1 Walter East Foran Boulevard
2019 State Route 27 (Location visited)
Back in my old days of computer gaming (early 1990s), there was a magazine called Computer Gaming World (CGW). Gaming in the old days… 256 colours in 640 x 480. I am digressing here… So, what that (now defunct) magazine has to do with food? It just happens that until the later days of the magazine, it never gave a rating. It gave the games highs, lows and a general thought of the game and the writers opinion, leaving up to the reader to then decide whether he/she should get the game or not. You can say that my writing style is heavily influenced by this magazine. OK, what that has to do with food, some of you might still ask. Again, one thing I tried to do on this trip was to try different cuisines. Short of East Asian (other than Ichi Umi) and African, I have bounced back and forth. Today, it is about Luca’s Ristorante. The reason I came here? Because of all the high marks given by people, which led up to it being the number 2 restaurant in New Jersey, according to Urbanspoon…
But that still does not explain the relationship between CGW, Urbanspoon and Luca’s Ristorante! OK, here is the explanation: If you look at the Urbanspoon page for Luca’s Ristorante, you will notice the amount of positive feedback; however, if you keep on looking closely, you will notice that most of the reader reviews are people who have written exactly one review. While I accept the fact some people might want to put only one review (probably because they do not eat out often or similar reason), when over half of them are exactly one review will raise some eyebrows. Still, I wanted to find out myself…
And that led to yet another getting-myself-lost-while-driving silly experience! Although this time I did not have to go through highways and missing exits, I was challenged by the rain and the darkness of the area. Unlike most of the roads taken previously, most of the driving was through a large section of residential area but, for some reason, it was poorly lit. Given that I was driving slightly below the max allowed speed (due to conditions), I made a couple of wrong turns and that set me back up for almost half an additional hour to my road trip there! Don’t believe me? I am sure that Sherman and Anita can attest to my lack of sense of direction on the roads!
When I arrived, I found it interesting this restaurant was located in a strip mall, not that different to those you can find in Richmond, BC – with the exception that, rather than having another strip mall next to it, it was mostly empty lot in the back (or, at least, as far as I could see which was less than 25m!). Yet, there was some multi-culturalism present: next to Luca’s Ristorante, there was a middle-Eastern/Indian type cafe. After I walked past the door, I was greeted by a “long” corridor to where the maitre’d station is and then it separates the dining room into two. Since it was empty at that moment, I was given the option to sit anywhere. I chose the very corner of the restaurant, as far away from any potential customers who might be arriving later. The reason? Lightning…
While it was serviceable to an extent (and not as bad as Baru Latino), it was far from ideal for a picture taking perspective. This meant that I had to use my Speedlight. It was a good thing, I thought, there weren’t any customers yet but, not long after, two couples took a table in the same area where I was. Fortunately, they were far enough. That also meant I shouldn’t take my chances and try to snap as many pictures as possible as fast as possible. Anyway, to the food!
After I made my order, I was given this bowl of complimentary bread. I will admit the bread was quite good. Three different types of bread, all of them still warm. It wasn’t that fluffy but it had a good consistency to it. The one I found somewhat out of place is the middle one which had some fruit in it (blueberry? raisins?). Since I was expecting something neutral or savoury, it caught me slightly off guard. Out of the two dips, I liked the pesto to the right which enhanced the savoury-ness of the bread. The left one… Well, I was still trying to figure out what it was. I thought it would be olive oil and balsamic with the twist of some herbs on top. However, it did not have that olive flavour. I did not bother to ask either because, overall, the bread was good on its own.
To start off with, I had the… Sorry but I do not remember the name exactly. (I tried to take a picture of the menu for reference purposes with my iPhone but it was too dark to make anything out of it). Yes, yes, the general idea is that of mozzarella di bufala caprese, i.e., tomato, mozzarella and basil but, in this case, it also had some capers, grilled red peppers, oil and balsamic vinegar. While simple, this dish was good, in fact, better than expected. I knew that the tomato would be a challenge, specially because they used what seems to be a beefsteak tomato and tomatoes in general weren’t “in season”. And while the tomato couldn’t hold to that creamy texture of the mozzarella, the grilled peppers shined and took over that complimentary role. The sweet pieces mixed really well with that herb taste of basil and the oil and vinegar. The capers were mostly for show and don’t think it added much (not even some saltiness).
With my pasta dish (more in a moment), I received a side salad. The truth is, I could have lived without it. OK, OK, I wouldn’t mind eating more greens just that, well, it wasn’t that much to comment about. They might have grabbed some mixed greens from a bag and added some tomatoes on top and call it a salad. The dressing (not pictured) was better, though, as it provided some savoury notes to the otherwise average salad. (And I am among those who can eat salads without dressing!).
As mentioned above, I had pasta. In the case of Luca’s Ristorante, they have fresh pasta and, well, pasta. Since they make that distinction, I thought I might as well go for the pasta fresca. In this case, Gnocchi di Spinaci Genovese or Spinach dumplings served with braised sirloin and caramelized onions in a white wine sauce (the last part not 100% accurate as the picture I took is extremely dark). When I was served this dish, the waiter first brought a cloth napkin and put it folded into a square the table. Then, he brought the tajine like pot (except it did not have a hole on top). I was wondering what I was supposed to do with it until he put his hand on top and, in a theatherical act, he makes me wait and wait and then uncover this dish. And, then, he asked if I wanted some “Parmesan cheese”. I said yes and, using a grater, he topped some (or “until you say stop”). Authentic Parmigianino? Uncertain, but I am not going to argue on that point.
At first, the liquid was still bubbling, so I knew I had to proceed with care to avoid burning myself. After “mixing” it around, I took my first bite. Now, I know that pasta is a tricky business, specially if you bring it up to an Italian. Most people like it al dente, some others like it mushy. I won’t condemn anybody about this because, well, it is personal preference. In the case of gnocchi, I like it light and fluffy, though if it has a slight bite to it, I think I can live with it. In this case, I found its texture to be slightly chewy. While it did not have to chew hard (as in, say, a bowl of tong yuen, aka, Chinese glutinous rice ball soup), it had a chewier consistency than what I expected. The sauce, which, as mentioned above, started as bubbling liquid, started to thicken as it started to cool down. However, because the gnocchi was mostly smooth (baring that indentation, as if made with a thumb), the sauce did not really “cling” into it. As a result, I ended up eating this dish with a spoon rather than a fork, which I felt somewhat odd. Finally, the meat was an epic fail: partially thanks to the cut, it ended up dry, which did not help much to the beef taste as it was struggling to begin with. Size wise, I will have to say this would have been better to share rather than eat it by myself. Heck, I barely made past half the tajine!
On the way back to the hotel, I couldn’t help wonder… Why was everybody raving about this place? Did I order something wrong? While there were hits, the pasta dish, what a lot of Italians considers (or, at least, it is said) to be the key dish failed. If you fail on that, the rest of the meal will be incomplete. Of course, I did not have the dinner Italian style, still, I can’t help how I would have reacted if I was given that as second dish (after the antipasto) and I did not like it. Overall, I think it has good points but not high enough, specially to the extent some “reviewers” mentioned. Because of that, I don’t think I would come back if I am in there area again.