Restaurant Review - Cosimo

Tonight I met with an old friend to catch up and have something to eat. Cosimo's seems to be her favorite restaurant in Westfield, so when we drove by and saw an empty table outside and a parking spot right there, we thought we were in luck and went right for it.
I had been to Cosimo's quite a while ago but at the time wasn't that impressed. In the meantime they have extended/renovated the place and made a real restaurant out of the former "take out pizza with a few tables" place.
The service is effective, friendly, mostly attentive and trying hard to please the customer, but sometimes they seem to be a bit disorganized and trip over each other.
The menu has all the typical Italian pizza-pasta-meat-and-sandwich-standards with a few unusual additions. The specials however are really interesting and innovative. It seems, there, they give the chef a chance to be creative and show what he can do outside of the daily routine.
One example was the stuffed grilled pear appetizer that we had. The pear with the blue cheese, grilled just right, to give the blue cheese this special taste and texture, to create a perfect combination with the flavor of the pear. This combination is served on a crisp bed of greens with a special dressing.
My friend had the penne with meat sauce. The meat sauce was good, even slightly above average but nothing special. Yes, not everything has to be special.
We also had the bruschetta pizza because we both like the real bruschetta. The pizza is not a true replacement for the original but overall not bad. The menu touts a thin crust but it turned out not be that thin. We ordered the version with cheese. So what you get is essentially a cheese pizza with the typical bruschetta toppings. Actually not a bad idea and well executed, except for the crust that could be thinner. For regular pizzas that type of crust is absolutely OK. Also, the bread they serve is pretty nice and goes well with the salad.
Overall, Cosimo's is a good place for a casual dinner in Westfield with good outside seating. Wine is BYOB. When you are in the mood for a good pizza or other Italian standards at reasonable prices it is a good recommendation.

Siging Off - The Westfield Blogger


Things are Happening around South Avenue - Gauchos is Coming to Town

Everybody that lives in Westfield knows the less fancy side of the town south of the train station, appropriately named South Avenue. In most towns this would pass as half a main street. A main street with houses and shops only on one side and a big parking lot on the other side. (Historically it would be interesting to know what was there before the parking lot).

On the South side of the town, there are a variety of interesting and peculiar shops and restaurants that probably couldn't make it with the higher rents on the North side. But then there are also quite a few empty store fronts right now. I guess the retail rent inflation on the North side is also starting to affect the stores South of the railroad.

With the nice hot weather on Memorial Day, I decided to take a stroll into town but I decided to change my usual route and walked along South Avenue (instead of North Avenue) which I haven't done in a while. From a restaurant/food perspective I realized three noteworthy things.

1) Classic Thyme has moved to a house on the West side of South Avenue. In my opinion, Classic Thyme is an important institution for Westfield, and I believe it is worth having a few posts about it a later time.

2) Something is finally happening at Mario's Italian Deli. This is an empty store where there was Duke's Deli before at the corner of South Avenue and Summit Avenue. Duke's closed several months ago (maybe even half a year ago, soon thereafter the "Mario's Italian Deli coming soon" sign went up but then nothing ever happened. Today, I saw a few people working in there. So I hope Mario is going to open soon. A really good Italian Deli in Westfield would be more than welcome. At a later post I will share my theory about Italian Delis.

3) In the little strip of shops on South Avenue just west of West Broad Street something is also happening. Gauchos is coming to town. But who the heck is Gaucho? ;)

At that location there were previously several deli type places and then just recently a Mexican place (that I believe was called something like "Taxco Grill" and before that "Cafe Taormin".) They seemingly all weren't that interested in getting customers and subsequently failed. For a restaurant's success location is critical and this particular strip of shops is not a prime restaurant location. Hence, to be successful you have to a) do a lot of marketing/advertisement b) offer the customer something special to give them a reason to come back. This would be either a good price, exceptional food or great service (or a combination of these). If you are just another "me too" type place, you won't survive as a restaurant in a secondary location like this.

Seemingly the previous owners didn't get this very basic message. They didn't do a lot of marketing and they didn't give me any reason to come back after I had visited them once. The deli's in there were just normal basic slightly below average sandwich places with normal prices and uncommitted service. The Mexican restaurant had an interesting sounding menu, but the ambiance was not at all welcoming and it smelled weird. And for that type of place the prices were actually quite a bit high. (Certainly higher than chain competitors like Tinga or Qudoba on the North Side of town)

Now I hope Gauchos is doing a better job and has more fortune thriving as a business at this somewhat disadvantaged place. The sign in the window says "coming soon" and touts it as "Brazilian Cuisine". From the outside you can clearly see that some work is being done to remodel the place. It is not clear yet to me if this is more a take-out/to-go type place or if you can actually sit down and have lunch or dinner. I certainly hope for the latter one. I like Brazilian food and it doesn't always have to be Rodizio, which IMHO is often overpriced and sometimes overrated for what it is.

A somewhat authentic Brazilian Restaurant would certainly be a welcome addition to the Westfield Restaurant Landscape. Gauchos has already registered the appropriate domain http://gauchosbbq.com/ and set up a basic web site that consist only of one photo of the place. And that photo is seemingly a mock-up of what Gauchos wants the place to look like after the renovation. A few chairs and tables outside in front of the place may not be a bad idea.

From the registrant information for the domain you can see that the person who registered the domain has a phone number and mail address in Brazil (but this could also be a company on whose behalf it was registered). So let's hope we get authentic Brazilian cuisine there.

There has been a Brazilian Restaurant in Westfield (partially Rodizio style) several years ago where there is currently Cosi (and before that Wild Noodles). It was called Samba Grill and was actually quite good and reasonably priced. It even had life Brazilian Music on the weekend. They had big crowds during the weekend but I'm not sure how well they were doing during the week (and for lunch). I do not know why they gave up. They had quite a following in Westfield at one point.

We will test Gauchos as soon it opens and report back here.

Good Luck to Gauchos. And maybe in the long run another viable Restaurant Row will develop on South Avenue in Westfield.

Sigining Off - Westfield Blogger

Saturday Routine and Bike Ride in Paulinskill Valley

I'm almost back to my normal Saturday routine. Early in the morning, a good workout at the Y and then fresh Croissants at Bovella's and this time I actually had to wait to get them fresh from the oven. And I was not the only one who had to wait. Because of the Holiday the Music School in Scotch Plains was closed so this means another week without Piano lessons.
Westfield has a lot to offer, but one thing it does not have is mountain bike trails, or any type of decent long enough bike trails for that matter. Therefore, for of my passions I have to look somewhere else in NJ.
There is a book a book by Christopher Mac Kinnon, called "Mountain Biking in New Jersey" that lists 50 off-road bike rides in the state, a significant amount of them in central and northern Jersey, i.e. fairly easy to reach from Westfield. I have done a few of them last year and are planing to explore the rest of the state this year. The description and the maps are pretty accurate, detailed enough and easy to use. For the interested mountain biker, I would certainly recommend this book.
BTW, in addition to buying the whole book you can read intros to the individual rides at the site and then download the full description and the map for a fee. This is actually not a bad idea for people that are not frequent bicyclist.
I decided to do the Paulinskill Valley Trail, to be precise a part of the eastern section of the trail starting in Stillwater New Jersey. A detailed trail description is at the book's web site.
The Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee has a somewhat basic site with limited information and no trail maps. Come on... How can you be the "Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee" and don't have a map of your trail? For me this is almost too obvious, if you want to use a trail the key thing you need is a map. TrailLink has some photos and reviews but no map either. NJ Skylands has a good article and a very basic map, good for an overview but too basic for actual usage when biking on the trail. Not even the NJ State Park System has a map on their site. But there must a map, I have seen it: along the trail there are several information boards that do contain a fairly decent trail map.
For me, the map that came with the book was good enough. This trail is the on the right of way (ROW) of a former rail line of the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad (NYS&W), a.k.a. "Susi Q". This railroad still exists (even in New Jersey) and is thriving, but they abandoned this particular line in the 1960s.
I don't have enough stamina to do the whole eastern section of the trail through to the end at Sparta Junction. So after about 10 miles or so I turn around and head back.
Overall, a fairly easy track, except for a few places where the bridges over roads have been removed and you have to do a detour, often meaning to walk your bike. You can also see a few railroad remnants: the foundation of a water tower, a section of track in the woods in middle of nowhere, the ruins of a telegraph office. And if you are very observant you can actually reconstruct Swartswood Junction in your mind. About midway on the eastern section this was where railroad line of the Lehigh and New England Railroad branched off heading further North towards toward Sussex and then into New York State whereas the trail follows the NYS&W towards Sparta and then on to New York. If you compare the photo against today you start to appreciate Nature's ability to take back what we have taken from her.
Although this not true mountain biking as it is technically very easy, I stilled enjoyed the trip quite a bit. This a very beautiful part of New Jersey that one rarely sees. Even if your are only an occasional bicyclist the Paulinskill Valley Trail is definitely worth a visit.
After returning to trailhead I decided to explore the area a bit before driving back home. I was also in search for a nice restaurant to get some early dinner. Fortunately, I found the "The Boat House" restaurant and bar in Swartswood on road 521 right at the shore of Swartswood Lake. It looks like it has been recently renovated with a very nice deck for waterfront dining being added. (The google map satellite doesn't show the deck, yet, so it must be fairly recent).
Good service, the menu has refined but typical bar and grille type food. I vote for the burger. Nice portion, well made and seasoned, good toppings and excellent french fries. All of that for a very reasonable price and you can sit outside and enjoy the view of the lake. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have a web site.

I'm sure to visit again when I come back to the area to do the rest of the Paulinskill Valley trail.

Signing Off - Westfield Blogger


Friday is Yoga Day and al fresco at Tosca in Kenilworth

Thanks to the holiday weekend my company did close a little earlier this afternoon. This afforded me the opportunity to take a brief afternoon nap. Unfortunately 15 minutes into it a telemarketer called and woke me up.
Anyhow, after my little nap I was pretty relaxed. And then having a Power Yoga session immediately thereafter, got me into an even better mood. One purpose of yoga is to focus your mind, to remove all the clutter that is happening in your brain all the time and put you into a state of relaxation. If you are already relaxed when you start your Yoga session, getting into this state is even easier. Maybe that was one of the reasons why tonight some of the postures that I struggled with before felt much easier. In particular, with some of balancing postures I was able to last a lot longer. The full version of the
tree pose (vrksasana) was not a problem at all.
Motivated by my unexpected improvements and totally relaxed for the weekend, I was in the mood for a fancy dinner. A few weeks ago I drove through Kenilworth and saw the newly renovated
Tosca, that looks like a somewhat eclectic Italian mansion in Florence. I'm sure some people think it is a little overdone, but I actually like the style. What I liked in particular was the tables they had on the sidewalk to enjoy the warm weather, dining al fresco.
So I went back there this Friday. Getting a table outside wasn't a problem. For some reason most people sat inside. (I just don't get it). The service was friendly, attentive and competent although at times a bit edgy. The menu offers innovative Italian fare at reasonable prices. Maybe for Kenilworth a bit on the high side. But then quality is really good.
Unfortunately, for the wine they only no half bottles (and I was by myself) and a very limited "by the glass" selection. One gripe that I have with restaurants here is that they often don't put the wine-by-the-glass on the wine list, so you don't know what is. And when you ask, they often only tell you "red or white" and if you are lucky the varietal. If you ask for more (like the producer, country, vintage) it usually gets complicated. At Tosca they at least knew the varietals. Just put it on the list and you may actually sell more wine by the glass.
So instead of a glass of wine, I had a Martini. At least there you can specify the vodka. After I order, they brought a nice selection of breads. I was impressed. Not the basic Italian bread that you often get. At Tosca, they had a real tasty artisan type Italian bread, a tasty moist whole wheat type bread and then some type of flat bread. All very good. In addition to the good bread they give you a small plate with some olives and Parmesan cheese. That is what I call a good start into a very enjoyable dinner.
As an app I selected the Tricolore Salad which came in a Parmesan cheese basket. The combination of the fresh greens, the vinaigrette type dressing and the grilled Parmesan was pretty cool. My main dish was the pasta special. Spinach tagliatelle with mushrooms and lamb sausage based on a recommendation of the waiter. When I ordered I asked a few questions, and the waiter seemingly understood my reasoning and decision making process and he insisted that I try the special instead of my original selection. And he was right. This was one of the best pasta dishes I had in a while. A refined combination of flavors. Innovative but comfortable. Full-bodied but not overwhelming.
I skipped the desert which they show you on a desert tray. They all looked good, but they didn't have my two favorites: Tiramisu and Crème brûlée. Still the cappuccino was certainly above average and it comes with a fairly large selection of biscotti.
Overall, Tosca is certainly worth exploring more. They seemingly trying hard to make this a special place and to have the customer enjoy the time there and leave with a pleasant feeling. A always there is some room for improvement:

1) More wine by the class and list them on the wine list so I know what I get.
2) A sheet of glass on the table on top of the cloth. I now why they are doing it, I still find eating on table cloth just adds are certainly stylishness to the meal.
3) The cocktail olives in the martini were a bit bland. OK, if I have to criticize these type of minutiae, that means it is difficult to find real important things to criticize.

With a sense of a satisfaction that comes from a really good meal I'm

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Food Test: Pizza at Cosi

My day at work was pretty cramped with all kind of important projects despite the fact that in theory it should be quieter because of the upcoming holiday weekend. So I was glad to go to the Y for my workout and take my thoughts off of work. It wasn’t particularly busy at the Y either, so I got through my routine fairly fast.

After that I was really hungry and with the weather being as nice as it was, the only choice was to look for a place in Westfield where I could sit outside, work a bit on my computer (like writing this blog entry) and maybe meet a few friends.

I was in the mood for pizza and hadn’t tried the one at Cosi before. So the decision was made without hesitation. (Now, this does not mean that Cosi has the best pizza in Westfield. Comparing the different pizza places in Westfield would be an interesting exercise)

Cosi is a Sandwich, Salad and Pizza place that started in Westfield several months ago at a location where over the last few years several other restaurants had failed. The ones that failed were both individual place and chain restaurants. I hope it works out for them as I feel it is a nice addition to the Westfield Restaurant landscape. And it being there will ensure that Panera doesn’t loose its focus on the customer. Competition is good for the customer.

I ordered the meat lovers pizza with pepperoni, sausage and bacon. The pizza arrives in a timely manner and fresh and hot from the oven. But for my typical pizza preferences it is a bit disappointing. The taste is actually good. The different ingredients combine quite nicely. But the dough is a bit too thick and chewy. I didn’t expect a thin-crust pizza, but a little less dough would have helped. And for the price ($13.95) it was actually a bit small. The diameter was a bit larger than what you would call an “individual pizza” but not that much larger. It was certainly significantly smaller than the pizza you would get at the neighboring Cosimo (not related to Cosi at all). It is enough for a hungry individual like me but for a couple even with reasonable craving it is not sufficient at all. So if two people have to order two of these pizzas, it actually gets a bit expensive and a full service restaurant becomes a better deal.

Otherwise, the service is friendly and efficient. The seating area inside is nice and stylish (albeit not actually cozy). Outside seating is what it typically is in Westfield: Chairs and tables on the sidewalk, but that is perfectly OK.

Another drawback of Cosi: They don’t have wireless Internet access. I’m sure they thought about it (as other Cosi do have it and the competitor on the other side is marketing it). I guess they dismissed is. Why would they do that as it is a fairly low-cost item. My theory: As the seating area is a bit small, they probably don’t want to encourage people to hang out during the peak times. That may be one of the reasons why they decided against it. Otherwise they may end up with several individual people sitting there with a computer for hours sipping the free-refill coffee while the tables are not available for higher turnover customers.

Although, I like Cosi in general quite a bit (a review of sandwich and salad will follow), not having wireless Internet, is probably at least on reason for me to get back to Panera also.


Robert Green Ingersoll Lecture

Most of you probably don’t know a lot about Robert Green Ingersoll. I had heard about him and knew that he was an American Philosopher during the second half of the 19th century. That is pretty much all I knew about him.

Tonight, I had to leave Westfield to learn more about Robert Ingersoll. Actually, I had to drive to Bridgewater. There, at the PeopleCare Center was an educational lecture about Robert Ingersoll. The PeopleCare center is a building – the former Finderne Elementary School - operated by a non-profit Bridgewater, where local clubs, associations, etc. can rent space and host meetings and events.

The lecture tonight was hosted by the New Jersey Humanist Network. They do have a monthly lecture series there. The interesting fact about Robert Ingersoll was that at his time he probably was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers and quite well known. Nowadays, he is still subject to academic research, but by far not widely known although a lot of his ideas and quotes have become mainstream.
And he did influence the intellectual and political process at this time quite a bit in a way that was always in favor of freedom for the individual. In that sense, part of the freedoms we have today are probably at least in part due to Robert Ingersoll.

Even if during today’s lecture I only got a glance on Robert Ingersoll’s life, I’m really excited and curiuous to learn more about him. He seems to a personality the resonates quite well with my own believes. And there is a lot of material on the Internet explore the Philosophy of Robert Green Ingersoll.

Wikiquote has an eclectic selection of his quotes, e.g. "The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave, and is a traitor to himself and to his fellow-men."

Some of his texts are even available for free as podcast to download and play on your MP3 player. And there are a few good books out there, too.

Signing Off – The Westfield Blogger


Sunday Workout, a Breakfast Burrito and an Afternoon Nap

If I don’t get to workout for a while I really get antsy and irritated. So not having done my workout on Saturday, I was anxious to get to the Y on Sunday morning. I got out of the house early and arrived at the Y shortly after 7:00 AM when they had just opened. And this is actually a good time for a workout at the Y because it is fairly quiet. There are few people so you don’t feel alone and out of place, but only a few, so you don’t have to wait for a particular machine.

With my wife being away on a trip to Europe, I’m not in the mood for cooking and having breakfast by myself at home. So, I decided to go to another Diner type restaurant that I like. The Rise & Shine in Scotch Plains. Unfortunately, I was not the only one with that idea. The parking lot was completely packed and people were waiting in a line at the entrance and outside.

OK, time for plan B. A review of Rise & Shine will follow at a later time. Plan B is Queen City Diner. Yes, I just had dinner there on Friday. But that was different, it was dinner. And I also really like the breakfast at Queen City.

I arrived there at about 9:00 AM and it is amazingly quiet (for a Sunday morning). I can select my own nice booth at the window. The service is extremely fast and friendly. I get coffee (they have new mugs with Queen City branding) and an OJ. Unfortunately the OJ is not fresh squeezed. Fresh squeezed OJ is one of the great things in life and if I ever had to list the criteria for the perfect breakfast restaurant, offering fresh squeezed OJ would be one of it. (I think I need to talk to the owner of Queen City and convince him that we needs to add fresh OJ to the menu).

For breakfast I have the sausage breakfast burrito. For $5.95 you get a decent sized burrito filled with a combination of scramble egg, cheese, sausage, potatoes and tomato salsa. I’m not sure what other spices and ingredients the chef puts into it. The taste is really amazing. Somehow, they manage to make this a really tasty breakfast experience. All the ingredients nicely combine to something that is more than the sum of its parts. I had breakfast burritos at the Queen City Diner before and they were always amazing. As a side you get home fries. I have to admit I had better home fries before, but they are certainly not bad and actually above average. But there is some room for improvement, you could spice them up and make them a bit crisper.

When I leave the Queen City Diner is also pretty packed. I guess the crowds come here a little bit later on a Sunday.

The rest of the day I spend doing all kind of jobs around the house, to make everything look nice, clean and fixed up when my wife comes back. Next week is going to be quite busy and stressful at work so I take an afternoon nap to proactively relax. I haven’t done this in a while and I seemingly forgot how good this actually feels. Just a 30 minute nap in the afternoon and you feel so refreshed and your outlook life gets so much more positive and optimistic. Your thoughts are focused. Most of you know this feeling of anticipation and excitement when you wake in the morning to a beautiful day with all the possibilities and opportunities in front you. It’s a great feeling and you can almost recreate that same feeling (maybe with a slightly reduced intensity) by taking a nap in the afternoon and awake refreshed and ready to take on the second half the day and potentially an interesting evening and night.

Signing Off – The Westfield Blogger


An Unusual Saturday - A Subway Trip to NYC

This was actually a pretty untypical Saturday for me. I'm a person who I real likes routines and processes. This Saturday morning, I did not go to the Y for my workout, I didn't get croissants at Bovella's and I missed my piano lessons in Scotch Plains. The reason: I had an alternative plan for this Saturday.

For me to change my routine this alternative plan obviously had to be something special and important. And, yes it was. I'm somehow fascinated by railroads - not necessarily individual trains or locomotives, but whole railroads and transit systems.

So when I learned that this Saturday The New York Transit Museum offered a rare guided tour of a Subway Maintenance Facility, I signed almost immediately. And, it was worth it!!!

In this particular case it was the Corona Maintenance Facility in Flushing, NY close to the Willets Point Subway station. All the subways cars for the number 7 trains in NY are maintained and repaired there. The scope of the operation is mindbogglingly. The number 7 subway line alone - although one of the shorter ones in NY - runs at peak 33 trains at the same time. With each train consisting of 11 cars, the number 7 line alone requires more than 400 subway car to operate and large facility to maintain and repair these. 126 people work there just to maintain the number 7 trains. This does not include the motormen that drive the trains, conductor and maintenance of way type people.

If you think of the whole system of the NY subway with many more lines that are often considerable longer you only start to imagine the scope of operations behind the NY subway system.

The tour group was about 40 people, male and female, old and young. There is a certain stereotype about people interested in trains and interestingly enough this group did not totally meet this stereotype. Actually, there were quite a few females that seemed to be very knowledge about the NY subway system. Besides the visitors enjoying the tour, I also got the feeling that the tour guides and the folks that work in the facility were quite excited about the attention they got and really appreciated the fact that people that actually ride on the trains that they maintain, were interested in what they are doing.

There was also a team (reporter and photographer) from the New York Times there which led to an article in the Metro Section of the Sunday Issue. I wasn't very impressed with the reporter. There are quite a few things in the article that he got wrong or that are imprecise. Had he actually listened to some of the explanations given at the tour he could have corrected some of the information. But besides the inaccuracies, I find the somewhat derogatory tone of the article towards the people that were on the tour inappropriate. It wouldn't have been difficult and much more work to give things a different spin. What about some more respect for your fellow human beings. In some form or another everyone is a geek and obsessed with something.

In any case. I enjoyed and learned quite a few new things about the NY subway system.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Power Yoga at the Y and Queen City Diner

Friday nights at 6:30 I often go to the Y for PowerYoga. And the fact that I haven't blogged about it in more than a months of blogging, tells me that I haven't been there for a while. Even the instructor remarked "welcome back". So I must have been out for a while.

Somehow, there was always something else to do on Friday evenings and I neglected my Yoga routine. Going back today made me realize how much I actually enjoy it and I really should try to do it more regularly.

I like Yoga for two reasons. On the one hand I enjoy the movements, the balance, stretching of your body, i.e. the physical activity. It warms you up, relaxes your body and puts you in a comfortable mellow state of mild physical tiredness. At the same time the meditation, the focusing and the observed breathing leads to a complementary state of mental alertness and emptiness at the same time. If you haven't experienced this yourself, it sounds a bit weird. But in yoga you learn to essentially focus your mind on not thinking anything at all. You keep all the clutter out that your mind is typically constantly working on and focus essentially on your body and on yourself. After a PowerYoga session, the ten minutes or so of utter relaxation at the end (in yoga terminology Savasana) is for me more refreshing than several hours of sleep. Although I have tried, I haven't been able to replicate this effect when meditating at home.

After this good relaxing start into the weekend, I'm in the mood for comfort/diner type food. There are two places in Westfield that compete in that space, however, I'm not that impressed with both of them. (In a later post I probably will argue why that it.) However, with NJ being replete with Diners and similar restaurants, I'm certainly not restricted to Westfield. There many place not far away that seem worthwhile exploring.

One place that we recently discovered and that has proven to be consistently above average is the Queen City Diner in Plainfield. Formerly known as Rena's Diner it seems to have a lot of history, that I really can't say a lot about. We have started to go there about 6 months ago.

Queen City is certainly above average for a Diner. It has a nice clean well lighted atmosphere. The service is friendly, attentive and caring (although sometimes not fully refined). The menu has all the typical Diner items plus some unusual and even innovative additions. Some of them catering to the health conscious diner and some catering to the adventurous person that wants Diner food but not always exactly the same.

The latter description fits me quite well. The quality of the food is really good for Diner standards. (Let's be realistic a Diner is not trying to compete with a upscale dining establishment, so I have realistic expectations). Well-made, refined taste and texture and the display is good. The portions are generous in particular for dinner. The dinner specials come with soup, salad, entree (plus two sides) and desert. Typically, you take half of the entree and sometimes even the desert home.

Today I have the meat lasagna. OK, it is not like you get it al forno as in Italy, but its well made and tasty with a rich tomato sauce, well-seasoned meet and the texture of the pasta is al dente (and not overcooked as you sometimes get it). A few weeks ago I had the meat loaf (and yes I'm a fan of meat loaf) which is certainly worth it. At the time they had risotto as a side dish (which they didn't have tonight). I was surprised and excited, is it not only very rare to find risotto at Diner, but the one at the Queen City Diner is actually quite tasty. I almost contemplate next time to just have a plate of risotto and spinach. I hope the risotto is back as side the next time I'm there.

After this very enjoyable start into the weekend, I'm

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Fine Dining - Close to Westfield

One of the things on my list "What I'm missing in Westfield" is "a real classy fine dining establishment". At a later blog I will argue why I believe that none of the places in Westfield (that are certainly aspiring to do that) can meet that standard successfully.

So when my wife wanted to take out a very good friend of ours for a little farewell dinner (my wife is leaving for a trip to Europe for a few weeks) and we wanted something really special we decided to visit the Stage House in Scotch Plains, the next town on the west side of Westfield.

The Stage House has a very long tradition as a building and as a classy restaurant. Recently, they introduced everyday $24 two course menus. (With desert you get up to $31 or so). That by itself is not bad considering the quality of the food. On top of that on Tuesday they don't have a corkage fee so you can bring your own wine. (Ok, in this place you better bring something good and worthwhile. They are not snobby at all but if you bring three-buck-chuck the chef may feel a bit insulted.). They will open the wine for you and even give you an ice bucket for the white wine to stay cool. So if you like good food but can't afford to be a big spender, the Stagehouse is still affordable once in a while.

Tonight was a warm spring evening, so outside seating in the patio was perfect. The patio was redone recently and they now have a amazing large outside bar right in the middle of it. Even if you don't want a full dinner, hanging out at the bar for a masterfully mixed drink (and there is an extensive cocktail menu) with a friend or just by yourself to watch people is a cool thing to do.

I would characterize the food at the Stagehouse as Progressive French Continental Fusion. The Prix Fix Menu comes with a variety of interesting appetizers (soups, salads and some other specialties: pick one) and a selection of innovatively composed dishes with a classical heritage. I made the evening a Salmon night:

1) House smoked salmon, pickled fennel, red onion, chive crème fraiche
2) Salmon, sautéed, braised endive, red wine toasted almond risotto, walnut oil, red wine demi

Both were outstanding in all aspects and really sensually enjoyable in the way that you enjoy food with several of your senses, the display, the smell, the texture and the taste. (The sense of hearing is somehow neglected). As I'm not at all a fish person, my positive assessment of this combination should probably count double.

By the way: The almond risotto that came with the entree was the highlight of the dish (and really of the evening). If you like risottos, this was one of the better ones I have ever eaten. My wife had the Yellow Fin Tune which comes with "Blood Orange Risotto" which is equally pleasing. Just having the two risottos as a main dish would be a very pleasant experience. Maybe they should do a risotto tasting night.

There was only one thing that to a degree failed to meet our expectations. The tiramisu was rather basic and a bit disappointing. The dough was a bit dry, fluffy and rather tasteless and somehow it felt like they saved on the mascarpone and their weren't real lady fingers. A tiramisu (in particular in a french restaurant) needs to be rich (yes the real mascarpone and with eggs) and the lady fingers (not just any cake type dough) need to be soaked in a coffee/amaretto mix. Ok, I admit amaretto is probably not the original recipe. Rum or some other appropriate liquor would have been acceptable. But in this the dough was pretty much dry not soak with anything.

For a tiramisu to be REAL, the taste needs to be voluptuous, overwhelming right in your face. It needs to be the closure point of a sumptuous meal. It needs to be able to compete with strong coffee (cappuccino or espresso) and even more it needs to be able to stand up to heavy desert wines. So now you know my - admittedly subject - definition of what makes a tiramisu great. If you know a place where I can get exactly like that, let me know. Please!

After an - almost - perfect dinner we are all in a very good mood and go home happy. Isn't life great?: Good food, Good wine, Good friends enjoying a nice warm spring evening.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blooger


My Traditional Saturday Pattern

It feels a bit unusal to write this blog so early in the day. Usually, I blog shortly before I finish the day and go to bed. As we have some friends over in about an hour and the night may turn out to be a bit longer, I decided to blog before our friends show up.

This was a pretty typical Saturday. Fitness at the Y. I changed my routine recently and am now training some muscles that were a bit neglected before and I can really feel the pain of my sore muscles but I can also see how amazingly fast the human body reacts to a new stimulus. When you only do it properly and with discipline building muscle is actually not that difficult.

After the Y, I picked up a few croissants from Bovella's. And yes, I'm in luck. They still have some (which is not always the case, even 5 minutes after they open at 8:00 AM) and I get them warm and fresh right out of the oven. What a treat to start the weekend. My wife is still sleepy in bed when I come home. She likes to wake up with the smell of a fresh buttery croissant under her nose and a cup of herbal tea.

Later in the morning I drive over to Scotch Plains for Piano Lessons. More on that in later blog posting.

And then the the rest of the day will be spent on preparing for our little party tonight. We often invite friends over for an (educational) wine tasting. During the course of the evening we open several bottles of wine blind (i.e. wrapped in brown paper). And then we do a tasting. Look, Smell, Taste. With the objective to not only get the color right (;-)) but also country and varietal. Amazingly, if you experiment a bit and train your sense, getting the grape varietal and often even the country right is not actually that difficult.

OK, more work to do.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Wine Shopping in Westfield

I can't believe that it took us almost a month worth of blogging to arrive at this important and most favorite topic: Wine Shopping. Today we will not be reviewing the different places where you can get wine in our town and their pros and cons: This will be a topic for another blog entry. Today, we will look at one particular Wine Store that is a bit of a hidden gem. Peterson's Wines Unlimited.

One remark before we go there. My wife and I a true vinophiles. We are not snobs, we don't really drink a lot and we don't spend fortunes on wine. But in our world a good bottle of wine is an essential ingredient for a good meal. And we are wine adventures. We like to explore new varietles, new wineries, new blends and new regions where the wine comes from. So when we move to a new place, one of the first things we do (after checking out where they have the best croissants) is to check out the wine retail landscape.

From the outside Peterson's could be mistaken as a basic "at-the-corner" liqour store, the ones that have all the mainstream brands the sell well but nothing that is special or interesting. But Peterson's is really much more than this. First off, they have a wine director: Glen. Second: Glen really knows what he is talking about. And I mean really. He is well-traveled when it comes to wine, well-read about wine and he seemingly tasted a lot. And third: The owners of Peterson's seeminlgy give Glen some freedom to explore and experiment with some unusal wines, producers and regions.
Yes, they certainly do have the mainstream type brands and even some of the "value wine". But they also have some rarities and just some, a lot. We were amazed to see a large section of German and Austrian wines. And not just Riesling. Scheurebe, Blaufraenkisch, Gruener Veltliner and even Pinot Noir from Austria. Lot's of stuff to explore. And with Glen's competent, friendly and never pushy advise and recommendations this was actually fun. We spent more than an hour at the store, bought some very interesting rare wines that we never before had and thanks to Glen we learned a lot of new facts about wines from all over the world.

Regardless if you are into wine or just an occassional drinker and regardless if you are looking for high end wine or for some reasonably priced picks, Peterson's is a cool place to shop for wine. This time we focused on Germany/Austria and South Africa. So there are some good reasons to come back to explore what they have from other regions.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Dinner Al Fresco at Acquaviva Delle Fonti

Wednesday was a beautiful day and the evening turned out to be still warm and comfortable. I managed to get out of work at a decent time and both of us just weren't in the mood for spending time in the kitchen. So we decided - as we often do - to get a bottle of wine from the cellar and to walk into Westfield for Dinner.

We had original set our target at Xocolatz, part of "restaurant row" in Elm Street. We had been there before many times, food is typically quite good, prices are reasonable and it is usually easy to get a table even outside. Unfortunately, seemingly for a private party they were closed this evening.
So we roamed around in Westfield and as many other people had the same idea, at most restaurants the outside tables were all taken. We finally ended up at Acquaviva Delle Fonti on Elm Street. They do have a nice patio for outside seating which is also BYOB. (Interestingly enough they sell wine if you sit inside). And somehow it was easy to get a table, actually a very nice table.
We have been to Acquaviva before and typically enjoyed it but we were never truly excited, the Wow effected that we had at some other places (in Westfield) for some reason never materialized there. Tonight was not different and it isn't really easy to pinpoint the reason, it just never turns out "perfect".
The service is very friendly, attentive and even proactive. So no issues here. The food is usually well made, refined (but not necessarily innovative) with a rich taste and high quality ingredients. I had the "Black Angus". I ordered it medium and it came beyond "medium well" and even a bit burned. (Still not a bad steak and I enjoyed it, but just not perfect). The salad "Garden Fresh Romaine" that we shared was the same. Interesting, even innovative and potentially promising from what you could make out of it. But what we got was good but it was missing the last dot on the "I" that would have made it really good. Overall Aquaviva is a good place for dinner, if they just would have a bit more of what I would call "perfectionism" for their operations and true passion for their food, they have a good chance of becoming a real outstanding restaurant. I'm sure we will come back once in a while to check their progress.

An interesting side note on music. At the entrance to the outside dining area, they had life music. It was just one artist with a keyboard. The music he played was very mainstream elevator type background music. And the artist wasn't bad all. Nevertheless, the songs that he played were just background music, basic, at times cheesy and sometimes slightly pathetic. My point is: What is the value of having that type of music life? The artist is not really engaging with the audience, there is no applause or any type of feedback. It doesn't distract you and you don't notice it. There is virtually no difference from playing the same music from a recording. (I just feel bad for the artist. I'm sure he gets paid, but it must be frustrating to just play background music and have no interaction with the audience). And I don't even know if the restaurant gets anything out of this engagement. I would question if they had any additional quest because of the life music. On the contrary, had we not gotten a table far a way from the music were it wasn't that loud, we probably would have moved on.

After the life artist left around 8:30 PM they set up loud speakers around the patio and what they played was now almost too progressive for a more traditional Italian restaurant: Real down-tempo lounge type music.

Regardless, we had a nice evening, enjoyed the outdoors, the warm wind and the smell of spring and a bottle of good red wine that we brought ourselves. When we walked home, we felt good about living in this town and having the option of enjoying a nice evening like this (almost any time the weather allows).

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Great Decisions - "Middle East" - Arguably the best Session

Monday at the Westfield Library for "Great Decisions" has become a routine that I really started to appreciate and enjoy. Unfortunately, today is the last session. There have been 8 sessions about foreign policy topics that were all interesting, inspiring and usually insightful. The program is certainly worth the time and energy invested.
Of all 8 topics "Middle East" is probably the one that at the same time is most critical for what happens in the US but is equally difficult to grasp in a comprehensive fashion. Prof S. Azmat Hassan, the speaker for tonight, clearly knew what he was talking about. In addition to a lot of points specific to particular country, region and their history, the most important point that he made was: The "problem" of the Middle East is one that has developed over centuries, that has a multitude of sub-problems with their own respective causes and influences, that includes complex relationships and dependencies between a plethora of stakeholders. Meaning, it is not an easy problem.

The inevitable - and very rational - consequence of this observation is: The solution to the problem will not be simple, will not be fast and straightforward and will certainly not be painless. The assumption of some protagonists in politics and media that shape public opinion that there actually is such an easy solution to a problem that is that complex is IMHO arrogant at best and really scary.

This reminds me of a quote by HL Menken:

"There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong. "

In reality, the "solution" for the Middle East will be difficult, cumbersome, messy. It will take a long time and there will be set backs. It will require patience, openness, knowledge and an understanding of the other side and a lot of diplomacy, dialog, trust building, etc. A dogmatic approach that is mostly based on military might will ultimately fail (and leave everybody much worse off).

Prof S. Azmat Hassan didn't have answers to any of the problems, but he was able to articulate very well that we need a more comprehensive strategy, one that is more long term, one that is based on dialog and knowledge and not on short term partisan politics. This problem is so critical to the future of the US (and really the whole world), it seems ridiculous that our political leadership (and I mean all of them regardless what party they are with) doesn't understand this (or doesn't want to understand it for selfish interest) and somehow is incapable of transcending beyond partisan politics to device a true solutions strategies that makes all better off in the long run.

Logic and rational thinking tell us that it should be fairly easy to develop a fact- and experience-based strategy that we pretty much can all agree on regardless of party affiliation. And if we only pursue this strategy with vigor and patience at the same time we will eventually solve the issue.

As much as today's session about the Middle East was insightful and private a good perspective, I'm not much more optimistic that we will actually solve this.

And certainly, I look forward to next year's cycle of "Great Decisions" in Westfield.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger.


Saturday - Busy in Westfield and Around (Part 2)

This is going to be a short post. I don't have a lot of time, as it is already somewhat late and I need to get a few more things done today.
Originally, I thought I would review two more interesting places in and around Westfield that I visited today. I take piano lessons (although this is in Scotch Plains and not in Westfield) and I good a very relaxing massage. Both are things that I really enjoy and I felt the Music School and the Massage Place that I'm going to might be interesting recommendations for my readers. But if I do review them, I want to give them the appropriate attention and comprehensiveness. But that won't happen today.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger

Saturday - Busy in Westfield and Around (Part 1)

My usual Saturday routine: Early Morning Fitness at the Westfield YMCA (a.k.a "The Y"). I typically arrive there at 6:30 AM and do some Cardio and Weight Training till about 8:00. I'm really glad that they open that early even on a Saturday. Even among the commercial fitness clubs, everyone does that. At this time of the day both the Cardio section and the weight machines are still not very busy and you don't have to wait at all if you are a bit flexible with your program. Also, I ran into a friend from Australia who is also living in Westfield.

After the Y, I felt like having a good sit-down restaurant type breakfast and because the weather was really great (this feeling of spring, renewal and anticipation), I wanted to sit outside. Now, this is one of the few areas where Westfield actually does have gap. There are no restaurant type breakfast places where you can eat outside ON THE WEEKEND. During the week the only choice is Rockn' Joe, which opens at 8:30. On Saturday they open at 11:00. Too late for me, it is just about 7:55 AM.

What is left in Westfield for an early weekend outside breakfast are: Panera, Cosi and Manhattan Bagel. All three are pretty good but not sit down style restaurant breakfast. At one point later I will review all three of them, or maybe I write a feature about "Weekend Breakfast in Westfield".

So originally, I thought I was out of luck, but then I remembered that the Rockn' Joe in Cranford (i.e. the original Rockn' Joe, formerly know as Cafe Rock) actually opens earlier, i.e. at 8:00 AM. Don't ask me why there is a difference between Westfield and Cranford. 10 minutes later in Cranford I had a very nice table partially in the sun at Rockn' Joe in Cranford. Service was very friendly and prompt, there actually wasn't much business at the time. I ordered the Rockn' Joe Breakfast Sandwich special (including mozzarella and red peppers). Very tasty, well prepared and nice display. The portions are typically not that big at Rockn' Joe (which I like) and things are done in a way that is a bit more healthy. If you are in the mood for great coffee, a hearty but healthy breakfast and want to enjoy outside spring feeling, Rockn' Joe in Cranford is a really great choice.

And then again, while eating another friend walks by and we chat a bit about this and that. I reflect a bit on the fact that it is not even 9:00 AM and I already met two friends on the street. One of the things I really enjoy about Westfield is the fact that there is a tight-knit community. And it is not difficult to become part of that community. So if you just engage yourself a little bit with the local clubs, etc. after a while you get to know tons of people. So almost every time I go in to Westfield, I run into somebody that I know.

This is an early post. I have a few more things to do today. I may get around to do another post later today.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Our Friends from Germany Explore Westfield

As mentioned in the previous post, some really good friends from Germany are on vacation in Manhattan. After we had told them a lot about the nice town we live in, they became very curious and so this evening they took a NJ Transit train and made their way to Westfield.

After giving them a tour of our house we did something rather typical for Germans. We WALKED from our house into the downtown area for dinner. We really wanted to sit outside at one of the places in Elm Street to enjoy the flair and the warm spring weather. Unfortunately, it was still a bit chilly and windy so we decided to sit inside at Mojave Grill.

The concept of BYOB was totally foreign to our friends (in Germany selling beer and wine in a restaurant or supermarket is not a big deal) but after we explained it to them they clearly realized the advantage. You either save money on the same bottle of wine or you can get a much better wine for the same price if you don't have to pay the restaurant mark up.

Mojave Grill is old favorite of ours almost since we moved to Westfield and has so far not disappointed us. We go there on average once a months and as they change the menu on a regular basis it is not getting boring (,yet). This evening it was fairly quiet in the restaurant. The service was as usual fast, effective, friendly and very professional. We ordered a quesadilla as an appetizer to share. Very tasty, exactly the right texture. Then we had salads and main entrees. We really like the concept of Tex-Mex fusion that Mojave Grill is pushing to the edge. It allows for a huge variety, innovative creations and often unusually but exciting new combinations of known flavors that one would have not expected would be good fit. Finally, the corn bread you get with dinner alone is worth a visit. Quality and display of the food was excellent. For what you get the prices are actually quite reasonable.

After a very satisfying dinner we walked around in down town a little more and then circled around the lake in Mindowaskin Park. It was a beautiful early spring evening. Our friends really enjoyed Westfield and were quite impressed. That was not what they had expected from New Jersey.

At the end of the day we went back to our house, had another glass of Wine and finally our friends took the bus back to Manhattan. The is another good thing. Pretty close to our house is bus stop that gets you straight to Midtown Manhattan without transfer.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger