Kenilworth, Union County, New Jersey
By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
March 2, 1998
On sojourns to Le Rendez-vous, a favorite BYOB bistro in Kenilworth, my wife and I would invariably stop by for preprandial cocktails just down the road at Angie & Min's. Ensconced at the same location for some thirty-five years, A & M's served as a popular local watering hole for less than discriminating palates addicted to what might euphemistically be termed "Neapolitan cuisine." It boasted a bizarre plasticized decor, less than memorable marinara, and a bevy of matronly waitresses named "Flo"--all of whom had the irritating habit of addressing every male of the species as "Hon."
I must confess, we weren't exactly overcome with grief when we learned from the bartender that the place had been sold--curious was probably a more accurate description... Double the curiosity factor when we learned that the buyer was Chris Tocci, the former owner of Tuscana in Upper Montclair. This seemed to bode extremely well for those who appreciate fine dining.
After several weeks of renovations, La Griglia, "An Italian Seafood Grill," made its quiet and unassuming debut... And judging by what I've observed (and ingested), the mourning period for the erstwhile Angie & Min's, may it rest in peace, will be brief indeed.
As of this writing, a number of welcome cosmetic changes continue to be made to the exterior. But the real magic is on the inside--and it is significant. Gone are the vertigo-inducing garish pigmentations. In their stead you discover a single neutral shade throughout, just barely snatched from the jaws of funereal oblivion by a lively series of paintings, the work of Mountainside artist Cynthia Smith Weiss. Even with this infusion, however, the ambiance is still slightly on the bland side... and, I would assume, deliberately so. For it is the cuisine that is meant to supply the pizzazz. Not that it is overly flashy, you understand; it is simply attractively presented, colorful and rich of texture... and positively delicious. Mr. Tocci's brother, John, holds forth in the kitchen, and he is more than equal to the task.
You might begin with a traditional Cold Antipasto or Caesar Salad. Of even more interest are the grilled Portobella Mushrooms served with gourmet greens, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, fresh herbs, garlic and Parmesan cheese. Or perhaps soup strikes your fancy. There are several excellent choices, including an extremely flavorful Pasta Fagioli. In lieu of more traditional starters, you might also consider sharing one of the excellent pasta dishes as an appetizer.
Entree selections include a number of uniquely Italian chicken and veal dishes, as well as New York Strip Steak, Grilled Filet Mignon and Pork Chops prepared country style (potatoes, onions and hot and sweet peppers). Daily specials have featured such diverse items as Rack of Lamb and Wild Boar.
BUT... while La Griglia minors in any one of a number of savory offerings, such as those noted immediately above, always keep in mind that it majors in matters piscatorial. Whatever your gastronomic preferences on a given evening, be assured that you will dine well here. Make seafood your choice, on the other hand, and you will dine exquisitely.
There is a raw bar, if you are so inclined, which includes such selections as Oysters of the Day, Marinated Seafood Salad, or, should you be unable to decide, a Raw Bar Sampler for two. Quite frankly, I prefer the appetizer of Little Neck Clams. They are served up posillipo (steamed and served with tomato, oil, garlic, and parsley), brodetto (in clear broth), stuffed with oreganato breadcrumbs, or with casino butter. Whatever permutation may appeal, the diminutive beauties arrive at table plump, succulent and not the least bit chewy. A starter of Grilled Jumbo Shrimp served over a red and white Tuscan bean salad is also an interesting possibility.
Seafood entrees are a feast for both the eye and the palate. There are nine possibilities from the set menu, and at least four or five daily specials to stimulate your taste buds. The red snapper is particularly noteworthy. Certain comestibles leave you margin for error in their preparation; but finny creatures are unforgiving by nature... and red snapper, in my view, the most unforgiving of all. The consistency of its tender white flesh is such that a few seconds either way can easily spell the difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But you need have no fears. Try the chef's incredible rendition with potato crust, sautéed fresh spinach and a Chardonnay beurre blanc sauce; it is the most appetizing presentation I have encountered anywhere.
Several daily specials, should they happen to be available during one of your visitations, are also highly recommended. Capellini with scallops, clams, mussels and mushrooms in a white wine and garlic sauce, for example, is a marvelous dish. The shellfish are cooked to perfection, the pasta presented al dente, and the accompanying sauce an enthusiastic matchmaker. My personal favorite, however, is the Dover sole meuniere (dredged in flour, sautéed in butter, and finished with lemon-butter and parsley). This particular species, prone to occasional jet lag and overcooking, has been the Achilles' heel of many a chef. Not so here. It arrives at table firm and fine of texture yet rich and moist, the state of its immaculate health beyond reproach.
Despite the call for a self-imposed ban on serving swordfish, many restaurants find themselves pressured by their customers to swim against the tide. Therefore, swordfish will continue to remain a prominent fixture at La Griglia. Should you decide to so indulge, a grilled version, served on a bed of duxelles (a mixture of finely chopped mushrooms, shallots and herbs), often puts in a guest appearance.
But what is fine food without equally fine wines? And here the fruit of the vine is treated as an integral part of your dining experience. There is a compact, reasonably priced wine list containing a majority of Italian selections, as well as a few interesting choices from France and California. Several wines are also available by the glass. In addition, there is a featured wine of the day, a short list of exceptional wines ($20.00 - $40.00), and extraordinary wines ($70.00 - $90.00). In this regard, allow me to suggest a perfectly acceptable 1996 Concilio Pinot Grigio. It marries well with a variety of seafood possibilities and goes for a mere $19.00 per bottle. The 1995 Bava "Corde de Chasse" Gavi at $24.00 is also an excellent choice.
Although La Griglia has been open for only a short period of time, it is already running along at a consistently smooth pace. The waiters/waitresses--while unfortunately graduates of the "Hi, my name's..." school of the food service industry--are, nevertheless, quite competent. Even when the dining room is filled to capacity, they manage to maintain their cool. And they also know how to handle your vintage of choice--a sure sign that all is as it should be.
At the present moment, desserts appear to be the sole chink in this establishment's otherwise solid culinary armor. Only an outstanding Tiramisu is made on the premises. Other items are imported from Bitter Sweet Pastries of Brooklyn, NY; and although these are outstanding, they cannot hold a candle to the aforementioned delicacy. A restaurant of this caliber is terribly remiss in not having its own pastry chef in residence. My hope is that Mr. Tocci will move quickly to rectify the situation.
With most entrees averaging in the middle- to upper-teens and daily specials peaking at $25.00 (for the Dover sole), dining at La Griglia should certainly not be considered an inordinately expensive proposition--but it may become so at the speed of light. Should you choose, for example, to begin the proceedings with the Raw Bar Sampler for two ($17.00) and a premium vintage, the bottom line is apt to cause an acute case of "sticker shock." On the other hand, it is quite possible to enjoy one of the fine pasta dishes, a glass of the house wine, and escape relatively unscathed. Under normal circumstances, depending upon the state of your appetite--and pocketbook--$100.00 per couple seems a fair estimate of the damage. However, whatever your gastronomic inclinations or monetary outlay may be on a given evening, rest assured that you will not be disappointed.
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 - 3:00; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 3:00 - 9:00;
Fri & Sat, 3:00 - 11:00; Sun, 1 - 9
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V
Smoking: In bar area and small rear dining room only