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Posts from the ‘Edison’ Category

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

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Bone-In Steak, Birthday Cake

Costata tomahawk steak

Costata Eating at two Michael White restaurants in almost
the same week is kind of odd. I’m not a fanatic or anything. But it was a
birthday dinner option and I took it (Maggiano’s in Bridgewater, NJ–don’t
ask–and Mission Chinese were also tossed into the ring. The Elm might’ve been
the best choice but I don’t like to pick my own special occasion meals) because
I was up for something meaty and I wanted to see if the room was all D.C. style
because I love corporate hotel chic (it’s not that bad) and if it was all
blobby blowhards in suits. No, strangely, there were lots of groups of 20-something
ladies in sausage casing Vegas/Meatpacking dresses drinking cocktails and
primping in the bathroom.

Costata duo

Get the tomahawk rib-eye if someone else is paying and skip
the pricey crudo (I’m not lumping oysters into that) even if they are. I don’t
care about pasta, so farroto with bone marrow and parmesan and the broccoli
rabe with fennel sausage worked as sides. Go wild and drink Spanish Rioja instead
of Barolo (I don’t care about expensive Italian reds either). Though dry-aged
for 40 days, the steak isn’t super funky. Some slices had that hyper-meaty edge
while others were mild and tender, maybe too much so. You don’t really need
black truffle butter, but after $118 for a slab of meat what’s another $3?

Cata razor clams

Cata After reading about the rising price of raw bar fodder,
and the $21 razor clams at Costata in particular, the shellfish sauteed with
garlic and olive for $14 sounded like a relative bargain while having a giant
pre-dinner gin and tonic flavored with kaffir lime leaves.

Cata kaffir lime leaf gin & tonic
Also $14, and though I recently boo hoo’d about
this cocktail price point, these drinks are long-lasting, not gone in four
sips, and potent as two normal gin and tonics.

Cheesecake duo

Cheesecake Factory Sure, you can go to Edison and discover
Indian food if you’re friends with Floyd Cardoz
, or you can eat at Cheesecake
Factory in the mall. I first stumbled upon this part of New Jersey (I have not
forgotten about the Post-Millennium Chains of Middlesex County, by the way) in
2005 when looking for America’s first Uniqlo
(which will soon be returning to
the Menlo Park Mall, plus Staten Island and that horrible Atlantic Ave. Brooklyn
shopping center with the Target) that served as a testing ground for Soho then closed. I prefer other chains over Cheesecake Factory (the
martini with blue cheese olives is three dollars cheaper at Bonefish Grill,
which is only one reason why I love Bonefish) but the Thai lettuce wraps are a
classic appetizer in all their glorious unauthenticity, and the fried chicken
salad was more demure than I’d anticipated size-wise (that’s not a negative).
And yes, there was a slice of turtle cheesecake involved.

Green symphony salad bar

Green Symphony is the bizarro Yip’s (R.I.P.?). It’s also one
block from my office like my former love, but this by-the-pound buffet is
greaseless and healthy and borderline Little Lad’s (also R.I.P.) even though
it’s not vegan or even fully vegetarian (there is organic chicken in various
guises). These piles include a cucumber salad, broccoli rabe with pine nuts,
curry chicken salad with fake mayonnaise, edamame salad, wild rice salad,
quinoa salad and some tofu mushroom thing. I can dig this.

Worst birthday ice cream cake ever

Baskin-Robbins The West Coaster in me wanted to blame
Carvel (Baskin-Robbins is also an East Coast brand, but ubiquitous–I’d never
heard of Carvel till later in life) for this ice cream cake disaster that
supposedly bears my name, but it was the handiwork of a Brooklyn
Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin’ Donuts hybrid shop. My name is not aes (?) for the record.



Picnic Garden

H Mart—at least the brand new one in Edison, New Jersey that anchors a sprouted-up strip mall—is the grocery store of my dreams. I would swap it for Fairway without a second thought. We have one of these Korean supermarkets in Flushing, but as with so much of New York City, businesses become larger, cleaner, brighter, better stocked and more amenable the farther you get from the city’s center, like a pond ripple showing suburbia’s finest at the outer rings.

I’ve never seen a supermarket with so many free samples (and we’d just come from Costco—I don’t know where they’ve gotten the reputation for being sample-centric—in my experience if you see one lady handing out apple pieces, it’s a good day), an entire entourage of tables along the perimeter of the produce section offered tastes of miso soup, roasted sweet potatoes and more.

Upon entering, to your left you’ll see a food court with a vendor, Kono, not Kyedong, selling fried chicken, pork belly and blood sausage, and at the edge is a small platform featuring a lone microphone that apparently can be commandeered by anyone shopping or eating to sing pop songs and ballads. On the right is a tray-and-tongs bakery, Tous Les Jours, that was fairly decimated around 6pm. What most caught my eye when walking in the door was the sign reading no photography (as well as the two teens with Jesus signs strumming guitars and singing on the sidewalk). It only implied what I was feeling, that this was no mere grocery store but an attraction that had already drawn enough snap-happy to the annoy of the management.

So, no photos of the take-out by the pound tables including marinated meats destined for the grill, refrigerated walls of kimchi, pickles and preserves, the pristine fish section with everything clearly marked and ordering instructions. And now I know where to buy a variety of fish heads, a problem I encountered when trying to reproduce Singaporean fish head curry. Most shocking, considering the store is primarily Korean with a few nods the rest of Asia, was seeing fresh galangal. I’ve always relied on a mushy knob I keep in the freezer and slice off as needed for Thai curry pastes.

Picnic grill exterior

H Mart is flanked by two restaurants, a tofu house and Picnic Garden, an all-you-can-grill Korean bbq joint that also has a branch in Flushing. The interior is larger than it appears from the outside with three separate seating areas—each table with an individual grill, of course—and a central buffet that houses rice, a few side dishes and a selection of marinated meats to be taken back to your seat.

Picnic garden first round

I was initially confused by the process—it’s not leisurely or solitary. If you come back to your table with a small plate of food intended to feed just yourself, to cook on your own, you would be wrong. As soon as a head-setted staffer sees meat at your table, they come by, toss it on the grill and begin snipping it into bite-sized pieces. They might come back in a few minutes and turn everything over.

Picnic garden plate of meat

Third round

I finally got into the groove. You’re supposed to bring back a big plate teaming with meat for the entire table (in my case, just two of us) it all cooks up at once and then you dip in chile paste, wrap with lettuce and eat. Another round means a swapped out grill and you start the process again (I would hate to be the grill-scrubber at the end of the night—on the way to the bathroom I saw an enormous wheeled plastic tub filled with the dirty once-used metal grates).

Picnic garden grill
The selection is more than sufficient but not huge. For non-grillable items there were kimbap, octopus legs, noodles, tempura vegetables, fried chicken, ribs, whole grilled fish, romaine chunks with chile-flecked dressing and a few more things that I’m forgetting. For meats they had shrimp, pork belly, pork ribs, kalbi, bulgogi beef, chicken, sausages—no organ meats or soondae. Dessert is a plate of oranges.

Picnic grill buffet

Picnic grill interior

It’s fun, you do get your $27 worth (the dinner price on weekends–$15 during the week sounds like a bargain). I only wish they had beer instead of barley tea. Maybe alcohol would just induce lingering?

Picnic Garden * 1763 Route 27, Edison, NJ


I just can't seem to stay out of the suburbs. I've been in New Jersey the past two Saturdays…by choice. There was some reason why we needed to go to Home Depot and Wal-Mart, but I couldn't tell you why now. Light bulbs? A mop? I clearly have issues with Brooklyn if I'd rather drive 26 miles (hey, that's a marathon) to accomplish simple errands.

But it does allow me to explore the dining world outside of New York City. Jackson Heights is fine but Edison's Oak Tree Road is hardly shabby. A few weeks ago while doing some non-blog research, I tried assorted mithai, paneer poppers and a vada pav at Sukhadia's, a vegetarian fast food joint. Sure, we have one in midtown too but I never seem to get up there.

One of my favorite spots in Edison is a strip mall with an Avon storefront, pool supply shop, and a Chili's in the parking lot. Oh, Indians and their love of fiery food. And apparently we'll be selling to them on their home turf soon. Actually, I'm not sure what the hubbub is over, the chain has existed for some time in “spicy” countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Mexico. I wasn't surprised in the least to find one inside the Petronas Towers.

Behind the run of the mill stores is a mini Indian complex, complete with a Bollywood-heavy theater (X-Men Origins or Mitrudu, it's up to you) and a clump of eateries that I think are all affiliated. Moksha is non-vegetarian South Indian, Ming (where I've never eaten) is Chinese-Indian, Singas (which has a location walking distance from my apartment that I need try for at least novelty’s sake at some point) has individual pizzas served in strange bags, Mithaas is like a Desi Starbucks but with emphasis on sweets by the pound and meat-free snacks, not coffee (it just has that '90s leather chairs cafe look—check out their ambience page if you don’t believe me)

We decided to try Moghul, the fancier than usual Indian restaurant with photos of the owners with Jon Corzine and Mother Teresa in the foyer. It's almost like a Cheesecake Factory in there—lots of ironwork, travertine and intricate light fixtures. The type of place where people bring their own white wine (they don't serve alcohol, which we discovered too late to do anything about). Absolutely no connoisseur of Indian food, I was still able to tell that what was being served was more balanced and wide ranging than what you see on a typically see on NYC menus.

Moghul aloo papri chaat

I had no idea what to expect from the aloo papri chaat, but I liked the yogurty hodge podge. There were chickpeas, dumplings, wonton-like creations they call “flour crispies” and potatoes, all drizzled with tamarind chutney and plenty of cilantro.

Moghul basmati

You like starch? Well, here's basmati, papadums and garlic naan. I have remind myself that bread and rice should be either or.

Moghul kafta naramdil

I should've ordered a real vegetable after all that but I wasn't thinking. Kafta naramdil are Twinkie-sized cheese dumplings stuffed with "dried fruit" (I honestly couldn't say which) smothered in a mild creamy curry. This can't possibly be healthy, which means that it was tasty.

Moghul vindaloo

There were plenty of more outré lamb dishes and tons of tandoori items that I would've explored if we had more people to share with. But the lamb vindaloo was surprisingly good, much spicier than anticipated and vinegar tart to stave off any richness overload.

My sugar-free weekday existence is always thwarted on Saturday. I’m like a binge drinker with candy (and well, alcohol too, on occasion). First, I couldn't resist a box of Crunch & Munch at Wal-Mart (I have a serious weakness for caramel corn, though I prefer the classier more caloric Poppycock) so I was determined to ignore Mithaas on the way back to the car. But it just couldn't be done. I was restrained and only chose half a pound of goodies.

Mithaas sweets open

I get the sense that not everyone is a fan of these colorful sweets that are practically all variations on condensed milk and sugar. To me, they’re irresistible  even though many have the texture of Play-Doh. I like them even more than kueh, another colorful candied obsession. But I must admit the Malay treats that are practically all variations on glutinous rice and coconut milk aren't always as compelling in the mouth as in a display. Mithai totally have better payoff according to my palate. Now, I just need to learn all of their names so I can do more than just point at pans. Or better yet, they could put up little signs. Just for me.

Moghul * 1655-195 Oak Tree Rd., Edison, NJ
Mithaas * 1655-170 Oak Tree Rd., Edison, NJ


It’s not that I’m forced into eating at chains on my occasional New Jersey shopping forays, it’s that I like eating at chains when I leave the city. That’s why when posed with the premise “let’s try a nice suburban restaurant this weekend,” I became stumped.

Obviously, nice is subjective. I think it means sit-down, non-diner/take-out, not necessarily expensive. New Jersey certainly has edible diversity as written about recently in the New York Times, but deep-fried hotdogs and subs weren’t what we were discussing. Technically, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a nice suburban restaurant but I don’t know any other places of that caliber in an hour and a half radius (I’m open to suggestions). I hate Italian-American food and anything even veering into continental territory, that’s the stuff I fear getting roped into.

Newark Portuguese sounded fun and I’ve always felt remiss in never trying any of the Ironbound offerings. But we like shopping in Edison and have never sampled any of the gazillion Indian restaurants in nearby South Plainfield, either. As usual, Asian won out and I picked Moksha, South Indian but not vegetarian. And I didn’t quite adhere to the non-chain criteria either, as the owners have a mini-empire in the area.

First, we were forced into an unexpected detour to East Brunswick and were almost swayed by the Bonefish Grill. I had a shopping list that could only be satisfied by the giant Hong Kong Supermarket in South Plainfield. If you’re accustomed to the little ratty ones in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens, it would bring a tear to your eye. They’re not even super clean or full of hyper fresh produce, they’re just spacious with shopping-cart friendly aisles, non-chaotic fish counter and tons of variety you can actually browse without being body checked by elderly Chinese ladies.


Well, it turned out that our favorite HK Supermarket location has given up the ghost (that phrase weirds me out, I never use it, and I’ve seen it countless times in 2008 so I will jump on the bandwagon). Damn them, and it was kind of fitting since the way we originally stumbled upon the grocery store was looking for a non-urban Goodwill that was supposed to be in the same strip mall but had gone kaput and has turned into an Big Lots, which I didn’t have time to explore because we had to track down the next nearest HK Supermarket in East Brunswick.

An old Vietnam vet from Princeton that was in a Thai cooking class I took in the early ‘00s was raving about the huge HK Supermarket in East Brunswick and I recalled Lloyd’s wise words while fiddling with Google Maps via Blackberry.

As it turned out, East Brunswick was no South Plainfield and the best of the Chinese chain is gone for good. I still got what I needed, though: Thai basil, chiles, clams, rau ram (which I never see in Brooklyn), palm sugar, fried shallots, rice vinegar, pork belly, preserved radish, spicy bamboo shoots and bean curd.

But yes, nice suburban restaurants. I suppose Moksha is a little fancy in that the décor feels upscale Pier 1 rather than Christmas light garish, all earth tones, natural materials, and subtle water features, Oh, and things like rice, naan and chutneys come with a surcharge. Like how no free chips and salsa signals Mexican food to be taken seriously (not that it necessarily tastes better). I didn’t take any non-food photos, though.


A chicharon-like puff instead of the typical papadum. I don’t know if this is a traditional snack or made up. It’s kind of like pani poori but not really. There were spices imbedded in the white crackly blob and I’m certain that it was meatless.


Onion bhajis and chile fritters, a.k.a. Indian jalapeno poppers, were kind of run of the mill, but definitely not heavy or too greasy. I meant to order a another more salad-y appetizer but forgot.


Ok, all of the entrees look the same on the surface, but the flavors were all distinct, quite hot and if you scrutinized the bowls, you would notice that the murky shades hinted at green, brown and orange. I originally ordered a whole fried fish that they were out of, which is what forced me into a second-choice of shrimp, causing a curry overload.

Bottom: Karuvaepillai Eral Masala. This shrimp masala was the herbiest, the green likely came from curry leaves and almost seemed Thai in comparison to the others. The spice didn’t catch you until you’d chewed half a mouthful and burning ensued with full force.

Top: Iguru Mamsam. Minus the meat, lamb hot pot almost seemed Cajun, super dense, cuminy, hot and oil-slicked but tangy from chopped tomato.


Guthi Vonkaiya Koora. The tiny mushy eggplants were said to come with sesame seeds. I didn’t see any seeds, so I wonder if they were pulverized into the sauce.

There’s definitely more exploring to be done in South Plainfield’s Indian hub and I’ll make it to Newark eventually. However, I’m still kind of curious about better than average, even mildly creative American food that’s not a Kitchen Nightmare waiting to happen.

Moksha * 1655 Oak Tree Rd., Edison, NJ

Five Guys & Bonefish Grill

3/4 It was an unexpected New Jersey chain restaurant bonanza this weekend. My original intent was to simply head over to Edison and hit all my favorite box stores but food always figures into an afternoon to evening excursion somehow.

But first it was Costco because they close at 6pm, too early for people who can’t get up and out of the apartment until after 2pm. I don’t know how it happens, but grabbing things like Larabars, spare ribs, seltzer water, chicken thighs, garbage bags, frozen shrimp and scallops, honey wheat pretzel rods, Laughing Cow cheese, and apparently more, eventually lead to a $300+ bill. Costco is dangerous. We spent considerably less than that at Trader Joe’s and that included seven bottles of wine, and not all Charles Shaw, mind you.

Even though I loathe gardening, we also stopped at Home Depot for flowers that James can plant in the front communal patch of concrete and dirt that he’s possessive of since we live on the first two floors. I’m not even sure that he enjoys the pastime or if it’s just a bizarre territorial thing. At least it’s prettier than marking with spays of urine.

I rarely check out Wal-Mart, not out of any moral superiority, they’re just not on my mind. But the Linden location just past the Home Depot and a small airport was surrounded by all the lowbrow greatest hits: Lucille Roberts, Fashion Bug, Dress Barn, Radio Shack, Dollar Tree, Sears Essentials and International Food Warehouse. All that was missing was a Petland or Rainbow.

Wal-Mart did provide me with my favorite, non-fancy but hard to find Hanes underwear, teeth whitening gel, mini coffee grinder, AAA batteries and a $10.46 purple knit belted tunic (I love that the sizes are so skewed that I can technically wear a L instead of an XL).

Five_guys_facadeApparently, a Five Guys just opened semi-reasonable walking distance to me in Brooklyn Heights, but as is my way I turned my back on local offerings for a 33-mile drive to Edison, NJ. New York City, Brooklyn in particular, does horrible things to chains. I actually dread the Ikea and Trader Joe’s (I’m not even counting the Whole Foods because it’s not in my realm) that are eventually coming because they’ll inevitably be mobbed and under stocked. It doesn’t seem right to have these national treasures in your own zip code and be forced to leave the state for sanity’s sake.

I’m not an Americana food fanatic, i.e. pizza, hot dogs, burgers. I like two of the three very much (sorry, wieners) but I don’t go around the city taste testing or taking fastidious notes even though I admire others’ efforts. I can’t expound upon the burger-ness of a burger but I was curious what all the Five Guys fuss was about. And I was pleased that the restaurant was located in a familiar strip mall, Wick Plaza, that also contains my bank, North Fork, Sally Beauty (Miss Clairol in sable tends to be out in NYC because I guess everyone has dark brown hair. Plus, I’d forgotten to bring any lip gloss on our journey and I only had to spend 99-cents on their house brand to remedy this) and Hometown Buffet.

Five_guys_friesThe menu is short and sweet and the french fries are freshly made so I can see the comparisons to In-N-Out. But the burgers aren’t really the same. If anything, I’d say they look and taste homemade, assuming you had good cooks for parents. There’s nothing uniform and assembly line about them. And a great deal of their taste has to do with your choice of topping.

This caught me off guard. Even though there was no line because it was suburban New Jersey, I got flustered with their fifteen choices and only asked for mustard, ketchup and fried onions. Basic lettuce and tomatoes eluded me. Another thing to keep in mind is the difference between burger and little burger. I found out that the standard burger contains two patties, which was only worrisome because I was saving some appetite for another chain later.

Five_guys_cheeseburgerThough I prefer medium rare, I wasn’t insulted by their well done only policy. I was more put off by the signage about neighborhood children and allergies and not allowing peanuts off the premises. One of their trademarks is boxes of shell-on peanuts to scoop and eat while waiting. I can’t imagine that introducing peanuts into the wilds of New Jersey could possibly have the effects of sneaking ecologically unsound flora and fauna of foreign environments.

Five_guys_extra_friesI was most impressed with the quantity of fries doled out (and that they offer malt vinegar and Mr. Pibb). Even though we dined in, they bagged everything up and not only filled our cups but threw in a full extra cup into the paper bag. As a scrounge, I actually brought all the extras home to warm up later. Thankfully, health got the better of me the next day and I forced myself to toss them.

I was fine with Five Guys, but James impressed me by thinking of Bonefish Grill and tracking down the nearest location in East Brunswick. Last year when I was doing competitive research on major restaurant chains for work, I discovered that Bonefish is the one to watch. A supposed upperscale and healthier alternative to Red Lobster that was spreading like wildfire, just not in NYC. In an effort to get our fingers on the pulse of America, we needed to get our asses to Bonefish pronto.

Bonefish_grill_exterior This location in a mall parking lot was fused with a Carrabba’s (another OSI property—same company as Outback Steakhouse) and being 9:30 the usual insufferable lines were more like trickles.  Oh, this was a classy joint alright. Sure, you get the standard beeper but they have a neutral toned, wicker and ceiling fanned outdoor lounge to wait in. It felt like a tasteful Florida beach resort. A waiter comes around to take drink orders and push pomegranate martinis on everyone. I always assume drinks are going to be around $10 and get pleasantly shocked by gentle suburban prices where glasses of wine can be had for $4 and even over the top cocktails are only $6.90.

Bonefish_grill_outdoorsThe dusky, warm evening was made perfect when New Order’s “Thieves Like Us” began playing. As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine first hearing this song in Pretty in Pink and seeing myself twenty-one years later being serenaded by it in a New Jersey mall parking lot. Glancing across the potted foliage at the looming glow of a Kohl’s, it felt like twisted paradise. Everything was so wonderfully incongruous that I started getting chills. Or maybe that was just the sun going down.

Bonfish_grill_interior_2 But the spell was broken before we could get a drink; our table was ready. It all went haywire upon entering. Nothing was coordinated with usual chain-like precision. The drinks we eventually ordered didn’t come for over fifteen minutes, our water and bread didn’t show up for a solid half hour. They’d run out of clean glasses. Our order wasn’t getting taken. I don’t get mad about these things because I don’t expect French Laundry, but for people who view this as a serious night out–some were celebrating birthdays–get very antsy and indignant. Multiple tables were complaining. All I could think about was this mystery diner side job I almost took a few years ago. Every little misstep gets critiqued and reported. It wasn’t until I overheard an apologetic waitress explaining to a group that this was the first Saturday they’d been open that it all made sense. Wow, we’d hit up the hottest new restaurant in East Brunswick on opening weekend.

We got a strangely stoic young waitress who wouldn’t make eye contact yet still engaged in classic overexplaning and attempts at being perky. While pouring olive oil in a dish speckled with pepper and spices, “I call it EVOO but not everyone knows who Rachel Ray is so they don’t get it. “ Oh, I get it all right.

Bonefish_grill_crab_cakes “Do you have any questions about our menu?” No. Grilled seafood comes with a choice of four sauces: lemon butter, Mediterranean, mango salsa and pan-Asian. I felt guilty not engaging her, then capitulated and allowed her to expound upon the Mediterranean sauce being full of omega-3s. I was just going to go for the less than healthy lemon butter anyway.

We were surprised at the hotness of one of our crab cake sauces, adorably swirled into hearts. So, we remarked on it, attempting to be friendly chatty diners:

James: That was spicy
Waitress: fumbling for a second…it’s Sriracha
Me: Oh, rooster sauce
Waitress: Yeah, there’s worcestershire in it

Bonefish_grill_shrimp_and_scallopsWha? No matter, I’d be a wretched waitress so it’s not for me to mock. After discovering they’d only been open five days, I let everything slide. The food was actually done well, my grilled shrimp and scallops were lightly charred and tender. The portions were absolutely sane and nothing was dripping cheese a la Red Lobster. The vegetable of the day was sweet and crisp fresh corn dotted with bacon. I had textbook garlic mashed potatoes as a side. Even my inexpensive Riesling seemed just right with the sweetness of my seafood and corn (or maybe it was because of multiple glasses of Riesling that I felt so soothed). I didn’t see a dessert list because we weren’t offered one (not pushing more food is a chain faux pas) though I did notice bananas foster on a specials menu.

Bonefish Grill is one of those concepts that might not fare well in New York City–it’s not as if we’re lacking for quality independent seafood options. But the gap between Le Bernadin and Long John Silver’s is vast so there’s probably room for this manufactured sophistication somewhere in the five boroughs. Me, I wouldn’t bother unless I could enjoy a key lime martini in a parking lot lounge.

Five Guys * 561 Rt. 1, Edison, NJ

Bonefish Grill * 335 Rt. 18, East Brunswick, NJ

Skylark Diner

It used to be Bergen County for New Jersey excursions, but lately the communities along the Middlesex and Union county borders have won me over. Edison is as suburban as anything but there’s a substantial Indian and Chinese community that makes food shopping and dining more interesting while hitting the biggies like Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s.

Skylark_interior_2We were looking for a Sally Beauty Supply so I could pick up some bottles of professional hair color (it’s cheaper than buying consumer boxed dyes and I was specifically looking for the Miss Clairol Gray Busters line, which you can’t get at your corner Duane Reade) and a few blocks before our intended address we impulsively pulled into a mini mall, lured by the A&W/Long John Silver’s combo store advertised on the sign. I then remembered that we’d eaten Indian food in this strip before, ages ago before I even knew what Edison was. There was still an Indian place, but the name has since changed from Delhi Gardens to Hyderabadi something-or-another.

Skylark_bruschettaStill hungry, we noticed a gleaming, tricked out modern diner across the street. Skylark. I’d actually heard about this relatively new eatery, but didn’t realize this was where it was located. It was worth a try. I might’ve called it an upscale diner but that was before I saw the last episode of Top Chef. There were no tempura vegetables & mozzarella with cornichon aioli, but they did have crispy shrimp tempura with spicy citrus aioli.

They also ask if you want bottled or tap water, which is a bit too much. However, the emphasis on wine and cocktails didn’t put me off. It was too early for a martini, but all of the many color coded iterations using scary things like Midori and chocolate sauce were only $7. Maybe I’m just Manhattan-ized but that seemed like a good deal (minus the Razzmatazz liqueur).

Skylark_tasso_eggrollI was a little freaked out when they brought complimentary bruschetta to the table. It just seemed like an odd thing, and initially I was concerned that we’d gotten someone else’s starter. To be honest I’ve never understood the appeal of chopped tomatoes on bread. Let me clarify, pa amb tomaquet is surprisingly good in its simplicity and I’m sure “real” bruschetta with garden grown produce is similarly bewitching. But supermarket tomatoes in the middle of winter not so much. But I like free, so no complaints.

I really loosened up with the appetizer. Melon is my enemy but I was willing to try the chicken and tasso ham egg rolls with a jicama watermelon slaw and bourbon bbq sauce. The crunchy pink cubes didn’t really bother me as much as I’d feared and it was a tasty, albeit slightly overwrought dish.

Skylark_monte_cristoEven though it was 4pm, we hadn’t eaten anything yet so it was a toss-up between breakfast and lunch food. I chose the best of both worlds, my old Portland fixation, the monte cristo. As I’ve recently pointed out, it’s treated more like a breakfast food in NYC. I was pleased to see that this specimen was listed with other sandwiches and came with fries. But it did come with a little metal pitcher of warmed maple syrup. In the NW you’d just get jelly. This version came on cinnamon-swirled french toast. Classy. The sliced turkey was on the dry side but as a whole the sandwich was satisfying. I ate it with a knife and fork because it seemed wrong to drizzle or dip into syrup when eating with your hands. The fries were also better than decent and came covered in a spice blend that’s more typical of curly fries (why are curly fries frequently spiced, anyway?).

The one thing I’ll say for New Jersey is that they keep it nice and Jersey for you. Yes, they were pumping in the dreaded ‘80s music but it was all rock: Bon Jovi, Journey and more. At one point it struck me how jarring a random dirty guitar solo stood out amidst the retro-contemporary décor. Around 5pm, it started getting dark and smooth jazz came on. I got scared for a second like it was now officially moody dinner time, but then the power chords came back on after the brief interlude. Phew.

Skylark Diner * Rt. 1 N. & Wooding Ave., Edison, NJ

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Wonder Seafood

? Since Edison has become my go-to suburban enclave, I've been looking for dining options beyond Quiznos and Cheesecake Factory (lovely as they are). After a little research, Wonder Seafood emerged as a dim sum contender.  But it was only recently that I was able to cross it off my to-try list.

The interesting thing about non-NYC dim sum is that while there are still crowds and a wait, the chaos level is lower, more English is spoken and forks are given (and used by many Asian-American youngsters).

Most of the classics were available, nothing struck me as out of the ordinary or terribly creative. It was a cart parade of greatest hits.

Wu gok. One of my favorites, maybe because I love the lavender shade of mashed taro. You have to be careful because these will you up.  Perhaps I shouldn't have started with them.

Spare ribs

Shrimp dumplings

Salt and pepper shrimp. I ate a few heads, eyes and all, which might've been a mistake (as you'll soon see).

I didn't know what these were. I thought they would be sweet and hollow, but they have a glutinous mochi-like exterior with a rich chopped shrimp and pork filling.

Pork buns

I grabbed these after we were done eating. I thought it was thick pieces of white bread, like a twist on '60s style fried shrimp toast. But it turned out to be bean curd (which James won't eat). We got them wrapped up to go and then I forgot them in the car overnight.

Ok, I really don't want to blame the dim sum, but I can't give an assessment of this meal without an unappetizing epilogue. About seven hours after dining at Wonder Seafood I became violently ill, the sickest I think I've ever been recent history. It is baffling because James and I ate the same items and I hadn't eaten anything else all day except for this meal. He was fine. I did eat a couple of prawn heads. I've always been a shell-eater despite the disgust it gives others. Could the crispy exoskeletons be the culprit? Who knows, but I'll probably steer clear of dim sum for a while.

Wonder Seafood * 1984 Route 22, Edison, NJ

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Cheesecake Factory Edison

Sure, the light bulb was one of the worlds great inventions, but can glass encased filaments hold a candle to the Cheesecake Factory? These sprawling suburban chains are few and far between in the NYC area, so its only fitting that such a culinary innovator (fried macaroni and cheese, anyone?) would be in Edison, NJ. While seeking out the first American Uniqlo, we were ecstatic to discover Menlo Park Mall also housed a bustling Cheesecake Factory.


Cfrangoon I’m still not quite clear what its raison d’etre is, other than cheesecake, of course. Red Lobster is seafood, Olive Garden is Italian, Outback Steakhouse is about as Australian as P.F. Changs is Chinese, but they have focus. Only one page of the menu and a glass case near the front of the restaurant are devoted to their namesake dessert. The rest of the ten-plus-page menu is a hodgepodge. And the Atlantic City casino meets ’90s Adam Tihany décor only complicates matters further.


It’s best to put such matters out of your head, suspend belief and live in the CF moment. Order a passion fruit ice tea, share a crispy crab wonton appetizer and then order monstrous barbecue ranch chicken salad (that looked like ais kacang if you squinted your eyes), and pretend it resembles something healthy. But save room for white chocolate chunk macadamia cheesecake. This was my lovely meal. Next time Ill try a glass of “The Cheesecake Factory,” a merlot specially bottled by Robert Mondavi. Pure class.

CfsaladAn aside: It’s odd how quickly we become sensitized to new rules. Smoking in bars feels like a tiny luxury, but seeing smoking in restaurants seems almost archaic. It wasnt that long ago that the smoking/non smoking section was perfectly acceptable. And I don’t have a problem with cigarettes (though it was strange to be blowing hundreds of dollars in Hong Kong, seated in the nonsmoking section millimeters from Germans exhaling smoke all over our overpriced beef) but it always seems weird that New Jersey chain diners dont care. Maybe Ive been living in over privileged, raising-a-stink over everything Carroll Gardens for too long. I mean, what about the children?

I should’ve thought twice about ordering a salad since I knew I’d only eat half in order to justify ordering cheesecake too. Salads dont exactly travel well. And I’m not one of those picky put sauces on the side folks, but CF goes overboard with their dressing. It was like I’d ordered soup and salad. But being the cheapskate that I am, I attempted to rescue and revive my leftover “salad” which was really more like coleslaw with corn, beans, avocado and chicken, by straining it in a colander for a second lunch. Yes, I am gross and desperate.


Before: s.w. coleslaw slush


After: slightly less slushy

Cheesecake Factory * 455 Menlo Park Dr., Edison, NJ

Delhi Gardens

*This is still an Indian restaurant, though I'm fairly certain that it's changed names (2007)

Though I don't do it all that frequently, I love the occasional trek out to New Jersey for a Trader Joes and kick-ass Hong Kong Supermarket run. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, every chain store known to man populates these parts. I shop, but I rarely eat. Not because I don't want to, I'm just not familiar with the terrain. So, I on my latest excursion we decided to rectify this by a pit stop at Delhi Gardens, a Hyderabadi restaurant I'd heard good things about.

I've been a little Indian shy since becoming crazy ill after eating at Mina a few months back. But there wasn't any trouble. With only two of us, we didn't really get to sample much of the menu, and maybe missed some hits. We started with vegetable samosas, a safe choice, but giant, flaky, very homemade and fresh. For mains we had chicken biryani since biryani is a Hyderabad thing. I'm not an expert on the rice dish, so I can't compare, but the layers of herbs and spices struck me. We also had lamb curry, rogan gosht, I think that was nicely hot. Indian cuisine is one that I honestly need to learn more about to speak knowledgeably. I'm like one of those annoying (to me) people who talks about Thai food and only ever eats pad thai and green curry. Or even worse, someone who raves about a restaurant, but is vegetarian. Nothing against vegetarians, but how can I trust the opinion of someone who hadn't even tried most of the things I would order?

Delhi Gardens * 691 Route 1, Edison, NJ