I know in the past I’ve based many of my impressions of our culinary adventures on how well the restaurants treated our kids-but not on Labor Day weekend! In addition to it being my birthday that week, it was also our anniversary the following week. We had babysitting, and dammit, we were going to do something grown up and “boring” for a change.
Our first stop was to re-visit the Laurita Winery in New Egypt, which had its grand opening in October of last year. We had made a brief stop back in March for their St. Patrick’s Day Festival, but due to the crowds and restless children in tow, we didn’t get much further than a quick look around. We were impressed by the sophistication of both their wines and amenities. The winery is a large, beautiful, yet somehow comfortable building with fireplaces, original pieces and salvaged architecture from the historic Garden State Park Racetrack, and large windows overlooking the pastoral scenery. There is a large, formal dining room (weddings, anyone?) where you can eat sandwiches, salads, and cheese platters purchased from the cheese counter up front. It’s obvious that the goal is to make the area a travel destination, as they are affiliated with the elegant, 10-room Dancer Farm B&B (which even offers on-site spa services and horseback riding). Of course, our point of view is that it won’t be complete until they open a good restaurant on the premises. I’m (almost) sorry to say that we were so into the scenery and romance of the moment that we forgot to take pictures: what you see above is a leftover from our visit in March and does it no justice in early fall. Thankfully, they have a website that shows the winery in all its glory.
Finally alone, we decided to go to the bar area and do a basic tasting which centered around our taste for dry reds- though we were disappointed to see that both the Cabernet Franc and the Cabernet Sauvignons had sold out. We were a bit dismayed by the friendly, but disinterested woman behind the counter presenting the wines. When we asked questions, such as what foods the wines would go with, she seemed not to have too much knowledge beyond the rehearsed spiel and wasn’t interested in finding out for us. We enjoyed the experience regardless. Laurita certainly has a variety of wines for various palates: about 17, to be exact. Our favorites were the 2006 Chardonnay (aged in oak) and the Chambourcin. I cut my “wine teeth” on chardonnays and thought I was done with them- but this one had an unusual character that I really enjoyed. We bought a glass and brought it outside to relax on the beautifully landscaped “Walkabout” area. While sipping the wine, chatting (uninterrupted!) with John, and taking in a view of rolling vineyards in the fall sunshine, I was fooled for a moment into thinking we had been transported to the Napa Valley. Ahhhh….
For dinner, John had made reservations at 217 East Main Street for “Tuckerton’s Largest Paella Dinner”. Yes, times are tough for us, but who could resist a culinary trip to Spain for $19.95 a person ? The setting was a restored Victorian home, which added to the romance of our rare evening out. But to us, scenery isn’t everything, and we wanted to know about the food. For us, the real draw of the evening was that Guillermo Veloso (the new chef since April of this year, apparently replacing Christopher Brannon, formerly of the Hurricane House of Barnegat) was going to cook a giant paella over a rather large, outdoor wood-burning fire pit in an authentic paella pan: and we were encouraged to go outside to visit it while it cooked.
We chatted briefly with Guillermo and learned that though he is not affiliated with Valencia, the official “home” of paella, his father is from the coastal area of Galicia, so I had high hopes as I watched him add mountains of squid, shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams to the chorizo and rice already in the giant pan. It was quite a sight:
Settling down to our table, the bread basket arrived, filled with crusty rolls and slices of a dried fruit bread (dates and cranberries?), accompanied by herbed butter and honey and fennel butter-ummm. Though the appetizer choices included a few staid classics (tomato salad Caprese, Caesar salad, and escargot),we chose to stick with the Spanish theme: octopus with a crispy anchovy starter and bacalao fritters. We admit they were not for the faint of heart; but the octopus was melt-in-your-mouth tender, having been cooked in olive oil and saffron, and the crispy fried anchovy served over a toasted round was deliciously intense. The bacalao (dried, salted cod, rehydrated) fritters were crunchy and savory, served with a garlicky aoli. We were impressed that they were included on the menu- though very Spanish, you probably won’t find these things on the menu in a typical Spanish restaurant in this country (It’s been my opinion that they tend to be nothing more than glorified steak houses and have little to do with the wonderful offerings of Spanish cuisine…but I digress). A house salad was automatically offered, and it, too was above expectations: fresh field greens with sliced strawberries and a tangy-sweet strawberry vinaigrette, very nice.
At last, it was time! The paella made a grand entrance and was briefly paraded through the dining room to the kitchen, amidst much applause. Shortly after, we recieved our portions at our table. real chorizo and saffron, cooked over a wood-burning fire in a huge paella pan. The verdict? Decent, but not terrific. While the rice was nicely flavored with the saffron and chorizo, the chicken was breast meat, which came out dry (only the dark meat will hold up under these cooking conditions). Sadly, the seafood was a mixed bag: the clams and mussels tasted fresh, but the scallops, shrimp, and calamari were past their prime- the fishy smell preceded its appearance at the table, and I left them on the side of my plate. A shame, because this dish had all the makings of greatness: a presentation that made one feel they were at a very special event, and gorgeous look at. Having had paella in Spain, I can give marks for effort: real chorizo and saffron, cooked over a wood-burning pit in an iron paella pan-only to be spoiled by a lack of attention to the seafood quality.
Dessert was a simple choice of ice cream or cheesecake; the cheesecake was a perfectly serviceable sampling of the genre, but nothing special, overall. I knew I was getting birthday cake later on, so I didn’t mind.
I don’t know if this experience is typical of the restaurant’s regular menu fare, and having only paid less than $20/pp, I can’t say it was a total wash. But if I had to order from their regular dinner menu (which runs more than double that per person for the same amount of courses) , I would feel really cheated-gorgeous setting or not.