Guest post: By Ariel Braun, a rising freshman at Hamilton College
Many do not believe that a great dining experience can be found beyond the borders of an expansive city. I would have thought so, not meaning to sound arrogant, after I had left the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center in New York City on July 2nd. Every up-and-coming or already successful entrepreneur chef or producer that I hesitantly and shyly spoke with hails from the lively streets of New York or a quaint little cobblestone path from San Fran. Though many outstanding and publicly recognized restaurants do take residence in the "big" city, a lazy northern New Jerseyian need not go to the trouble of taking the ferry across the Hudson when one can drive to Su Restaurant in Edgewater. My initial attraction came from an advertisement in the Bergen Record. All I needed to read was "healthy cuisine", "no trans fat", "vegetarian", "partly vegan", and an entire plethora of dishes made with tempeh, tofu, and seitan.
I must admit that in my perspective, Paramus is not known for high quality cuisine. As my sister likes to put it, "there are hidden gems" but, still Paramus is littered with duplicates of Chiles, Outback Steakhouse, and The Cheesecake Factory, all found in overly big malls or in the local strip malls that curiously always have a Starbucks within their midst. These restaurants are of but a few that many in my town refer to as "an upscale meal". I do not mean to sound disillusioned or feicious; it's just that every now and again I want to go to a restaurant that isn't judged on how much food you can fit on a plate for the low price of $13.99.
My past experiences might explain why I was a bit leery when we (my Mom and I) pulled up to a tiny strip mall, where Su was located in the far corner. My initial dread was somewhat lifted when I saw a Traders Joe's heading the initial entrance to the strip. Still, the exterior of Su did not appear anything more than an average Chinese takeout place and even the initial interior walkway had a large desk with several menus scattered over the table, reminiscent of a takeout joint.
Another bad omen followed as the entire restaurant was completely empty if not for a father and son at a far table. However as we were seated, the waiter explained that many folks did not normally venture to restaurants on July 4th. My entire childhood of grilling the ubiquitous hotdogs and hamburgers on Independence Day had somehow escaped me, and the empty restaurant made more sense. My mom and I not being the typical eaters had rather preferred an Asian fusion restaurant rather than the dreaded meat that my brother cannot fathom why we do not eat and enjoy.
Su was arranged in a vertical manner with long tables, a long hallway leading to the bathroom, and long leg room (ok maybe "long" didn't fit the last description). Each table was stationed almost like a cubicle, with only one side of the square table being open to the server. I would hazard a guess that if the area of space was even an inch smaller, a case of claustrophobia would have overcame me. However, this was not the case and the ambiance was dignified, chic, and young. The walls were painted a burgundy red, almost a tart cranberry. The chairs were very modern, constructed from metal and rather short in the back (lucky enough for me that my small stature prevented any discomfort). The entire atmosphere concluded with a naturalistic approach; given that the menu was sandwiched between two 12 x 7 pieces of rustic, clean-shaven plywood. The piece de résistance was the sole waiter of the restaurant. In his early twenties, his head was shaved and he had several protruding piercings from his ears, in addition to several visible dragon tattoos. He matched perfectly with the "cool" surroundings and was amiable, kind, and attentive to his sole customers (I mention his temperament, because it is a very difficult job to deal with my mother and myself at a restaurant, given our unabiding desire to question every single item on the menu and to ask several times where the bathroom is, given that we tend not to listen the first, second, or even third time someone answers our asinine questions. I always joke with my mom that at orientation for new waiters, restaurants must use my mom as the model of an aggravating customer to judge the prospective waiter's patience. A test, I myself would probably fail). So far, so good. Su did not have the commonplace tapestry of unwarranted paintings that occupies the traditional Paramus eatery that, try as they must, the ugly landscapes paintings do not add many points to cover up the disenchanting menu items.
Being used to the typical diner menu that lasts for never-ending pages, the menu at Su seemed rather small to me. However, upon reconsideration, I would consider this to be a good thing since the smaller scale allows for a more personal, fresh menu; the restaurant needen't impress its customers with an all expansive menu. Su's food conquers that job simply enough. In addition, there is a glossary on the back of the menu for those not used to the vegetarian/vegan proteins and other specialties. I needed to glance at the glossary several times, in order to classify a variety of mushroom (eryngi) and to reinstate my familiarity with jicama ("a large, edible, tuberous root of a tropical American plant, of the legume family").
Every single item on the menu sparked a slight overflow of hungry saliva. Though many items embodied a certain Asian style (dumplings, scallion pancakes, and Pad Thai rice noodles), the traditional elements were updated with a fusion of Italian influences, Mexican, and traditional American elements. The Four-mushroom risotto, Orange spiced Guacamole, and Club sandwich respectively. Though each dish contained a spark of recognition from their ancestry, these dishes were spiced with a pinch of remembrance from Japan, China, Thailand, and India.
My eye slid to the Entrée portion of the menu and quickly found the Roasted whole wheat seitan with Chinese broccoli, Japanese eggplant, and roasted almonds. The next item down brought even more excitement and enthusiasm: Spinach pistachio roll with Eryungi mushrooms, yellow squash, zucchini, white asparagus, bell peppers, and gingko nuts. Normally at restaurants I am quite passive when it comes to ordering; but this was no time to rely on the back and forth conversation of "You pick", "No, YOU pick." As the waiter returned with filled water glasses and inquired of our choice, I didn't wait for my mom to ask how big the 'entrees' were against the 'small plates'. The waiter nodded in approval and walked down the hallway to place the orders.
Maybe less than seven minutes passed before our food arrived to my equally famished mom and myself. I had expected good food from carefully reading the menu but, I had not anticipated the presentation that stems from the innovations of nouvelle cuisine. The spinach roll was constructed on a long and narrow, pristine white plate, which candidly showcased the full array of colors. I have an annoying habit of always tasting each element of a dish first, almost like deconstruction, and only after have I tasted each individual element, that I eat like the famished, curious eater that I am; consuming large bits of the food, combing the elements into one constructed masterpiece in my mouth. The bottom of the plate was drizzled with a creamy white sauce, not quite the consistency of béchamel. Though this concoction could have easily been made of cream, the 'V' next to the item on the menu told me the vegan dish couldn't have possibly contained dairy. A slight ring of asparagus stroked the sauce and I concluded it was a puree of the aforementioned vegetable. The sauce was slightly sweet and acidic and the roll slid down your throat with a minor pungency left in your mouth. On far side of each of the sliced rolls, was another thick mixture, again resembling something familiar: mashed potatoes. However, the color of the starch had a more pastoral, green and yellow tone and tasted sweeter and less creamy than the typical potato. Well, here was another carefully planned puree of vegetables including what I believe to be the zucchini and yellow squash. The roll itself was constructed of some type of protein, either seitan or tempeh that was coiled around spinach. The protein far eclipsed the satisfaction you get from the typical chicken, but still retained the stringy and chewy texture of shredded chicken breast. A scattered array of red and green bell peppers and big, spongy gingko nuts finished the dish.
A larger, oblong circular dish was also placed on the table. The whole wheat seitan (Question. Can seitan be whole wheat? I thought it was a soy product) glistened on the bed of vegetables. Most likely due to the roasting process, the seitan was nutty and tender but, did require a job of chewing the protein enough so that it could be easily swallowed. However, my difficulty in swallowing the meal might not have been due to any incorrect preparation, but my animalistic approach to consume the delicious dish quickly and haphazardly, before other ravenous, jealous foes (namely my unattended carnivore brother and my sister, whom one would think hasn't eaten for days, let alone pick up a fork and knife) would appear. The vegetables and seitan were swimming in a dark, salty sauce that was a nice change from the sweet, light spinach roll. After devouring the whole dish I realized that my previous assertion that the chef had left out the broccoli promised in the menu was incorrect; I discovered the spinach-like strands with tougher ends that must have been the variation of broccoli from China.
Though I am very much a dessert person, I do not usually spend the extra couple of dollars on the dessert that is usually not given much thought by the chef. To me, chefs do not pay as much attention to desserts; unrightfully so. The dessert is the ending reminder and the last approach the chef has to convince the patron that the restaurant is worth dining at again. However, my experience at Su was so exceptional that I couldn't help but to ask for the menu again to look at the desserts. While only one of the desserts was vegan, the selection seemed varied enough. There was the traditional Deep fried banana nuggets ('nuggets' to me, was kind of a put-off word, since my memory took me to McDonalds) and homemade ice-cream, that was updated with interesting flavors like lychee, red bean, and green tea. But, I am a chocolate and peanut butter gal and headed straight for the Profiteroles with white chocolate and creamy peanut butter filling with a natural berry sauce. I happily awaited and soon the 'dragon man' waiter brought out a triangular dish that contained not one, not two, but SIX profiteroles! My mom gasped out loud and in hushed tones murmured that, "He [the waiter] must have thought we wanted two of them." (When the check came, it turned out that we were only charged for one dessert. My mom was overly impressed, noting the portion size and became even more flabbergasted when she thought that perhaps it was a misprint on the check and that we did in fact receive two desserts, but only charged for one). Nonetheless I peered at the round balls of puffed dough with no white chocolate in sight. Knowing better than to dismiss the chef, I pierced a ball with my fork and gingerly placed it on my dessert plate and spooned some bluish-purplish sauce on top. The fork didn't work so well to pierce the dough and I succumbed to picking the ball up with my fingers and taking a bite. As I was chewing and trying to suppress the urge to close my eyes (a habit which my brother does when trying to be sophisticated but, I find just annoying) I peered through the dough to find a little pocket of peanut butter and what appeared to be melted chocolate that had been cooled and mixed with the peanut butter. The filling was no overly oppressive that like in most profiteroles occupies the whole interior of the dough; the filling was just enough to provide flavor and texture, but not overly so to take away from the delicate exterior. A little dip in the fruit sauce was the perfect foil to the rich profiteroles as was the several scoops of vanilla ice-cream accompaniment on the plate.
It is funny to note that during the entire eating frenzy my mom and I made the most gangly, unappetizing noises that I can only laugh at now. Not to be crude but, the meal was orgasmic and the sounds only added to the feeling our protruding tummies were causing. The sound orchestration wouldn't have been so bad if we hadn't been the only customers in the restaurant. I feel like our sounds were amplified across the entire space and though the waiter remained just as pleasant, I believe when we left he must have had a roaring, hysterical laugh.
After stumbling out of the restaurant in a food coma with promises to return to the waiter, my mom and I spotted a Yolato (yogurt and gelato ingeniously combined together with less calories than ice-cream) café. After just having visited a Yolato in Paramus, I peered through the glass windows to see that this particular chain offered more flavors than its counterpart. And so, my mom and I happily walked into the store to harass more unsuspecting food servers with questions, only to realize that we were too full to order a pistachio yolato for the road.
Tuesday, July 8
Guest post: By Ariel Braun, a rising freshman at Hamilton College