Essex Junction Craft Kitchen and Bar Is Turning Heads, in Bloomfield and Beyond

“Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”    There is a solid chance that we have all heard this idiom at one point in our lives.  As impressionable adolescents, wayward teenagers, or “struggling” college students, some “wise” old kook uttered this to us, in hopes of mending a wound that would eventually heal itself.   This phrase rattles inside all of our heads, like the lub-dubbing of the old man’s heart that tells a tale, every time we compromise on a life goal.  Gradually making us all believe that by not achieving this unrealistic and naïve goal, we somehow failed the main objective of this choose-your-own-adventure book we call life.

I happen to believe that this supposed failure is simply not the case, and this common expression is dead wrong.  I feel that once you make something you love your job, you will begin the slow painful descent towards loathing something you once got great joy from.  If you happen to have an influential role in a young person’s life, I implore you to throw out clichéd and quixotic advice such as this and stick to achievable goals based on real life experiences.

In place of this wide-eyed expectation, I tend to follow the rule of; working to live, as opposed to living to work.  I love to eat and I love to write, however I also love my freedom and integrity.  This is why I thoroughly enjoy being a freelance food blogger as opposed to being a professional food writer.  I have no deadlines, I have no allegiances, and most importantly, like Bernie Sanders, I can’t be bought!  My 9-5 affords me the opportunity to do what I love, and that is the reason I will never cease to adore it.  Furthermore, I have created a virtual foodie militia via various social networks that recommend eateries all over the East Coast that they believe will make my epicurean soul smile.

The anticipation was killing me!

The anticipation was killing me!

Recently, I was bombarded with messages from copious amounts of gastronomes singing the praises of the recently christened Essex Junction Craft Kitchen and Bar located at 90 Washington St. in Bloomfield, NJ.  I can’t visit all the establishments that are recommended by my culinary constituents, however, when a whisper turns into a clamor, which builds into a roar, effectively shouting a restaurants name from the top of the internets, I take notice.

Welcome to Essex Junction.

Welcome to Essex Junction.

Since the webernets was all abuzz about Essex Junction, I decided to make a reservation for Kat and I, as to not risk a longer wait to see what all the hubbub was about.  Good thing we did too because when we arrived at 7:30 P.M. on a Thursday, it was jumping.  We walked in and skipped ahead of the line, due to our forethought, and were seated in the dining room.

Before we even had menus in our hands, Essex Junction was racking up brownie points left and right.  First off the décor is… Listen, I could google some asinine decorating style like, modern industrial shabby chic, that in turn you will have to google to decipher its meaning, or I could tell how awesome it was in seven simple words.  It was like dining in Gotham City! That is right, I felt like I was Bruce Wayne eating dinner with some reporter/Model that I will eventually hook up with just before she gets kidnapped and her life is threatened for the rest of the movie.  Come to think of it, dating Bruce Wayne is about as safe as Tindering in Detroit, I wouldn’t recommend either of those adventures ladies… Just saying.

Nice F-ing Dining Room! Honk! Honk!

Nice F-ing Dining Room! Honk! Honk!

Adding to the ambience of the urban design scheme, we noticed a large movie screen on a wall in the dining room that was playing Bettlejuice!  That is right, YOU HEARD ME… BEETLEJUICE!  We were so intrigued by this concept that Kat and I actually sat on the same side of the table, so we could watch a bit of the movie while we perused the menu.  Don’t judge us!  You would do the same thing!  It was freaking Beetle…, better not say it three times, just in case.

Our first mission was to choose a drink to quench our thirst while we decided what to dine upon.  This was not an easy task, considering Essex Junction offers 15 draft lines full of rotating Craft Beers, a variety of beer and wine bottles, and their selection of Local Legend Cocktails.  We were in a beer mood, as it was Thirsty Thursday, so I chose a Boulevard Tank 7, and Kat went with a Dogfish 90 Minute.  However, next time we visit, we will have to dive into the Local Legends, because not only are these inventive cocktails created with New Jersey Celebrities such as,  Kevin Smith, Queen Latifah, and Steven Colbert, in mind, but 50% of the proceeds go towards the Bloomfield School System.  (As long as you hashtag the restaurant and @ The Celebrity via twitter after taking a selfie with it.)

As stated above, this hobby, turned part-time job has transformed into an obsession, so when Kat and I take a new restaurant for a test drive, we do more than just kick the tires.  In other words, we order a crap ton of food in order to get an accurate representation of the Chef’s repertoire and then we try to eat it all before the gluttonous guilt sets in.  This occasion was no exception to our rule.

We ordered four small plates to start; Sweet and Spicy Wings, Smoked Pork Belly, Duck Meatball Mac & Cheese, and Fried Brussels Sprouts.  Being the hedonistic mongrels that we are, we then ordered two large plates; the Bone-in Rib Eye and the Pork Chop.  Excited about the feast that was about to rain down on our table like dollar bills falling from MC Chris’s fat stacks, we sat back and sipped our hoppy goodness while we awaited the boom.

BACON ON BACON!!!!

BACON ON BACON!!!!

The first plate to make an appearance was the Smoked Pork Belly served with Pickled Vegetables and Candied Bacon.  I am not going to lie, this dish was getting a gold star no matter what in my book because the crazy bastards at Essex Junction essentially decided to put bacon on bacon, and that my friends is the type of decadence that I love to reward.  Furthermore, the dish was perfectly balanced and full of depth thanks to the sweet candied bacon, salty pork belly, and vinegary vegetables all playing off each other.  Not to mention the juxtaposition of the soft belly and the crunchy bacon created a stupendously unique mouthfeel.

I would sing Silly Little Love Songs to these magnificent treats. Get it?

I would sing Silly Little Love Songs to these magnificent treats. Get it?

As we were just getting over the recent demise of our Pork Belly dish, Mr. and Ms. Sweet and Spicy wings arrived to offer their condolences.  These saucy behemoths were cooked to flawlessly and had the perfect meat to fat ratio.  Not to mention, that when paired with the blue cheese sauce these pub food Privates were promoted to Sergeants at Arms…errrr…Wings.  You get my point!

Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, MAC! AAAAAHhhhhhhhhhhhh

Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, MAC! AAAAAHhhhhhhhhhhhh

Next on the food train was the Duck Meatball Mac & Cheese served with a Béchamel sauce.  I will reiterate, I am all about decadent food pornography and this dish gets is the equivalent of Hugh Hefner in the food world.  No!  Not because it has balls, you sick SOB, get your mind out of the gutter.  The luscious Béchamel sauce combined with the rich savory awesomeness of the duck meatball makes this dish a scrumptious win.  On a side note, they use my favorite noodle in this dish, Bucatini, which marries Ziti and Spaghetti to form the most flawless sauce carrying implement known to man.

To paraphrase Rick James, "Fried Brussels Spouts are a hell of drug! "

To paraphrase Rick James, “Fried Brussels Spouts are a hell of drug! “

Last but most certainly not least, the Fried Brussels Sprouts in Sweet Soy, Sriracha, served with Shallots, and Garlic arrived.  Kat and I were nervous about ordering these, not because we buy into the horrific PR nightmare that Brussels have suffered through over the years, but because we envisioned an over-battered ball of Brussely sadness.  WE WERE WRONG!  This was by far our favorite small plate of the night.  These delectable, lightly fried, crack-like morsels of amazeballs were chock full of Umami goodness.  The ingenious process of first pan frying and then baking them in a small crock with the Sweet Soy and Sriracha concoction created an exceptional texture and flavor tag-team duo that could whoop The Legion Of Doom’s ass.  Do yourself a favor and dig all the way to the bottom of the crock when you order this.  There is where you will find the brown bits, that are covered in this damn-near mythical sauce that conveys such supernatural flavor that one can only assume that Chef Justin Caldwell must have created it with the happy tears of Unicorns.

While we were waiting for our main course, our server Mike stopped by to inquire about a second round of drinks in preparation of our impeding meal.  Mike not only remembered what we had ordered (+1 point), but offered a few suggestions that would pair nicely with our entrees (+1,000,000 points).  This is commendable in a restaurant that is well established, but in a new spot like Essex Junction, this is extraordinarily impressive.  His suggestions were spot on too, so we ordered a second round.

Steakey, Steak, Steak, I love Steak!

Steakey, Steak, Steak, I love Steak!

As my Bone-in Rib Eye was approaching, I noticed just how lovely it looked sporting a duck egg like a yarmulke whilst sitting next to a basket of Parmesan Frites.  My first impression was that this steak was large enough to justify the price point.  I then cut into the flesh and realized that it was not just properly cooked, but it was cooked with the precision of a master.  A flawless sear on the outside and a deep pink core on this inside.  Finally, I dipped a slice of this mega steak into the bordelaise sauce, and transported to my mouth, and it was love at first chew.  My apparent fullness from the previous courses melted away as this delightful meat treat melted in my mouth.  (TWSS)

This little piggy went to my belly!

This little piggy went to my belly!

After seeing my dish, I thought the bar for beauty was set fairly high, but Kat’s Pork Chop served with Spicy Jicama Slaw, Brussels Sprouts, and topped with a Vermont Lardon drizzle sank my meat ship.  Her dish looked as if they stuck a Chef’s hat on Zombie Claude Monet and forced him to create food art.  Not only did her dish look amazing, it tasted just as good.  The slaw added a crunch and a kick that danced well with the sweet Vermont sauce that was drizzled over the scrumptious pork, while the lardons kicked this dish into 5th gear.

If my ferocious verbosity paired with the filthy food porn you just were witness to does not make you visit Essex Junction post haste, I don’t really know what I can say in these final words that will convince you.  Every detail of this establishment was not only taken into consideration but tediously worked on so it looks and runs like a shiny new machine.  The hostess greeted us with a smile, the wait staff took excellent care of us, and Chef Justin Caldwell delivered dish after dish of phenomenal food that not only looked fantastic but tasted even better.  In the restaurant world this trifecta is like meeting a down to earth Supermodel that cooks gourmet meals and does keg stands.  If you don’t want to feel like Batman, while imbibing a craft beer and watching a freaking classic movie, then maybe you should stay home.  Then again maybe you should get your head examined, because Essex Junction was all kinds of epic!

 

The Garden State Ale House Opens Its Doors and Throws Down The Gauntlet

As a foodie and a Certified Cicerone the opening of a new Gastropub gets me about as giddy as a sci-fi geek hearing that Joss Whedon is working on a new show. However, since these craft beer slinging, epic eateries are popping up faster than a Lindsay Lohan relapse, I tend to be slightly apprehensive about getting too excited before visiting these potential honey holes.

In the last year or so, within my immediate review radius, there have been several new taverns, pubs, lounges, saloons, and bars that opened their doors promising true craft beer with epicurean eats, only to leave this Blue Collar Foodie, wanting and melancholy. Some of them fell short on delivering genuine craft beer, offering a plethora of Anheuser-Busch InBev owned brands masquerading as bona fide craft, while others advertised high-end pub fare, but instead offered dishes that were basically frozen chicken fingers with a side of Sriracha mayonnaise. Then there were one or two that hit the food and drink notes like a trained vocalist yet failed to stick the dismount, due to their décor, customer service, and douchey clientele.  If I believed in bad reviews, I would insert the names of theses asshat asylums, but I don’t, so I won’t, but you will know them as soon as you walk through the door.

I know what some of you are thinking. WTF, man, you are being uncharacteristically critical, and leaving douche droppings all over the internets. You must understand, that my high expectations for a gastropub stems from the fact that I live within 3 miles of one of the best craft beer and food emporiums in the North Jersey region, and therefore, I hold all establishments to the standard that is The Twisted Elm, in Elmwood Park.

Garden State Ale House LOGO

Enter, the new kid on the block, and I am not talking about Donny and Joey, I am talking about the Garden State Ale House, located at 340 Paterson Ave., in East Rutherford, NJ. When I say new, I don’t mean opened two months ago either, I mean like opened on December 28th, new.

As a rule, I normally don’t visit an establishment during their first month of operation, because I have worked in the restaurant industry before, and I completely understand it takes a while to work out the kinks. With that said, this joint is within walking distance of my friend’s apartment and we decided to break my tenet and check it out on opening day.

I was not going to write this review to be honest, because I expected a general shit-show, which is to be expected from a restaurant that is literally minutes old.  However, The Garden State Ale House, spoiler alert, fucking nailed it so hard, I felt I was doing my readers a disservice by not spewing these glowing words all over the interwebs.

Look, it is all shiny and new.

Look, it is all shiny and new.

As we entered, a smiling hostess greeted us, and seated us almost immediately, even though the dining room was quite crowded. The excellent customer service continued, when Christian arrived at our table with the food, beer, wine, and cocktail menus. Since, they just opened their doors and it was obvious that we had not been to Garden State Ale House in the past, Christian took the time to explain each menu, and informed us that if we had any questions to flag him down.

The beer menu was solid, offering a wide selection of not only exceptional brands, but varied styles as well. Of course, the menu was IPA heavy, but that is to be expected, because ‘merica. However, Stouts, Porters, and Saisons could be found as well, which is always a bonus. For those of you that have friends or fathers that feel that hops, barley, water, and yeast should taste like, well, water, they got you covered too, with a few not so craft beers that will wet their whistle.

Welcome to the Garden State Ale House.

Welcome to the Garden State Ale House.

We ordered our beers and began to peruse the food menu. Although, I like my gastropubs to push the epicurean envelope and deliver a diverse menu, full of  an assortment of cuisines, I actually judge them first on their burger. I feel that this item embodies what a gastropub should be, and is the perfect vessel to express the chef’s creativity and flavor. Therefore, I immediately flipped to the burger section, and began the decision making process.

Normally, it takes quite a bit of time for me to choose the perfect burger to test the wherewithal of the cooking staff, but not on this occasion. The Garden State Ale House literally must have been thinking of me, and my kin, when they created the prodigious Das Burger. Described as an 8oz, 100% certified Angus Beef burger, topped with fried Gouda, fried egg, bacon, Taylor ham, a jumbo onion ring, and chipotle mayonnaise. Holy hell, I could feel my arteries constricting, and I fucking loved it.

My comrades also made their choices rather quickly and we flagged down Christian to place our order. Kat went with the Pickle & Horseradish Steak wrap, Buro decided to join me on my burger adventure with the Blazin’ Cajun Burger, Steph rocked the Adult Grilled Cheese, and Alex chose the Guinness Stew. Since we were all damn near starving we also ordered the Taste of Thanksgiving and the Smokin’ Calamari for the table.

Smokin' Calamari

Smokin’ Calamari

The appetizers arrived shortly after we ordered them, and they not only smelled fantastic but they also looked appealing, which is a testament to the kitchen staff’s attention to detail. The Smokin’ Calamari was described as lightly battered fried calamari, sauteed with hot peppers, served with a citrus aioli and marinara sauce. The calamari itself was prepared extraordinarily well, and the spicy flavor of the hot peppers was present, but not overbearing. My only critique of this dish was it was missing the citrus aioli, but the marinara was flavorful enough to make up for this minor infraction.

The Definition of Amazeballs.

The Definition of Amazeballs.

Since Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and the food that is served on this highest of holy days, is in my opinion, foodgasmic, I am cautious when ordering menu items that attempt to summon their essence. But, when dining with a crowd, democracy rules, so I went with it. All hail democracy friends! These fried spheres of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes were nothing short of amazeballs. I mean it; they were literally balls of amaze! When you bring your ass to this spot, and after reading this article, why wouldn’t you, do yourself a favor and put these in your food hole.

You can't go wrong with Beer Stew.

You can’t go wrong with Beer Stew.

Before, I wax poetic about my legendary burger, I will touch on the entrees that my cohorts chose. Firstly, Alex’s Guinness Stew, which was described as a hearty stew with generous chunks of tenderloin steak, slowly cooked in Guinness, finished with Jameson Irish Whiskey, served over mashed potatoes. This dish was rich and hearty as advertised, complete with an excellent robust flavor. The gravy, was the star of this meal, and I could not help but dip a nice chunk of bread in the ooey, gooey deliciousness when Alex tapped out, and I was not disappointed at all.  The portion size of the entree was concerning at first, but each item that comprised this meal was so sturdy that it was more than enough to feed an average eater.

Fire Goooood!!! Napster Baaaaad!!!

Fire Goooood!!! Napster Baaaaad!!!

As a spice fiend, when restaurants describe things as “Spicy,” “Ultra Hot,” or in this case “Blazin’,” I expect a weak, half-assed, attempt at tantalizing my taste buds. I almost always have to add hot sauce just to get the dish to an acceptable level of heat. This was not the case at The Garden State Ale House. After the first bite, Buro began to sweat, and with a smile on his face he housed the whole burger. This burger was not all about heat though, it was the perfect melody of burgery deliciousness, bready awesomeness, and  jalapeño fierceness.  If you are a fan of flavor, this could very well be your go to order when you visit.

The Blue Collar Baby Maker approves this sandwich.

The Blue Collar Baby Maker approves this sandwich.

We all grew up eating Grilled Cheese, at least we should have. If you didn’t, I call your parent’s parenting into question, but that is a topic for some other blog, maybe called TheBlueCollarBabyMaker.Com.  This grilled cheese, however, was not your grandma’s Wonder Bread and processed cheese sandwich. This son of a bitch is two slices of Texas toast crammed with cheddar, pepper-jack, and smoked gouda, served with house chips and tomato fondue. I am all for nostalgia, but you can’t tell me that this sandwich doesn’t crap all over your G-ma’s bullshit ass Grilled Oil on GMOS! I was impressed with the melding of the three cheeses and this dish was exactly what I would want an adult grilled cheese to taste like. Unfortunately, it was delivered to the table without the tomato fondue, which would have brought this meal to whole other level. We chocked this faux pas up to an opening day oops and I will order this again to see how the tomato soup adds to this already impressive sandwich.

Steakey...Steakey...Steak...I love Steak!

Steakey…Steakey…Steak…I love Steak!

Since it was a Monday, Kat was trying to be somewhat healthy, so she went with the Pickle Horseradish Steak Wrap with a side of Cole slaw. This wrap was full of chopped steak, smoked Gouda, hot cherry peppers, hot pepper brined pickles, baby arugula, sliced tomatoes, red onion, and horseradish honey mustard. Although there appears to be a surplus of ingredients joining the party within this wrap, they all play very nicely with each other. No one piece of the puzzle overshadowed the other and thus complemented one another quite well. For a healthier option, I feel like this dish was a resounding success, and Kat seemed to be happy with her selection.

Untimely death be damned, I fucking love this burger!

Untimely death be damned, I fucking love this burger!

Now for the pièce de résistance, the magnum opus, the crowning achievement of the evening. THE DAS BURGER! First off, I ordered this beast at Medium Rare, and it arrived expertly cooked. I  was slightly nervous that I would not be able to fit this monstrous slab of yummy in my mouth, but with a little squishing, and cutting it in half, I was able to take the perfect first bite. As, angelic music was playing in my head, I chewed that first bite, savoring each and every second this amalgamation of salty, spicy, and meaty was frolicking with my taste buds. Lucky for me, after swallowing that first lovely mouthful, TWSS, there was so much more burger to be had, not to mention the pile of BACON, RANCH, CHEESE FRIES!

BaconRanchFriesGSAH

Look at that beautiful pile of cholesterol and death!

You know there is no way I couldn’t mention the Bacon, Fucking, Ranch, Fucking, Cheese Fries. I mean come on dude, look at that beautiful pile of cholesterol and death! As good as the fries were, the superstar of this plate was definitely the burger. It was juicy to the last bite, the bun held up, and I have to confess it was the first burger, in a long time, that almost defeated me. I had to force the last flavorful tidbit of super tasty burger in my mouth, but it was a labor of love people.

Every element of the Garden State Ale House seemed like it was painstakingly taken into consideration. The décor, the placement of the televisions, and even the tables themselves seemed like an interior designer was hired to construct the prefect atmosphere to enjoy the food and drink they serve. Furthermore, the beer selection was on point, delivering the perfect blend of high-end Cicerone approved rarity and approachable brews for general consumption. All in all, The Garden State Ale House, was extremely well received by the motley crew that I rolled in with and that is high praise, especially on their first night open. In the immortal words of the Terminator, “I’ll be back!”