Lidia’s Cuban Kitchen – 1950’s Cuba in Cranford, NJ , Surviving Superstorm Sandy required a move

A little out of my Monmouth-Ocean county home base, Lidia’s drew me to visit them. As you may know from my bio, I teach Spanish, and love the culture. Any good Hispanic restaurant is worth a visit from me. I also happen to have some friends who live in Cranford who said, “What the heck, we’ll go give it a try”. Lidia’s originally had a restaurant in Highlands, which was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, and have recently opened in Cranford.

Since we were coming up from exit 98, our friends suggested reservations, when we called we were told they only take reservations for parties of 10 or more. We decided on 7pm on a Saturday thinking we might just be ahead of the Saturday crowd. Well, the people in front of us were the last ones to get a table before the entire restaurant was full. Happily, this gave us time to take in the ambience which was very cool if you can appreciate Cuba in its heyday. The wait staff wore black pants, Lidia’s black t-shirts and straw-fedora hats, so very Cuba! And the music was right there, too!

We saw a beautiful bar and asked if it we could sit there and have a drink while waiting. That’s when we met Joe, Lidia’s husband. He said sure we could sit there, but it was a byob. I told him we had heard about the byob and were eager to try some sangria. I showed him the wine we had brought and he smiled and proceeded to make us some very tasty sangria. Also, if you bring rum you can get a pitcher of mojito’s, maybe we’ll try that next time. For $12 they will mix either for you. There were large stalks of sugar cane sitting in pitchers with water that looked exotic and delicious at the same time.
Eventually the entire bar area became packed and it was our time to be seated. I could tell there was a lot of attention to detail when we looked at the menu; it was almost a parchment paper held together by twine. Also, the Spanish teacher in me thought the placemats that looked like a 1950’s Cuban newspaper were the perfect touch. Very important to note, on the menu it says all food is fresh and made to order so please be patient. My party had a lot to catch up on so the time was not an issue, but we were there for a few hours.

empanadasplaintain cups with picadilloshrimp with garlic saucecalamari We couldn’t wait to eat. Our mouths were watering each time a table’s food came out of the kitchen. For our appetizer’s we chose 4 different so we could all try each others. One companion chose empanadas, there were a choice of chicken, picadillo or spinach and manchego cheese or a combination of all three, and that’s what he chose. I chose one of the specials of the night, plaintain cups filled with picadillo. Another chose the garlic shrimp and our fourth, who was hesitant to try Cuban food, had the fried Calamari. Joe, it seems is Italian and told me at the bar he speaks no Spanish. His influence is the few Italian items on the menu and it sure come in handy to please everyone in your party. Not just an afterthought, the Calamari was perfect. The calamari came with Lidia’s homemade sweet and spicy sauce with pepperocini aioli. Our non Cuban eater found it a little too spicy but others raved and more was asked for later in our meal. The empanadas were tasty and filled to capacity. No skimpy empanadas here! The plantain cups filled generously with the picadillo as well. And the garlic shrimp, well….garlicky .

Vaca Frita

Vaca Frita

Cuban Paella

Cuban Paella

Still enjoying our sangria we awaited our entrées. Our non-Cuban eater chose the ravioli. These came with a meat sauce which seemed a little out of the ordinary but was totally perfect for ravioli. Maybe I should show you her very empty plate. I ordered the Vaca Frita, directly translated means Fried Cow, thankfully it is shredded beef,seasoned and pan fried. I could taste a vinegary marinade, just devine. (Is your mouth watering yet?) I chose the congri for my side. This is black beans and rice cooked together rather than side by side. The two guys chose the Cuban paella. This was served full of such fresh fish and steaming hot. After the took a bite or two they both said they thought the sauce that went with the calamari would be great with the paella. So we asked for some and who should bring out the precious liquid, but Lidia herself! I suppose she wanted to see who was mixing up her menu . Both of them had plenty of their entrée left to take home as I did. We just had to save room for dessert.

Ravioli with meat sauce

Ravioli with meat sauce

The desert choices ranged from the usual to the exotic. Our choices included the vanilla ice cream, which came served in a ceramic cup that looked like a cone. How cute! Another had the Casquitos de Guayaba with cream cheese, this is fresh guava slices served with cream cheese, not your typical cream cheese, this is less sweet and the perfect compliment. My buddy, the non Cuban eater, chose the cheesecake, drizzled with caramel sauce. She kept saying how delicious the cheesecake tasted. I chose the Tres Leches cake. For those of you unfamiliar this is a typical Hispanic dessert made with 3 milks. It was the best Tres Leches I have ever had, and believe me I’ve sampled my share. And to top it off, it was drizzled with that intoxicating caramel sauce. I had to ask if the sauce was made there and of course the answer was yes.

Tres Leches

Tres Leches

For everyone reading, it is so centrally located you have no excuse not to go. Right off exit 136 GSP. Will I be back? You bet, I still have so many things to try.

Lidia’s Cuban Kitchen, 117 North Union Ave, Cranford, NJ 908-27CUBAN(2-8226)

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Take Your Gluten-Free and Vegan Friends For A Delicious Dessert At Papa Ganache in Matawan, NJ

About a month ago, my boyfriend Luke and I were driving through Matawan, NJ when I noticed a sign that said, “Bakery Amazing Delicious Vegan Treats… Gluten-Free Too!” When I pointed it out to Luke, we immediately looked at each other and said “Let’s try it!” It wasn’t until after we turned into the parking lot when I realized that it was the new location of a gluten-free bakery I’ve been dying to try — Papa Ganache.

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I first heard of Papa Ganache a few years ago from an old co-worker who was vegan. One day he brought in a slice of their vegan sponge cake and allowed me to try a small piece. It was delicious but it never gave me the incentive to go and check out their other desserts. I wasn’t gluten-free at the time (or vegan, but I’m not vegan now), so I didn’t think there was a need to go when there were plenty of regular bakeries around. Now that I’m gluten-free, it’s an entirely different story!

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Before I get into all of the delicious treats I had, I want to mention how awesome the atmosphere is in this place. It’s perfect for the cafe junkies, especially the ones who inhabit Starbucks on a daily basis. It’s quiet and comfortable; perfect for a study session a work environment (if you telecommute), or a place to bring clients for a lunch or a snack. I would highly recommend this place for any of these instances or any occasion really!

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Now, about these desserts! It was really hard to choose from so many options (imagine a case full of snacks, I was in gluten-free heaven!), but I decided on a gluten-free red velvet cupcake and the chipwhich (one of Papa Ganache‘s specialties!)

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The red velvet cupcake was moist that it practically melted in my mouth. It was so delicious that I seriously wish I had gotten two of them! The chipwhich was also great, but I had a lot of problems finishing the entire cookie. As you can see it’s huge and it was also too sweet for my taste! I definitely think that they should make smaller portions of it, like some of the other cookies I saw on their shelves.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first official Papa Ganache gluten-free experience! If you call the Jersey Shore home, I highly suggest you stop by their new location at 106 Main Street, Matawan, NJ! It’s a beautiful environment, filled with the most delicious goodies! I definitely plan on going back and dragging my friends and family along with me!

Fraternizing at Fratello’s- Jersey Shore Restaurant Week

Jersey Shore Restaurant Week (JSRW), where to go, where to go? For those of you not familiar with Jersey Shore Restaurant Week, they have it fall and spring. This past fall event was cancelled due to Sandy’s arrival. Living in Monmouth County, so hard hit by Sandy, I’m always trying to help our local businesses and Restore the Shore. As a writer for Small Chick, Big Deals, I just HAVE to love the offers of $20.13 and $30.13 for 3 course lunches and dinners and the fact that many restaurants and/or chefs choose this time to ‘show off’ a little something special.

Our first choice this year was Fratello’s, 810 The Plaza, Sea Girt, NJ. Since it was JSRW we knew it was a good idea to go early. On a Sunday we got there about 5:45 and there were already 2 tables filled in the front dining/bar area. There is also a back dining room, but I like to see the bartenders in action. We were greeted at the door by a hostess who gave us a choice of seating. We chose a booth on the side. The busboy came and poured water in small goblets and the waitress came shortly after and asked if we wanted something else to drink aside from the water. I asked about their house white wines and she was very knowledgeable. She went through every house white and a little description. I knew then we were in for a fine evening. I chose a Pinot and my companion chose an unsweetened iced tea. She also asked if we were familiar with JSRW, as there is a separate menu. We said we were and had chosen Fratello’s because of its larger selection than many of the other JSRW restaurants. She smiled and agreed.

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While she went to get our drinks, the bus boy appeared and gave us a plate of brushetta. It was yummy, not over garlicky so it set the tone for the food to come. Shortly after, the busboy stopped by again with warm Italian bread and butter, in a covered basket. We ordered our appetizers and entrée at the same time. The waitress said she would ask us for our dessert choices later. (Some JSRW venues ask for your entire meal choices at once). Our appetizers were shrimp angels, which were butterflied shrimp covered with angel hair pasta and a very complementary horseradish and dill sauce, was that cognac in there? The other appetizer was mushrooms stuffed with sausage and fontina cheese and a hearty brown sauce. It is clear they know what they are doing in this kitchen!
In between appetizer and entrée we were asked if we wanted another drink. My companion asked for a 2nd unsweetened iced tea. We were surprised to a charge for refills on our bill. Not many places charge for that today.

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Our appetizers were cleared and our entrees arrived. My companion ordered the Seafood Della Casa. And man, they were not kidding about that fish. Shrimp, scallops and what seemed like unending pieces of lobster. All this served with angel hair pasta and asparagus in another delicious sauce. I had ordered something a little out of my usual choices. It was a veal chop and shrimp dish called Veal Chop and Shrimp Scapreciatta. I was just amazed that a veal chop could be as tender as a veal scallop. And let me tell you it was huge, this was a no skimpy chop and again, rich brown gravy covered it. The shrimp were tender and seasoned well and it was accompanied by seasonal veggies, carrots, zucchini and mashed potatoes. What a wonderful meal!

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Of course, since it’s JSRW there is a dessert to be had. My companion picked the apple cobbler and I chose the chocolate chip cheesecake. Both of these were apparently made on premises. The apple cobbler came warm and was more of an apple cake with a crumb topping. It got a very positive reception from my companion. And I have to say, my chocolate chip cheesecake had to be one of the best cheesecakes I’ve eaten. It came with chocolate syrup and just enough whipped cream.
While there are so many choices during restaurant week, we just might go back to Fratello’s once more before it’s over.

#SCBDFavorite: Quality Italian at Cafe Luna in Old Bridge, NJ!

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As I mentioned in my 10th Ave Burrito piece earlier, I’ve been taking a few short & long trips home this month. On one of my short trips home when I was there for basically a day, my mom decided to take me and her boyfriend out to a late lunch. I was craving a tartare (I still am) and really wanted to go to a nice, restaurant that wasn’t a typical bar. Nick, my mom’s boyfriend suggested we go to Cafe Luna in Old Bridge, since he heard tons of great things about it. I checked out the menu, which looked amazing so we did.

Cafe Luna has a great location and is right off Route 9 North, the dining room is spacious and seats were comfortable.Our waiter greeted us and took our drink order. I ordered the sangria, which was good and had tons of flavor. Since we were hungry we decided to order appetizers, we ordered the bruschetta and calamari (on bottom of pic below).

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The calamari (pictured above) was delicious, not as crispy as I’d prefer but it still had good  flavor and breading. The bruschetta was delicious: fresh tomatoes and onions on big pieces of crostini, it hit the spot. For an entree I got the Filetto di Pomodoro (middle), my mom, Arlene got the Anneletti (left), and her boyfriend Nick got the Linguine Nere (right). We all enjoyed our meals and had some leftovers, but they were pretty filling. I really like that Cafe Luna makes their own pasta, which is a rare find in restaurants in that area.

16510_10151263599230588_586002293_nOf course, our meal would not be complete without dessert. We decided to try their homemade tiramisu which was delicious. It had just enough alcohol flavor in it, and it was so light, one of the lightest I’ve had. Heck, I’d go back just for that with cappucino.

Next, time your in the Monmouth County area and looking for homemade Italian I highly recommend Cafe Luna in Old Bridge, NJ!

Buon Apetito!

Sara SCBD Logo Edited

#SCBDExclusive: #NJWFF Grand Tasting Recap

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This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending of the Grand Tasting at the 5th Annual New Jersey Wine & Food Festival better known as NJWFF with my boyfriend, Jason. The NJWFF takes place at the Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, NJ.  The ride to Crystal Springs was breathless, even with the snow, which if anything made it more magical.

Jason & I at NJWFF

Jason & I at NJWFF

The event was huge and got a great crowd, each room filled with other foodies like us trying the best food and wine New Jersey offers. The amount of food we consumed was overwhelming and it was hard to take food pictures because it was so crowded and I couldn’t wait to get each sample in my stomach, but I still remember our favorites. Our favorite room was the Spanish charcuterie room that was just added on the weekend of the event. The men behind the charcuterie were awesome at answering at answering questions we had. Plus, the charcuterie was some of the best I’ve had.

Some of our favorite dishes we tasted were:

  1. Braised Short Rib from American Cut
  2. Bison Bruschetta from The Orange Squirrel Restaurant
  3. Filet Mignon with Truffle Creamed Spinach from Strip House
  4. Applewood Smoked Trout, with Compressed Apple, Pickled Breakfast Radish, and Celery Root Puree from Ho-Ho-Kus Inn

Those were just some dishes that stuck out to us at the tasting! It was great to see the chefs in their element! I definitely want to check out the restaurants mentioned above, since I haven’t. All of the dishes stood out to us because they were unique and memorable!

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Chef Jose Andres & I at NJWFF!

One of the highlights of the night, was meeting the chef of honor and legend, Chef Jose Andres. I even got a picture with him! He was so sweet and it was unexpected which made it that much better! After meeting Chef Jose we continued to explore the different food and wines a bit more, and catch some of the entertainment including a really talented tapper.

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It was definitely a night to remember and I would love to attend NJWFF again next year and try to stay at Crystal Springs if possible! We were both so proud to be from the great state of NJ with so many talented chefs!

Hope to see you at NJWFF next year!

Sara SCBD Logo Edited

#DealAlert Tacos & Tequila at Tenth Avenue Burrito

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This month, I’ve been going home every so often to clean my room since I’ve moved out since I have time, and to just get my thoughts together. Oh yeah, can’t forget of course spending time with friends & family. Last week, one of my best friend’s, Sam who is in graduate school was coming home for her spring break so we decided we’d hang out since I had time and didn’t mind coming down. I saw her earlier in the afternoon and had to pick a place for us to grab dinner that night along with our friend Katie.

 I was scrolling through Facebook that afternoon and saw that 10th Ave Burrito (which has been featured in Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives) had a $10 All You Can Eat (AYCE) Taco Special. That sounded great and since Christie granted the places that have their seasonal liquor license early since the Belmar St. Patrick’s Day parade was the week earlier, they had their liquor license. Going by the beach followed by tacos, tequila, and a three musketeer reunion (what my girls and I call ourselves), what could be better?

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Before we went to 10th Ave Burrito we wanted to see how Belmar looked since Sandy, it was devastating– the boardwalk was barely there. We saw what we wanted and were starving. When we first arrived we were seated immediately, we each took a look at the drink menu and ordered our tequila cocktails. I started off with The Oaxaca Old Fashioned which was served in a martini glass, it was really delicious and a deal for only $7. Katie & Sam each got the Tequila Sunrise ($6) which they loved!

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Next, we ordered our AYCE tacos– Katie & I started with steak tacos and Sam stuck with chicken the whole night. The way the AYCE tacos works at 10th Ave Burrito is that you start off with two tacos of your choice, when you feel your getting low and want to order your next round, you can (any kind of taco excluding shrimp). Sam stuck to chicken but I tried the chicken, fish, and chorizo. Katie tried the chorizo and chicken. We both liked steak best and Sam really enjoyed the chicken tacos. The three of us sort of had a contest of who could eat the most, Katie & I were close but I won.

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We got to the meet the owner of 10th Ave Burrito while we were there. He was incredibly friendly and is constantly making sure everyone is enjoying their meal there. Our waitress was very attentive and was always there when we were ready to order another round of tacos. The tequila cocktails are great and are reasonably priced for what you get. The tacos are delicious and you get a ton of food, especially if  you eat a lot for $10!

I had such a great experience and loved dinner so much that I definitely want to come back when I’m home again soon!

Cheers!

Sara SCBD Logo Edited

10th Ave Burrito is located at 801 Belmar Plaza in Belmar, NJ

Luce {Eclectic Italian in Caldwell}

While this area has no shortage of Italian restaurants, picking out the ones worth your time can be a challenge. Luce definitely rises to the top of this list, distinguishing itself with a creative menu and attentive kitchen and staff. A fixture on the Caldwell restaurant scene since 2001, Luce revamped its image and menu in 2011. They brought in Executive Chef Steve Saragnese (formerly of Babbo in NYC and Vetri in Philadelphia) to shake up their traditional Italian fare. Saragnese now serves an eclectic twist on Italian classics, showcasing a keen appreciation for flavor combinations and fresh, seasonal ingredients.

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When I had dinner at Luce last week, I was impressed with the number of specials tacked on to their regular menu. The favorite that stood out was the butternut squash ravioli. Pillowy and light, filled with silky butternut squash purée and swathed in a nutty brown butter sauce, and topped with parmesan and crispy sage, it’s the perfect cold-weather pasta dish. The flatbread we tried was also a special, and hit all the right notes with creamy fontina cheese, peppery arugula, and crispy bacon. The flatbread was sprinkled judiciously with truffle oil, such that it didn’t overpower but elevated the whole dish. The Toasted bread with provolone cheese and roasted red pepper purée also delivered a serious flavor punch. What it lacked in beauty it made up for in taste; the sharp provolone and the tangy red pepper purée balanced perfectly, and the bread had a nice crunch. The eggplant caponata that comes with warm bread at the start of your meal is also a real standout, setting the tone for a flavor-packed meal.

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Luce offers an ample entrée menu, complete with standouts like Berkshire pork chop, filet mignon, gingered tuna, and wild Scottish salmon.  For our dinner, we tried the grouper, accompanied by whipped potatoes and garlic spinach. The fish was flaky and tender, and  served with just the right amount of creamy, garlicky sauce. We also tried the shrimp, served over a risotto with garlic spinach. Everything was cooked and seasoned beautifully no complaints from out table! For dessert we had Luce’s homemade brownie served with espresso chip ice cream and an espresso chocolate reduction. Rich, dark, and chocolaty- it hit the spot.

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Everyone at Luce, from the owners to the kitchen to the staff are warm, friendly, and helpful. Prices are reasonable considering the quality of the ingredients and the attention to detail. Though they don’t have a liquor license, Luce provides a wine list and will place an order for prompt delivery to your table. If you haven’t tried Luce, or haven’t been in years, give it a try- you’ll be impressed!