Monday, January 16, 2012

Jersey Eats

As is well known, the State of New Jersey gets little respect.  Over the years, it hasn't mattered whether the state is represented by the likes of Princeton basketball hero and U.S. Senator Bill Bradley or the current governor, a bully named Chris Christie, people tend to view the state as run by mobsters such as the one made famous in a TV series, Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. The state has had more than its share of crooked politicians, going all the way back to the notorious mayor of Jersey City in the 30s and 40s, Frank Hague, who was merely telling the truth when he said bluntly, "I am the Law." (In case you might have questioned that declarative, go to the law books and look up a case from those days where the opposing party in some litigation to Hague was none other than the N.J.State Legislature. Not surprisingly, Hague won when the case reached the state's highest court.

For many years, I've known more about New Jersey because it was a national leader in the field in which I've labored--court administration.  It has a very active, very competent state court administrative office and has set standards followed by much of the rest of the country. The state's Supreme Court has also exercised more authority over both the bench and the bar--lawyers who neglect cases or abscond with client funds get thrown out of the bar faster than in other states.  Judges are more respected because politicians actually take the process of appointment seriously--both legislators and governors, for the most part. The Chief Justice exercises supervisory authority over the system and can decide where to assign any judge. I once relished telling a New York lawyer for whom I was working  that when a lawyer in New Jersey tried to complete the [fraudulent] transaction my guy was contemplating, the New Jersey lawyer was disbarred. Oh, and the transaction we were looking at would occur there, too. But it never did.

A trip to the Garden State this past weekend renewed my fond respect for the gustatory side of New Jersey.  Northern New Jersey especially is known for local Italian restaurants with no pretensions and exceedingly high quality. These are the kinds of places where the sauce simmers all day and no one puts the pasta in to cook until a few minutes before a party is to be served.  I met some good friends at a gigantic version of a legendary Jersey diner, near Bordentown, that has one of the world's most extensive menus but produces wonderful plates and massive quantities at very reasonable prices, complete with cinnamon rolls on the bread plate. I've had dishes like clams on linguini with broccoli rabe and yet more served on the side. This time I had their version of veal marsala with lots of veal and mushrooms and a nice light sauce, with acorn squash garnished with apple slices and Italian-style eggplant as accompaniments.  Even I drew back at the very prospect of dessert.

Even more marvelous was a restaurant in Elizabeth, on a side street in a modest residential section, a stone's throw from Newark Airport, called Valença. This area, as well as the nearby Ironbound section of Newark, is known for its large number of Portuguese restaurants; the Newark section also has lots of Spanish restaurants. This restaurant had outstanding clams and at lunch I shared a cataplana, which refers to the copper pot in which all kinds of seafood are cooked, served in a light red sauce. There was also a wonderful grilled veal chop and steak cooked on a hot stone. Coconut crème brulée led off an enticing dessert list. As with the diner, the prices were highly reasonable: main courses ran between $20 and $25 at most. The cataplana for two was $27. The last previous place I had ordered cataplana was at one of the top places in Montreal, which happened to be Portuguese too.  Montreal, on the other hand, is definitely major league when it comes to restaurants. It cost more than twice as much and was no better than the fine version in Elizabeth.

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