Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
36 Engle Street
It took more than two years to transform what was the landmark Smoke Chophouse to a modern restaurant with custom tables made from reclaimed wood and hand-painted Moroccan tiles. The main dining area is a spacious room with well separated tables; the open-view kitchen is in the center-right and there is another comfortable space in the back. One can have a civil conversation without the next table eavesdropping, unlike many of the newer area restaurants where space and privacy are at a premium.
We went there for a late afternoon lunch on a bright Thursday.
The first thing that I noticed was the specialty cocktail menu. It was too early in the day to start with cocktails – yes, I know… somewhere in the world the sun is over the yard-arm! Be that as it may, if the mixologists that serve behind the exceptionally large bar are as good as claimed, the results should be spectacular.
The kitchen offers a considerable list of classic steakhouse and Italian dishes. The prices are on the higher-side of the dinning spectrum, similar to the prices of other area high-end restaurants in Northern New Jersey and close to Manhattan prices.
We started with Italian-style appetizers that were very good. In most regions of Italy, Polpette (meatballs) are usually just fried and eaten without a sauce. This version of polpette is alla Napoletana i.e. in a tomato-based sauce; they were resting on a bed of ricotta and were tasty and well seasoned, made from the owner’s family recipe. The fried baby artichokes reminded me of the Roman Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style Artichokes) I enjoyed in one of the Jewish restaurants in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. The baby octopus tentacles covered with wilted shallot slices, shaved fennel, Kalamata pitted olives and a pickled pepper on the side were tasty and redolent with the aromas of fresh oregano, though unfortunately overtenderized. I spoke with Pasquale, the chef, about it and he said that since he has cooked in both Italy and Greece he knows that the octopus should have a little more resistance to the bite, but overtenderized is the way the local clientele wants it. I guess he is true to “the customer is always right”.
I’m very particular when ordering grilled meat in a restaurant. I ordered my lamb chops considerably rare and, I’m happy to say, they came exactly as ordered. Three double chops cooked to perfection. My lunch companion’s sliced steak was also to the point! The kitchen knows how to grill meat.
The kitchen is also good with fish. Pasquale showed us a brace of whole wild Branzinos. These particular samples were about 2 1/2 lbs. each, and came from Normandy. He also purchases Atlantic Branzinos from Galicia or the Asturias; these wild caught Branzinos are considered some of the best wild fish one can have in the US’ East Coast.
The side dishes were very properly made. The hand-cut fries had their skin left on and were dusted with ground Italian cheese. There is nothing as comforting as a plate of creamed spinach from a New York City steakhouse; the creamed spinach side-dish we had was so good, I asked to take home what was left after we finished!
The portions were large enough to preclude ordering dessert but the double espresso I ordered to finish lunch was properly drawn with lots of crema; a good amount of crema is an integral part of the visual allure of espresso.
A note about the wine list. To me it is still a work-in-progress. It is a mixture of meat-friendly reds and sipping whites, with a smattering of good California wines that included one of my favorite sparklers, Coppola’s Sofia, plus one of the winners of the “1976 Judgment of Paris” Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay. Other noteworthy bottles are Secco-Bertani’s Amarone – Bertani’s recreation of an incredible 1030s vintage wine, a blend of 80% Corvina clones and 20% field blend of Cabernet, Sangiovese and Syrah – and Ernesto Catena’s Padrillos Malbec from Argentina, and a few others.
The restaurant has one of the few smoking licenses in New Jersey and has a well ventilated, well stocked cigar bar at a lower level that keeps the main dining area smoke and odor free. The service was exceptionally polite and knows what’s going on in the kitchen. For a first visit, trust your server to guide you through the menu.
© April 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.