Recently we had a strange and delightful restaurant experience. A friend gave us a gift certificate. We knew absolutely nothing about the place so had no real expectations outside the standard restaurant drill. Let’s say it was bizarre, from the get-go.
First of all, it’s in a crappy strip mall. I know, what strip mall isn’t crappy? But this one is really crappy. Dog ugly when it opened during the Reagan administration. Today, dog ugly with 350,000 miles on it.
We walked through the front door into what only the most hopeless optimist could call a lobby. It was about 4x4, with a cloth curtain separating the dining room. Essentially, a boardwalk photo booth. We stood there a good five minutes without anybody acknowledging us. Finally, Mrs. Emma stuck her head through the curtain and caught the waiter’s eye.
He seemed nice enough, but was hapless and overwhelmed in a way that made him fairly brusque. “Do you have a reservation?” was our greeting. No hello, welcome or sorry-to-make-you-wait. Once we told him we did indeed have a reservation (10 minutes ago, by this point) he disappeared, without a word.
So we waited, without instruction or encouragement.
Restaurants make my “never go back under any circumstances” list after three strikes. But it takes most Jersey shore restaurants the better part of an evening to swing and miss three times. Lousy atmosphere: strike one. Cruddy service: strike two. Mediocre food: strike three.
Tonight, I'd called strikes one and two inside the first 10 minutes. Before we even left the photo booth. Which by now was crammed with more equally confused hopefuls, pressing in to get out of the torrents of rain overflowing the potholes in the parking lot.
After at least five more minutes, he returned and pointed us in the general direction of a table.
I’ll try to set the scene. The place is about the size of an average family room. Into that space were crammed several dozen tables and a full restaurant kitchen. Whether the dining room was in the kitchen or the kitchen was in the dining room is academic. It’s all one space, so you gaze down the line as the chefs noisily flambé and sauté. The aisles were maybe 18 inches wide. So every time somebody walks behind you, he kicks your chair. Distance between tables: an inch and a half. I’m not exaggerating. Imagine cafeteria seating, with really nice décor.
Already annoyed by the photo booth, now I’m on a slow burn. By the grace of God, one of the women sitting next to us read my expression.
“Never been here, huh?” she asked. She could spot a virgin. When we confirmed her suspicion, she said, “Don’t worry. It’s worth the chaos.” I could only hope, though I was already fully expecting the inevitable cherry atop the standard crappy restaurant sundae: lousy food.
Since you’re basically sitting in the laps of the strangers next to you, it’s natural to strike up a conversation. On one side, a couple from Philadelphia with a vacation home in Longport. “We pretty much eat here every week in the summer,” they told us. On the other, a party of four including a CIA-trained* casino chef from Beesley’s Point. “I hardly ever eat out,” he said. (It’s hard to please a chef, especially at the Jersey shore, the food mediocrity capital of the world.) “But this place, I keep coming back to.” Their testimony was encouraging.
Waiter Boy returned briefly with the water pitcher, a saucer of virgin olive oil and a few thick slices of crusty bread. He rattled off the specials, then abandoned us once again. It’s a BYOB, but I had to resort to opening my own. Fortunately we both carry pocketknives for such a circumstance. With no way to summon him for seasoning, we borrowed some red pepper from the next table.
The menu was sparse and a bit pricey. $12 appetizers, $30 entrees. $6 for bottled water. But very interesting. Authentic Italian – not your typical Americanized version, red sauce slathered on everything from shrimp to spumoni.
Finally he returned. From the specials menu, the figs sounded too good to pass up so we ordered them. Main courses: chef’s daily potato gnocchi for Mrs. Emma and spaghetti with white clams for me.
Apparently, once your order is in, the place gets down to business. The figs arrived with surprising speed. Fresh-picked plumpers, stuffed with gorgonzola cheese, wrapped in speck ham (a smokier, sweeter, juniper-infused version of prosciutto) oven-roasted and finished with a balsamic reduction glaze. We dug in.
Oh. My. God.
In his Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, chef and author Michael Ruhlman documents both cooking and dining at Thomas Keller’s legendary French Laundry in California's Napa Valley. I read it aeons ago. (Great read, I recommend it.) One thing stuck with me. A word a French Laundry diner used to describe how Keller’s culinary artistry made her feel: giddy. I remember thinking: well, that’s one word I’ve never used to describe my response to restaurant food. But wouldn’t it be cool?
I’d be lying if I told you the figs made me feel any less. If we’d had another loaf of bread, we’d have eaten the whole thing, sopping up the glaze. I resisted the temptation to lick the plate. But the thought crossed my mind.
Then, the main courses came out.
Mrs. Emma’s gnocchi were light, delicate, supremely flavored and perfectly balanced. A harmonious sauce of fresh red peppers, mushrooms, white wine and who knows what else. Amazing.
My pasta with clams? The absolute best I’ve ever had. Period. And that includes outstanding homemade versions created at the hands of gifted old Italians.
And here’s the best part. I have no idea why they were the best I’d ever had. I couldn’t put my finger on any one voice in this magnificent symphony of flavor. It was sublime. The apex of culinary craft. Call-the-cops, Katie-bar-the-door perfection.
Even though I was briefly disappointed by the pasta's state of doneness. A few ticks short of al dente, it was nearly crunchy. But that was only the first bite. The chefs had preheated the bowl and compensated with perfectly undercooked pasta. By the time I'd released the clams from their shells, the pasta had finished, precisely where it should have. That takes skill.
Those of you who know me know I hold restaurants to a crazy high standard. Like the chef with whom we shared a table – they almost always let me down. Let’s face it. When you pay money to eat out, shouldn’t the food to be better than what you can make on your own? I guess it’s the price you pay for being a pretty good cook. Most restaurants fail. Predictably.
Not this one. The atmosphere was goofy and the service was spotty. Who cares?
The lady was right. Worth the chaos. And then some.
Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking
Plaza 9 Shopping Center
1333 New Road
Northfield, NJ 08225
Reservations recommended but walk-ins welcome to try their luck.
*The other CIA: the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world's most prestigious chef schools.