmosphere (industrial ceiling with fluorescent lighting and similar floor). But this is actually pretty authentic. ;-))

In addition to traditional breakfast dishes like omeletts and eggs Lora's also serves blini. Blini are an Eastern European version of crepes, thin pancakes that are rolled up and filled with fruit, jams or other fillings. The cheese blini at Lora's are filled with farmer's cheese. In Austria you would call this dish "Topfenpalatschinken". Our waitress specifically points out that they are using farmer's cheese and not cream cheese. In addition to being less fatty we really like farmer's cheese much better. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get here and quite expensive. In many European countries a product very similar to farmer's cheese (typically known as "Quark" or "Topfen") is a staple food that is used for a variety of dishes and is also quite cheap.

So without a lot of deliberation my wife decides on the cheese blini. I go for the vegetable omelette. The blini are really excellent, with a delicate and nice flavor profile. They come garnished with some fresh strawberries and the farmer's cheese tastes as expected. My omelette is a positive surprise. This is truly a vegetable omelette with carrots, mushroom, peas, corn and celery. All the vegetables seem to have been nicely sauteed and seasoned before being worked into the omelette. This adds a very pleasant flavor component. The omelette by itself is fluffy and light. The whole thing is done with a lot of attention to detail. The toast is pretty good also and the butter comes nicely presented in its own little vessel.

But what is really important is the tea. For a tea room a bit disappointing they only do have a limited selection of open tea leaves. We go for the Earl Grey for two. For $3 you get a large stylish china pot of tea, nice glass tea cups and and filter to pour the tea through. The tea was quite excellent. Open leaves and the china pot make a difference. You get a much more delicate but clearly pronounced taste and the bergamot which characterizes the Earl Grey can vigorously express itself.

Overall we were pretty happy with this breakfast and will certainly visit Lora's again to enjoy the tea service for a lunch or an afternoon snack.

They do have nice outdoor seating but only serve the lighter stuff (pastry) out there. You won't get entrees or the full tea service.

Another gripe I have: They put their coffee after it is brewed on a heating pad and it seems to sit there for a while. That is a total faux pas for me. It kills any interesting flavor in the coffee. Unless you have a huge turnover and brew coffee fresh every 5 minutes a thermos vessel is much more acceptable and retains the coffee's taste profile. But then it is a tea room and not a coffee place. So maybe that is acceptable there.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


"A Toute Heure" in Cranford - Nothing Short of Spectacular

A Toute Heure is a small French bistro in Cranford's "Centennial Village". Centennial Village is a two block main street type business district south of downtown Cranford. I drove through there so many times and never thought much about it. But just recently I noticed this small restaurant and tonight I finally had a chance to check it out.

A Toute Heure actually opened in May of this year already. I'm truly annoyed about the fact that it took me more than 3 months before I realized that the place even existed. The amount of sensual food pleasure that I missed out on is incredible. ;-))

The place is fairly small. They have 10 tables and they can probably seat between 30 and 35 people. The interior is a very good interpretation of a French bistro, comfortable and stylish. Although it is only one open room it did not get too noisy.

Service is friendly, very attentive and efficient, but not overly polished. I actually like that. Sometimes overly polished and refined service crosses over into arrogance and attitude. No danger of that at A Toute Heure.

The menu changes daily and you can check it on their website. On Tuesdays they have mussels, small plates and a large selection of "bites". The bites alone are worth it. Bites are small sub-appetizer dishes at $4 each. But they are still enough to share for a couple. We could have had all 8 bites of the evening, equivalent to a good meal for two and would have experienced a sensual joy ride that would be very difficult to match.

One really interesting bite was the "Grilled NJ sweet peaches, creamy ricotta & garden herbs". A perfect combination of different flavors and textures that in your mouth combine to something incredibly special. The grilled "royal" eggplant toasts and the summer vegetable frites are equally impressive. The garlic-saffron aioli had just the right amount of saffron to complement the garlic without overpowering it.

The small plates are smaller portions of regular entrees at a somewhat reduced price. They are sizable portions for a normal appetite and if you had a few appetizers (a.k.a bites) that is all you need. I'm not a fan of overeating and of wastefully large portions. I had the hangar steak. It was nicely cooked medium and came with a full-bodied, flavorful onion jam. The onion jam was a great match to the very pronounced flavor of the meat and the mustard marinade. The dish came with little potatoes that actually did have a taste of their own (not just chunks of starch). My friend's flank steak (that she let me taste) was just as refined. It came with two different types of corn pudding. One more like grits and the other one done almost like a souffle. Both managed to uniquely express the essence of corn.

In addition to the creative design of the dishes and the expert preparation by Chef Andrea Carbine, A Toute Heure benefits from their local sourcing approach where meat and vegetables come from local farms. This approach also leads to a certain seasonality in what type of dishes can be prepared, which in turn forces the chef to be more creative. And I very much look forward to see more of Andrea's creativity.

For dessert we had the home made ice cream. My friend went for the more conventional chocolate (smooth, refined, pointed expression of a less sweet type of chocolate) whereas I dared to go for the goat cheese ice cream and it was worth it. It clearly has that goat cheese nuance but it is not at all offensive but rather nicely mellowed into a comfortable mouth filling sensation.
Coffee and tea are freshly brewed Coffee comes in an individually sized french press coffee pot. Tea is made in a small glass pot from loose leaves.

At the end of the evening we left very satisfied, having enjoyed a variety of interesting, innovative flavors and textures (some of the them for the first time in our lifes) and we were excited to come back soon to get more (much more) of this.

Overall, A Toute Heure is a great addition to the local restaurant scene. They are not cheap, but for the quality the price-level is more than reasonable. They don't take reservations but you can call ahead when you leave from home to be added to the list. And contrary to the reviewer from the Star Ledger I don't see that policy as a problem. Most of the restaurants in Westfield's restaurant row have a similar policy. Finally, they are BYOB but know how to treat your wine, have decent wine glasses and coolers for your bottle of white.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Ciara's Cup O' Cakes in Cranford is Now Open

While driving through Cranford this morning I realized that the paper that had covered the windows of a small store opposite to the movie theater had disappeared. For 6 months or so now there was a sign "Ciara's Cup O' Cakes" and "Opening Soon". I honestly, do not remember what business was in that location before. There are a lot of little stores in that strip that tend to change and reopen frequently. But I was curious, as it sounded like an interesting coffee house.

Now, as of today Ciara's is open (24 Eastman St., Cranford, NJ 07016), just informally, but they are serving their customers. I haven't seen any marketing, yet, so I assume they just want to run for a while to refine the operations. Grand Opening will be next Saturday. And they make it a big event, with a DJ, clowns, story telling, a movie and live music and karaoke in the evening. I have already added this to my calendar and we will be there at least for the evening events.

The atmosphere is pleasant, friendly and inviting to hang out and linger a bit. I didn't have time to explore the menu. But they seemingly do have a good food selection in addition to Coffee and bakery items with cup cakes being their specialty. They serve "Seattle's Best" coffee and the one I got was freshly made and pretty good. A more thorough review is to follow as soon as we have some more time to spend at Ciara's.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


The Heart & Soul Cafe is Truly a Special Place

Another visit to the Heart & Soul Cafe at West Broad Street (corner of Osborn Ave). This time we went there for lunch. Previously impressed by their breakfast, absolutely wanted to try their sandwiches orother lunch items. Fortunately, the very favorable impression from our initial visit was more than confirmed: This is truly a special place. When we arrived there around 12:30 there were a few - seemingly - regular customers at the counter and over the course of our meal a few regulars showed up or stopped by for take out.

Although she is not typically a fan of warm breakfast, my wife was easily convinced by the breakfast special. Fried fish with scrambled eggs and grits. OK let's talk about the grits: Today's visit totally changed my perception of grits. (And it is a rare thing that one event totally changes my view on something). I remember vaguely that I had grits several years ago when we were in New Orleans. I recall it as an amorphous, tasteless mass of empty carbohydrates with a weird texture. I was not at all impressed, didn't understand why this was such a big deal in "The South" and wasn't planning to have it again.

Now with the grits we got at the Heart & Soul Cafe things changed dramatically. The grits there had a unique, pleasant and truly comfortable, mellow balanced flavor in itself (which is enhanced by some butter on top) and a surprisingly good mouth-filling texture. Yes, I'm sure one would still not consider grits a health food, but it is truly enjoyable and absolutely worth it. My wife was pretty happy with the fish and eggs as well.

I had the ham and capicola sandwich. I actually, I had half a sandwich, which easily satisfies a normal lunch appetite. Not only is the sandwich fairly large but it is loaded with lots of meat. And this is not the rather tasteless run of the mill sandwich meat you often get in chain stores but rather tasty higher quality meat. The sandwich bread is baguette like and has a good taste by itself and is slightly chewy and moist, again not what you far too oftent encouter when getting a chain sandwich, tasteless, foam-like sub rolls. As a side you get potato salad. I'm not sure if it is home made, but it certainly has a well rounded flavor and impressive lasting mouth feel and a good texture. The potatoes have a discernible taste of their own, they are not just chunks of tasteless starch. Although the salad is mayonnaise based, the mayo is not overpowering and nicely enclose the other components. For me the high point: It comes with chopped eggs, the one most critical ingredient for a superb potato salad.
Overall a solid, well made deli sandwich which very tasty ingredients and sides. For $5.50 a really good deal.

The service was again very friendly, attentive and efficient. Although this place has a lot of regular guests, new comers are welcomed and treated with the same warmth and attention and - I believe - in a lot of cases will become regulars in no time.

The Heart & Soul Cafe is already becoming a favorite place of ours that we will frequent more often for breakfast or lunch. I will still go to Panera when I travel, but when I'm home in Westfield the Heart & Soul Cafe just feels much better than Panera, et. al. and a bit more like home.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


A new Source for Good Bread: Breadsmith in Cranford

When we recently went to the Car Show in Cranford we also saw that there is a new bread store called "Breadsmith". When I initially drove by I thought the place would become a bank (immediately thinking "No, please, not another bank") as the logo they put up at the store somehow reminds you much more of a typical bank logo than an artisan bread store.

Breadsmith is a Mid Western chain. Most of their stores are in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. The Cranford, NJ, location is their first and so far only store in the Northeast. I'm not sure why they selected Cranford as a bridgehead to conquer the East Coast. But good bread is certainly dearly missing in NJ. Manhattan has Le Pain Quotidien, so the market there is already pretty competitive for high-end artisan bread. NJ probably has more opportunities for them. One might speculate that the site was selected anticipating an acceleration of the current upgrades happening in downtown Cranford.

Breadsmith is certainly a friendly place. The staff is really helpful and attentive. At the left side of the store they have a large rack where all the bread is displayed. There is a little divider/fence in front of that rack as they seemingly don't want people to actually touch the bread. The fence is also a good place to put down the coffee cup that I don't to walk around with all the time. The staff behind the fence will explain and show to you the different breads they have and they will also give you good sized samples of pretty much everything. I really like that. The bread isn't cheap so at least you can figure out if you like it before you buy it.

They do have a few standards that are available every day and a weekly rotation of breads that are only available at particular day of the week. The menu is on their web site. I think this is a good idea and comprise. Their turnover is probably not high enough to afford having 50 different types of bread available all the time. With rotation, you can still get some variety.

After tasting several of their breads (all good but not all really super excellent) we selected the focaccia that was overall the best tasting sample. A firm but somewhat chewy texture with some moisture of the inside. The outside you can't really call a crust. It feels more like a membrane (that keeps the moisture inside) which is exactly what a good focaccia should be. It contains some herbs that give it well round flavor profile. Overall it is a bit heavier than a lot of the super market focaccias but I actually liked that. And it lasted for a long time. We had a piece left after 5 days. It was a little drier than at the first day but it was still a bit moist and had a good consistency. If all their breads lasted that long that would be another bonus.

Although their breads are certainly not bargains their prices are not too much above upscale breads you can get in a supermarket. At least for the focaccia, I can certainly confirm that compared to the supermarket version the one from Breadsmith tastes better, lasts longer and is typically fresher. So the premium on the price is IMHO justified.

I'm sure we will be back to try a few more of their breads.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Breakfast at Java's Brewin in Cranford

After our traditional early morning workout at the Westfield Y, we originally wanted to go to Bovella's to get some of their sensational croissants. But then we remembered that we had seen a new place in Cranford that looked like a coffee house that also had advertised a variety of food options. Curious as we are we decided to go there and check it out.

Java's Brewin is a franchise concept that is proposing an alternative to Starbucks. With a similar focus on high quality (and high-margin) coffee drinks and a pleasant atmosphere to hang out. However, they have added a much broader food selection. Starbucks typically only has some bakery food items like croissants, scones, muffins, etc. (some locations also have pre-made and pre-packaged sandwiches). Java's Brewin tries to attack Starbucks at that front: It offers a more comprehensive selection of typical breakfast and lunch food items (salads, sandwiches, soup). It also offers free WIFI supposedly at all locations. You can get WI-FI at Starbucks via T-Mobile at a significant fee. With a lot of other places offering it for free, I think Starbucks' approach to WI-FI is anachronistic. I typically go to Panera, Cosi or some other place if I need WI-FI. And I believe I'm not the only customer that Starbucks has lost this way.

The web site of Java's Brewin is more targeting potential entrepreneurs that are interested in a franchise opportunity, not so much the (potential) customer. Some of the individual locations seem to have their own web sites, however not the one in Cranford (yet).

When we came there at 8:15 or so there was nobody else in the restaurant. The atmosphere is nice, well lighted, comfortable and cosy enough to hang out and do some work on the computer as needed.
They actually do have on impressive and interesting sounding selection of breakfast and lunch food items on the menu and on display in the glass counter. The fact that the sandwiches, quesadillas, etc. are on display there also means they are not made fresh to order like at Panera or Cosi.

The menu claims that they are made fresh daily. In my world that would imply that they are also only offered that same day they were made. However, it doesn't say that explicitly, so I'm curious. Next time I'm there, I will verify this.

They told us that the place has opened about two weeks ago. Considering that, they should have gotten over the typical start up operational problems by now. But unfortunately they haven't.

My wife ordered a breakfast wrap. This is pre-made and it took some time to find it among all the sandwiches in the counter. I had a classic ham, egg and cheese on a bagel breakfast sandwich, which is freshly put together, with the (really small) egg patty being pre-made. They seemingly have problems operating the toaster so the first bagel was burned to be pretty much black on one side. I requested it not to be used. The second attempt was better but still not perfect. My wife's sandwich was in the contact grill and seemingly nobody watched over its progress. So my wife had to remind them to avoid it getting it burned, too, and saved them from another small disaster.

The whole process of putting together these sandwiches took a rather long time. I'm curious to see how they deal with their order processing when the customers line up during peak time. Operating the cash register and putting the right items at the right price in was another drama that we got sorted out after a while.

The sandwich wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, essentially the sum of its parts. I have had much better breakfast sandwiches at other places around here. At $3.00 ($2.25 for the sandwich plus $.75 for the meat) the price is OK. My wife felt the same about her El Ranchero Burrito: Not bad, but nothing special. So what about the coffee? This was a highlight. I really don't like the fairly bitter coffee you get at Starbucks, so I was glad to see that they have a few options at Java's Brewin that are not dark roast and I really liked their house blend.

While we were enjoying our breakfast a few more clients came in and we could observe some additional customer service and food preparation problems. The staff behind the counter is friendly and tries very hard. However, it seems management doesn't care too much about training their folks and refining the operational processes of the place.

Overall, the Java's Brewin in Cranford, NJ could be a very nice coffee house to hang out, enjoy a java drink and have a good breakfast or lunch. Most of the lunch food items on display actually looked pretty good and I'm sure we will be back to try them.

In summary, we have an excellent promising concept that unfortunately is undermined by less than average execution. I'm really concerned that management after only a few weeks since opening doesn't seem to be involved in day to day operations any more and lets an under-trained staff figure things out by trial and error. I'm hoping for the best, as I really would like to see them succeed.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger.


Dinner at Gauchos with Live Music

A few weeks ago I blogged about our opening night visit to Gauchos BBQ & Grill at South Avenue West. Now, three weeks later we were once again in the mood for a more meat oriented dinner and we also remembered that Gauchos had live music every other Friday and today was one of these Fridays.
We arrived there at around 8:15 PM and they just had one table available for us. Because of the weather there was no outside seating so all the business had to be accommodated inside. And seemingly they had been quite busy that evening.
Three weeks ago, I remarked on a couple of kinks in their operation that needed to be ironed out for prime time. This evening, I'm glad to report that they have successfully worked on all of them and things work quite well. Despite the evening being fairly busy, the service was as warm and welcoming as the first night but also attentive and efficient. I decided to go for the Brazilian Sausage BBQ platter which they didn't have the last time we were there. My wife went for the BBQ Ribs. My BBQ platter is essentially the same as the Rodizio except that it is just a portion of a certain meat without the all-you-can-eat feature. Certainly enough for a regular appetite. The Brazilian sausage is very tasty and a bit spicy and has a firm texture. It comes nicely grilled. And all dishes come with generous portions of sides. In addition to rice (pretty good), fries (OK, not bad but had better fries) and a choice of red or black beans (try both if you can).
Some people remarked that the full blown Rodizio for $26.95 is actually a bit expensive. I would not agree with that statement. Yes, if you are in the mood for a light dinner you shouldn't get it, as you probably will not be able to eat as much as you pay for and there are enough other options to satisfy your desires. However, if you like meat and you have a good appetite the Rodizio is worth it. Not only do you get the salad bar and all the available sides (including a pretty remarkable fried polenta) but you also get to eat as much as you like from the truly outstanding "Top Sirloin Cap" from the Rodizio skewer. We didn't have that dish, but the owner was kind enough to give us a small slice to try, and it was very good, tender and very flavorful.

Overall we again had a very pleasant dinner there at a reasonable price with a lot of left overs to take home which turned into Saturday's lunch. The live Brazilian music was a nice complement to round out the evening, a bit emotional, tense but smooth. I think Gauchos is off to a good start and we hope things will work out for this place to become a permanent addition to the Westfield restaurant scene.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


An Evening with Cars - Smart Cars and Old Cars

More by coincidence than based on planning this evening has mostly to do with cars, first with Smart Cars and then with Old Cars.
The Mercedes Dealership in Edison sent us an invitation for a preview and test drive event for the new Smart Cars that will be introduced to the US market next year. My wife likes cute little cars in general and I'm always interested in innovative car designs, two good reason to go there and check things out.
The Smart Cars are pretty hip in Europe and there people buy them as a fashion statement. Financially, they have only been a limited success for Mercedes. Although small, they are not actually that cheap to design and build. The security concept alone required a serious research and development effort. Combined with some other innovative design elements, e.g. the engine in the back, the sandwich design, these cars also became quite complex to manufacture. So when you are looking for an economical small car, the Smart is not for you: depending on what source you believe the basic model will start at between $12 and 14 k. Yes, you heard that right. You can get the Toyota Yaris or the Nissan Versa nicely equipped for the same or a few grand less.
So the Smart is really for people who can afford it as an additional car for driving short distances in the city or the suburbs, easy to maneuver and to park.
We test drove one and I was not at all impressed. The interior feels nice, but the car is very bouncy (despite the fact that the wheels are as far out in the four corners of the car as possible) and not comfortable, the automatic transmission has a serious lack of power for a short period when it shifts and the engine revs quite high when accelerating and is a bit obtrusive.
And with 40mpg the fuel economy is not that impressive, certainly not compared to a Prius which is a much larger car. And then even a conventional car with a Diesel engine gets pretty close to that.
Although the Smart is pretty cool and looks cute, I doubt that we will ever buy one.
From there we went to Cranford to the Vintage Car Show, a.k.a. Cranford Cruiser Night. I remember a few years ago they had vintage car shows in Westfield in the downtown area (Elm Street and Quimby). At one point that stopped and I really don't know why.
Seemingly quite successfully, Cranford has taken over that tradition. Two blocks of Union Avenue are closed for regular traffic and shiny vintage cars are lined up for the interested public to watch, inspect, photograph and admire, but certainly not to touch. Most proud owners are - understandably - quite peculiar about this. It is amazing how many of these cars are still around and in what good condition. Respect to all the folks that invest a significant amount of time, effort and money into keeping these cars in good condition for people to enjoy. I'm personally mostly fascinated by the tail fins that some of these cars had in 50s.
If you like to see vintage cars or just have a general interest in car design these vintage car shows are great fun. Unfortunately, this was the last one in Cranford for this year, but there is a website that lists all of them in NJ. I believe there is one more in Westfield on the parking lot south of the train station on 2007-09-10.
Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Sweet Sounds Downtown and Dinner at Xocolatz

Another Tuesday night with perfect weather for "Sweet Sounds Downtown", Westfield's summer jazz festival.

At the PNC Stage we spent quite some time with the Eric Mintel Quartet, a classic refined jazz combo, playing jazz standards from Dave Brubeck et. al. as well as their own (very interesting and innovative) compositions. Most impressive were the sophisticated solos and improvisation parts. For me, who I'm just starting to learn to play the piano, Eric Mintel's mastery of that instrument is incredible.

Next, on the lawn in front of the train station, the Chuck Lambert Band played high-energy dynamic traditional blues. Not a bad performance, but IMHO, I have seen other bands at this same place that I liked better with a more refined and expressive sound.

At the Bombay store stage we had Westfield's own Full Count Big Band perform smooth, energizing big band sound. The very authentic Tom Jones impersonation by one of the musicians (see image) was quite enjoyable. Similarly moving were the vocals of Aubrey Parasolle who in her early 20ies performs stylistically confident similar to some of the old stars of the genre.

The Roamin' Gabriels in front of the Baptist Church were unfortunately just taking a break when we arrived. As we were both somewhat hungry we didn't want to wait much longer and headed back to restaurant row.

We wanted to find a place where we could get good food, sit outside and enjoy the music. And once again we were lucky at Xocolatz. Not only did the owner come outside to welcome us, ready to put out another table, they also had a very interesting sounding "Mexican burger" on their special jazz festival menu.

As usual we got a bottle of wine at the Liquor Basket. As much as I was impressed about the decent selection of white wines, in particular in the chilled section, the last time I shopped for wine there, as much was I disappointed by the somewhat limited selection of reds. Most of what I saw was pretty mainstream, things we've had before. Only a few curious ones can be found on the shelf. I picked a pinot noir from Australia that turned out to be OK but nothing special.

But then the food more than made up for the only average wine. To start it off, I had the navy beans and chorizo soup. It came in a large bowl and was topped with some fresh herbs. The soup tasted very good, full-bodied and just a little bit spicy, comfortable but not boring. The burger then was a handful, size wise and taste wise. It was not one of these mega-pounder burgers that are en vogue in some chain restaurants but it wasn't one of the smallish ones either. I ordered it medium-well as I'm always a bit careful with ground meat and they got it just right. The meat was just a slight bit pink in the middle, nicely seared on the outside to keep the juices and the taste inside. The texture was slightly firm without being dense and dry as it often happens when overcooked. The burger was loaded with bacon, sauteed mushrooms and cheese. The explicit taste of the beef together with the smoked bacon flavors and the mushroom nuances combined to a splendid, very enjoyable burger experience. It came with side of Cajun spiced fries. I'm typically very critical with fries, but these had a good texture and the Cajun flavors only enhanced the experience.

My wife had the quesadilla salad from the regular menu. Previously they had only offered items from the special menu Tuesdays, probably because of the high demand for the jazz festival. They seemingly did change that policy and you can now order from the regular menu which is replete with interesting, creative sandwiches and salads as well as entrees at reasonable prices. My wife was as impressed by her quesadilla salad as I was by my burger. With the decent portion size we decided to skip dessert and instead got a small pastry on our way home passing by at Bovella's.

On Tuesdays for the jazz festival or for any other occasion, Xocolatz is a very pleasant, often overlooked, choice in Westfield's restaurant scene. In particular, it is typically fairly easy to get a table outside. Check out their web site for their hours as they aren't open for dinner every day.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Dinner at a Real German Biergarten (Beer Garden)

Today was a real beautiful summer day. It was cool (almost chilly) at night so it was still a bit crisp in the morning and then it became increasingly warm over the course of the day, very little humidity and a nice mild breeze contributing to an easy relaxed mood. In Germany they have a name for that type of weather: they call it "Biergartenwetter" (literally beer garden weather), i.e. the type of weather where you want to spend the day in a beer garden. You would typically plan a hiking or bicycle tour with your family or friends with the destination being a nice beer garden to have lunch/dinner and hang out for a few hours and then return home.
If you have never been to a biergarten, it is essentially an outdoor restaurant. You typically have long tables and benches spread out in a shady garden/wood setting with big old trees. You would normally go there with your family or a group of friends. Food is traditional German home style cooking (meat and potato, bratwurst) and beer is served in 1 liter beer mugs.
On top of my list of things that Westfield doesn't have (but absolutely needs to get) is certainly a beer garden. Fortunately, you don't have to look far to find one. The "Deutscher Club Clark" (German Club) has a very nice one. There is a large open area where the typical biergarten benches are lined up under some tall old trees that provide shade. There is also a larger area (aka Festhalle) that is open to the side but covered with a wooden roof in case there is rain. There are quite a few pictures on the club's website that give you a sense of what their biergarten looks like.
The "Deutscher Club" is a private club, that means to go there you need to become a member (which requires an existing member to nominate you), you can be the guest of a member or you can come for a public event when the club is open to everybody. These public events happen roughly every month and there is typically an admission fee of $5. Parking is free.
Luckily, today they do have such an Oktoberfest event that is open to the public. It starts at 4:00 PM. When we arrive there a little later there are already quite a few people but we don't have a problem finding a very nice table in the shade.
They have a very decent selection of typical German food items that you could find in a similar fashion in a Biergarten in Germany at very reasonable prices. (See image). OK, they also have not-so-German hamburgers and hot dogs.
Food is self service. You have to queue at different food counters and pay right there. A small thing: If you want to get food from different areas you have to queue several times. But the queues weren't too bad.
We decide to have the Bratwurst Platter which comes with potato salad, sauerkraut and a roll, the "Leberkaes" platter with potato salad and a side of Spaetzle with gravy.
The bratwurst is nicely seasoned and grilled just to the right point. Potato salad and sauerkraut are good but nothing spectacular. The Leberkaes however is special. This is a very German food item that is difficult to get here in the US. It is technically a meatloaf however the meat is much more finely ground and then processed in a way to give it tighter, firmer more homogeneous texture. Lightly seasoned and baked it is then cut in slices and served. The one we get at the DC is actually quite good. As you can see in the picture the food comes on paper plates and is eaten with plastic "silverware". In recycling conscious Germany that wouldn't happen. ;-))
With the food we obviously have to have some beer. They have a typical German beer selection on tap. There is the Hacker-Pschorr "Helles" (Helles is a standard German Lager), Warsteiner Pils and a Hefeweizen (a wheat ale with yeast in the bottle or keg). And for $3.50 per cup or $11 for a pitcher that is a bit more than 4 cups this is actually not a bad deal. Domestic beer (if you really must have it) is slightly cheaper.
To finish things up we get some German cake for dessert. A "Zwetschgenkuchen" is a flat cake that is made on a baking sheet (similar to pizza but sweet dough) that is covered with plums. Google has lots of pictures.
Bienenstich (literally "bee sting") is a cake filled with a layer of (usually more fluffy) custard in the middle and a thin layer of honey and sliced almonds on the top. Again some pictures at Google.
While we were having our dinner around 5:30 a German band (Buchenauer Lausbuam) started to play traditional German folksy music. Conceptually similar to country pop. Not my kind of music but lots of people love it and it wasn't loud enough to be annoying.
Oktoberfest (and other similar activities) at the "Deutscher Club" are roughly every month during the summer/fall while the weather is good enough. You can find details on their website. So if the weather is nice and you like German food and music, this is a great place to go with friends or family.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger

A Great Breakfast at the Heart and Soul Cafe

The regular readers of this blog know that weekend breakfast is something almost ritualistic for me. So I'm always searching for new, interesting places to have the first meal of the day. And I found one today.
When my wife and I did an evening walk recently we discovered the Heart & Soul Cafe on West Broad Street (corner of Osborn Ave).
It was closed for vacation at the time, but is has since reopened, so today I had an opportunity to have breakfast there after my early morning workout at the Westfield Y.
And its name lives up to the promise. This is a place that certainly has Heart & Soul. It is a small place. Only three tables with a couple of chairs around and a few stools at the counter. The atmosphere is warm and cozy. The service is friendly and welcoming. I immediately liked the place, it is very personal, you feel at home there, a place to hang out and relax for a while.
The menu is typical breakfast as well as lunch deli fare. Nothing spectacular or outrageous but a good variety so it doesn't get boring if you come there frequently. And seemingly there are a lot of regulars that enjoy the food and the friendly surroundings.
The coffee comes in a china mug, it is fresh, really hot (which I like) and has a full bodied solid taste (not too bitter and not to mellow). And the refills come in timely and fast.
For breakfast I had the two egg sausage breakfast sandwich with home fries. The sandwich comes on a fresh poppy seed roll that has a slightly crisp and chewy texture (not the dry soft foamy stuff you often get). That alone tells me that there is attention to detail. The nicely seasoned sausage patties are fried just right so you get the flavorful juices coming out drenching the roll. You actually get two patties on the larger two-egg sandwich. The eggs are nicely scrambled and fried in a way that they are still fluffy and not overcooked. Overall, this is one of the better breakfast sandwiches I had in a while.
But the best thing are the home fries. There are two types of home fries that I like. The crispy, crunchy, browned ones that are best made in a heavy iron skillet. They are difficult to make in large quantities in a restaurant as they often come out not crispy enough or blackened. I like these more for the crisp, crunchy texture than for the actual taste of the potato.
The other type are the ones that are more stir fried with spices and other ingredients, i.e. not crispy but rather covered with a sauce all around. Such home fries are more about taste than texture. The Heart & Soul Cafe has the latter ones. I don't know what spices they put in but the combination between the subtle taste of the potatoes (yes, potatoes actually do have their own taste) and the seasoning is very pleasant and satisfying. The home fried alone are worth a visit.
In addition to great service and great food, the prices are reasonable. The two egg sandwich with meat is $3.50 (one egg is $2.50). Add home fries for $1.75.
They open at 6:00 AM. If I have to get up that early I'm typically not in the best mood. It is good to know that there is a place in Westfield where I can get a good breakfast that early and where people are nice and friendly. They are also open for lunch and then close at 3:00 PM.
The one and only drawback: There is no outside seating. I think there is enough space in front of the store to put up two tables and a few chairs. Maybe I can convince the owner to do something about that.
When I have an opportunity I will come back for lunch to check out their lunch menu.

This is a mid day blog post. We are planning to go to a very interesting place for dinner. So stay tuned for more to come later today.
Thanks again to Westfield photographer Andrea Ewald for letting me use her photos.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger.


Dinner at Freshwaters in Plainfield

After I came home from my traditional Friday Power Yoga class at the Westfield YMCA, that put me in a very relaxed, centered and a bit mellow frame of mind, we weren't in the mood for home cooking. One reason: It was a pretty hot and humid day and we don't have central air in our house. So the idea of working in the hot kitchen wasn't particularly appealing.
We initially contemplated to go to Gaucho's again to check out the Friday live music. However, we both did not feel like large portions of meat. After weighing our options we decided to try Freshwaters in Plainfield for the first time. Fellow blogger sivyaleah had recently recommended Freshwaters on Chowhound and she even has it listed as one of her Top 5 restaurants.
My wife is a big fan of Southern food, in particular seafood, whereas for me it is not typically top of my list (but I still enjoy it) and tonight my wife was the decision maker.
Freshwaters is certainly an interesting place. The service is very friendly, welcoming and warm. Nevertheless it is also attentive, efficient and professional, a combination you rarely find. They must have developed a very effective way of hiring the right personalities for their wait staff and to motivate and train them properly.
The interior is an amazing and eclectic balance between kitch and style. By themselves some of the decoration would be a weird or cheesy but in combination it actually works quite well and creates an open and warm atmosphere. You almost feel like you are in somebody's living room. The only thing I personally didn't like (and a lot of people disagree with me on this) are the glass panes on the tables. IMHO, food just tastes better with table cloth. The glass on the table somehow alters you mental frame towards food, at least for me.
The menu has classic Cajun/Southern food, not much fusion or creativity. Which is perfectly OK, as we weren't looking for fusion but for traditional well-made Southern home cooking. And that is what you get.

I had the corn chowder which was well composed and intensely (but not overbearingly) seasoned and had the right thick creamy texture that you expect. Then I had the Cajun Chicken Pasta. An interesting combination of sauteed chicken, spaghetti type pasta and a Cajun Alfredo sauce. The sauce is really what makes that dish work. It seemingly consists of heavy cream, some cheeses and a variety of Cajun spices. This creates a heavy (but pleasant) full-bodied flavor that fills your mouth and sticks to your palate for a long time. Voluptuous is a good term to describe the sauce. But don't ask for the calories. And there are lots of sauteed pieces of chicken in and on top of the pasta. I also liked the very tasty, slightly spicy interestingly seasoned okra -tomato side that I selected from a long list of side dishes.
My wife had the crab cakes and the pecan-crusted catfish. I'm not really into fish, so I don't want to comment on these items. My wife liked them and felt they were well made, very tasty and certainly above average but - to quote her - "The cat fish at Mojave Grill is better." But then Mojave Grill is southwestern fusion and not Cajun.
In summary, Freshwaters is probably as close as you can get to authentic Southern cooking in this area. It is a pleasant and satisfying dining experience if you like Cajun food. However, it is not upscale dining and it does not claim to be. A lot of restaurants would benefit quite a bit if they learned from and adopted Freshwaters' notion of customer service.

Prices are just about still reasonable, it is not a bargain dining experience but I wouldn't consider it overpriced either. The place is BYOB. If you like Southern cooking it is almost a must to try it. On Saturdays they have live piano/jazz music.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Construction Action at CoolVines

When walking through Elm Street in downtown Westfield today, I finally saw some action happening at Coolvines, at the former location of "Planet Smoothie". I had previously blogged about this new wine store and my conversation with the owner Mark Censtis about his plans. At the time they were still hoping to open by the end of July, but that didn't materialize.
For a long time I didn't see any action. Finally, now things seem to get going. Several people were working in the store and seemingly at an aggressive pace. If things go well, we could be looking at a grand opening within the next few weeks. While peeking into the store and observing the construction activities, I realized how fairly small the space actually is. I'm curious to see how they will arrange things to create an appropriate retail space for wine.

And I certainly like their Philosophy about wine. Wine indeed is poetry.....

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Another Great Jazz Evening with Sweet Sounds Downtown

It is Tuesday again and we are actually not that much in a mood for a big dinner but we still want to go to Westfield to enjoy the music that is all around downtown as part of the summer jazz festival.

In addition to the pleasant weather there was really great music.

Walking into town from our house we first reached the "PNC Stage" where the Framework Jazz Quartet played vocal jazz classics including some Jobim classics with a very versatile instrumentation. The lead singer's (according to the web site this would be Lauren Shub) strong and precise but nuanced voice contributed to the elegant velvety sound. We also really enjoyed the inclusion of the violin into the instrumentation which added some depth.

Next stop was the "North of the train station" stage. This is typically the stage with the most people and because there is an open lawn area we also have somewhat of a dance floor that is mostly used by smaller children. Still, the music performed by Scarlett Moore (or according to the web site the "Scarlett Lee Moore Band") had the rhythm and energy that would encourage me to get dancing. The band around lead singer Scarlett who impresses with her dynamic expressive blues voice, performs in-your-face blues and R&B type music.

At the "Bombay Store" stage we have the David Aaron Quartet. A competent classic jazz combo, except that the music is a bit more eclectic. In particular, the addition of a clarinet gives them an authentic elegant style that is a good fit for leisurely evening exploration.

Finally in front of the Baptist Church we sit down for a while to listen to the Glenn Alexander Trio (also at myspace). They have a more modern, groovy, rock but still jazzy sound. It guess that would be called fusion. Listening to his music Glenn Alexander is a pretty versatile guy. He even has a song called "Westfield" on his self-name album. I didn't find it too flattering for Westfield, as it is a bit too close to elevator style music, but you can listen to a clip of it here.

On our way back home we stopped again at the PNC stage to listen to the remainder of the Framework performance. Fortunately, the friendly folks from Rockn' Joe gave out discount coupons for a frozen drink for $1 for the small size (compare this to $3.35 without the coupon). A pretty good deal considering that the drinks are quite flavorful, tasty and not too sweet. And you have a good selection that goes far beyond Starbuck's Frappuccinos. We had the vanilla chai which is very recommendable and certainly even worth the $3.35 without the coupon.

Thanks to Westfield photographer Andrea Ewald for letting me use her photos.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


First Day Review: Gauchos BBQ and Grill

Gauchos BBQ and Grill on South Avenue West finally opened yesterday. I started to write about Gauchos about two month ago when I realized that some work was getting done at the location of the former Taxco Grill. At one point I speculated that Gauchos would be opening by the end of June. And I was looking forward to it. With the demise of Samba Grill (at the location where we currently have Cosi) several years ago, there was a void of BBQ restaurants in Westfield. So I felt good that one was coming that is not a chain.

Now end of July Gauchos opened after a few delays and we certainly had to check it out the day of the opening. They didn't do any marketing or announcements to avoid being overrun and to sort out the initial kinks first.
We went for dinner at around 8:00 PM and there were a few other guests dining both in the dining room and at the side walk tables. The first issue was that the air condition didn't work well so it was a bit hot inside. With the temperatures outside being OK and the humidity bearable we decided to sit outside.
Service is very friendly, attentive, pro-active and trying very hard to accommodate the customer's desires. It was not always efficient but for first day operations it was remarkably good. Because of the heat we decided not to go for the full all-you-can-eat Rodizio but rather have individual BBQ dishes. These are the same meats as the Rodizio (i.e. they come from the skewer), however it is just one particular meat and not the all-you-can-eat feature. These BBQ menu items come with beans, fries, rice and salad bar. Considering this, they are actually very reasonably priced. E.g. the Brazilian Sausage BBQ plate that I ordered is $10.95. My wife ordered the pork ribs which were only slightly higher.
Our order was taken and after we made our way to the salad bar it turned out that they were out of both meats. I guess they had underestimated the amount of first day patronage. The owner came out himself and apologized and helped us to find alternative options. My wife had the Rodizio sampler, for $10 you get samples of some of the different Rodizio meats they have with rice and fries. Also not a bad deal. I had the Onion Steak which also comes with fries, rice and beans. The meat was actually pretty good but done quite a bit more than medium which is what I ordered. OK, let's say this was another day one kink.
With both our alternative selections the salad bar was now not included but we already had it. No questions asked we were not charged for it.
The salad bar is fairly small but good quality and fresh. In addition to greens and vegetables there were three pretty good prepared salads: pasta, potato and vegetable/tuna.
For dessert we had the flan. Very well done and for $4.50 almost a steal. Gauchos manages to captured the essence of flan quite well. The taste is full bodied but not overwhelming, the texture is smooth and firm but neither too creamy nor too heavy. It comes with a chocolate sauce that is not poured on the flan but around it. So if you don't like the sauce (like my wife) you can just eat the flan.
When talking to the owner (who clearly likes to talk to his guests) it is very apparent that he sees his restaurant as more than just a business. We certainly felt very welcome as customers and guests.

In summary, for a first day operations quite impressive. If they can retain their very customer oriented attitude, maintain or even increase the high food quality and iron out some of the logistical and food preparation kinks, this could become one of my favorite restaurants in Westfield. This would be pretty cool, as from where we live this is the closest restaurant to walk to. Not to mentioned outside seating and BYOB.

We were also told that there will be live music every other Friday, so that would be next Friday and "Grand Opening" is targeted for Saturday next week (2007-08-04). If our schedules work out, we will be back next Friday.

Siging Off - The Westfield Blogger


Who Needs Another Bank in Westfield?

In recent years more and more banks have set up shop in Westfield, just recently HSBC and Citibank almost next to each other on North Ave and WaMu on Elm Street. I was always wondering why this is and how all these banks can make a living, in particular with the fairly expensive retail space in Westfield.
10 years ago or so, when online banking started to become popular, everybody felt that branch/retail banking would be on the decline as most people wouldn't want to go to their banks but rather do things online or via phone. And for a while it seemed like that was actually happening.
But then a few years ago an opposite trend emerged. Banks were aggressively opening new retail branches or were even building whole business models around consumer banking with retail branches at every corner (e.g. Commerce Bank), what some people call McDonald's Banking. I still don't understand how that model can be profitable but somehow it must make business sense for these companies. For myself, I hardly ever visit my bank branch and do as much as possible online or via phone.
I find good eateries or quirky specialty stores much more intriguing than chain bank branches and they also contribute more to a vibrant community. So I had hoped the "Banks are Taking Over Westfield" trend we have seen for the last few years was running out of steam. Unfortunately, it hasn't. I just realized that on South Avenue, next to Tutti Bacci, another bank will be opening where there the bicycle store used to be. Not sure which bank it is going to be but if you look through the windows you can clearly see a wall opening for an ATM.
I would have rather liked to see a great Greek or Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant with some tables on the sidewalk. Banks are certainly not on my list of things that the Westfield scene is dearly missing.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Unexpected Visit To Sweet Sound Downtown

As mentioned in a previous post, I wasn’t too happy that I had to be on a business trip Monday and Tuesday this week, anticipating that I would have to miss today’s Jazz Festival in Westfield. I was originally booked on the 6:00 PM Acela from Washington, getting me back into Westfield at around 9:00 PM. Fortunately, my meeting in Washington was successfully completed much earlier, I made it to Washington Union Station in no time and was able to catch a train 2 hours earlier, got a great quiet seat in the train and the train even arrived early. This must be my lucky day. Usually, when I'm traveling I'm on the plane that is several hours delayed and then gets rerouted.

By the way, besides NJ Transit, I haven’t used many trains while here on the east coast, particularly not AMTRAK for intercity service. So my trip to Washington via train was a first and I’m actually quite impressed. It is certainly much better than flying. Even in coach you have more space and it is much more comfortable than a domestic first class seat on a plane. The Acela even has a dedicated quiet car which is great when you want to get some work done and you have standard power outlets for your laptop at every seat. There is less hassle to get to and from the airport as well as at the airport/station. If you need to travel up and down the north east, I would absolutely recommend AMTRAK.

Back to the Jazz Festival. We started at the PNC stage with Arturo. Relaxing, warm, sultry Latin jazz very well performed. The female lead singer (unfortunately I don't know her name, it is not given on their website) comes across as very convincing and authentic with her cool voice and confident performance. We enjoyed them quite a bit and our expectations for the rest of the evening were raised.

At the Baptist Church, Richard Reiter’s Swing Band provided a menu of swing classics. Judging from their web site Richard Reiter is quite a versatile musician, performer of many instruments and composer/arranger of very different styles. We only saw the swing side of this talented group. Certainly worth exploring more of his music.
We skipped the Bombay Store stage, as we didn’t particularly like the music, but that is certainly not a statement about the quality of the band.
So we went straight to the South Side Stage next to the train station where Jim Dean and the Solid Jackson Groove Cats played under the shady Christmas tree. I particularly like this stage that is typically only played at every other week. I have seen many excellent more classic or traditional jazz bands with solid performances play there over the years. This evening is not different. Jim Dean focuses on classic jazz tunes and renders them in a very skillful and sometimes innovative way. After spending quite some time with Jim Dean we got a bit hungry and headed back to the North side.

Fortunately, very fortunately for such a busy night, we had no problem to get a table at Xocolatz close enough to the stage north of the train station to see the band and listen to the music. We have been to Xocolatz many times before and IMHO, it is one of these underrated, overlooked places that are often referred to as "best kept secret".

The dining room is pretty small (but has a decent ambiance) and I guess they see themselves more as a catering business than a full restaurant. Nevertheless, personally, I think they are easily in the same league as some of the other places on the restaurant row. I like their menu which has lots of reasonably priced, innovative sandwiches and salads that are available even for dinner. (Note: Dinner after 7:00 PM is only served Thursday, Friday and Saturday and seemingly during the summer on Tuesdays for the Jazz Festival). In addition to that they have some reasonably priced more dinner type entrees (steaks, chicken pasta, etc.) And there are daily specials (available on the web site) that are typically worth exploring, sometimes quite creative ones like the "Cajun seasoned grilled swordfish over a bed of fresh mango, cucumber
and cranberry couscous" that my wife had.
Tonight, unfortunately, they didn’t have their full menu but a special limited one for the Jazz Festival. I was initially slightly disappointed as I had my appetite set on the steak with potato gnocchi that I had seen on the menu before. But the special menu also had a variety of interesting items. I had the Vegetable Focaccia which was an interesting take on a nicely grilled open-faced focaccia sandwich with a well-seasoned grilled vegetable medley. Excellent flavor profile and good execution. My wife also liked her swordfish. She remarked on the couscous with cranberries and mango to be an intriguing side dish.

The service is friendly, attentive, efficient and accommodating, trying very hard to make things right and proactively cater to the customer.
Xocolatz is a BYOB place so we got a bottle of Chard-No-Way (Chenin Blanc). I had this rather unusual wine before and liked it. Chenin Blanc (at least in the US) is a seriously underrated grape that has a lot of potential and when well made can easily compete with much pricier Chardonnays (assuming oak is not that important for you).

While at Xocolatz, we were listening to the band playing North of the train station: "Scott Hunter and the Soul Searchers" which had more Soul & R&B style music, some classic tunes and some innovative ones. Great finale for the evening.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger