Thursday, May 29, 2008

Restaurant Review: Leone's in Montclair, NJ

Last week, Jamie and I took a great field trip to Montclair to see the Presby Iris Gardens. While I've made my annual pilgrimage to see the irises each May, it was Jamie's inaugural visit. She happily brought her camera along and took many photos of the flowers in all their finery.

By the time we'd walked the length of the gardens, we'd worked up quite an appetite. We had originally planned to go to a vegetarian restaurant, but it was closed, so we headed to downtown Montclair to see what we could find. One of the few open spots was Leone's.

We were the sole diners for a bit, so we had ideal service and attention from the staff. We both were so taken with many of the dishes that it was difficult to decide, but we finally settled on splitting the homemade cavatelli and broccoli along with a pizza from their brick oven.

The cavatelli couldn't have been tastier. The light broth was garlicky and savory. I sopped up the remains with their fresh bread.

The pizza was covered with balsamic-vinegar-soaked onions that were very piquant.

The crust was lovely, although a bit soaked through with the vinegar. I probably could have used a little less of the vinegar and a little more of the great, smoky, crunchy crust.

If you're around the center of Montclair, definitely go visit Leone's for some pasta and a brick-oven pie.

Leone's is located at 19 South Park Street.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Gardens Update

Nope, that's no typo, I meant gardens. First, the best news:

After three years, my transplanted irises finally bloomed! The bonus was that the clematis of nearly the same hue has been happily blooming for over a week. When I park my car in the lot, rather than in the driveway, I have a great view of the irises and the clematis.

Now we're starting to enter the period when my garden goes from being mostly blues and pinks to yellows and oranges for the late spring and early summer. I can already see the buds in the lilies.

Because it's been a rather wet May (and cool up until a few days ago), the columbines have been hanging in there. This pink one is particularly enhanced by the fuchsia-striped clematis growing against the garage wall.

From the front view, it's hard to miss these cheerful dianthus flowers. They're pretty hardy and will keep it up all summer if I continue to dead-head them.

Moving right along...

Mom's garden is highly colorful at the moment as well. Her giant, showy irises by the shed are breathtaking.

Toward the rear of the garden (you can see the deer fence in the background), the rhododendrons are just beginning to show their glorious colors.

This lovely ground cover is lysimachia that I bought her for Mother's Day at the Rutgers Gardens Fair. It's well placed, near the swing and by a big tree that now wears a wren house decorated with a face that resembles Dave. (John and I hunted for days to find that during our last trip to Maine.)

Looking as other-worldly as its name is the trillium planted close to the lysimachia.

Speaking of other-worldly, some of the orchids in bloom in the greenhouse were quite remarkable. Since I am far from an expert on the names (leave that to Mom and Dave), I'll just include a small sample of the beauties they have on display.

Not an orchid, but an amaryllis:

Back to the orchids.

Can't wait to see what's blooming next time!

By the way, if you're in NJ or within driving distance, don't miss the Presby Iris Gardens. The bloom time was a bit late this year, but during the next few days, it will be prime viewing time. Please let me know if you go.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Run, Don't Walk to 503 Park

Sometimes, the quiet, unassuming little towns harbor the best restaurants (my idea of "best" is great value for a fair price). Chef/Owner Tom Vogler of 503 Park in Scotch Plains, NJ, offers just that. His food is tasty, thoughtfully prepared and very reasonably priced.

Scotch Plains is a tiny town sandwiched between Route 22 East and the towns of Westfield and North Plainfield. It's a small town with a population about a third the size of the Rutgers student population. 503 Park is located on Park Avenue, one of the major arteries (if not THE major artery) of the town.

Last week, my friend Jamie Novak and I enjoyed a delicious three-course lunch at 503 Park for just $20! We opened with the Baba Ganoush, which was lemony and fresh; then moved on to the incredibly light and creamy Salmon Crepes in Tarragon Cream; and finished with the Chef's special Grilled Shrimp and Vegetable Salad. We split all the dishes, which made me think that I probably would not have ordered more than just one at a sitting unless sharing with another person.

While we dined on this very tasty fare, I interviewed Vogler on the dishes and asked Jamie how she liked them. Jamie, by the way, has loads of on-camera experience, so she was an ideal guest reviewer. She's also marvelous company, always quick with a laugh or a compliment.

Here's a short video (4 minutes, 20 seconds) of our visit to 503 Park in Scotch Plains, NJ.

Now, make your reservations for Father's Day (or any lunch or dinner, for that matter) at 503 Park. Mind you, reservations aren't necessarily needed, but always good to make.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Restaurant Review: Land Thai Kitchen, NYC

Last Wednesday, my cousin Cynthia and I spent a day in NYC going to museums and eating at great restaurants. Well, let me correct that, we actually only went to one museum, but visited the shops of several because we were looking for Mother's Day gifts for our respective moms. I couldn't find anything for my mom that didn't cost a bundle, so I decided to buy her plants at the Rutgers Gardens plant fair (which was held in the pouring rain on Friday and lovely weather the rest of the weekend. Guess which day I went.).

While I regret not taking any photos of the great eats, I'd like to give Land Thai Kitchen a review regardless. The little restaurant is located at 450 Amsterdam Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. It's a nice neighborhood, full of neat shops and restaurants, and is close to Central Park and the Museum of Natural History (not one of the places we visited, albeit one of my favorite places).

We were there for lunch, so we took advantage of the truly reasonable prix fixed menu ($8 for two courses!). I had the organic greens as an opening course. It was a tiny salad with a lovely citrus dressing. For the second course, I had the wok vegetable medley with tofu. It was a small serving, but truly fine for me. It was a tasty dish of lightly fried tofu, napa cabbage, snow peas, broccoli and baby corn in a light mushroom sauce.

Cynthia had the green papaya salad and the green curry with chicken. She enjoyed her meal as well.

So, if you're up in that neighborhood, I recommend lunching at Land.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Book Review: Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs

I should probably preface this review by saying that my taste in literature typically belongs to the non-fiction and cookbook shelves of the book store. However, I am an avid reader of anything by Alexander McCall Smith and John Irving (two very different authors, I must note).

Importantly, prior to reading the uncorrected manuscript of the review book, I had just completed Vikram Seth's "Two Lives." Mind you, non-fiction or fiction, I will read anything Seth puts to paper. If you've never read his work, please read "The Golden Gate." It's a brilliant novel written completely in verse. Seth's also the author of the world's longest novel, "A Suitable Boy" (well worth several reads).

This is probably the toughest review to do because as a writer, I know the time and effort it takes to research and write a piece of merit. However, since I was asked to review Kate Jacobs' "Comfort Food" for this blog, I will do my level best to be honest and constructive without brutality.

While I am sure there are folks who will find this a pleasurable, light, quick read, I did not enjoy the book. As I said previously, I had just finished "Two Lives," which is an account of Seth's aunt's and uncle's lives told through letters and interviews. It's a pretty heavy book, and perhaps I thought "Comfort Food" might serve as a palate cleanser prior to my next Seth book, "From Heaven Lake."

Regrettably, I could not identify with Jacobs' characters. They seemed shallow and thin to me in the shadow of the Seths. Yes, I know we're talking about real-life people compared to characters in a novel. And, to that I say, let's turn to Alexander McCall Smith's "44 Scotland Street" series for a non-fiction comparison. I find his characters to have incredible depth and voice (even the dog Cyril) -- and his are written within a few pages each day as a serial in "The Scotsman" newspaper.

I guess I like to find characters sympathetic. While I do have enormous sympathy for Gus' having lost her husband (I shudder to think what kind of shape I'd be in if I lost John), I just didn't feel like I wanted to know her better. During the whole book, it seemed as if I were a long arm's length away from an intimacy with any of the characters.

The story will appeal to many, I'm sure, because so many of us are familiar with the Food Network and its stars, as well as Martha Stewart's shows (I love Everyday Baking). But sadly, I thought it was trite and predictable all the way to the end. I wish I hadn't. I guess I'm a very demanding reader.

But please, as I feel with any review, don't just take my word for it. When the book becomes available in your local library, please check it out and read it for yourself. Maybe if I hadn't been steeped in such heavy subject matter before reading "Comfort Food" I might have enjoyed it thoroughly.

It's just not my flavor.

Friday, May 02, 2008

First May Garden Update

May is such a lovely time. While I await the arrival of the irises, I am enchanted by the new tulips and the long-standing creeping phlox. Above is the view (while kneeling) from the front door. It's been pretty rainy and cool for the past few days, so the tulips have really been hanging in there.

While not as prolific as in previous years, the columbines are back. No purple ones as of yet, but plenty of tiny red ones.

Mom calls the tiny blue forget-me-nots "bachelor's buttons." Have you heard of that?

Above is another look at the tulips in the expanded plot. As you can see, no squirrel tracks at the moment. Why not?

That's why! We bought a plastic, hand-painted owl whose head revolves 360 degrees when the wind sends it spinning. For now, I move it between the wood pile and one of the plant stands on the left. It's been working like a charm. Yay!

I forgot how much I love the Japanese red maple. I'd pruned it a bit harshly last year, but it seems to have forgiven me, so I'm letting it bush out some before the next trimming.

How are your gardens this week?