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Posts from the ‘The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey’ Category

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County: Kona Grill

kona grll vibe

I’m not going to tell you how long ago I ate at Kona Grill because it’s kind of embarrassing in its negligence (not for the mere fact that I ate there). But the documentarian completist in me can’t let it go unmentioned. Plus, I took NJ Transit to get there on a weekend so it was kind of an effort (combined with a visit to friends nearby–I don’t generally do chains solo unless in other countries–where we also did Bonefish Grill brunch). I’ve never been attracted to Kona Grill, kind of because it has a conflicting brand identity. The name would imply meats with some tropical edge, though in reality sushi is prominent. It’s not a part of some major restaurant group (though it’s based in Scottsdale, AZ like P.F. Chang’s) and there are only roughly 30 locations in the US. And also it’s in the parking lot of the Renaissance Hotel, near no other restaurants, unlike the usual suburban clusters, but most importantly it’s across the highway from Bonefish Grill, my old favorite chain, so if I was going to go to Woodbridge (technically Iselin), NJ I would have a hard time giving up a plate of Bang Bang Shrimp for the unknown.

kona grill food

So, Kona Grill is glitzier than it projects from a speeding car zooming down Route 1. There is a main dining room, with a sushi bar as its focus, all glowing blue like a Vegas (or NJ) lounge. We sat in a windowed side room near a fire pit, illuminated by TV screens, and shared a bunch of small plates (crab cakes, dumplings, avocado egg-rolls with honey-cilantro sauce, and portobello & goat cheese flatbread). Entrees remind you of the Grill part of the restaurant’s name and read busy a la miso-saké sea bass shrimp & pork fried rice, pan-asian ratatouille, yet there are also cajun dishes, cuban sandwiches, greek salads, and clam chowder. The menu could stand to be shaved by one-third.

kona grill drinksYou can have sake flights in addition to the Strawberry Basil Lemonades made with Bacardi Dragon Berry Rum. Yes, I’m the freak who always orders a martini with a cheese-stuffed novelty. I think the chain does a substantial happy hour business (I recall reading that in some earnings call transcript), which I will probably never witness first-hand.

Kona Grill * 511 US Hwy 1 south, Iselin, NJ

Wild News

Some very important Middlesex, New Jersey chain restaurant intel has come to light . The combo Bonefish Grill/Cheeseburger in Paradise on Route 1 that has been Cheeseburger in Paradise-less since being bought by Luby’s in December 2012 finally has a new tenant. Only eight CIP branches survive in the U.S., some transformed into Fuddrucker’s.

Not so, in Woodbridge* where a Buffalo Wild Wings opened today at 11am. The first 100 people in line, starting at 10pm last night, received free wings for a year. And yes, even in the suburbs, people–or at least teenaged boys–will line up for food.

*It’s also possible to get pedantic about non-NYC neighborhood names–or in this case, townships. The Bonefish Grill housed in the same structure considers itself to be in Iselin, and as an outside observer I always assumed it was Route 1 that split Iselin from Woodbridge. Claiming to be in Woodbridge is yet another bold move by Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey: Seasons 52

The Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County New Jersey explores the brave new world beyond Olive Garden and Red Lobster that’s thriving just west of Staten Island.

The shtick: All “seasonally-inspired” dishes are under 475 calories. You might see lamb or asparagus in spring, for instance.
The signatures: Cedar plank roasted salmon, flatbreads.
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Unfortunately, nothing is fried. The lump crab, roasted shrimp & spinach stuffed mushrooms do come with a parmesan-panko crust, at least.

My second experience with Seasons 52 has given me a better grip on the chain’s M.O., not that it’s hard to grasp (think anti-Applebee’s). Just a few months ago this new branch sprung up in the Menlo Park Mall’s parking lot down by the ’80s, vaguely art deco sign. Menlo Park is no King of Prussia. Reservations are available through Open Table, making it the classiest Darden brand by far, and you’ll need them on the weekend. Even with reservations, it’s likely you will still have time for a drink at the bar before your table is ready–just like a real city restaurant. There is a piano player in the bar where booths are first come first serve. I mean literally behind the circular bar there’s a guy pounding out Stevie Wonder or taking requests while servers scurry around picking up trays of rosy Strawberry Basil Fusions (strawberry-infused Prairie Organic Vodka, agave nectar and basil) and Pomegranate Margarita Martinis that are neither margarita nor martini.

seasons 52 cocktails

Do note the Prairie Mule. Moscow Mule variations are very in at chains and probably the biggest crossover drink of the year, I’m guessing because they’re really just a gingery vodka soda in a cooler cup. Brooklyn-chic shops like West Elm and the ecommerce arm of Food52, which I always want to call Seasons 52, both sell the copper mugs.

seasons 52 double date

Photo: Seasons 52

This is exactly how I imagined my party of four appeared. Exactly. The advertised “casually-sophisticated adult ambiance that feels inviting” is no joke. Warm wood is inter-cut with stone mosaic walls, high ceilings are crisscrossed with rafters that evoke an upscale ranch, and open shelves of wine act as room dividers. The epitome of a grown-up restaurant.

After a few stops in New Jersey to see if anyone carried the Times-approved 2009 Haut-Medoc Bordeaux (Wegmans, of all places, came through) I had to order a glass of 2010 Chateau de Parenchère Bordeaux just because there was a Bordeaux on the menu at all. Never mind that it was the wrong vintage and region. I’d also made a Costco trip that inspired me to buy a huge jug of Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon as a gift for one half of my double date because they live in neighboring Woodbridge, NJ (duh).

seasons 52 appetizers

Chilled lobster & shrimp spring roll and blackened steak & blue cheese flatbread with cremini mushrooms, spinach, caramelized onions.

The food is what would happen if Cooking Light came to life as a restaurant, except that everything is plated in a slightly nicer manner than you might bother with at home–most dishes are presented with some sort of flourish like table-side saucing–and your portions are meted out, no seconds because you were left unsatisfied. Proteins are modest and bolstered by other on-trend components and lots of adjectives are applied to make perfectly fine, but never quite delicious food sound more craveable.

seasons 52 turkey skewer

Hence, the Plainfield farm turkey skewer, grilled vegetable-farro pilaf with zinfandel bbq glaze. Farro not rice, glaze not sauce, zinfandel not wine, and the metal rod (shown in this much prettier publicity shot) is pulled from the poultry cubes in front of your eyes.

seasons 52 steak salad

The steak salad comes trapped in a clear plastic ring mold, half-a-foot high. After being lifted up by a server, the leaves tumble out to join the fingerling potatoes, charred onions and medium-rare slices of meat. I could not even tell you what the dressing was since the point is shaving calories, not creating lush memories for life.

seasons 52 mini indulgences

The best part might be the dessert course a.k.a. mini indulgences. Normally, who cares about sweets at chains, but it’s hard to ignore the selection that’s placed on the table–especially since each flavor is highlighted with a penlight as its being described. I guess someone has to run and grab another glass of goop if more than one person wants the same thing?

seasons 52 pecan pie

Yeah, this is a pecan pie. If you’ve ever wondered what mini indulgence you would be, here’s a quiz for you. I’m a Rocky Road because I’m a “quintessential chocoholic,”  thanks for asking. Buzzfeed, Seasons 52 is not.

Seasons 52 * 217 Lafayette Ave., Edison, NJ

The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Bahama Breeze

The shtick: The Caribbean comes to the suburbs, one pineapple coconut martini at a time.
The signatures: Indiscriminate usage of descriptors Island, Creole, Cuban, and Jamaican, and an unusually long list of appetizers and snacks, i.e. “Caribbean inspired tapas.”
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Truffled yuca fries with guava ketchup.

Bahama facade

The suburbs can soften you, or at least tame rough edges. Normally, I disapprove of children at bars or hour-long waits to be seated, yet concessions must be made for novel experiences. Bahama Breeze, the Darden brand that no one knows about—there are only 30 locations nationwide—is special in its scarceness.

So, I got to know the eight-year-old (he could’ve been a mature four or a shrunken 12–I can’t tell children’s ages) who wanted to compare iPhones and show me his Facebook friends while sitting at the bar with his parents. Even though the restaurant had only been open a few weeks, the family were old pros. The father who struck me as a contractor, a foreman, old enough to now delegate manual labor, was not one to waste words, but the mother was a talker and was quick to explain which drinks were stronger and which were pretty but weak (The Bahamarita).

I unwittingly picked the most expensive cocktail (chosen because it seemed the least fruity/sweet, likely to use premade mix) a Caipirinha , but don’t worry, it was only $8.69. 20-ounce house beer is only $4.29 by comparison (I am still reeling over the $6.25 Sam Adams at the Red Lobster across the highway).  It’s not all blenders and Captain Morgan’s either–Gosling Black Seal Rum and Pussers’s Dark Rum also make their way into a Dark and Stormy and Painkiller, though the latter may be controversial with New Yorkers since the Lower East Side bar, Painkiller, was strong-armed into changing its name. by Pusser’s

Bahama breeze interior

The decor was also more tasteful than I had expected, at least in comparison to the other nearby tropical-themed restaurant, Cheeseburger in Paradise, on the other side of Route 1, similar to how I imagine a Caribbean resort to look ( I have never been to the Caribbean, but I am thinking more Hyatt than Sandals—I still haven’t encountered a Four Seasons/Ritz-Carlton-type chain restaurant, though I would like to). Less Hawaiian shirts, neon pinks and turquoises, and rampant wicker, and more warm chocolate tones, restrained thatching, and dark wood. Though not mahogany, which I’d never given any thought to until the day an entertainment reporter called when I was working at the New York Post library to ask, “Is mahogany an upscale wood?”

One of the most unusual things, which isn’t odd on the surface, is their rampant use of pork. Outside of bacon, breakfast sausages and the limited-edition McRib, pork just isn’t commonly used by chain restaurants, though that’s changing. 2011 saw a 7% in pork mentioned on menus. Now, I’d like chains to tackle my other beef: reluctance to serve bone-in chicken.

Bahama breeze sliders

It’s in the chorizo sliders (loose Mexican-style sausage formed into square, springy patties, by the way, not the hard-cured Spanish type, which one might assume considering the inclusion of Spanish cheese) with Manchego.

Bahama breeze plantains

As well as the sweet plantains topped with scoops of pulled pork and a smoky, also-sweet (sweet and salty are the dominating flavors) guava barbecue sauce.

Bahama breeze conch

Anything could’ve been breaded into these fritters—who knows conch from any other shellfish when it’s heavily battered and fried and dipped in a creamy sauce? At least they were striving for regional authenticity.

Bahama breeze pasta

Unlike that old Jamaican favorite, pasta with cream sauce, a.k.a. Calypso shrimp linguine.  That’s the trouble with entrees. It’s easier to play with empanadas, flatbreads, sliders, dips, and wings. Main dishes rely on staid sides, in this case rice, garlic mashed potatoes or cinnamon mashed sweet potatoes, and pasta. I just ate an appetizer as a main instead.

Bahama breeze to go

Your server might spend an inordinate amount of time with your leftovers and you may see them fussing around with the aluminum containers at their station. But you will be more forgiving when you see that they’ve drawn a picture and thoughtfully dated the creation. Or not.

Bahama Breeze * 520 Woodbridge Center Dr., Woodbridge, NJ


The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey

The demise of Friendly’s, the Massachusetts-based ice cream and burger chain known for something called a Fribble, has been taken hard by many. Some have gone as far as tying our inability to sustain the brand directly to the decline of the middle class.

That’s not a baseless argument, though it might be hard to fathom if you live in New York City (or any major city). It’s unseemly that if you were so inclined, you could eat a different pork belly preparation every night of the week (would you prefer yours served with baby clams and a hit of Albariño, stuffed into a sandwich with crab mayonnaise and green papaya, or topped with rock shrimp tempura and sherry caramel?) while a majority of Americans (51.3%) have not dined out at all in the past 12 months.

Maybe our tastes have also changed, though. Despite the creeping ‘90s nostalgia in other aspects of pop culture, perhaps we’ve outgrown Never Ending Pasta Bowls, Bloomin’ Onions, and other last-century calorie-jammed inventions. Baja Fresh has dabbled in Korean tacos and even Sizzler launched a food truck, death knells for 2008 food trends, but something different for mainstream dining.

But back to Friendly’s for a long minute. Even though I didn’t grow up with the franchise, I have not been fully immune to its promises. When I moved to NYC in the late ‘90s, I semi-accidentally ended up in Ridgewood, Queens, a heavily Polish enclave for those who considered Greenpoint too cosmopolitan (“Manhattan’s a ten-pound shit in a five-pound bag” was how my landlord’s son laid it out for me.) with no job and not really being acquainted with more than a few penpals (yes, of the letter-writing persuasion) and friends-of-friends who lived in Manhattan, as young, self-supported people still did at the time. I did have internet and a television, though.

Life centered around the curry-infused mattress that had been left behind by the previous tenants, an intergenerational family of five. I would pass time doing one of two things: sitting at the end of the naked mattress typing on a Mac IIci propped up on a cardboard box, or lying down watching watch broadcast TV (the optimal way to view Ron Howard’s 1978 battle of the bands flick, Cotton Candy). Both involved sweating profusely, which forced me to admit that living air-conditioner-free for the previous 25 years had nothing to do with fortitude, just that Portland’s climate was as unambitious and homogenous as its natives.

That summer Friendly’s, a restaurant I’d never heard, continuously aired a commercial that opened with a close-up of a sprinter, taut, waiting to charge the gate, and ended with glamour shots of sundaes topped with Reese’s Pieces and crushed Butterfingers.  I don’t recall what the athlete had to do with eating candy-swirled ice cream and I’ve never been able to find this ad on YouTube. (I’m also a little bummed that Friendly’s official page introduced a behind-the-scenes series of videos with Andre, executive chef and vice president of research and development, then never followed up with another installment.)

All I knew was that if I could stuff my maw with those perfectly formed mounds of ice cream (nothing local or mom-and-pop would suffice even if it happened to exist nearby, which it didn’t) that my loneliness would subside and new doors would open. If you’re not reaping the benefits of struggling in a hostile environment, and no one knows you at all let alone your uncool desires, what’s the harm in fetishizing a piece of newly discovered suburbia? Chain restaurants never seemed so appealing until I became so far removed from them.

I did eventually make it to the Staten Island Mall, source of the city’s only Friendly’s, after I met a boy with a car who I could coerce into an excursion. I didn’t plan ahead; we arrived right before they started to pull down the grate (who closes at 6pm on a Sunday?). There were as many wheelchairs as children, no athletes, and there was nothing particularly friendly about any of it. My life did not change. I did, however, fill a small void with three scoops of ice cream, caramel, hot fudge, and chopped bits of Heath bar.

So, say goodbye to Friendly’s…and Sbarro, El Torito, Marie Callender’s, all of the musty brands doomed to Wikipedia’s “Defunct restaurants of the United States” page. Now is the time to shed the nostalgia and discover the modern world—classics in the making, if you will—of new chain restaurants thriving just beyond the Outerbridge Crossing, the span of steel and concrete connecting NYC (ok, Staten Island) to Middlesex County, New Jersey. Hyper-specific, sure, but I’ve sampled franchises in Long Island, Northern New Jersey, and Westchester, and those communities still feel too citified. The towns of Middlesex County provide the optimal suburban immersion experience while sticking the closest to NYC (specifically Brooklyn, but maybe you guessed that already).

Crossing a bridge or a tunnel is key. Rent a Zip Car if you need to. (Luckily, 12 years later I still have a guy with a car who will drive me to these chain restaurants.) You really don’t want to be one of those young ironists reveling in the Times Square T.G.I. Friday’s or the Fulton Mall Applebee’s (there is nothing ironic about Dallas BBQ because it’s pure awesome). This is an undertaking that only works in its natural habitat (plus, you’ll feel like a chump paying $11.50 for Olive Garden’s hot artichoke dip in Midtown when the warm dish of goo will only set you back $7.65 in Woodbridge, NJ—never mind that the toll to get back into the city via Staten Island is $12).

And there’s nothing more revitalizing—similar to how I imagine waking up at 6am on a Saturday and going for a run, followed by a carton of Zico coconut water or maybe a weekend indulgence of egg white omelet on a scooped bagel must feel to freaks who enjoy such things—than periodically leaving behind artisanal egg creams and pimento cheese, if only for an afternoon.

I don’t do therapy or spa treatments, and I like to believe it’s not because I’m rigid and close-minded, but because I’ve discovered my own grotesque form of emotional balance. At the very least, I would hope that a few urbanites could take a step back—is a hot dog smothered in spicy ketchup and jalapeño mustard and crushed potato chips eaten in an open lot in Williamsburg really that different than a coney with pepper jack, tomatoes, and jalapeño slices consumed in a car pulled-up at a Sonic?—and allow themselves to enjoy the simple pleasure of spacious booths and the democracy of the plastic beeper because it’s fun, not because it’s funny.


The Post-Millennium Chain Restaurants of Middlesex County New Jersey: Brick House Tavern + Tap

Brick house tavern facade

Brick House Tavern + Tap
The shtick: Man caves for the masses. Tim Allen embodied in a restaurant.
The signatures: Generous use of tater tots, Texas Toast, and chiles, plus 100-ounce beer bongs.
The new Bloomin’ Onion: Deep-fried olives stuffed with Italian sausage and brie.

You would be forgiven for assuming that Guy Fieri had something to do with this restaurant, which is currently the fastest-growing chain in the US.  (Tex Wasabi’s and Johnny Garlic’s are his only handiwork, and confined to Northern California. Then again, something called Tommy Lasagna recently opened in Union Square, so lines are blurring.)  All of the signs are there: flames in the form of the patio fire pit and interior fireplace that’s lit even during the sticky height of summer, lending a New Orleans gentility, and quotes like “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional” stenciled on the walls in inky Olde English fonts shout their xtreme (not Extreme) ‘90s sensibility (they did play The Offspring on both my visits—yes, I’ve been more than once).

 brick house tavern chicken fried steak

Anyone offended by the new Dr. Pepper “It’s not for women” ad campaign, should plug their ears when ordering a beer (even if Pinot Grigio and White Zinfandel are on the drinks menu, you are not ordering wine). You might be asked “Sissy or man-sized?” Despite the attempts at bravado, plenty of the clientele is composed of the fairer sex; Rutgers students make up a high proportion, as do families allowing small children to run around the open area set up with recliners with cup holders and sofas facing flat screen TVs like a Vegas casino’s sports bar, minus the smoke and waitresses in nude hosiery.

Brick house tavern more dining

Bare legs rule here. And that’s the thing, despite the servers’ denim cut-offs and snug, black, cropped deep-V-neck polos, they manage to pull off a small town wholesomeness that’s less Daisy Duke and more Sookie Stackhouse. Good girls. Maybe it’s the low-top Converse that tames the overall look. Oddly, the bartenders are more covered-up, most opting to wear fitted, low-rise yoga pants instead of short shorts. More than one young woman wore glasses, and not quirky oversized Sally Jesse Raphael throwbacks, but practical wire-frames, a sexy-nerd look more fit for a go-go dancer in a dreary Chinese factory city like Guangzhou—or at least that’s what I saw recently on The Last Train Home on PBS (neither the subway, nor working will feel so soul-crushing after watching this documentary).

Brick house tavern devilled eggs

It goes without saying that food-wise, bigger is better, with bold being runner-up (the salt and pepper shakers are the size of diner sugar dispensers). Burgers can have up to three “bricks”— what we pussies might call patties—added on. If you also want a fried egg and dijonnaise included that would be called The Gun Show Burger (because eggs and egg-based condiments are like weapons?). Salads (all four of them) are referred to as “roughage.” Cupcakes are offered for dessert, and lest you confuse these confections with something cosmo-sippers would line-up for, they’ve dubbed them Double D Cup Cakes. If anything, Brick House knows how to work a theme—and the bacon-and-Tabasco-spiked devilled eggs and potato chips with queso are great bar snacks—America’s Next Great Restaurant contestants could’ve learned a lot.

Brick house tavern dining room

Sure, Manhattan has a Hooter’s and Canz just opened in Murray Hill (and will be getting a reality show on VH1) but breastaurants seem less cheesy outside the confines of the city, and Brick House, dare I say it, feels more upscale, despite its dedicated parking spots for motorcycles. Wild Hogs are welcome.

See more photos…