Another Great Jazz Evening with Sweet Sounds Downtown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


First Day Review: Gauchos BBQ and Grill

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

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

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

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

Siging Off - The Westfield Blogger


Who Needs Another Bank in Westfield?

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Unexpected Visit To Sweet Sound Downtown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


The Weekend - Mostly Outside Westfield

Besides an early morning workout at the Westfield Y and a visit to the Farmer's Market this weekend we haven't done a lot in Westfield. At the Farmer's Market the little pies from the Amish Country Bakery looked pretty good. So we got the strawberry rhubarb one. For my taste, it is far too sweet and has a very "cooked" taste. Instead of the fresh, zesty combination of strawberry with a bit of sourness from the rhubarb that I expected, the filling tasted extremely sweet with a jammy berry-ish note and only hints of the essence of strawberry. For the rhubarb, if you didn't know it was supposed to be there, you would not notice it. For me, a rather disappointing experience.

For the rest of the weekend, on Saturday we went to New York. First we visited the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg. On Saturdays the brewery is open for tours and beer tasting. The tours are every hour on the hour and you get a 30 minute introduction into the amazing (and at times bizarre) history of the Brooklyn Brewery. In addition there is a bar where you can sample pretty much every beer they have for $3 per glass. There are enough tables and benches and lots of people bring pizza or other food from a restaurant nearby. Although it is a bit crowed I actually like the atmosphere which reminds me a bit of a Germany beer hall, just the music is better here.

For a late lunch we went to Fornino on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg's main street. They tout themselves as a gourmet upscale pizza place, however IMHO they are only partially succeeding but there is room for improvement. The idea is great, the menu items sound innovative, interesting and invite to explore. Just the execution of the idea is a bit inconsistent and this despite the fact that it was not very busy at all.

The ambiance in general is nice, upscale (inside) and the patio in the back of the building is a great place for a relaxed time to eat and hang out during the summer month. You can also see all the fresh herbs that they're growing there.
Service is friendly and trying hard to accommodate the customer although not always competent. Overall the food is pretty good. We ordered a polenta, mushroom, blue cheese appetizer which turned out to be a very rich and pleasant taste experience. I had similar dishes before, but from the intensity of the flavors and the smooth but not creamy texture, this is probably one of the best interpretations of this concept I have had so far.
The pizzas are thin crust with a reasonable amount of toppings, certainly not too much but also enough to have a full flavor experience so the pizza is not reduced to a flat bread. Instead of allowing you to select your own toppings they have (seemingly skillfully) arranged combination of toppings that promise interesting flavor profiles. Some are classics some are quite creative. I had a pizza with different mushrooms, cheeses and truffle oil. The flavor profile was - as expected - pretty intense and refined, I really love truffle. However, the pizza was in the oven for a bit too long so some areas of the crust were black and burnt and tasted accordingly. It required some manual intervention to separate this area from the one that was good.
My wife's pizza with prosciutto (which turned out to be rather bland), some cheeses and asparagus was not burnt but it was missing the asparagus. After we finally got the attention of our wait person, the response from her was a somewhat puzzling "That has happened before". (?!!?). Later the chef came over and offered us another free pizza to go in exchange (which we declined as we didn't want to schlep it back to New Jersey). Instead, my wife asked for blue cheese to be added to the rest of her pizza and after some more minutes in the oven it came back as requested.

On Sunday we went shopping around New Brunswick and when we felt a bit hungry and in the mood for a late lunch we decided to check out New Brunswick downtown and we found Piquant Bread Bar and Grill. It is one of those modern Indian fusion places that promises to be much more than it can deliver and execute and so ultimately disappoints its customers. An innovative sounding menu, stylish plates, an above average food display and rather high prices are not enough to pass for a real upscale restaurant. Overall not a bad Indian restaurant, with average service and good but not spectacular food. But in IMHO a bit overrated and seriously overpriced. Compared to one of their Manhattan influencers (which is way cooler (Bread Bar at Tabla)) I feel they are priced even higher. Good Indian food but at these prices not enough reasons to come back.

For this Weekend: Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Sweet Sounds DownTown

Tuesday last week I was, unfortunately, on a business trip, so tonight was only the second time this year that I had an opportunity to enjoy "Sweet Sounds Downtown", a.k.a. the jazz festival.
This is a very special event and I'm glad that the Downtown Westfield Corporation has sponsored it for quite some time now. It happens every Tuesday between the Fourth of July and Labor day between 7 and 9 PM at 4 (or sometimes 5) stages in downtown Westfield.
The first stage this evening is in the new mini-park just west of PNC that has been created after PNC redid its parking lot. There, Carrie Jackson provides an impressive repertoire of summery jazz, blues and swing standards. With her impressive soulful voice she creates a warm relaxing atmosphere. A good start into the evening.
Next is the Dave Leonhardt Trio in front of the Baptist church opposite Bank of America on Elm Street. Things are a bit more jazz and more modern and avant-garde here. You can clearly see the skill and experience of the musicians that perform very well as a group together. We stay there for a while. There are typically enough chairs to sit down or you can sit down on the lawn. Some people even do a picnic there, getting a pizza or a sandwich from one of the eateries close by. The only thing that is missing is a chilled bottle of good white wine. OK, I'm dreaming, unfortunately local legislation doesn't allow that.
Finally we make our way back south to the stage next to the Bombay store where The Tone Masters present soulful jazz music towards R&B and New Orleans. They are able to engage the audience quite a bit and there is lots of energy and dynamic in the air. We hang out for a while to enjoy the show and the walk over to the train station.
This is the final stage for the evening. I honestly forgot the name of the band as it was a bit unimpressive. The program says Gordon James, but there have been changes before. The music is more of the mellow, elevator, smooth jazz type style that I don't particularly like. But then again that is my preference. Some other people liked it.

So after a short while we move on. For a refreshment before we walk back home, we make a stop at Hi 5 Candy & Ice Cafe. I blogged about the gap that Planet Smoothie is leaving in Westfield before, so we decide to test the newly added Smoothie offering at Hi 5. There are a few different flavors (peach, berry, green tee, etc.) and we decide to go for peach. Now the smoothies there are not made with fresh or even fresh frozen fruit, so technically I guess they wouldn't count as real Fruit Smoothies. Rather there is a flavor base that comes from a canister (imported from Italy) that is freshly blended with ice. Considering that for Hi 5 smoothies are not a "core competency", the results are actually pretty good. The drink has the right consistency and texture, there seemingly are actual pieces of fruit in the base and it has a well balanced pretty authentic peach taste. This is far better than the artificial, flat taste that you often get when drinks like this are made with industrially produced artificial aroma syrups. $2.99 for 16 oz is OK. There are no larger sizes available. We decide that we will come back to try the other flavors over the course of the summer or even do a smoothie comparison.

On the way home we stop again to catch a few more songs from Carrie Jackson. We really enjoyed the evening, pleasant weather, beautiful music and a surprisingly good smoothie. And it is only 10 minutes to walk back home. Next week, unfortunately, I will be on a business trip again.

Signing off - The Westfield Blogger.


Saturday at the Farmer's Market in Westfield

After the usual early-morning work out at the Y, which turned out to be a little later this Saturday, we decided to go to check out the Westfield Farmer's Market that is happening during the Summer months on the south side parking lot.

For some reason Westfield is a little late in starting the Farmer's Market. E.g. the one in Scotch Plains started about a month earlier. The weather is certainly good enough and I believe the demand would also be there.

Now, the Westfield Farmer's Market is nothing dramatic or even impressive. It is typically 6 vendors, two produce stands, two bakeries, one pickle/olive and one mozzarella/focaccia/ravioli.
So it is not like a real town market that you would typically find in a European city. And even when we lived in California the farmers markets there, in towns similar to Westfield, where quite a bit larger and more diverse. Still, for New Jersey it is actually not bad.
Because of the limited amount of vendors, competition is not working well and prices are bit on the high side, so this really feels more like a gourmet market than a normal weekly market where you would go for good deals and the ability to bargain. For me a gourmet market would mean that you can get specialty/unusual items that are not typically available, as well as produce that is fresher and better quality than in the supermarket. The Westfield Farmer's Market, IMHO is somewhat of a hybrid. The prices are at the gourmet market level and there are a few specialty items that are not easy to get elsewhere in town. The quality and freshness is probably above average but not that much. And the vendors are typically not that open a bargaining attempt.

Picklelicious is one noteworthy vendor there. They offer a variety of pickles and olives. Good quality and a few unusual flavors and tastes. You can sample almost everything and the merchant is helpful and friendly. You buy by volume (half pint, pint, etc.) and they are really stuffing as much as possible into these plastic containers. Quality is pretty good although the olives are bit too salty for my taste.
At the next booth we got some sun-dried tomato focaccia. It looked good at the display. At $4 for a fairly large bread prices are OK. At home we realized that somehow the sun-dried tomato didn't benefit from the long baking process and half of them were blackened and had a bitter taste. So to really enjoy the focaccio which was not that bad, you had to manually remove the blackened tomato topping.
A poppy-seed pastry from the Lithuanian bakery was good but nothing special and almost a bit too chewy. The produce we got was pretty decent and above super market quality.

In summary: If the Westfield Farmer's Market really wants to be a gourmet market, it has to grow up a little bit both in quality and the amount of vendors.

The other thing I don't understand: Why is market on the South Side. I would suspect that it would get more "walk-in" shoppers that happen to do some business in downtown Saturdays and then more by coincidence go to the market. With more shoppers in the market it would also be more attractive for additional vendors. I could see the market happen on the parking lot North of the train station or on the one south of Trader Joes.
Or if one really wants to be bold we could close a street as some towns in Europe do. E.g. Quimby street comes to mind. I could imagine that this would create a nice atmosphere and also benefit some of the jobs there.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Restaurant Review: Dinner at Brick Oven and Dessert at Bovella's

Thursday was a beautiful evening and I managed to leave work at a reasonable time. Although we were originally planning to cook at home, we made a swift decision to instead get a bottle of good white wine from the fridge and to walk into Westfield for dinner al fresco.
Originally, we were targeting Xocolatz were we had several real good dinners before. Unfortunately, they had only two table outside that were already taken. Because of shops being open till 8:00 PM they couldn't place some more tables in front of the store next door which they usually do. So we checked out the other places in the area and apparently, we were not the only people that had the idea to have dinner in downtown Westfield that evening.

At The Brick Oven we just managed to find one available table outside. The first time we visited the Brick Oven was about 6 years ago when we had justed moved to Westfield. We assumed that for a restaurant that is called "Brick Oven" the pizza is something special. We were a bit disappointed as the pizza was not the style we liked. In addition, we were low on cash and were a bit annoyed when we learned that they only took Amex and not Visa/MC. So based on that experience we only came back a few years later with some friends and we had pretty good pasta dishes and salads than. So till now it was not really a favorite place of ours. But that may have changed tonight.

They still don't accept Visa/MC and really don't understand why that is. I heard that the cut that Amex takes from the merchant is actually higher than for Visa/MC, so they shouldn't have any incentive to only take Amex. For me this is clearly an annoyance, but that may be different for people that prefer Amex.
We saw the party at the neighborhing table enjoying a really interesting looking spinch appetizer. It didn't take a lot of convincing by our waiter to make us order it.
This warm appetizer for two is a combination of sauteed spinach, portobello mushrooms, roasted smoked salmon served in a poppy seed sauce. We never had this combination before and we were delighted about this innovative, flavorful and delicious dish. The individual ingredients clearly fit together very well and the combination leads to something that is more than the sum of its parts. The idea of roasting smoked salmon is pretty cool. The distinct flavor of smoked salmon is not only retained but in my opinion enhanced and the texture is a bit crisper which is a nice counter point to the softer spinach and mushroom.
As a second course we ordered a the Pear, Pecan and Blue Cheese salad to share. We liked the proactive customer service of already putting the salad on two smaller plates (without an extra charge). The salad again showed an expert combination of ingredients to create something bigger. One thing to improve: The pears were still a little unripe, so that their contribution to the flavor profile was bit underwhelming. Pears at the right maturity had made this an even better dish.
For the third course, we didn't even get there. Originally we were planning to share a pizza. But with the fairly large appetizer portion and the good bread you get with dinner we felt very happy and satisfied after only two courses and we still wanted to have a desert. So unfortunately that also means: No update on the pizza situation at the Brick Oven.

The service was friendly, knowledge, attentive and efficient. Pretty much all you want from a good waiter. The place is BYOB and the Liquor Basket is right next door.

While we were dining Al Madison was playing live music. In an earlier blog, I complained about the live music at Acquaviva Delle Fonti being too much elevator music and my suspicion that it would rather drive away customers than attract them. Now this is very different with Al Madison.
Al is a versatile cover singer with a good repertoire of well known songs (seemingly 60s through 90s with a focus on blues) that are not elevator-style but also not too intense for dinner accompaniment. There was also some engagement between Al and the dining customers and he is taking requests. He was able to create comfortable, relaxing vibe, not an embarressing one. Al is not the best cover musician that I have ever seen, but he is certainly pretty good and one reason why dinner at The Brick Oven becomes more interesting.
He performs there on Thursday nights regularly but sometimes also on weekends. He also mentioned that he performs at the Westfield Farmers Market on Saturdays once in a while.

In summary, The Brick Oven is a pretty good option for an Italian BYOB dinner with innovative, refined food, plenty of outside seating and good service. My only grievance is that they only accept Amex.

How does it compare to other places in Westfield? The other BYOB Italian place is Cosimo. IMHO, The Brick Oven is much classier with a more innovative menu and refined service. Cosimo is more family style with a mostly standard selection of dishes and only a few outside tables. Ferraro's is IMHO only slightly above Cosimo's, they have a license and enough outside seating. The ambiance inside however is a bit basic, cold and loud, so not match for the Brick Oven. Finally, North Side Trattoria is at the same level of cuisine and refinement as The Brick Oven, they do have a license (and a bar) but the outside seating is somewhat limited.

So after leaving The Brick Oven we walked around a bit discussing were we could get some dessert when we remembered that Bovella's is now open late on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. We got a very good cappuccino (that is served in an actual china cup) and some goof pastry that we ate at one of the nice tables in front of the store.
I'm really glad that Bovella's made the decision to stay open late. The idea of having dinner at one place, then stroll around a bit and closing the evening with a coffee drink and some pastry at Bovella's is quite appealing. And seemingly we were not the only ones that felt that way. I just wonder if Bovella allows for BYODW (Bring your own Dessert Wine)?

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Saturday: Lunch at MaMa Lou's and a Relaxing Massage

Several weeks ago I had a somewhat disappointing and overpriced breakfast sandwich at MaMa Lou's on South Avenue. You can read about this in an earlier blog entry. At the time I decided to give them a second try for lunch as the sandwiches sounded interesting.
This happened yesterday and I was pleasantly surprised. I had the "Big Lou", which is an Italian meats sandwich on focaccia bread. The full sized one for $7.50 is clearly generous. You can get a half size for $5 which should satisfy a normal lunch appetite. The meat (prosciutto, cappicola, sopressata) was very tasty and had a tender, very pleasant texture (not the cheap supermarket type quality). In addition you get real mozzarella and succulent flavorful red peppers. The focaccia bread wasn't bad but nothing too special either. The sandwich comes with a small bag of chips. Service was friendly and attentive.
In summary, Mama Lou's is certainly not a bad place for lunch both for a normal portion and if you are hungry. Even more so when you want to take advantage of the nice outside seating area in the shade.

In addition to lunch at Mama Lou's I also decided to indulge myself with a relaxing massage, something which I hadn't done in a while but truly enjoy. I feel it helps me to relax and to release tension in the neck and shoulder area that builds up over time. For the last year or so, I have been a loyal customer at "Natural Therapy of Westfield" at South Avenue and Boulevard.
Originally I was a big fan of the Dharma Center at Lenox Avenue that unfortunately closed more than a year ago. Neil (the owner) managed to create an atmosphere that was relaxing, warm, welcoming and a bit spiritual while at the same time providing professional high quality massages. And for a while I was a very loyal customer and went there once a months or so. So when it closed (I understand they lost their lease) I was really sad and hoped they would reopen somewhere else. Unfortunately, that never happened so I had to look for a different massage option.
Shortly before that I had seen some ads for "Natural Therapy" and so with Dharma closing I decided to try them. You also get a massage there but their approach is very different. The ambiance is at best effective (and worst you can say it is a bit cold), nothing spiritual, no aromas or sounds to soothe you. The music is most of the time neutral and sometimes annoying. The massage tables are covered with paper. You don't get new linen/cloth and there are no table warmers. But then the massage is what counts. And that is usually pretty good although it varies.
The turnover of massage therapists (MTs) seems to be pretty high, so you don't always get the same person and you hardly have a chance to build a relationship so that your MT gets to know your problem spots and can focus on particular areas. I can't really say anything about the quality of the MTs. I have gotten massages there that felt equal or better to what I had somewhere else (say at the Dharma center) and then I had a few that were so-so or felt a bit rushed or standard.
I like a firmer massage of my back and some of the MTs there didn't seem to have the physical strength but some others coped well. Communication with the MTs is sometimes an issue as English is not typically their native language. It may take some back and forth to clarify what you want and where they should focus. So if you want a truly therapeutic massage or even have special instructions from your doctor (instead of just a general relaxing massage) this place may not be for you. Some of them then seem to adapt their program to what you told them and some - at least that was my impression at times - stick to their standard program no matter what.
Pricing is very decent. 60 minutes for $55 and $75 for 90 minutes. And you actually get this amount of time or more. They have stop watches that are set when the actual massage starts (not when you step in the room to undress) and they usual work a few minutes longer to finish what they were working on after the alarm has sounded. So paying for 60 minutes you actually may get 65 minutes worth actual massage. Compare this to other places where the time before and after may count and you may only really get 50 minutes of actual massage.
Service in general is friendly and efficient although sometimes a bit superficial and I have the feeling that it went down a bit in the last few months. The only significant issue I had there recently, was when a new MT - in no uncertain terms - told me that the tip was too low and she expects more despite the fact that the massage was good but nothing truly special. It was the same amount that I had always given at that place and IMHO was certainly adequate if not a bit generous. Reservations are usually not a problem even short notice and they typically can accommodate walk ins.
In summary, not a bad place for a relaxing, reasonably priced basic massage. If you want it a bit warmer, sophisticated and inspirational or if you want something special with spa ambiance or a truly therapeutic massage it is probably not your first choice.

With some recent service issues and increasing turnover, I'm planning to check out a few other massage places in the area to see what the market has to offer and I will report back. I also would like to hear from my readers what their experiences and recommendations are in regards to massage places in and around Westfield.

Before I started to visit the Dharma Center I went to the "On the Side" Spa on South Avenue West a couple of times. The actual massages I got there were pretty good but the place is a little expensive and some of the staff had (at the time) an attitude of self-importance and I felt they took themselves a bit too seriously. I got this notion that I should be grateful that they actually served me there which I really didn't like. Finally, it has this vibe of more of a place for women so as a male I personally felt a bit out of place. Now, they have been in business for a while so they must do things right overall and certainly I plan to give them another try.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Sweet Sounds Downtown with a Great Dinner at Jeffrey's

"Sweet Sounds Downtown" is a Westfield institution also known as the "Jazz Festival". And every year I look forward to it when it starts in early July and I'm really annoyed if I have to go on a business trip and can't be home Tuesday night to go to Westfield for this event. So between 4th of July and Labor day every Tuesday there are usually 4 or 5 stages around downtown Westfield where there is life jazz type music from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. What I like in particular is the fact that you can just wander around, check out the different bands, if you like it stay a bit longer, if not move on.
The first evening is always a special event. This year it was particularly special as Tuesday 2007-07-03 was also the day before the holiday and so it was technically a Friday.
Some really good friends that we met in Westfield years ago and that in the meantime had moved to Michigan stayed at our house for a few days. What better opportunity than to go to "Sweet Sounds Downtown", meet with some other friends that live here and have a great dinner. For a Jazz Festival day I like Jeffrey's in particular as you can sit outside and it is close to the "stage" in front of the Bombay store across the street to listen to the music. For all the other stages that night the restaurants with outside seating were a bit further away.
I blogged about Jeffrey's before and the last time I was there I was a bit disappointed about the pretty average chicken croissant. Nevertheless, we had outstanding dinners there before so we didn't mind to try itagain and we were not disappointed tonight.
Everybody was pretty happy with their main entrees. Well prepared, high quality, good flavor and texture and a nice layout on the plates. I had the Kobe Burger from the lighter fare menu that is served outside and at the bar. And it is certainly worth the premium over the regular burger. It came medium well exactly the way I like it with a slightly crisp but not chewy outside that keeps the juices (and the flavor) of the meat inside. And the toppings (blue cheese and bacon) were added in a way that truly combined the different flavors into something that creates an almost overwhelming taste experience. My friend who had the regular burger was equally satisfied. And the burgers are pretty good deal for dining. (Sorry not available in the dining room).
The dishes from the dining menu are usually a bit more complex, unusual and higher priced. A plate of asparagus risotto for $23 seems a bit expensive even for Westfield but you get something pretty special.
On the other hand the appetizers were pretty underwhelming. We had onion rings and jalapeño poppers. The poppers were pretty average and rather bland. No particular taste or texture. I'm not sure if they are home made or just fried from a deep frozen package. The onion rings were a disappointment. The batter was more doughy and not crisp and crunchy at all. No particular spices or flavoring detectable. Finally the onion rings disintegrated almost immediately when you touched them. One of my criteria for judging good onion rings is how well the batter and the onion stay together as the pleasurable experience comes from the combination of both. Jeffrey's onion rings pretty much failed that criterion.

So far, entrees excellent, appetizers disappointing. So what else is good (or bad) about Jeffrey's:

  • The Service: The service was as always very friendly, very accommodating, listening to the customers and trying to be attentive and efficient and even proactive. And it would have worked, hadn't they been overwhelmed by the busy evening (see below).
  • The Beer Selection: Jeffrey's offers frequently changing selection of local and other unusual beers on tap at reasonable prices. To explore some new beers alone is usually worth a visit.
  • The Wine Selection: The wine menu and the wine cellar is quite impressive. A few years ago Jeffrey's father gave me a tour of the cellar. In addition to some really interesting high-end wines, Jeffrey's also has a good selection of mid-priced wines and a really good "value" selection. For $24 to $30 you can find a good bottle of white and for a little bit more a bottle of red. And these are not cheap ones that retail for 4.99 but good wines that are adequate matches for the food.
  • Menu Variation: In addition to the normal menu (that also changes once in a while) they have a good list of daily specials that are often innovative and worth exploring.
  • Desserts and after dinner drinks: The desserts are very special. There is always a "Crème brûlée" of the day and home made sorbets are also changing frequently. Finally, they have an amazing variety of after dinner drinks including black sambuca which is somewhat difficult to find.

What is not so good about Jeffrey's

  • The Service I: As hard as they were trying that evening, they were a bit overwhelmed. And they were telling the customer that they didn't expect it to be so busy. Come on! It is the day leading up to 4th of July, the weather is beautiful and it is the first Jazz Festival event in Westfield. How can you be surprised by the fact that you get a lot of business that night? Something must be wrong in the way how Jeffrey's does their staff planning. OK, they dealt with the situation gracefully (as they have done many times before) and even Jeffrey himself came out to clean tables. Still, plan better and your customers will be happier. It is just not very professional and it is also unfair to the waitstaff to have them be overwhelmed.
  • The Service II: It helps if the waitstaff knows a little bit about the items on the menu. When I wanted to order my second beer, I asked what lagers they had on tap. The wait person didn't know at all but was quick to check with the bar tender. When he came back he quoted the selection among them a "Black Wheat Lager" which sounded pretty unusual and interesting. So I ordered it as I do like dark lagers and I assume a black lager would be a dark one. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a blackberry wheat lager. Besides the fact that in general I believe it is not really such a great idea to add fruit flavors to beer, in particular to lagers, this was far from what I expected. It was just a very basic light lager with some blackberry aroma. I don't think it is too much to ask for the restaurateur to spend a few minutes with the wait staff before the evening begins to introduce them to what is on the menu.

Besides these minor issues we had a great dinner at Jeffrey's and a great evening in Westfield. And I'm sure we will be back.

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger