A Chinese Bistro?

Chinese, Cuisine, New Jersey, Specialty Shops

The Battleground

A & J Bistro, East Hanover, New Jersey


The Contenders

Hong Shao Niu Ro Mian vs. Dan Dan Mian

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup vs. Noodles in Hot Spicy Sesame Sauce

Tender, tender beef. Handmade wide noodles. Flavorful spicy broth. Bok choy. Fairy dust.

Legs:

A & J Bistro. What a place. Although the name would lead you to believe it’s French, actually they specialize in some of the best, most honest Chinese food I’ve ever had. Don’t get me wrong, I love lo mein, but General Tso never darkens the doorstep of A&J. At a place where the Chinese guests outnumber everyone else by at least 20 to 1, you know you’ve hit gold.

Except for our century egg, I’ve never had anything here I didn’t like. If ordering a noodle dish, they’ll ask you if you want wide or thin noodles. The answer is wide. Always. Their wide noodles are handmade, misshapen and absolutely mouthwatering. The thin? From a machine (can you blame them?)

Their beef is so tender. Like, cut-in-half-with-your-chopsticks tender. It also acts as a wonderful vessel for the lovely sauce it’s been simmering in. Packed full of flavor, this bovine knows what’s what.

But back to the sauce, which is more of a spicy vinegar oil than anything else. Maybe that sounds weird, but trust me, it works. It’s a thin sauce that’s a beautiful dark reddish brown and carries all the depth of flavor that hue would inspire. Just the right amount of acid, a subtle hint of sweet and a punch of umami all come together with a spicy finish. Of course, I went ahead and added more of my own rice vinegar, soy sauce and spoonfuls of A & J’s amazing chili oil, because you can never go wrong with (much) more chili.

The bok choy was an add-on and totally worth it. Gotta have my green. Steamed to a lovely shade and refreshingly crisp, I honestly believe it completes the dish.

Final note: A & J is so cheap. Like, every time I get the bill I’m astounded by how little the wide array of food has cost (you have to get some of their small plates to share – amazing). They are cash only, though, so come prepared.


Homemade wide noodles with sesame sauce and a stylish bok choy beret.

Snax:

Prior to meeting Legs I had never had authentic Chinese cuisine. The furthest I got was General Tso’s, pork fried rice, and eggrolls. As I am a functioning human being, eggrolls still hold a place in my heart, but the rest went by the wayside a long time ago. Now with a newfound sense of self-preservation and a love for A & J Bistro I never have to call Ming-Feng ever again.

My first steps into life after Tso lead me straight to dan dan mian. A & J’s handmade wide noodles left me with a sense of wonder as I entered the new frontier speeding passed towers of takeaway containers overflowing with lo mein. These noodles are nice and soft, devoid of grease, and gently carry a flavor rather than inducing the headaches I was so accustomed to when in range of its fast food cousin. Toto, we’re not in Grand Sichuan anymore.

I have never felt greater empathy for the seed/nut allergic masses than when slurping down noodle after sesame sauce covered noodle at A & J. Get your EpiPens out boys and girls. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. This lovely sesame sauce topped with peanuts delivers a creamy, rounded out nuttiness that delights with every bite. Never overwhelming in thickness and always exits the palette and just the right time, this sauce is a true professional. Adding chili oil, soy sauce, and rice vinegar gives the sesame a little more complexity, but it’s not essential to its resounding success.

Some protein would be nice and a lot more bok choy, which doesn’t come standard, but this modest little meal is the perfect introduction to the ill-informed. More Chinese please!

 

 


And the winner is… Legs!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✗Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

Snax didn’t even have protein. Chump. His sauce though… wow. He actually ordered what I wanted to get, but out of benevolence I allowed him to dine upon my (formerly) favorite dish. Looks like it pays to be kind.

 

November wins:

Legs: 1 – Snax: 1

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Down by the River

American, Cuisine, New Jersey

The Battleground

River Grille, Chatham, New Jersey


The Contenders

Garlic and Herb P.E.I. Mussels vs. Blackened Cajun Catfish Sandwich

Mussels from the Isle of Prince Edward, bathing luxuriously in a broth fit for kings.

Legs:

I’ve spent more time (and money) at River Grille than I care to admit. Lots of evenings after work are spent with my friends who work there and the bartenders who have become my friends. Dive bars have always held a special place in my heart, and the hilarious, kindly collection of townies who gather here are sure to provide you with a fun time.

For all the time I’ve killed on their bar stools, my culinary adventures never really went past the wings, fries and onion rings (all of which are awesome). I’d heard tales of their award-winning mac and cheese, and my friends who work there won’t shut up about the mussels.

So mussels it is.

My favorite seafood buddies, mussels are just little nuggets of yummy joy. These ones came immersed in the most gorgeous white wine, lemon garlic sauce to ever be paired with seafood. Seriously, this broth needs to be made into a soup so I can shamelessly spoon it up. It’s that good.

The mussels themselves were good. Not a single bit of sand present. Not one. They were, however, rather fishy at times. About half were absolutely pristine, but the other half were just… ocean. Luckily I had my trusty garlic bread lifesaver to reel the mussels back into safety. Cheesy, buttery, garlicy, soft with a crispy crust… perfect. As an added bonus, it allowed me to eat more sauce!


“Blackened” Cajun catfish with lettuce, tomato, Cajun mayo, and provolone cheese. Served with fries at the top of their class.

Snax:

Walking into River Grille as an irregular with Legs always feels like being invited into a friendly yet secretive club. It’s a little loud and a little pricey considering the atmosphere, but I was still eager to try what this Zagat rated tavern had to offer.

I adore Cajun seasoning, so when my catfish arrived I was more than excited to dig in. That first brilliant bite brought all of the usual suspects in for questioning: paprika, salt, pepper, oregano, and the infamous outlaw cayenne. I didn’t get any char flavor despite its claim to be blackened, but the seasoning was lovely. Unfortunately the show was over after just a few bites as catfish and his posse were run out of town by Cajun mayo and provolone. What’s worse? The mayo wasn’t very Cajun inspired at all. Over dressing and an unnecessary cheese component turned what could have been a great sandwich into average pub fare.

Although the sandwich proved to be standard, the fries were anything but. Perfectly crisp, just the right amount of chew, and never oily, these guys make some of the best beer-battered fries around. If only I had some serious Cajun mayo on the side to dip these golden gods into. You can’t always get what you want.

I’m happy with my experience at River but this may be the end of the line for yours truly.


And the winner is… Legs!

✗Protein ✓Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

Presentation is kind of a given when you have an entire bowl stacked with seafood goodness versus a sandwich. And my sauce… I’ll be dreaming about it for ages. Mind blowing. Seriously, it needs to be made into a soup.

I’ve demolished Snax these past weeks and am officially the winner of September and October! Tune in next week to see him shovel something nasty into his mouth as punishment.

September/October wins:

Legs: 4 – Snax: 1

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Food & Wine Free-For-All

American, Food, New Jersey, Specialty Shops
This week we’re bringing you a very special edition of Dinner Royale! We brought our appetites down to Red Bank, New Jersey for this year’s Food & Wine Walk. A wristband got us access to thirty amazing restaurants offering samples of their food. Continue reading for highlights from our culinary tour of Red Bank Flavour and see how we declare this week’s winner after eating identical meals.

 

    NY strip and center cut filet served over crostini. Enjoyed in front of a water wall for extra whimsy.

NY strip and center cut filet served over crostini. Enjoyed in front of a water wall for extra whimsy.


Legs:

Stopping into Char for a bite was like stopping into Heaven for a bit of sunlight. Absolutely sublime but leaves you needing more. They were serving up New York strip AND filet straight from a carving board! On top of crispy, buttery crostini! With wine!

The two cuts of beef were both delicious but distinctly different. True to form, the filet was melt-in-your-mouth tender. Juicy, blood red and deliciously seasoned, it was soft enough to tear through with your teeth. The strip was just as nicely seasoned, with the stronger beef taste expected from a firmer cut. Perfectly cooked and rested; thank God their chef also likes medium rare.

While many of the restaurants on the Food and Wine Walk were somewhat stingy with their portions, Char was having none of it. They walked around with refills of wine and even gave Snax seconds! The whole experience was, well, heavenly.

Cheese push pops? CHEESE PUSH POPS?!? All of them, please.

Cheese push pops? CHEESE PUSH POPS?!? All of them, please.

While Char may have been the best experience of the day, the best bite goes to The Cheese Cave, hands down. CHEESE PUSH POPS?! Who is the genius who thought that up? Snax better watch out because I think I’ve found my soul mate. There were two to choose from. Sadly, we didn’t get to taste each others’.

Snax had avocado cream, goat cheese, red pepper jelly and cornbread crumble. He claims it’s amazing and I’m inclined to agree based off my experience. I had strawberry basil jam, lemon ricotta and pecan nut cake. Mind-blowing, mouth-watering, life-changing cheese pop. Why lemon ricotta isn’t incorporated into every meal ever is beyond me. It’s truly divine.

 

 

Black bean and corn salsa wrap filled with grilled chicken, melted pepper jack, and sour cream. Side of childhood and smoked chipotle sauce.

Black bean and corn salsa wrap filled with grilled chicken, melted pepper jack cheese, and sour cream. Served with a side of childhood and smoked chipotle sauce.

Snax:

From the outside, Jr’s looks like a typical American grill joint with the kind of grab and go food you don’t think too critically about; enjoyable but not noteworthy. Good thing we never judge a book by its cover and decided to stop into this unassuming little eatery.

The black bean and corn salsa wrap was an unexpected hit. The balance of flavor between chicken, salsa, cheese, and sour cream was impeccable. It was almost as if these ingredients joined forces to form a coalition hellbent on ridding the world of sub par wraps, one bite at a time. Legs doesn’t even like sour cream and still greatly enjoyed this wrap! What a time to be alive.

Remember tater tots? I certainly do and so does Jr’s. They understand the less appreciated member of the fry family and do it justice here. Nice and crispy shell surrounding a moist and delicious center. Perfection. Dipping these little bundles of joy into smoked chipotle sauce makes a good thing even better.

A championship performance from the underdogs at Jr’s.

Churro cake pops: scientifically proven to release copious amounts of dopamine in the brain.

Churro cake pops: scientifically proven to release copious amounts of dopamine in the brain.

Now here at Dinner Royale we tend to focus on the savory side of things. To change the pace a bit I present you with Lil’ Cutie Pops and their heavenly churro cake pops.

Biting into this pure bliss was like hearing “I Want You Back” for the very first time and being hit with Michael’s sweet melody. Powerful stuff from a pint sized package. The frosting on these bad boys was delightfully creamy and dusted with cinnamon sugar for just the right amount of sweetness. The cake itself was excellent. It firmly held together at first bite and fell apart in your mouth, not on the stick.

Thank you, Lil’ Cutie Pops, I am now going through
withdrawal without your magnificent take on churros.

I want you back!


And the winner is… Char!

Char had great food and a great experience to boot. Flawless from start to finish, we’ll definitely be coming back here for a special occasion sometime.

Since every restaurant was serving the same thing, we couldn’t declare a winner based off our choices. Check out our steakhouse-themed tie breaker to declare a winner:

 

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