A note from Susan: I have worked professionally as a restaurant reviewer, both in my previous job as food editor for a regional magazine and, occasionally, in my current position as food editor for a northern New Jersey daily newspaper. The photos and descriptions included here are of restaurants Ted and I have visited on our own. We never accept free meals in exchange for writing about and/or photographing a restaurant, except on the rare occasions we are invited to special press dinners – in which case we will tell you.
Pals Cabin, 265 Prospect Ave., West Orange, N.J. 973-731-4000
“A country club without the golf course” is how Ted described this venerable dining establishment, which originated as a Depression-era hot dog stand. As we were walking in, a woman in front of us spied Ted’s camera over his shoulder and asked, incredulous, “Are you tourists?” It was one of those times when you wish you had a clever answer:”Why yes, ma’am, we just flew in from Texas – came all the way here just to try this place …” But perhaps people do – it’s like stepping into a time machine. Pals is one of those places I can imagine my grandparents frequenting, the curmudgeonly waiter bringing my grandfather’s extra-dry martini before he had a chance to ask and my grandmother ordering raspberry sherbet for dessert. We sat in the “Winchester Room” – complete with the namesake rifle hanging on the wall, captain’s chairs circling round tables, old-world oil paintings and tufted, red leatherette booths.
Pals is by no means a “fancy” restaurant. Yes, regulars do celebrate special occasions here and the courtly maitre d’ wears a suit and tie. But you can stop in for a salad or a sandwich as readily as a full-on prime rib dinner (with Yorkshire pudding, to my great wonderment!) We started with a variety of appetizers: excellent clams casino and fried calamari, plus nicely spicy buffalo wings. I ordered the signature strip steak, which was terrific, and Ted was delighted with his prime rib. The Horn family, third-generation owners of Pals Cabin, maintains a cattle ranch in Wyoming, which supplies the top-quality beef. The cocktails were generously poured, the service was attentive and I ended up speaking French with a woman at the next table who grew up with the owner and while she has lived in Paris for 57 years, still makes a pilgrimage to Pals when she comes to the states to visit her son. (It’s truly amazing what a couple of stiff gin and tonics will do for one’s latent foreign-language skills!)
Costanera, 511 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, N.J., 973-337-8289
Our experience at Montclair’s first Peruvian restaurant was a home-run on all counts … food, atmosphere and service! Costanera is family-run – the Placencias also own a successful Peruvian eatery, Oh Calamares!, in of all places, Kearney, and their experience shows in their new Montclair digs. One son, Juan is the chef; CIA-trained and a veteran of Del Posto (where Ted just did a major photo shoot!), Jean-Georges and Gramercy Tavern, he is masterful with fish. The sparklingly fresh ceviche featured large pieces of shrimp, calamari and grouper, with tender sweet potato. Jalea – lightly battered and fried mixed seafood topped with thinly-sliced red onion, tomato and cilantro, was addictive – the crunch a nice contrast to the soft ceviche. The two versions of mariscos – steamed seafood – we ordered as entrees were also superb; the chef’s skill evident in the perfect done-ness of calamari and shrimp in the same dish. Richly caramelized plantains and yucca fries with a yellow-pepper dipping sauce were equally delicious additions to our meal, as were the excellent versions of tres leches cake and chocolate mousse cake we managed to stuff in for dessert! Juan’s brother, Jonathan, runs the dining room with gracious good-humor and a genuine desire to please.
Ah’Pizz, 7 North Willow Street, Montclair (973)783-9200
We all have our favorite pizza joints, but we’re betting a Montclair newcomer will give your tried and true a serious challenge. Ah’Pizz, on North Willow just off of Bloomfield Avenue, offers authentic Neopolitan pizza – thin crust pies with fresh ingredients that just might be the best pizzas we’ve ever tasted. Co-owners Michael LaMorte, Roberto Cino and Chris Delisio imported the wood-burning pizza oven – made with stone and volcanic clay from Mount Vesuvio – from Naples, where Roberto studied the fine art of pizza-making. The oven cooks the pizzas at 1000 degrees; they are done in 90 seconds, giving them just enough char on the thin, delicious crust. The secret to that perfect crust, says Michael, is Caputo flour, imported, like many of the ingredients, from Naples. Because the pizzas cook so quickly, only walk-in take-out orders are accepted. But do yourself a favor and eat in the restaurant – the pizza will be piping hot and fresh, and you will experience the infectious conviviality of the owners and staff.
Moody’s Diner, 1885 Atlantic Highway, Waldoboro, (207) 832-7785
Moody’s is famous for its solidly New England menu and its genuine retro appeal. Snug up against Route 1 in Waldoboro and open ‘year round, it draws locals and tourists alike for fish chowder, meatloaf, Indian pudding and flavorful kaleidoscope of pies, in addition to other classics.