Saturday on South Avenue and Lunch at Tutti Baci

Last week was pretty stressful in my business and so we didn't actually do a lot of things worth reporting in Westfield. For this Saturday a few observation from South Avenue and a review of lunch at Tutti Baci.
On the west side of South Avenue and already in Scotch Plains (close to the intersection with Hetfield Ave) there was a Friendly's that closed several years ago. I had a few breakfasts there and they weren't impressive or even memorable, typical chain-restaurant type food. After they closed the restaurant, the building was empty for a long time and I was always wondering what would happen as the location was a bit an off-prime for a chain place. Finally, today seemingly something starts to happen as there is serious construction equipment on the lot now and there are seemingly construction workers getting busy. I'm not sure if they will remodel or demolish the building. I will keep my eyes open and report back.

Further east, Gaucho's (see earlier blog) seems to make some progress in building up his Brazilian BBQ and Grill, although not as fast as planned. As mentioned in the earlier post they were planning to open end of June. That opportunity has passed. Locking at the state of affairs I would think it will take at least another few weeks before the grand opening will take place.

Finally, it seems after some stop and go things finally seem to get momentum at Mario's Italian Deli (see earlier blog). There is serious work happening inside and I had a chance to talk to one of Mario's brothers. Yes, there is an actual Mario. They are planning to open towards the end of July. I was told very proudly that the family is first generation Italian, the food will be all home made, authentic and tasty and they will have everything you could ever want from an Italian Deli including breakfast. Also, Mario is not related to the folks from Tutti Baci across the street.

And one more thing on South Avenue. Even the Subway a little east of the station now has outside seating. It is a chain, so nothing fancy, but reliably decent. It's about time that they join into the "al fresco" movement that is now affecting South Avenue. ;-))
After a busy morning where I essentially skipped breakfast and being on South Avenue already, I decided to head over to Tutti Baci for lunch. I had coffee and pastries there a couple of times before but never lunch and I heard from other people that they had interesting paninis. In addition, with the beautiful weather (warm but not hot or humid) I could enjoy the outside seating there. I ordered the Roma Panini with prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula & tomatoes.

Overall not a bad sandwich but nothing special and considering size, quality and taste for $7.95 a bit overpriced. The sandwich comes on a ciabatta type roll that is grilled on a contact grill. It is not grilled long enough for the ingredients to get warm, what I would actually have liked as it enhances the taste. The bread is ok, although for my taste a bit to compact and heavy. The prosciutto was generous and of good taste, but I had prosciutto before that had a more pronouced flavor profile and was bit more tender. The mozzarella was the real one, the fresh one (not the presliced "American Mozzarella" you often get.) Greens and tomatos were unremarkable and I missed the specific nuance that arugula typically adds. No additional sauce, flavors or spices detectable. Finally even for lunch standards the sandwich is a bit small. OK bread, OK ingredients and average preparation combined with a small size leads to an average sandwich.

Rockn' Joe has a similar sandwich on the menu for the exact same price, that in my opinion is larger in size, better made and better tasting and even comes with small side salad instead of a bag of chips. I had it a a few month ago and it was much more satisfying than the one at Tutti Baci.

In summary my personal opinion: Tutti Baci is not worth coming back for a panini. Not a bad foundation, but Tutti Baci should really try a bit harder to delivery a better product, better flavor, a bit larger in size and better execution. They also should work at the price or add a small salad, especially when looking at the competition on the other side of the railroad tracks and the emerging competition of Mario's just next door.

I will continue to get some coffee and pastries at Tutti Baci and I also like to try the pizza that looked pretty appealing in the display. More on this in a later blog post.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Highlights of a Weekend in Manhatten - Part 1

Yes, this blog is about Westfield. But it is also about our surrounding area and it is about some of the adventures/experiences that my wife and I have that might be worth sharing (even if they are not in Westfield). With some good friends staying in Manhattan for vacation we went to NYC twice this weekend to meet them, for drinks, for dinner and to enjoy some music and other performing arts. So here is a brief summary of the highlights for Friday. Part two will cover Saturday.

On Friday for Dinner we wanted to make it Burger Night. New York Magazine had a list of the best burger places and we selected "Stand". Stand calls itself "The rare well-done burger restaurant". And not only the burgers are worth it.Their web site is rather basic, simply communicating the slogan and the address and not much more; not actually worth visiting.

Burgers at Stand come a la carte, i.e. without sides. Their is a selection of different meats (beef, turkey, chicken, salmon) or vegetarian options. And no, they don't have a Kobe Burger with shaved truffle and seared fois gras (not even an "American Kobe"), these are for snobs and parvenus that don't get the point that something skillfully prepared with quality ingredients can be very satisfying even if it is not high priced (and if the cow doesn't get a personal massage.) Nor do they have the triple-decker-pounder where you get a photo and a special price when you actually manage to stuff it down. Besides the obvious waste of food, I find competitive eating pretty disgusting. These would be for the gourmand.

The absence of these gimmicks at "Stand" is a good thing. In addition, the burgers come with defined profiles of toppings. I'm sure they will accommodate certain special change requests, but there is not an endless selection of 250 different toppings that would allow you to design your burger in 10^80 different ways. (Which happens to be more variety than there are atoms in the universe).

I believe the idea of "Design-your-Dish-at-the-Restaurant" is a really bad idea. I want to be able to rely on the chef to combine different ingredient/flavors into a satisfying dining experience instead of doing it myself. Yes, you could put guacamole, truffles and blue cheese on a burger, put why would you? It just is not a good match. Not every permutation of ingredients and flavors works well. Actually most combinations don't work well. That's why I like to trust the professionals in the kitchen.

At Stand the combination that I have (Mushroom Burger) works well. In addition to the onion marmalade (which I feel is a major advance beyond uncooked white onions on a burger) there are some sauteed mushrooms on the burger and porcini sauce on the side. The sauce has a refined pretty intense mushroom flavor which is what I like. If you don't want it that mushroomy, don't use all the sauce. The bun is a bit more like a ciabatta roll, very good texture and the right amount of moisture. The beef is medium-well as requested. It is not the very best beef patty I ever had but it is certainly up there, done in a way that results in a firm but not too chewy texture while at the same time retaining the flavor and the juiciness. My wife has the Blue Cheese Burger which is equally satisfying.

A good burger needs onion rings or fries. Both are certainly above average. The onion rings are very tasty, not too fatty and with a crunchy texture. The fries are pretty decent although not spectacular.

But the burgers are not the only highlight. A great selection of local micro brews and international beer, some interesting well-made and not too gimmicky cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, e.g. a rosmaryade invite to experiment. Deserts are innovative and pleasurable. We share the Lime Yogurt Parfait which feature an intense lime taste and a smooth-silky texture which in combination create an assertive but refreshing mouth feel.

Service is attentive, efficient and friendly. Stand is equally a place for a quick but refined burger or a place to hang out with friends for an opulent dinner and some drinks afterwards.

After leaving Stand we hang out in some great life-music places like Arlene's Grocery in New York and eventually get home taking the last train out of Penn Station to Westfield.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


"Dark Dining" - Dining at the Edge

Camaje is a small fusion type place in the West Village in NYC and it offers a dining experience that even for adventurous people is truly exciting: “Dark Dining”, i.e. Dining with a blindfold. For a few hours you get to experience how a blind person must feel.

When you lose one sense – like your vision – the other senses become much more perceptive, at least you would think so. Without vision you would assume that smell and taste in particular get more intense and granular. But not only that. You also focus much more on the tactile sensation of the food in your mouth and even on the sounds around you, sounds of the silverware touching the place or sound of chewing crusty bread. Without the visual sense, dining becomes a truly sensual experience, something very very enjoyable.
Camaje is offering such a program every few months and they usual sell out fast. When you arrive at the Restaurant at 7:00 PM (sharp) you are greeted by your hosts. They hand out blindfolds (very comfortable ones called “Mindfolds”) that you can adjust to the size of your head. You get some instructions and then each group of guests is led to their table in the restaurant already blindfolded. You never get to see anything inside the place except for the bathroom if you need to go (and the staff will guide you to it and you only can take off your blindfold after you are inside and closed the door).
After you have been seated they serve you an exclusive, very tasty four course dinner with the matching wines. This is pretty much like a normal upscale dinner, except you don’t see what is coming. The wait staff will talk to you and tell you that a new dish is in front of you. It is a weird feeling hearing and sensing all the things that are going on around you but not being able to see them. At one point I didn’t at all realize that the waiter had poured some more wine into my glass. I was just very surprised when my wine class suddenly felt heavier than before.

We started with a Chilled Tomato and Red Pepper Soup. Very tasty and good exciting starter for the evening. And amazingly easy to eat with a spoon even without any vision. The appetizer (chicken & morel mousse with watercress salad) is another spectacular experience in your mouth, in particular if you don't see what you are actually eating. Trying to eat salad that you don't see with a fork is somewhat difficult and so eventually you switch over to using your hands which only enhances the tactile experience.

For the main dish then (pepper-crusted hanger steak) we don't even really try using knife and fork. Not being able to see what you cut, it becomes a cumbersome trial and error type experience. Using your hands to eat doesn't feel so bad when you realize that no other guest sees you and they probably all do it as well.
Finally the evening closes with a sultry full-bodied ricotta cheesecake with strawberry compote. Another interesting experience: You would think that certain very distinct flavors (like strawberry) are very easy to identify. In reality, without seeing the strawberries it is actually amazingly difficult. It took me a while to make that determination, it was not immediate.
Between the courses, the hosts had arranged an eclectic selection of music that was performed by two different artist. Finally, you also get a short massage/back rub by your host Dana Salisbury.

If you are in search for an unusual experience, something that is a bit more off the beaten path and if you like sensual things, we would highly recommend to try Dark Dining at Camaje.

The actual Dark Dining programs are hosted by performance artist Dana Salisbury. She seemingly has quite some experience with setting up dark dinners (and other performing arts events) in restaurants all over the US.
Dana's idea of combining different sensual experiences based on different forms of the performing arts (in the wider sense), i.e. the culinary arts, the art of wine and live performance music into a three hour sensual joyride is nothing but brilliant. And then if you take away vision, absorbing all of this with your other - now more alert - senses becomes most pleasurable.
Now back to our hometown Westfield. Would something like Dark Dining work here at least as a special event once in a while? I believe it could if done the right way. I would certainly be more than excited about it. The audience in Westfield is a bit smaller (compared to Manhattan) but then a restaurateur should think beyond just Westfield. I feel this would attract people from all over Union County and probably beyond that all over New Jersey.
Maybe Jeffrey can pick up the idea and do a dark wine dinner at his place. His restaurant with a fairly small dining room, upscale food that is already focused on sensual pleasure and a good wine selection has an almost ideal foundation for such an undertaking. Or the Stagehouse could use one of its smaller rooms for such an event.

With a sensual overload...

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


A light but Unremarkable Dinner at Jeffrey’s

My wife was out for a business meeting tonight and I really didn’t feel like staying at home and having dinner by myself. I would rather be outside, enjoying the nice weather. So – as I often do – I went to Downtown Westfield looking for a place to get a light evening meal. My original target - “Xocolatz” - was unfortunately closed. I thought they were open for dinner all week, but they seemingly are not. There was a daily menu for Monday in the window but I guess that was only for lunch. It would certainly help if they actually had some store hours posted outside. OK, their Web Site has the answer. They serve dinner Thursday through Saturday.

Moving on, I realized that pretty much all outside tables in Restaurant Row (a.k.a. Elm Street) were occupied, except for Sweet Water Steakhouse. And although Sweet Waters is typically not a bad place for steaks, it was not my idea of a light dinner neither from the selection of dishes nor from a price perspective. So I ventured further East and fortunately Jeffrey’s had its tables outside and only one party was sitting there.

I have been to Jeffrey’s many times before, for a full-blown dinner, to hang out in the bar, for a light dinner to listen to the music of “Sweets Sounds Downtown”, etc. And the experience was sometimes outstanding and sometimes just so-so. Jeffrey’s has the potential to become a great restaurant and could be one of my favorite places in town if it only managed to execute consistently. It has an inviting bar area (and there are not that many in Westfield), an outstanding wine cellar, a dining room that is small but has a good atmosphere and a chef that knows his art and is creative, innovative and seemingly really cares about his customers.

When I arrived today they were not all that busy. In addition to the one party outside there were only two additional parties in the dining room inside. Service is friendly but not particularly effective and attentive. Sometimes it takes quite a while for things to happen (get a refill on my coke, get my bill processed). Outside they serve both the dinner menu plus the lighter fare items. I only get the lighter fare menu after I ask.

This lighter fare menu is similar to a lunch menu with salads, sandwiches/burgers and appetizers. I had burgers at Jeffrey’s several times before, and they are truly good and consistently so. Today, I’m in the mood for something else, so I go for the Grilled Chicken Croissant. I like the fact that you can substitute the fries that normally come with a sandwich for a side salad (at no additional cost). And the side salad is not (what you often get in a more average restaurants) the cheap greens with the most mainstream dressing, but rather a nice portion of high-quality green mix with a light but tasty Italian type dressing. The sandwich is only so-so. I expected something a bit more sophisticated. It feels more like a basic combination of ingredients on the same plate not like a composition that creates an experience that goes beyond the sum of its parts. The croissant is actually not bad as such, it is still fresh and fluffy. The brie is OK. I feel there should be a little more and one that has a more pronounced flavor profile, otherwise you hardly notice that it is brie and not any other cheese. The sauce was OK (something with honey mustard) but once again a more pointed flavor would help. Finally the chicken meat – which should be the highlight of a chicken sandwich – was pretty much unremarkable. It was a bit dry (I expected something juicier, nicely marinated) and it wasn’t grilled in a way that the grilling flavors made any contribution to the overall experience. What is the point of grilling meat if you don’t notice that fact when you taste it?

In summary, I’m not disappointed. For $10 I got a decent sandwich that can certainly compete with some of the chain sandwich places in Westfield. With a bit more focus the good sandwich could have been a great sandwich. And based on how Jeffrey’s presents itself that is not an unreasonable expectation.

Signing Off – The Westfield Blogger


Tutti Baci and Piano Lessons

Saturday promises to be a really nice day. In the morning it is crisp, cool and blue sky, not much humidity. After my almost ritual early Saturday morning work out at the Westfield Y, I change my breakfast routine for today from Bovella's and head over to Tutti Baci instead. Now that they have inviting chairs and tables out in front, it seems like a good place to have a coffee, a croissant or some other breakfast sweets, sit outside to enjoy the beautiful weather and read through the papers.

I have been at Tutti Baci a couple of times just to get coffee to go and the coffee there is quite good. It is typically fresh brewed, they have some flavored versions that I enjoy (e.g. Hazelnut) and when you "eat-in" you can have it in a china mug instead of a paper cup. I would probably rate the coffee at close to the level of Ahrre's Coffee Roastery (which is the benchmark in the area) and certainly above some of the other decent chain standards in the area (like Panera or QuickChek).

I had a croissant from Tutti Baci to go at one point before. They are ok but nothing special. They are a far cry from what you can get at Bovella's. They don't taste as fresh (even if you get them early in the morning), have a more compact heavy texture (as compared to the light fluffy one's at Bovella's), they are not as buttery and you just don't get this sense of utter satisfaction from such a more average croissant.

So I don't even try them again today and rather go for something else. The cheese turnovers (not sure what the official name is) look appealing and fresh. And yes they are good. Whatever they do, they manage to get the cheese filling just right, not an easy task. It is not heavy or crumbly as you often see, it is rather light, with a smooth consistency and a very intense mouth feel. The taste is not too sweet and balanced with a slight citrus nuance. The dough is also right to the point. Certainly worth another try.

After a leisurely breakfast at Tutti Baci, I drive to Scotch Plains for piano lessons at the "Scotch Plains Music Center". This is another institution in the area and a very special place. And maybe it is good that it is not in Westfield. With the retail rent inflation in Westfield downtown, a place like the Scotch Plains Music Center might not be able to survive in Westfield anymore.

There are quite a few stories about the Scotch Plains Music store and its legendary owner Greg Natic, that I will save for later posts. One thing however that is remarkable right now are the Saturday concerts that Greg is organizing outside in front of the store on Park Avenue in Scotch Plains. He calls it the "Annual Music on Park Ave. Series" and this year is the 8th year this event is happening. During the summer months Greg uses his network of contacts in the New Jersey Music scene to get one band to Scotch Plains every Saturday and to introduce these bands to the locals as well as people shopping Scotch Plains. After my music lessons, I typically hang out bit longer, with a coffee (or an iced coffee) to enjoy the music.

If you want to enjoy some cool jazz on Saturday morning and early afternoon, head over to Scotch Plains.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


A Place for Fine Arts - Unfortunately not in Westfield

As I mentioned many times in this blog, I believe Westfield has a lot to offer as community and as a town. But still, a few things are missing. E.g. a place for fine art, for visual art to be precise. As both my wife and I are really interested in photography, paintings and sculpture, to us this feels like a bit of a gap. So tonight we ventured out to the "Visual Arts Center" in Summit.

For a town of the size of Summit, the building as a venue to display art is quite impressive and can easily compete with some more famous museums and galleries. Not only is it a great venue for displaying art, it is also an institution for the formation of an artist community, for the training of artists and education of the public about art. From what see, it has managed to attract quite a following of people interested in visual arts from all over New Jersey and beyond.

Tonight there was an opening of the annual "Members and Students Show" where the community that has formed around the Visual Arts Center has an opportunity to show their particular style of art. The exhibit is an eclectic combination of photographs, paintings, sculptures and other installations that represent a huge range of styles, techniques and topics. Some of the objects are truly impressive and could be found in a big city are museum, then some other - for my taste - are closer to crafts than to fine art. But that is what makes this show interesting and engaging to the observer.

The curators have a done a fabulous job to displaying the objects in the exhibit space in a way that doesn't feel too overcrowded while at the same time contrasting or complementing art objects from very different artists into new experiences, creating aspects of artistic perception by combing individual artistic statements into a larger networks of meanings.

The show will be open till 2007-07-20. Even if fine art is not your main interest, I would recommend a visit to this show just to get a flavor for the breadth and quality of contemporary visual arts created in New Jersey. Monday to Thursday, the galleries are open till 8:00 PM. Visiting the exhibit first with some friends and then checking out the restaurants in Summit downtown could make for a very nice evening.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Cool Vines Coming to Westfield

A few weeks ago I blogged about some speculation of what will be happening in the former Planet Smoothie location. With a little sign posted at the door saying "cool vines" the theories ranged from a wine bar, a liquor store to a flower shop.
Now here is the answer. It is going to be a wine store. But careful. It will not be your typical around the corner liquor store. "Cool Vines" will be something special, something very special I believe.
Yesterday, I had a chance to chat a bit with Mark Censits, owner and brain behind "Cool Vines". One of my key questions was: "How is Cool Vines different from other winestores?" and I got a few answers. It really just focuses on Wine (and not on any other liquor). It seemingly is not trying to cover the full range of wine from cheap-in-large-containers to high-end-a-fortune-per-bottle. It rather will have a carefully selected assortment of wines that are good value but a bit off the main stream. Maybe even something to explore. Price range would be from below $10 to into the $50s or so. In addition to the selection, they will focus on helping the customer find the wine they like and explore similar wines the way a sommelier would do it in a restaurant. So wine knowledge and service is an important element of their business model.

That actually sounds pretty cool. Imagine the following scenario. You could order your food at - say - Mojave Grill and then walk over to Cool Vines describe what you ordered and they would help you select the perfect wine to complement your dinner. Maybe, they could even have the menus of the BYOB places in town available at the store with some recommendations prepared already. I think, that would be a pretty valuable service to Westfield BYOB diners.

Like any real good wine store, they don't just want you to buy wine, they want to educate you about wine. Mark tells me that wine tastings will definitely be part of the program, they will even build out a section of the store for that purpose. That would be a first for Westfield. Besides the educational wine seminars at Classic Thyme, to my knowledge, no wine store in Westfield actually offers wine tastings.

In addition to the store, Cool Vines also is planning to make a similar offering available online, if you will, a virtual sommelier. This may come a bit later, and will allow you to consult their web site for wine recommendations. You can build a profile of your taste preferences by rating wines that you enjoyed already. Then an application based on neural network technology will match your profile against a knowledge base that is modeled after a wine professional and will come back to you with recommendations.

So when is Cool Vines going to open in Westfield? Mark didn't want to give me a concrete date as this depends on a variety of factors and they have an aggressive plan to do the remodeling in the store. However, end of July seems to be their current target.

I look forward to the grand opening, will check out their wine offerings and report back here.

One more thing: An interesting question that came up during my chat with Mark was: "Are Westfielder spoiled by Trader Joe's wine prices?". I'm glad to pass this question on to my readers. Let me know what you think.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


This and That in Westfield on the Weekend

On Saturday I drove along South Avenue and saw busy construction activity going on at the site of future "Gaucho's BBQ and Grill". I blogged about this new place a while ago. So I used the opportunity, stopped my car and went in to see if there is somebody I could chat with. And I guess I found Gaucho (if this is his real name). What I learned is that Gaucho's is planning to open end of the month of June. It will clearly be Brazilian style cusine with a sit-down type environment, not just a take out, nice atmosphere and service.
The owner knew about Samba Grill failing on the other side of Westfield. He feels he has a better concept. I wish him all the best and we will certainly be at the grand opening and blog about it.
For the other new place on South Avenue, Mario's Italian Deli, nothing seems to happen anymore. After I saw people there several times engaged in construction work, it got quiet again during the last few weeks. (See earlier blog for more details). I'm still waiting for a good authentic Italian deli.
Right next door across the street at Tutti Baci some good things are happening. They put some table and chairs out on the sidewalk for their customers to enjoy the currently pretty nice weather. If you read my blog for a while, you know about my obsession with outside seating, so this is certainly appreciated. I guess this might also be a reaction to Bovella's having chairs and tables on the side walk now.

Finally, on the North Side of town, Northeast to be precise, Annie's Gourmet Kitchen has opened. That also was in the making for a while. From some earlier information I was pretty confused about their business model, but the current version of the web site is a bit more explicit and I think I get a better feeling for what they are trying to do. The idea is to take the hassle out of preparing meals, like shopping for the ingredients and preparing them including the mess that comes with it. So you assemble the ingredients (that they provide) at their place, put them in convenient containers and then you only have to finalize the dish at home. So it is home cooking with less effort.
Actually not a bad idea and Westfield is probably a good town to create some demand for this. We will sign up, test it an report back.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Restaurant Review: La Pasteria in Summit, NJ

Today after work, I had to drop of some art at the Visual Arts Center of NJ in Summit. With the nice warm evening and really nothing else to do, I decided to stroll through Summit. I had been there a while ago, but I never really took the time to explore the shops and restaurants.

And there are quite a few restaurants that serve unusual cuisines or have innovative concepts on more common cuisines. I need to come back as there are several worth exploring. However, interestingly enough, there are not that many places in Summit that have outside seating which is a pity. I believe Summit could create an ambiance and style similar to Westfield during the summer months with a lot of activity in the street.

One restaurant that had a nice inviting side walk patio is "La Pasteria". Originally, I was a little hesitant, because on the first glance it looked like a typical Italian standards restaurant. But when I looked at the menu I was convinced and had to have dinner there.

La Pasteria is a bit different. Although it has some of the standard Italian dishes on the menu, most of the items are innovative, creative new creations that you rarely find or that I never heard of before at all, like Risotto Balls. I certainly prefer the interesting, the unknown and unusual to explore over the well known and established, in particular when it comes to food.

So I needed to have the Risotto balls. What you get is a fairly well made vegetable and proscuitto type risotto that is maybe a little bit more gluey than risotto you would normal get on a plate formed into a spherical shape and topped with a pretty tasty marinara sauce. You get two tennis ball sized balls. This is a great appetizer to share.

In addition to the already interesting regular menu they also have daily special which (at least that day) came across as even more creative. I forgot the actual name of what I had, but it was fusili pasta with a light brown sauce with a ragout of mushrooms, veal and pork. Sounds pretty unusual to begin with, but certainly is an interesting combination. The sauce was creamy but not at all heavy. The mushroom and the meat ragout combined to a full bodied, slightly pointed but comfortable taste. The texture of the sauce had a very good mouth feel and the taste remaind on palate for a while. Needless to say the pasta was perfectly al dente.

Remarkably also, you can order each pasta dish in three sizes: Bambino, Regola and Famiglia. I had the bambino, which is more than enough for one person if you are not really, really hungry or if you also have an appetizer. I took a third of it home. These are prized around $10 to $12 which is a really good deal. Regola (from what I sauce from other guests) is easily enough for two to share with appetizers (prized at $13 to $17). I haven't seen Famiglia, but priced at $25 to $35 it must feed a large family. Salads and entrees are also available in two sizes.

What I would like to do is a multi course pasta feast with a small group of friends and then order 5 or 6 bambino sized pasta dishes to share one at a time during the course of the evening. This would be great opportunity to enjoy the different flavors, textures and smells of the interesting pasta they have on their menu.

Service is friendly, attentive and mostly efficient. The bread you get is solid Italian type white bread. This is a BYOB place.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


A Liquor Store, A Wine Bar, or what?

I just recently blogged about the demise of Planet Smoothie in Elm Street. When I walked by the empty store today I saw a little sign at the door saying "Cool Vines" and then something about where to drop of deliveries for this address.

So what is happening here? Are we getting a wine store, competing with the liquor basket across the street? Or will this become a wine bar, which - to my knowledge - would be a first for Westfield? Or is this something totally different, like a flower shop?

A Wine focused liquor store that would provide some effective competition to the liquor basket wouldn't be a bad thing. It would keep prices in check and it would increase the wine selection for all the BYOB restaurants in downtown Westfield. In my opinion, for a small neighborhood type liquor store the Liquor Basket actually does have an OK selection even for a customer with some interest in wine. Only if you are peculiar about a chilled white wine (and don't want a Chardonnay) you may have to make a compromise.

Would Westfield be able to sustain another liquor store in downtown? I guess this depends on the model. If it would focus on more high-end wine and specialties, has a decent selection of non-traditional chilled whites and knowledgeable service they probably had a chance.

Or a wine bar? I would certainly like and welcome this idea with open arms. A wine bar with a good selection of reasonably priced wines by the glass and some appetizer to complement is a very appealing place to hang out in the evening. If done the right way, I think something like this would certainly fly quite well in Westfield.

To shed some light on this I did some research. If you look for "cool vines" not much useful comes back, but for "coolvines" there actually is already a Web Site. And this pretty much confirms the idea with the wine store. The site has very limited information right now. But it seems they want to build there business on simplifying the process of selecting wine with a systematic approach. OK, many smart people have tried that before and failed, but their approach actually sounds plausible. One slogan is "We didn’t take the nuance out of wine, just the confusion." I like that idea. Based on some other sources it seems they are pursuing a national approach, so this is not a local store and combine online and local retailing. A post in another forum provides some additional information. Still, their business model isn't totally clear to me.

Not sure what their plans are exactly for Westfield, but it would be cool to have their pioneer store in town.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger.


Real Fruit Smoothies at WindMill and Dinner Desert at Bovella's

Thanks to my reader Nora for pointing out that you can actually get real fruit smoothies in Westfield, at a place that is somewhat unexpected: The WindMill Restaurant.
Curious about that, I decided to check this out today. I went to the local WindMill several years ago when we moved to Westfield and I wasn't impressed at all: Unremarkable fast food, in a basic slightly run-down environment at rather high prices (compared to other fast food chains). At the time, I was wondering how long they would survive. Today, they are still there, so there must be something peculiar about them why their customers come back. I guess I need to go there for lunch or dinner to check it out again. Maybe the food did get better.
But let's not talk about the regular food at WindMill. Let's talk about the smoothies. Considering that Smoothies are not WindMill's core competence, I didn't have the same expectations that I would have for Planet Smoothie or Jamba Juice. Starting with that standard, I was not disappointed. Meaning, the smoothie was actual not bad (for a fast food joint).
To be clear, it was a far cry from what you would get at a smoothie chain both in terms of refinement of taste and in terms of the right texture, i.e. the smoothness. The smoothies are not listed at the web site menu, so I assume they maybe a specialty for the Westfield location.
I got the "Very Berry" smoothie. The person behind the counter is clearly not making smoothies all day long. First he had to check the instruction for a long time to figure out what to put into the mix, then he got confused where the ingredients were actually located. After he finally also navigating some difficulties operating the blender, I eventually got my smoothie. The large one for $4.99 is a reasonable deal.
The fruit is not fresh nor fresh frozen, it rather essentially canned fruit. But that is actually OK. The final product is slightly watery (probably because they put a lot of ice in there) and the taste is a bit unbalanced. The acidity of the fruit is a bit too noticeable. The smoothness of the texture clearly has quite some room for improvement, but it is smooth enough to be called a Smoothie, and the blender technology maybe a reason for this.
And, no, you can't get an "Immunity boost" or "Acai" supplement. The guy would be totally confused.

On my way home I passed by at Bovella's and have to report some good news. They are now open till 9:00 PM Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The idea of having dinner in more "European" style, i.e. app and main dish in a restaurant, then take a stroll through town or through the park and then enjoy your desert a bit later at a different place, actually appeals to me. And the pastry items at Bovella's are mostly between good and outstanding. With the upgraded coffee and the availability of espresso drinks, they could become a real desert after dinner destination.

Will they allow "Bring your own desert wine"?

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger.


More Happenings on South Avenue and the Demise of Planet Smoothie

A few posts ago, I talked about things happening on the South Side of Westfield. Today I drove down South Avenue towards Plainfield and realized that the little deli next to Peterson's Wine (see earlier post about Peterson's) has placed tables, chairs and umbrellas out in front of the shop and quite a few people were sitting outside seemingly enjoying breakfast. I didn't have time in the morning to stop, but decided to walk over in the afternoon from where I live to check them out.
I had noticed that place several years ago, but it always looked like an unremarkable neighborhood convenience store so I never felt the need to go in. The fact that they have quite a few comfortably arranged tables outside now tells me that they are getting more serious about people wanting to have good food and eat there.

The place is called MaMa Lou's Deli and it does have a web site that claims it to be an Italian deli. I was still in the mood for breakfast and luckily they serve breakfast all day. I ordered the egg, cheese and ham on a roll sandwich and took an Ice Tea from the fridge. The menu is standard deli with a focus on typical hot and cold deli sandwiches, wraps, etc. a few salads and a variety side dishes. They have a few Italian type meats on the menu, but in my opinion that alone doesn't make it an Italian deli. On the outside they also have a sign announcing pasta, but I couldn't find any on the menu besides the pasta salad.

The breakfast sandwich is below average. The roll is basic and too fluffy. There is only one egg and minimal cheese on it and two very thin slices of almost tasteless ham. Considering that the premium for meat on a breakfast sandwich is $1 I had expected a little more. Overall an very unremarkable breakfast sandwich and for $3.50 clearly overpriced. I will certainly not repeat this experience. For the same amount of money you get a really good double egg, double meat breakfast sandwich on better bread at QuickChek or on a fresh tasty bagel at Manhatten's. Nevertheless, service was friendly and attentive and the atmosphere is pleasant for a deli. And the outside seating is really a high point.

I don't want to dismiss them based on just one visit. I will go back at one point to check out the lunch type sandwiches and report back at this blog. This is another of these place at an off-prime location. To thrive they need to provide something special or a particular value to make the customer come back. So far I haven't found that special thing.

Walking further into town I saw more activity at Mario's Italian Deli. I look forward to their opening, although, looking at the state of their construction activities, I believe the opening of this place is still some time away. I hope Mario's will turn out to be a true Italian Deli, beyond what Italian means for MaMa Lou's. With a variety of Italian meats, real good Italian type bread, specific Italian toppings and some Italian dishes that go beyond just sandwiches. I believe there would be enough demand for this in Westfield.

With the weather getting quite hot, I really start to miss Planet Smoothie. A real well done refreshing Smoothie is a good meal on a day like this. Unfortunately, with the demise of Planet Smoothie there is (to my knowledge) no other place in Westfield that serves real fruit smoothies.

At one point this summer we will be doing a test of smoothie equivalents. Several of the ice cream places in Westfield offer fruit shakes that could be considered equivalent to a smoothie. We will compare taste and value and report back here.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Review - "Time to Eat Diner" in Bridgewater

Friday night, I met with a friend in Bridgewater for coffee. Somehow I felt quite hungry at my way home, so I stopped at the "Time To Eat" Diner in Bridgewater. I had driven by this place many times before and I actually found the name somewhat original, but I was never enticed to stop and actually eat there. It looked like a typical NJ Diner and I have eaten in too many of them. With a NJ Diner you are rarely disappointed. They are almost all pretty good and seemingly are trying to meet the same standard. But you also rarely find one that is innovative , interesting and gives you a reason to come back and explore more dishes.

Now tonight, it was literally time to eat at the "Time to Eat" diner. And I was not disappointed nor was I blown away. It is a very typical example of a NJ Diner. The building looks like recently remodeled, so it all looks pretty modern, fresh and clean. The interior is nice and the ambiance is comfortable for Diner standards. Service is fast, efficient and competent and reasonably friendly. The menu has everything you expect from a Diner menu and that is exactly what you get. There is virtually nothing on the menu that is unusual, interesting or innovative. Even the specials are the typical specials.

Still execution isn't bad. I had fettuccine carbonara which came with a soup. I selected the onion soup which was a bit bland and missing the grilled cheese on top. There was just one slice of baguette or some other bread swimming in the soup. The fettuccine were nicely al dente and the sauce was quite good. The flavor was very pointed and expressed the concept of a carbonara sauce quite well. Good texture and mouth feel. For $10.95 (including the soup) not a bad deal if you happen to be in the area and hungry at the time you drive by but nothing too special.

According to their web site, they have been voted "Central Jersey's Best Diner" since 1997 but it is not clear who does the voting. Anyhow, they may as well be right. However, in my experience it is just a slightly above average NJ diner.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger