Coolvines: A Stylish Competent Wine Source in Westfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Rock'n Roll Legend: Chuck Berry comes to Cranford

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

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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


Breakfast at Lora's Tea Room in Cranford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger


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

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

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

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

Signing Off - The Westfield Blogger