Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sammy's offers a blast from its illicit past

At Sammy's Ye Old Cider Mill, a red and white building with no sign, right across the street from the actual cider mill in Mendham Township, the meals are as memorable as the restaurant's history.

It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, where local folks sipped illegal suds only a few years before it became a full-time restaurant.

"The cider mill was affiliated with the restaurant in the early days. It was a distillery for applejack whiskey, and then Prohibition came along and they couldn't sell it, so they built the bar downstairs and during Prohibition, they served," says Phil Fornaro, who owns the place with his sister, MaryAnn, and his brother, Sam.

"After (Prohibition), you could get a license to produce and serve," Fornaro says, "So my grandfather closed the mill and established a restaurant, and that's why we (as a restaurant) established in '33."

Interesting history aside, there's a reason why people keep coming back to Sammy's Ye Old Cider Mill time and time again, and it's because of the amazing food, which ranges from phenomenal steaks to a sensational pasta with vodka sauce.

"We basically have an American Continental menu," Fornaro says, "We serve dry-aged T-bone, an 11-ounce filet, a ribeye, which is also called a cowboy steak, veal chops, lamb chops, double-cut lamb chops, Maine lobsters, a version of shrimp scampi, and we (also) have a couple pasta dishes. We're known for a vodka pasta penne — we have people who have been to Italy, all over the world, and they say ours is the best."

And judging by the types of top-notch celebrities and sports stars who have found their way to a table at Sammy's (Did I mention the place doesn't even have a sign and it's purely populated by people because of word of mouth?), he must be telling the truth.

"Joe Piscopo was in last week. Scott Wolf, he was in 'Party of Five,' he's from New Jersey, he's been here," Fornaro says, casually counting off names of the many famous folks who have stepped into his restaurant to eat. "Malcolm Forbes, Jackie Onassis, Merv Griffin. They all used to come in here. Mike Tyson was in here, and that was when he first took the title."

But as much as the celebrity presence is nice in the building, which still looks very much like how it did back in the 1930s and 40s, Fornaro always smiles when talking about his local customers.

"We have a lot of repeat clientele, and when they move in, some of the Realtors are like, 'You gotta try Sammy's,' " Fornaro says, "So we get new customers, (too)."

Fornaro also brings up how the restaurant is more than just a place to get a great steak or pasta, but also a place where people come to meet and talk.

"If you look at (our business) card it says, 'Where Friends Meet,' and that was part of my grandfather's thing," Fornaro says, "We'll get people who come in . . . and they'll start talking to somebody, and the next week, they'll come in and have dinner with those people."

The building, which has the restaurant upstairs and the historic bar downstairs, has a very distinct look. On the exterior, it looks like it's just a house on the side of the road, so if you don't know what you're looking for, you already missed it. On the inside, the walls upstairs are adorned with a hand-painted mural of palm trees.

"An artist came around (during the '40s) who painted roadhouses," Fornaro says, "He was supposed to paint the surrounding areas, the mill across the street, but he drank a little bit and he painted palm trees."

One thing is certain. After 75 years of existence, from Prohibition times to now, people still love Sammy's.

"We have fourth-generation people coming in, and they come in with their grandchildren, and they remember the place from when they were kids," Fornaro says. "The place hasn't changed, and that's what they like about it, because it brings back the memories."

Friday, December 25, 2009

A healthy dollop of history tops great food

The Lamplighter Restaurant & Pub in Chester is an Italian-American restaurant with a pub attached to it, so customers can get the best of both worlds — from sandwich and burger pub fare to pasta dishes and roast lamb.

"We have a rack of lamb that's popular," owner Bob Brady says, "That's not so much Italian. We also have a fettuccine Alfredo with blackened chicken. That would be one of our popular pastas."

There are other items on the menu that you might find in a variety of restaurants but usually not under the same roof.

"Chicken pepperchini is another popular dish," Brady says, adding, "We always sell steaks and hamburgers too. In the bar, there are sandwiches that are popular for lunch and later, like Reubens."

Managing two virtually separate restaurants under one roof seems like a lot of work, and that's why Brady has enlisted his family to help.

"My brothers, Ronald and Gary, are in the kitchen," Brady says, "and I work on the floor."

Brady even has his son, Tommy, on board.

"He works in the kitchen. There's a lot of family involved." Brady says.

Brady and his brothers have been working here for more than two decades.

"We've had this place for like 27 years," Brady says, "We've had other restaurants — one in Florham Park and one in West Orange. They were pretty much the same as this, Italian American."

The restaurants have additional assets. One of the most noteworthy is the antique vibe of the building. Lining the walls of the restaurant area are pictures of important-looking people with big mustaches. The pub area has more of a sports theme — not current sports heroes such as Lebron James or Derek Jeter, mind you, but older photographs, of boxing and horse racing, which highlight the antique vibe.

The first photo that went onto the walls was of a boxer who was one of restaurant's early customers, Brady says. He brought in the photo while the building was being renovated, and when when the carpenter saw it he said, 'That's perfect, we're going to frame it and put it up.' " Brady says.

The boxer had a whole story about the bout that took place the night the photo was taken. There are many other stories in the Lamplighter, as regular customers have been coming here for years, sharing their stories and pictures.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Old Mill Tavern: 'We want people to feel at home'

Do you ever just want to watch a football game, toss back a few drinks and enjoy a good, hearty burger? Do you ever just want to go to a restaurant where you can take the children, enjoy a great meal and not feel strapped for cash?

You can do both in the same restaurant, if you go to the Old Mill Tavern.

"It's just a rustic, comfortable place," owner John Gutowski says. "The atmosphere and the theme here is that we want people to feel at home."

The Old Mill Tavern sits comfortably on the side of Route 24. The site's original structure was a post office. When it was rebuilt, it became a restaurant. Now the place has it it all — great food, friendly atmosphere and great prices — all under one roof.

Its attributes don't go unnoticed. Even in these trying times, the Old Mill Tavern stays busy.

"In this difficult, economic time," Gutowski says, "our focus has been to make the quality the best it can be, and we're proud of that, because people are responding to that — our numbers are up."

Maurice Ching, who has worked at the Old Mill Tavern for more than 14 years, attributes a lot of that success to a few key items on the menu.

"You know, chili — we make almost like 40 gallons a week," Ching says, obviously proud of the Mill's recipe by the way he's smiling. "That's like one of the main things we sell here. Well, the burgers are big here, too, you know. We use more than 200 pounds of ground beef a week. Everything is homemade."

But it's not just the stellar burgers and chili: "People come for our wings," Gutowski says. "They enjoy the different varieties, from mild to suicide."

Not only is the food homemade, but it's ingredients come from local sources. Gutowski is trying to help the area by giving business back to it, and he does that by purchasing all of his raw materials from nearby vendors.

"One of the grassroots things about the Old Mill Tavern is that it's a local, hometown place, so it's important for us to tie the local butcher as well as the local farms into our business," Gutowski says. "And that's why, because our local butcher is a hometown guy. We're buying fresh food from him."

The restaurant has a special every night: all-you-can-eat crab legs on Monday nights, Mexican food on Tuesdays, pasta on Wednesdays and others for the rest of the week.

"I came up with that to grow business and to give to the customers something different, you know," Ching says. "Now, they not just coming for the burger, they're coming for pasta night, too. People really like it."

Another of the tavern's draws is the building itself. In one corner, there's a video game arcade that children can play while they wait for their parents to finish their meals. Patrons can drink a beer from one of the 24 varieties on tap. And the TVs are tuned to whatever big games are being broadcast.

"Saturday, we get all the college football games," Gutowski says, "Not just the Big Ten. We're on the ESPN GamePlan, so you can watch 11 different games. Wherever you're sitting, we'll give you what you want to watch."

Along with the excellent food and atmosphere, the Old Mill also tries to do something for the older crowd: "We offer 10 percent discounts for seniors on various nights," Gutowski says.

Gutowski, who has lived around the Chester area since 1977, thinks the success of his business stems from the great people who live here.

"Chester is a great place to be," he says. "It's a very quaint town, and the people are really genuine, and down to earth. It's a great place to live."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fences wreathed in charitable effort

When JoAnn Burg, community outreach deacon of the Long Valley Presbyterian Church, took the helm of the annual Sponsor a Wreath fundraiser in Washington Township, she said she did it as a personal way to help out people in the area.

Sponsor the Wreaths "is a very real way to assist people in the local community," she said.

Donors pay $20 to sponsor for wreaths, which are hung on one of the white fences that line roads in Washington Township. The money supports a local food pantry. Volunteers already have started hanging this year's wreaths.

The Interfaith Community Outreach for Washington Township Area, or ICOWTA, is a coalition of 10 churches that administer the Residents Emergency Fund and the Food Pantry. A member of the group, Burg said believes that the groceries that are bought through the fundraiser are a "hand-up" rather than a handout.

"I think a handout sounds like people are just waiting there (to collect something0," Burg said. "The people we're helping either have jobs or just lost a job."

"When someone donates $20, there is no administrative cost behind it, and nothing gets deducted," she said. "It all goes back to the food pantry."

Sponsor a Wreath was created six years ago by neighbors Sam and Laurie Aiken and Harvey Ort Jr. as a way to help residents in need. All of the money raised is used to buy groceries and help those in need. By the time all the money is in, 4,500 bags of groceries will be distributed out to more than 70 families this holiday season.

Volunteers and church members say they feel the program is a great annual event because it allows many from the community get involved in it every year. For example, the Washington Township Library conducted a Food for Fines campaign in which people could substitute paying late book fines by donating food. Curves of Chester, Weight Watchers of Long Valley and Chester and Washington Township Scouts get involved, acting as collection conduits for the food drive.

"It's amazing," Burg said about all the support the fundraiser gets in the community. "Most of them come to us."

One of the most visible highlights of the event is when the wreaths are hung on the fences, providing a seasonal decoration with a definite cause behind it.

Donations for wreaths can be mailed to ICOWTA c/o Long Valley Presbyterian Church, 39 Bartley Road, Long Valley, NJ 07853.

'Fusion' menu feature of Meeso Korean and Japanese Grill

Everything about Meeso in Chester is about fusion, from the food to the colors — event to the name of the restaurant itself.

Han, a native of Korea, chose that name for the restaurant because her modus operandi is to do just that: make people smile when eating her food.

"I give them a smile," Han says. "They enjoy the food, they're happy, and they really have a good time in my place."

Korean and Japanese may be the name of the game in this buoyant, autumn-color little restaurant on Main Street, but Han is not averse to one day mixing up many other different cultures' recipes in with her own Korean style.

"I don't divide (the menu)," Han says, "As in this is Japanese, and this is Korean because in the future, I'm going to accept any kind of country's food. Now, there's no nationality. It's all mixed in. In the future, I'm going to try different ingredients from different countries."

The current menu already is quite diverse. It features items such as the Bulgogi box, which is thinly sliced beef, marinated with a mixture of garlic, sugar, fruits, sesame oil and soy sauce, and there also are a variety of sushi rolls, such as the eel and cucumber roll, the crab roll and the California roll.

But if meat's not your thing, there's no problem: Meeso has a pretty extensive vegetarian selection as well.

"I didn't expect that many people (to be vegetarians in Chester)," Han says. "Around here, there are so many vegetarians, so I was surprised. That's why you have a choice to get only vegetable or with beef. The people consider their health more (and avoid red meat). That's why I'm trying more recipes with vegetables."

One such item on the menu is the Bi-Bim-Bap, which is rice mixed with six vegetables and spicy sauce on the side.

"It's very healthy, and it's getting very popular," Han says.

With such an enthusiasm for the business, it's hard to believe that Han initially had no interest in feeding people.

"I came (to America) to study," she says, "I studied for my MBA, but I graduated after 9/11, so many companies didn't want to hire a foreigner."

Han's master of business administration degree is in information systems management, which she says is "unrelated to food." A friend suggested she pursue a career in food service if she couldn't find a job in her field.

She had worked in a restaurant while she was in college. "It was really hard — long hours. And I thought, 'I don't want to do that.' "

It was a good six months before she finally took the plunge into the restaurant world. But she didn't want to take the traditional approach; she wanted to try something different.

"That's why I said, if I stick with this idea, I don't want to serve the Korean traditional style. It's too much work, and you waste a lot of food," Han says. "All the side dishes that they didn't eat, we had to throw out. But with (the restaurant's fusion menu), it's a different item, a different product."

This different product seems to suit Meeso's customers just fine, and if it doesn't, she takes her customers' advice on how she can make it better.

She doesn't hesitate to recommend food to new customers.

"And we listen if they like it or not," Han says. "Usually, the regular customers, they're honest. Just like a friend, and that's very important to me, to make a relationship with the customer. I think that's very important."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The aroma of hops and grains will draw you in

The one thing you can't help doing when walking into the Long Valley Pub & Brewery is pricking up your nostrils and taking a good long whiff, as the aroma of hops and grains is prevalent as soon as you open the door.

"We brew our own beer here," says General Manager Brad Lowmaster. "We only sell the house-brewed beer."

On first walking into the Pub & Brewery, after the initial smell drifts past you, the next thing you'll probably notice is the barnlike decor. That's because the building once served other functions before it became the brewery and restaurant that it is today.

"This building has been here since 1771," Lowmaster says. "It was a barn for a very long time, and in 1995, it was renovated from a barn into the restaurant."

The building has been the site of many unusual and fun events during its restaurant time, from luaus to brunches, to annual Oktoberfests, that usually fill the house to the brim with happy families.

"We do the whole German theme all year round, but for the Oktoberfest, it's one big party outside," says Lowmaster, who used to bus at the restaurant for about six years before he became a general manager. "We get anywhere between 800 to 1,000 people who come out for this party outside, where we put a few of our mainstays that we have on our menu outside and set it up as a buffet — a little bit of a reduced price, you know. It's done by tickets. You buy a certain amount of tickets, and (we) put our beers outside for everyone as well, so we have a band, and it's a big party outside."

Some of the mainstays are traditional American fare such as a bison burger topped with jack cheese and wild mushroom ragout, served on an onion roll; a grilled shrimp panini with a medley of shrimp, spinach, brie cheese, roasted red peppers, lemon dill aioli and sweet potato fries; German-style meals including a delight called "Best of the Wurst," which is Schaller-Weber's finest knockwurst, bratwurst and weisswurst, served with sauerkraut, German potato salad and whole-grain mustard.

"We have your basic appetizers. We have anything from quesadillas to wings: everything that is popular, with our own touch to it," Lowmaster says. "We try to make everything in house. We have the dry-aged steaks on our menu right now, which happens to be very popular."

But you can't talk about the food at the Long Valley Pub & Brewery without also talking about the stellar, award-winning beers that are made on the premises by brewmaster Joe Saia.

"We typically get here, depending on the season, between 5 and 6 a.m. to get our brew day going," says Saia, who speaks proudly of his beers. The brews have won a great many awards from the Great American Beer Festival, such as a 2006 silver medal for a Lazy Jake Porter and a gold medal in 2005 for a Nut Brown Ale.

"People have this misconception (that brewing) is a glamorous, fun job, when in actuality it's dirty, hot, wet and stinky. It's a real job," he says.

Still, Saia loves it with all his heart and calls it a labor of love, explaining he aims not to inebriate the customer coming in, but rather to give them the best flavor possible.

"I can take a small amount of ingredients and get the most flavor I can get out of it," Saia says, "So, it not only helps with our bottom line, but it helps people be responsible here, it helps them pair up beers with their appetizers, with their entree, and even their dessert."

He adds, "If you notice, we have an oatmeal stout up here, which goes real well with chocolate cakes, and fruits and things like that, and now that we're starting up our Sunday brunch again, I thought an oatmeal stout would be the perfect complement to Belgian waffles and fruit platters and things like that.... (I'm) making the best beer in the world as far as all of us are concerned."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review: New Super Mario Bros. Wii

You know what? Even though I’ve talked a lot of smack about the Wii in my time writing for CBGames, I have to admit something. Sure, the Wii has had some pretty awful titles in its past, but overall, I’ve been massively pleased with the heavy-hitting games for the system like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Heck, even some third party titles like Muramasa: The Demon Blade, are quickly gaining a place in my favorite games of all time list.

And now comes New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a game that I shouldn’t even be allowed to review since I already have such a positive bias towards Mario (And this is classic, 2D Mario at that). Be that as it may, I’m going to say it anyway—New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the second greatest game for the Wii ever. The best game for the system ? Super Mario Galaxy, of course.

The splendor of this game, though, is that it’s delightfully old school and new at the same time. We've heard that plenty of times before about a new Mario game, as they tend to recycle the basic concepts and even the storyline from the original game (Princess Peach gets kidnapped again). But much like the Nintendo DS New Super Mario Bros., there really is enough new here to separate it from the 16- and 8-bit glory days.

First off, though, before we get into all the neato completo new power-ups and techniques, let’s talk about the game’s new multiplayer mode, which is so chaotic and fun that I’m going to brazenly say that this is my new favorite party game of all time now (better thanBomberman, even). With the stages in this game just brimming with obstacles, secrets and power-ups, New Super Mario Bros. Wii quickly turned from being a cooperative romp for all into an every man for themselves free-for-all full of chucking teammates off of ledges and stealing power-ups. Granted, the game provides "Free-for-All" and "Coin Battle" game modes so you can get this antisocial behavior out of your system but daggum it, I just can’t help myself from stealing and hoarding every 1-Up for myself. For some reason, I guess I just feel like I have the RIGHT to do it, being that I’m so good at the game. So, that’s my one caveat: when you’re playing multiplayer, play with equally skilled players or risk alienating others. My girlfriend and her sisters all admitted that it was "Too stressful” and "no fun" playing with me.

But if you’re the casual type who just wants to have some fun and doesn’t mind if somebody falls off a ledge or runs too fast and misses a secret passage, then you’ll definitely have a blast with this game in co-op mode, in that the game gives you enough opportunities to mess up that the fun is never really dampened. For example, you can play with two to four players (with Mario, Luigi, and two Toads) and if one character fails, the others can continue on without them until the fallen comrade comes back onto the screen in a bubble. It's okay to mess up, in other words. Also, the game rewards and promotes cooperation, as there are plenty of points that really need somebody else to jump on the other’s head for a boost to get a power up, or somebody to be thrown to safety to reach otherwise impossible spots, so playing together is really the way to go if you’re capable of that sort of thing.

But the game doesn’t really have to be played in a group as there’s plenty to do in the single-player mode to make it very much worth your while to do so. If I haven’t mentioned it already, this is vintage Super Mario Brothers with a few extra touches to really make it a new game, like the new power-ups of Propeller Mario, Ice Mario, and Penguin Mario, each adding new layers to the overall gameplay and structure. With Propeller Mario, it’s pretty similar to raccoon tail Mario in Super Mario Bros. 3 or cape Mario in Super Mario World in that you can take float over gaps that might seem impossible to cross at first. There's a lot of power-ups in the sky to collect, too. Ice Mario is very much like flower power Mario, but you shoot ice instead of fire. Simple enough. But some of these ice blocks can be used to scale higher places, too, so again, it adds a lot to the overall gameplay as a whole. And last is Penguin Mario, which is much like frog suit Mario in SMB3 in that you can swim better under water with it. The only difference is though that you don’t have to annoyingly hop on land like you did with the frog suit, making it a much better power-up in the long run. Mini Mario from New SMB for the DS returns, too, but alas, no giant Mario this time. I can see why Nintendo left this feature out though, as having three other players with one giant one on the screen could be a hassle (if two or three characters got it, you wouldn't be able to see the screen!). Also, a lot more of the levels are vertical this time, too, so it would definitely get in the way of progress. In

Structurally, the game uses a world map much like SMB3 and SMW, so it’s easy to navigate, with secret passages abounding throughout. Overall, though, there’s not much new here as far as levels are concerned. There’s a grass level, a desert level, an ice level, and so on. What’s interesting though is the new Super Guide Mode. If you’re a Mario fanatic like myself, you’ll probably never even use this feature, but others less hardcore than thou probably will, in that it provides a massive help if you can’t get through certain areas. Here’s how it works: If you die eight times in a row in single player mode, a green block will pop out and Luigi will beat the level for you, without revealing any of the hidden stuff. The idea is to save you from the stress of dying on one level over and over. saving you excess stress. Personally, I think it’s a great idea.

Now, at the beginning of this article, I said how this game is second only to Super Mario Galaxy when it comes to Wii titles, and there’s a reason for that. When you look back at the Mario canon, I really separate the games into two separate categories by saying that there are the 2D Mario games, and then, there are the 3D ones. For example, Super Mario World is my all-time favorite side-scroller, and Super Mario Galaxy has recently dethroned Super Mario 64 as my all time favorite 3D platformer, but if I were to compare the two, I couldn’t because they’re such vastly different titles. Really, when it comes down to it, though, as vastly blasphemous as this might sound, I actually prefer 3D Mario to 2D Mario in that the games open up so many different possibilities in the third dimension. Just think of Super Mario Galaxy, it was Mario…in spaaaaaaace. Would the game really have worked in 2D though? How much better was it when you could actually go completely AROUND a planet’s surface without the hindrance of it just going left to right? You could go inside AND outside of it. It was more than just novel, it was revolutionary, and completely liberating.

Still, as far as 2D Mario games go, I have to say that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is really only a few itty bitty steps behind Super Mario World in its overall scope and vision. Be that as it may, that’s still saying a lot that I could even come close to comparing the two since Super Mario World is unquestionably the greatest platform of all time, with only New Super Mario Bros. for the DS even coming remotely close to it. Well, New Super Mario Bros. Wii comes even closer to being the best 2D platformer ever. And just like I whole-heartedly believed Super Mario Galaxy was the best game of 2007, I’ll have to again wave my flag of allegiance to Nintendo and say that New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the best of 2009. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, quite frankly, is one of the greatest games ever made and it’s on the Wii. Who’da thunk it? Pick this game up now if you own the console. You really have no excuse.

Players: 1-4 Players
Platform(s): Wii
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
ESRB: Everyone

Review: Slingshot Cowboy

Purchasing games on the iPhone seems like a complete waste of time and money to me. I mean, I’ve always had a certain affinity towards Papi Jump, but to actually spend an extra dollar and some change on Papi Jump Plus? What the hell’s the point of that? Well, after playing Slingshot Cowboy Plus, I can see where some people might fork over the extra money if they’re fans of the game. Overall, though, you’re better off just sticking with the free version, annoying ads and all.

The point of Slingshot Cowboy is simple. Cows walk across the screen, and you shoot off rocks from a slingshot to hit them and try to knock them over. The farther out they are on the screen, the more points you get for hitting them. Simple, right? Well, yes, but I personally find the game to be maddening. It's similar to Paper Toss in that you have to measure distance on a flat screen. However, in Slingshot Cowboy, you also have to worry about your target moving, and ducking, and getting behind objects, which is an absolute pain in the ass if you ask me.

The differences between the free original and this Plus edition are small but important. In the Plus version, there are two all new power-ups that add an extra layer to the game—grenades and slow-mo. Slow-mo can be attained by hitting the new gophers in this game that pop up sporadically. With Slow-mo, the cows get sluggish and you can hit them easier. Personally, this didn’t really help me at all as I still had a pretty hard time judging distance with my slingshot and often found that even at a crawl, I couldn’t hit those damn cows. Granted, this is more a fault of my own than the game itself, but still, I was annoyed. So unless you put some serious practice into this game (again, some of my friends actually have, and there’s also a laser option to help you), you’ll probably only be hitting those far off cows by luck or chance. Either or, I’m still not amused.

The second upgrade is actually quite enjoyable though and adds layers to the game in that it employs a combo system. With grenades, which are also attained by hitting gophers, you’ll have three opportunities to wreak as much havoc as possible, especially when the cows get clumped together and are easy prey. It equals major combo time if you’re good enough to land them.

Also added in Plus are new locales. You start out in the same location as you do in the original free version on an open range, but if you get far enough, the tropics and the arctic await you. So a change of scenery is available for that extra coinage if you’re willing to fork it up.

Again, though, the only reason most people play iPhone games in the first place is because they have a few extra minutes on their hand and don’t feel like going on Facebook or listening to Pandora Radio (both of which are free, by the way). But if you’re a serious Slingshot Cowboy junkie, then $1.99 really isn’t all that bad a price to cough up. The grenades are nice, and the absence of ads is also quite comforting. Buy it if you’re a fan, stay with the free if you’re not.

Players: 1
Platform(s): iPhone
Developer: Digital Prunes
Publisher: Digital Prunes
ESRB: Everyone

Review: LittleBigPlanet (PSP)

I find LittleBigPlanet fascinating. Not so much for the reasons pretty much everybody else fell in love with it for (Make your own levels! It’s so cute! Innovative to the nth degree!), but moreso because it’s pretty much the only game that I’ve ever played that is unhateable. Sure, some people will love it more so than others, and some will think that it’s not nearly as great as everybody says it is (I’m more in this category than the former). But nobody I can possibly think of would ever say that they actually hate this game. A person might hate their own lack of creativity or patience to create their very own bitchin’ environment. But hate the game itself? Never! I find that totally inconceivable.

A big reason for this is because LittleBigPlanet will MAKE you love it. Through its quirky level design, its catchy music, and its ability to allow you to customize the game to your liking, LBP just has too much going for it to actually be hated upon. For anybody who’s ever played it before on the PS3, they’ll tell you that the game’s strongest suit is in its undeniable freedom, but it’s that same freedom that makes me unable to fall head over heels for it. You see, for someone like me, I don’t WANT to make levels, which is arguably this game’s selling point—the ability to create something new on your own. Sure, you don’t HAVE to make levels if you don’t want to, as the story mode is highly expansive (And you’ll want to play through it if you want to create more elaborate levels as new items can be unlocked in it), but that’s the thing. “Sackboy,” your highly customizable protagonist, has no personality whatsoever. You can make him tremble, you can make him do the running man, and you can make him explode if you ever get stuck in a tight spot, but as an overall character, Sackboy is pretty much rendered charmless, and that’s a problem for me. I need a compelling character to go hopping and bopping with, as the actual narrative itself, like all platformers, is paper thin in this game. In other words, I wanted Mario and they gave me Aero the Acrobat.

LBP purists will surely say, “Hey, what’s the big deal, jerk, who cares? It’s the levels that matter.” But for somebody who doesn’t feel like manipulating shapes and plastering stickers all over the place to create their very own Shangri-La, that IS a big deal, as the storyline is way too weak to stand on its own. In that way, if you leave the level design feature out, LBP is actually a little on the boring side, and it’s an experience that will make you feel like you’ve wasted your time and money if you’re looking for a true blue platformer and nothing more.

But let’s be real here, people. If you’re going to pick up LBP for the PSP, then you can only be one of two people. You’re either A), a fan who’s been building levels and uploading them on the PS3 for well over a year now, or B) somebody who’s never played the game before because they didn’t have a PS3 but is highly interested in doing so on the go, and if you’re either of those people, then you definitely can’t go wrong here as LBP certainly delivers.

Spending only a couple of hours with the tutorial, I was able to piece together a pretty simple landscape in just a short matter of time. It wasn’t the greatest landscape in the world (It was pretty much just pieced together with things that could electrocute you—I called it, “You’re Screwed, So Don’t Even Bother”) but it was a landscape nonetheless, and it didn’t make me sweat all that much gluing it together and whatnot. This leads me to believe that if you’re willing to put in the time, then the customization is intuitive enough that you’ll be able to start piecing together shapes and environments in no time at all. Seriously, it’s really that easy.

But while my level wasn’t set to be winning any awards anytime soon, I found a whole plethora of different environments uploaded online by the general community. Many of these levels were terrible, mind you (So, so many races), but some of them were really creative and exciting (Especially one called “Ninja Warrior,” based off the Japanese obstacle cours show). So if you’re worried that the game won’t be advanced or even easy enough to make the level of your choice, don’t be, as they give you enough tools and accessories to make levels however you feel like, giving you the ability to make them as simple or as complex as you want them to be.

Again, though, as much as every review on the planet will tell you that LBP is for anybody with an imagination, I’ll tell you that that’s not entirely true. Will you like it if you don’t feel like building levels? Sure, because as I said earlier, there’s just too much going on here not to at least like it a little bit. Seriously, as far as the whole community and bringing people together thing goes, there’s no other game like it. But if you’re the type of person who feels like they work hard enough already in the real world and don’t feel like playing God and making their own levels, then LBP is just simply not for you. In other words, if you’re lazy like me and don’t want to see the game as the potentially creative fountain of awesomeness that it truly is, then take away one star from my review. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of gamer who wants to put in the time to craft the PERFECT level and want to upload it for all the world to see, then add one point to my score. As it stands for me though, I’m in that middle category—liking it a great deal, but not loving it whole-heartedly.

Players: 1 Player
Platform(s): PSP
Developer: SCE Cambridge Studios
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB: Everyone

Seafood, seafood, seafood -- and pizza

Splash in Long Valley has an impressive list of foods on its menu, from buffalo shrimp to clams and lobster. And . . . pizza?

"We have a raw bar, so people can get oysters, clams, shrimp, and lobster," floor manager Talia Morzan says. "We also have a brick oven, where we make pizzas. It actually uses wood, too, so that's really good. We make some awesome pizzas, so we can make you all different kinds. I don't know if you've ever had a Margherita pie before, but it's my favorite, and it's so good."

Many varieties of pizza may not seem like what you'd expect at your typical seafood restaurant, but that's because Splash Seafood & Pasta isn't typical.

"It's affordable for families," Morzan says. "Seafood is expensive, and there's no other seafood place around, and that's what's good about this place. But at the same time, kids can get pizzas or pastas here. So maybe the parent wants seafood, and they're saying, 'I really want a lobster.' They can get their lobster dinner while their kids can get the brick-oven pizzas that we make, so it works out just great."

Pizza chef Alex Maygar, who serves the fresh pizzas here, agrees. But he thinks that, because a lot of people don't expect to find great pizza at a seafood restaurant, he has to work extra hard to make sure that his pizzas are the best around.

"People can't walk in here, and say, eh, 'The food's good, and the pizza's OK,' " Maygar says. "They have to come in here and say 'That's the best pizza I ever had.' "

But to talk only about the pizza at Splash would be doing the restaurant a great disservice: This is definitely a seafood lover's restaurant, too.

"A lot of people just come for the raw bar," Morzan says. "They love the oysters and they love the clams."

Morzan doesn't forget to mention how good the pasta is, either.

"Sometimes, people just want a good old chicken parm, and you can never go wrong with chicken parm. But we do have certain specials that we run in seafood, too," he says. "We're running a scallop special that people absolutely love. It's pan-seared scallops in a roasted red pepper aioli sauce with avocado relish and seasonable vegetables. The avocado relish is something special. The regular scallop platter will come with a baked potato and seasonal vegetables."

Morzan also adds that the price is right at Splash, too: "You can have seafood, and you don't have to spend a ton of money."

Some of this seafood that Morzan refers to is a lobster with a baked potato, a seafood platter that's either broiled or fried and scallops, which also are either broiled or fried, each for under $20.

"We usually have a catch of the day," Morzan says, "It depends on what kind of fish we get in for that week. We also have a kids menu. We have kids' pasta; we do burgers, chicken fingers and fish sticks."

Besides the stellar food, one other thing that will appeal to a great deal of patrons is the underwater-theme decor. Fish cover the walls, blue lights linger on the ceiling, and a very large, old-time mannequin diver stands in a corner, all giving the place a particularly marine feel.

Much of this is because of the new management. Splash is just re-opening with a new vibe. The previous decor was said to be a little darker than the new set-up. Mathew Saleeby, the owner of the property on which Splash is sited, is looking to create a whole restaurant district in the area, with Splash being one of its focal points.

"I think he's added a lot more," Morzan says. "He's trying to make it more fun, and maybe not as serious as it used to be. He's trying to make it fun for the kids, like adding the fish tank. Kids love to look at the fish."

The one thing Morzan likes most about Splash, though, is how well it complements the area.

"Long Valley is a cute little town," Morzan says, "and Splash is adding to that whole curb appeal."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Italian-American Plus a Touch of Mexican

You might think you're outside when you're inside the restaurant section of the Valley Restaurant and Pub in Long Valley. There's an immense mural of verdant greens surrounding a familiar bridge in the center of town.

"It just naturally goes with Long Valley," co-owner Tim Janiszewski says of the massive wall painting facing tables in the back of the building.

"I think that it kind of depicts the center of Long Valley, so we kind of wanted that bridge. (Tthe artists) took an angle shot of it and got down there by the river, behind what used to be the old general store and took the picture (for reference).

When asked what the customers think of it, Tim just smiles.

"They love it," he says. "I was in another location for 23 years. We moved over here in 2000, and it's worked out great. We had to renovate the whole place from top to bottom. That's where this came to mind to put the picture there."

That's not the only thing the customers love about the place. The Valley Restaurant and Pub's cuisine is an eclectic mix of Italian and American, from chicken parmigiana to chili-taco salad.

"It's an Italian-American pub," says Tim's wife and co-owner, Tammy. "We run the gamut from specialty pastas, like shrimp and scallops florentine, to a turkey club. So there's something for everyone."

There's also a little flair added in the middle of the week: "We run Mexican specials," Tim says, "We started to run them on Tuesdays. It was very popular so we expanded it to Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and that's in addition to our regular menu. People can come in and get the regular menu also."

The Mexican specials include an extended drink menu including margaritas, sangria and Corona beer; appetizers such as chicken or chili nachos; entrees that chicken or steak fajitas served with rice and beans; and tortilla con quesa, which is just another way of saying Mexican pizza.

In addition to the Mexican nights in the restaurant, Monday evenings offer free wings and reduced-price beer in the pub section for the Monday night sports games.

"We have Monday night football with free wings," Tim says. "It does bring in a lot of people on Monday nights. Our main interest is to fill the place up."

Tammy adds, "We also have $2 mugs of beer."

"Well," Tim adds, they're $1.85, really. We can't take credit for the tax."

Tim started out the pizza business before he decided to move to a different location with his family and expand the menu. Outside business hours, his great passion is his family.

"When I first started, I knew that I would have children someday," Tim says, "and it's nice to see that, as grown-ups, they work in the business, and it's nice to work side by side with them."

He and Tammy have three daughters: Jordan, in college; Paige, in high school; and Andrea, 13. Whenever they can, Paige and Andrea work in the restaurant, and Andrea wants to, but she's too young.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Tekken 6

I’ve been playing Tekken since the original game on the PS1 had Galaga as a playable loading screen, so when I tell you that Tekken 6 is one of the best in the series, you better well damn believe it. Tekken 6 is an amazing experience with only a few snags that keep it from being the King of the Iron Fist Tournament.

The first thing, surprisingly, I want to talk about are the graphics, because they are definitely a reason to have an HDTV. Now, I’m normally not a graphics whore, but oh my God, these are the most impressive graphics I’ve seen in a fighting game since Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast (Funny, how that game was from Namco, too). The backgrounds, character models, scenery, EVERYTHING in this game just has you going “humina humina humina,” as you watch the details stream past you seamlessly. Landscapes with tanks bursting through them, a whole competition of people throwing tomatoes at each other, rollicking waves rocking the doorstep of a dojo, just about everything in the background makes you almost forget that you’re getting your ass handed to you by Heihachi.

And then, when you least expect it, the whole wall or floor that you’re standing on gets busted through or collapses beneath you. That’s right, taking a highly read page from Dead or Alive’s handbook are interactive backgrounds that reveal totally new locations if they’re hammered at enough, creating some interesting maneuvering around the playing field once you know where to spot them. It makes for some damn exciting gameplay and it’s an interesting addition to an already awesome franchise.

As always, the fighting is tremendous, and with six new playable characters, the battles are just as intense as ever. Surprisingly, I’m happy to say that all of the newbies are actually very unique and interesting to play with. Miguel is a brawler who punishes those who get in too close, Zafina is quick on her feet and highly damaging down low, and Bob is a member of the new school of morbidly obese fighters (See: Street Fighter 4’s Rufus) who’s surprisingly fast on his feet even though he probably can’t even see them. And then there’s Alisa Bosconovitch, who is obviously the daughter of can’t-stay-on-his-feet, Dr. Bosconovitch. Alisa is one of the strangest characters yet as her attacks are so disorienting that it’s hard to get a good hit on her. She has jet pack wings, can release chainsaws for hands, and can even take off her head and give it to other characters where it explodes in their hands. Only in the Tekken universe, baby, only in the Tekken universe.

All of your old favorites are back, too, and they all have really cool looking models and a few new moves to boot. This home version is actually based on the second version of Tekken 6, "Bloodline Rebellion," so it benefits from all the great additions that came with that game, and it really feels like one giant, epic, balls to the wall slugfest with pretty much any character you’ve fallen in love with over the course of Tekken’s lengthy history (Except for Tekken 3’s Gon and Dr. Bosconovitch, sadly, but I guess Alisa makes up for her father’s absence, but Gon, well, we’ll never have another Gon again, I guess).

Also new to the fold is the new “rage” system that allows you to deliver more devastating attacks when you get really low on your health bar and start glowing red. I can tell you that on more than one occasion, I came back like a raging demon and destroyed my opponents, both offline and on, with this feature, so it’s a nice addition. Speaking of new additions, another nice one is the new “bound” system, where you can knock your opponent hard into the ground while they’re in mid-air and cause them to bounce off the floor where you can juggle them some more for a higher combo. I have to tell you, it took me awhile to get this down, but once I did, I extended my combos a little bit longer. I’m sure Tekken experts are going to exploit this, though, because it definitely has the potential to be used by the cheaper players who are already too damn good as it is.

So, by this point, you’re probably thinking that this fighting game has it all, eh? Well, not so fast Yoshimitsu lover, as there are a few things that keep this from being the Tekken to end all Tekkens.

We're given Tekken history from the first game all the way up to Tekken 6 in the story mode, showing how Heihachi’s empire crumbled once his son, Kazuya, and in turn, his grandson, Jin, became the heads of the corporation. The problem is, this is far too detailed for a fighting game and it had me dozing off by the time they were talking about Tekken 4’s story, so nope, pass.

We’re then offered a cut scene that has to be about 15 whole minutes of Twilight-like staring and exposition. It’s got to be one of the most boring cut scenes I have ever seen in the history of video game cut scenes. Luckily, you can just press start and skip past it, which I started to do much later, but if you’re like me, you’re going to WANT to follow the story, and I found that even I couldn’t do that with this game, and that’s saying a lot. Once you move on, though, past this terrible cut scene, the story never really picks up, and it all seems like a big waste, really. It was ambitious, and if they had done it in a similar style as Soul Calibur 2’s “Weapon Master Mode,” I probably would have dug it, but as of right now, I can’t tolerate it one bit.

Another thing I hate (Yes, hate) about this game is the final boss, Azazel, which is some kind of crystalline dinosaur or something like that. Azazel is cheap as all hell. Yeah, sure, Tekken has had its string of cheap bosses before (Last edition’s, Jinpachi, is one such example, for instance), but Azazel kicks it up to a new notche with his cheapness. Currently, I’m still totally unable to beat him (her?) with several characters, as I can’t seem to get in close with them in the slightest. What a bummer!

Oh, and one final thing that bugs me about this edition of Tekken is that at times, it’s WAY too serious. Since this game is supposed to be in the midst of Jin’s quest for world domination, some of the silliness that I’ve come to adore with Tekken is gone. Sure, there’s still a fighting panda bear, and Mokujin is still a fighting tree with boxing gloves and breasts, but other than that, the game is a little too serious for my tastes, what with the epidemic of war going on throughout many of the stages.

Still, the good heavily outweighs the bad with Tekken 6 and I’m happy to say that in the long string of titles thus far, Tekken 6 is probably the third best Tekken after 3 and 5, respectively, and I think that’s saying a lot. Tekken 6 definitely gives reason to return and regain the title of being the King of the Iron Fist Tournament.

Players: 1-4
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (Reviewed) PS3, PSP
Developer: Namco Bandai
Publisher: Namco Bandai
ESRB: Teen
Rating: Four out of five stars

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review: Armored Core 3 Portable

Having never played an Armored Core game in the past, I had mixed feelings going into playing this new PSP Store game based off of the PS2 original. For one, I was skeptical if the controls of charging a mecha forward and backwards, strafing, lunging with a sword, and blasting with a gun could be manipulated on the PSP’s itsy bitsy controls. Sure, God of War: Chains of Olympus pulled off a rather tricky control scheme effectively, but would this game be able to? Secondly, mecha games typically bore the hell out of me (too much customization for my taste), and I was worried that I would be dozing off within the first few seconds of turning it on.

Well, after extensive playtime with the game, I’m happy to say that it’s much better than I anticipated it to be. It’s a pretty fun experience that’s only hampered by a few damning factors. But why dwell on those right now when there are so many positive things to say about the game?

First off, I want to talk about the storyline as it really makes this game shine. If you’ve read some of my articles in the past, then you’ll know that story is very important to me when it comes to gaming, and if a great game has a miserable storyline (Outside of fighting games, of course, which are usually better off without one at all), then I probably won’t be that immersed or interested in the game in the long run.

Armored Core 3, though, has a great storyline that only improves the further you get along in the game. The story takes place below the earth after an apocalyptic event. The society that lives down there is simply called, “Layered,” and they’re ruled by a computer called “The Controller.” Your character is part of a group of mecha pilots group called Ravens who are paid to maintain the peace. However, there's doubt as to whether they're really maintaining the peace creating even more problems with their actions.

Even better than the story, though, are the actual missions themselves, as they offer enough variety to keep you interested throughout the entirety of the game. In one mission, you’re shutting off gas leak valves to prevent a city-wide disaster, and in the next, you’re protecting a stopped train that has lost power while rebel “enemies” try to swarm and kill the passengers on board of it. It’s events like these that get me pumped up every time I turn the game on.

The controls are pretty easy to pick up, too. In a very short amount of time, I mastered all of the skills I needed to progress through in the game. Strafing, shooting, and boosting don’t take much effort at all. After only 30 minutes, I had the hang of it and was blasting away at enemies like nobody’s business.

But not everything is hunky dory in the world of Layered. One of my biggest complaints with the game is that it’s SO dark. This may not have been a problem on the PS2 where you could easily change the contrast, but on the PSP’s tiny, glare hampered screen, many times, I couldn’t see what the heck was going on. I constantly had to tilt my PSP at an angle where the sun wouldn’t hit it and create a visibility problem. Play this game in a well-lit room only, because there’s no way you could play this game outside in the sun and hope to see anything at all.

Another problem I have with the game is the rather slow pacing. It's meant to be methodical but winds up being a little dull, keeping me from being fully immersed in the game as a whole. As I said before, the story's premise is good but unfortunately it’s told in a very robotic manner. This is intentional as the AI is what’s in charge here, and you’re meant to believe that it’s the soulless entity that it truly is. But Portal had a computer guiding you through the game as well, and that computer had nothing BUT personality. I know I shouldn’t compare apples to rutabagas here in regards to the tone of the computer, but this A.I. was putting me to sleep in Armored Core half the time, whereas it was one of the best parts of Portal. Again, it’s an unfair comparison, but it’s one that hampered the experience for me.

Finally, I found that the difficulty ramps up a little too quickly for my tastes. You start off blasting pint-sized, little nuisances in the beginning, but quickly move on to very challenging missions that will require a lot of deaths and replays. You’ll have to really buckle down to plow through them.

Overall, though, Armored Core 3 is an excellent game on the PSP that is hampered mostly by the glare adverse screen. There’s an online mode to play against others, but I was having a hard time finding a connection. Other than that though, you could definitely do much worse than Armored Core 3 for the PSP.

Players: 1-4
Platform(s): PSP
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Agetec
ESRB: Mature
Rating: Three out of four stars

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Art for food is event’s goal

When a small group of people come together for the good of others, they can achieve great things.

That’s the case for friends Francine Epstein, a ceramic artist and teacher; Gail Mardfin, an artist; Jacki Spinelli, director of the Chester Food Pantry; and Sarah Borda and her husband, Steve Berstler, owners of Mama’s Grace Cafe in Chester where there’s a special effort in the next few weeks to help out the hungry.

There’s a benefit Coffee House event on Wednesday, Nov. 4. Through Thanksgiving, the cafe is dropoff spot for food pantry donations, and donated, handmade ceramic bowls and other works of art will be sold there all month, all to benefit the food pantry. The collaborative effort, called BountiFull Bowls, is in its second go round this year.

The event will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at Mama’s Grace Cafe, at the rear of 52 Main St. in Chester. The fundraiser will feature recording singer-songwriters Mef Gannon and Angela Adams, Christy Segale and Lisa Deane and the Dirty Blondes Band, as well as a host of other musical talents. Admission is $12.

Last year, Borda and Berstler opened their shop on a Wednesday night, a day they’re usually closed, to have an energetic evening of music, food and art, all to benefit the Chester Food Pantry. The charity needs more food than ever this year because of the loss of jobs from the economic crisis.

“We had standing room only for the Coffee House in here,” said Borda, who has owned Mama’s Grace Cafe with her husband for almost four years. “It was really the first event we had done here with music, and it was a collaborative event between the musicians who came in here and donated their time, Gail, the woman who has done all our graphic design, and then Francine Epstein, who is the woman who’s made all the bowls,” he said.

“And then we donated the place, and I think we made around $3,000 that night between coverage at the door and selling bowls for $20 each,” Borda says. “The full proceeds go to the Chester Food Pantry, so this year, we’ve sold all of our bowls already except for one, and our potter is actually supposed to be bringing us some more bowls soon.”

But the love for the community doesn’t stop there. Also all month, Mardfin will display soup-themed art on the colorful walls of Mama’s Grace Cafe in an exhibit titled, “ ‘Mmmm Mmmm Soup!”

“ ‘Mmm Mmm Soup’ is Gail’s show,” Borda said. “She’s going to have her artwork hanging for six weeks.”

Berstler added, “If something sells, it’s going to go to the food pantry. That’s why she’s hanging it. She makes a big donation to that.”

Borda and Berstler also see these events as a good way to market themselves and their friends to the general public, who all do a great deal for the community.

“We’re all winning here,” Borda said, “the families of Chester here and Mama’s Grace and Gail and Francine — so we’re all happy about that.”

The Chester Food Pantry has been run by Spinelli since 2001 and has grown by such a great measure that she had to move it to North Road in Chester. Spinelli’s motto is: “We do not turn anyone away who demonstrates a need for this supplemental source of food and necessities.”

To contribute, bring food to Mama’s Grace Cafe from now until Thanksgiving. Peanut butter, canned fish, powdered milk, dried beans, macaroni and cheese, flavored rice and baby food are all highly appreciated.

What’s up with the oatmeal pancakes?

The food can do all the talking at the Mini Mac Drive-in Restaurant and Diner on Route 206 in Chester. The friendly chatter from the friendly staff is a bonus.

"Our coffee is the best around," says Teri Petriw, who's just one of the many workers at this fun diner. "I don't care what QuickChek says on those radio stations."

Teri's mother, Anna Bartek, has owned the place since 1975.

"It used to be a Stewart's," Bartek says. "It was closed for I think, two years, and then we re-opened it up. I just made it as a Mini Mac."

The origin behind the name is almost as humorous as its employees: "Well, at the time, I was thinking about how everything was mini — minimall, mini this, mini that — so I thought, oh, we're going to have Mini Mac's. So then, we had the miniburger, but McDonald's was advertising Miniburgers (back in the '80s), so we had to stop."

While they're not selling miniburgers any more, they have enough on their menu to satisfy any early morning or afternoon craving.

"We have a good breakfast menu," says Bartek, who makes most of the food alongside her children. "Our home fries are good, and we have good coffee. And our lunches — most of the stuff I make fresh, like the meatloaf."

Petriw adds: "We run specials every day. We have our homemade soups. Lunch is usually a Philly cheesesteak with fries. We try to run a hot platter with mashed potatoes and a vegetable. We have real good burgers, dogs.

"It's kind of home cooking, kind of what you might have at your mother's house. We have very good soups."

The vegetable soup, made by Bartek, who is of Ukrainian descent, is a favorite with customers. Most intriguing on the menu are the oatmeal pancakes, which is something that not many diners serve.

"What we do is we make the batter, and then we put uncooked oatmeal into the batter," Petriw explains. "I've never seen it anywhere but with us. They're excellent and they're tasty."

Even better than the food itself may be the price, as Mini Mac is truly affordable in these tough economic times.

"You can get eggs, toast, home fries and coffee for $4.95 — under $5," Petriw says.

And while the seating area isn't huge, it's comfortable, with tables and chairs and a deer head that hangs over the entrance doorway.

The eatery is open seven days a week, which means that Petriw and company don't really get much time to enjoy the scenery in Chester, because they devote themselves to the diner and its customers.

"We are in Chester, so I'm kind of in my own little world here," Petriw says. "I don't really get out. We're open seven days a week."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

All Mailyn, All the Time

Marilyn Masaitis, owner of Marilyn's Cafe in Chester, might well be the hardest-working woman in the local restaurant business.

"I'm here 365 days a year," Masaitis says, "Seven days a week."

This work ethic of hers and her employees is what she thinks has helped them survive in this rough economy.

"I'm having a wonderful time," Masaitis says. "We're in the worst recession ever since the Great Depression, and we're busy every day."

Still, she knocks on wood all the same.

"It's a shame that we're in a recession, and everything is closing up," Masaitis says. "There are at least four, five, six stores in every single mall that are closed. It's bad."

But it's not so bad at Marilyn's. There's the work ethic, of course. But it's also because of its stellar food, as Marilyn's has a breakfast menu to die for.

"We have hash, we have eggs Benedict — most places don't have that," Masaitis says. "We have fresh crepes, which range from apple cinnamon to mixed berry, whole wheat pancakes, fresh fruit. Cinnamon raisin French toast with fresh bananas and strawberries."

The restaurant also has a few items that aren't seen at most places known for their breakfasts: scrapple.

If you've never heard of Scrapple, its definition on makes it sound delicious: cornmeal mush mixed with pork, seasoned with onions, spices and herbs, shaped into loaves and sliced for frying.

"The people here love it," Masaitis says.

The cafe also serves lunch with dishes such as veal parmigiana and veal cutlet, as well as soups and appetizers such as onion rings, french fries, and jalapeno poppers.

Besides the food, the other appeal of Marilyn's is the atmosphere, which Masaitis has worked very hard on updating over the years.

"Every single day, I try to add something new to the walls," says Masaitis, who has owned the place for three years but has worked in the building for more than 20 years. "I try to put up as much as I can find. I'm running out of space."

From the entrance to the rear, with old timey booths and a diner counter for sit-downs for coffee and pie, the place is stuffed with Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, from license plates to dolls and photos of the movie icon along the walls.

"My customers bring me gifts all the time," Masaitis says, "They'll bring me a license plate of Marilyn, a singed and numbered plaque, the Barbie doll Marilyn, the bobblehead. Every time they go on vacation, they bring me something back."

The building had a lengthy history before Masaitis owned it.

"This place was opened in 1968," Masaitis says. "It used to be called the Golden Horse restaurant, and I worked here for 20 years."

Masaitis has seen a lot in those years, but in that time, she's also always had a soft spot for the area.

"Chester is very quaint," Masaitis says. "People come here for the antiquish atmosphere."

Interview: Swollen Members Talk New Album, Addiction and Canada

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Okay, so you’ve heard the name of Canadian rap group Swollen Members before, does that make you underground? Well, if you actually are a Canuck, eating Canadian bacon all day, watching hockey, and other stereotypical bullshit, then no, because back in their home country, Swollen Members are multi-platinum selling artists. The duo of Mad Child and Prevail struck gold in Canada with their first album Balance (1999), and continued the trend with their backpacking sophomore release Bad Dreams (2001). The B-sides compilation Monsters in the Closet followed, but both the group and the fans weren’t too pleased with Heavy (2003), as some thought it was a sign that the group was reaching more for the dollar bills than the actual hearts and minds of the fans.

Swollen got back to their roots, though with their follow-up, Black Magic (2006), but in between that period, Mad Child, took a long break because of a drug addiction. Two weeks ago the group returned with their latest album in three years, Armed to the Teeth, signaling that they’re ready to get back into it and swell up some more, er, members. We talked to the duo to find out about their new album, Mad Child’s OxyContin addiction, and how they came up with that pauseworthy name of theirs…

Interview by Rich Knight

Complex: Okay, let me get right down to the bottom of this. What does the name Swollen Members mean?

Prevail: In hip-hop, swollen means fat. Like, you have fat pockets, your pockets are swollen. You can take that interpretation as how you feel, but to us, Swollen Members is an extended family. It’s a family that’s always growing, always expanding. People are always being welcomed in, and it’s like, our Swollen Members listeners [are the family].

Complex: Alright, that’s settled. Let’s talk about the new album now.

Prevail: Armed to the Teeth has been a great adventure for Swollen Members and an experience that has really unified our group in a way that we didn’t anticipate happening. Mad will tell you, he had an addiction to prescription drugs. So that experience obviously affected him directly, and it affected us [as a group] directly as well, so I think you’ll see that there’s a lot of positivity going on in the creation of this.

Complex: Why the title, Armed to the Teeth?

Mad Child: Armed to the Teeth is just something that I’ve thrown in lyrics in past albums, and I got it tattooed. I guess I just wanted to come up with a slogan to go with the logo. We were originally going to make the album titled Beautiful Death Machine, but as we started making the album, Armed to the Teeth just seemed like a more fitting name. Just like, we’re prepared, we got all the ammunition, we’re ready to go. It’s going to be a battle and we’re ready for war.

Complex: Let’s talk about how big you are in Canada. You’re really huge there.

Prevail: We’ve had a lot of success at home, definitely. Our country has been very open to us, and the Canadian music scene has been good. There, we’re platinum artists and we’ve filled stadiums, so it felt good to be embraced and get love from your own country. It gave us a positive push.

Mad Child: Yeah, it’s been great like, it’s all been from touring and word of mouth, and now with the Internet being such an important tool, promoting music, the Internet has been a huge part of getting awareness in America. We haven’t had the same commercial success, obviously, in America that we’ve had in Canada, so in Canada, we’re fortunate to have lots of radio play and get on MuchMusic and MTV and that kind of stuff. So obviously, that opens you up to the masses, which brings you to a mainstream level. But in America to date, we’ve always been still an underground, independent group. And that’s great. We have a great movement in America, and we have lots of loyal fans, and I’ve found that American fans really stay true and they embrace you.

Complex: Mad Child, you’ve been open about your drug addiction. What went down with that?

Mad Child: I just got off of a four year OxyConton addiction. The first year was just kind of doing Perks (Percocet) and stuff, the last two years was sort of dark, very heavy addiction that I went through. And I got to the point where the last year and a half I was doing a retarded amount of OxyConton every day and was definitely stuck in an actual trap where my whole life circulated and was involved with getting stoned every day.

Complex: How does that work in with the album?

Mad Child: One of the only great things that happened during that three-year period, especially the last two years, was that we were still making music. I got a pretty incredible group of guys around me as far as my rap group and my other friends and family who didn’t turn their back on me. The problem is, when you’re in a situation like mine and you become a drug addict, which is obviously a selfish act, you’re not only affecting your own life, but you’re affecting other people’s lives around you. And I literally put the guys in my group’s lives on hold for three years because I was a very non-productive person as far as going out and going on tour, you know. But fortunately, the guys were supportive enough to stick around and be my true family, and I have a studio at my house, so we were able to still work on the album while I was intoxicated or whatever. I basically made the whole album stoned.

Complex: I’m sure you’re not the first artist to do that. Alright, time for the kicker. What’s your favorite Swollen Members album?

Mad Child: Well, up until Armed to the Teeth, Bad Dreams [was]. I just listened to it about a month ago, so I could reflect on it. Still to this day, I’m impressed with what we did.

Complex: Prevail?

Prevail: For me, it’s Balance, because it’s our first one. You know, we didn’t go in with any preconceived notions about anything. It was a very raw album in that we were just really learning how to hone our talents, and really how to become a group. That was a stepping stone for me.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Review: DJ Hero

Guitar Hero is boring. What is Activision on, like, the fifteenth edition already? I’m tired of that stupid game and I’m tired of always seeing it everywhere I go. In fact, I’m tired of ALL music themed games right now, as they bore the living crap out of me these days. Whether the gimmick is a floor pad, a microphone, or a guitar, if these companies don’t come up with something new fast, then dammit, I’m giving up on the rhythm genre altogether.

That was me about eight hours before I played the new Activision title, DJ Hero, a game that introduces enough new features to the genre that I’m actually excited about it all over again. The wonderful thing about DJ Hero is that it actually makes me want to get up out of my seat and play it instead of just lazily sitting around on my butt and tapping multi-colored buttons and strumming a plastic fret. And after all these years of getting used to that to the point of annoyance, I think that’s saying a lot.

There’s a problem, though, and lies in the controls. DJ Hero is not as easy to pick up and play as Guitar Hero. That has more to do with the difficulty of actually playing turntables, rather than any real fault of the company itself. The learning curve for DJ Hero is a little thick, almost to the point that some people might be intimidated and not want to give it a try, and that’d be a damn shame because once you get used to it, you’ll be mixing Rick James and Gwen Stefani together in no time.

The game comes with a turntable that you can scratch back and forth like a real record. There are three buttons on the record that act like the buttons on the Guitar Hero guitar, and also an effects dial that allows you to make the track all wavy as you hold down the keys. But wait, there’s more! While Guitar Hero is perfectly content to give you just a few keys and a fret bar, DJ Hero also has a cross-fader stick, which you use to flick back and forth to switch up the beat, a “euphoria” button that acts like Star Power in Guitar Hero, and even buttons that key up certain crowd-pleasing phrases like “Yeeeah, boyyyy”. That’s a whole lot of things to operate while playing a single song, and if you just see somebody doing it, your first reaction will probably be, "Gulp."

Even if it is difficult at first, give it a try. DJ Hero is an absolute blast, which I think even rivals how I felt the very first time that I played Guitar Hero all those years ago. In DJ Hero, you pick a wide assortment of funny looking DJ’s, and can also unlock real ones as the game progresses (shout out to Activision for getting DJ Shadow, Jazzy Jeff, and even Daft Punk in the game). Guitar Hero has always had pretty good graphics for the characters on stage, but the audiences are traditionally bland. That's not the case DJ Hero. The crowds in this game look like they’re really having a great time when you mix up a good recording.

The songs you get to mash up are all over the place as well, ranging from David Bowie’s, “Let’s Dance” mixed with 50 Cent’s, “Disco Inferno,” to 2Pac’s, “All Eyez on Me,” mixed with the Aranbee Pop Orchestra’s, “Bittersweet Symphony Instrumental.” All the songs in this game are completely win, so you don’t have to worry about that. Even better though are all the different ways that you can make each song unique. You see, unlike Guitar Hero, where you’re pretty much stuck with tapping along with whatever keys they give you, DJ Hero actually allows you to be a little more creative. You're given the opportunity to splice up the recording with the cool effects dial and rewind the song when you have enough stars so you play certain portions over again. Heck, you even have the option to put your own mixes together, making the game really endless.

So, is DJ Hero the game of the year? Not quite as there are some major problems with it that keep it from totally owning the dance floor. For one, as great as the mixes are, there aren’t really that many songs in the game in general, as many of the tracks are used over and over again in different combinations, giving you the impression that you have more songs than you actually do. Also, the two-player mode is a joke. Since Activision owns the Guitar Hero brand, they thought it would be a good idea to allow one person play the turntable while the other mans the guitar. It’s a good idea in theory, but the final product sounds like a total mess, and not in a good way, like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello mixing scratching noises one minute and thumping chords the next, but rather like Limp Bizkit. I thought it would be a cool feature, but it’s not. Not at all.

Another problem that I have with the game is that it’s mostly hip-hop oriented. Although there are rock tracks to mix up the monotony, it’s still done like a hip-hop DJ would do it, mixing and fading. My question is, where are all the techno DJ’s? They operate the wheels of steel in a totally different manner, and it would have been pretty cool to see how Activision might have pulled that one off. Maybe that will be in the sequel - or, knowing Activision, in a side-edition that they can sell at full price in a few months. That would be just like them, wouldn’t it?

In spite of its flaws, DJ Hero is a refreshing new game definitely worth the price of admission. Pick this game up if you want to believe in the rhythm genre again.

Players: 1-2 Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, Wii, PS2 Developer: FreeStyleGames Publisher: Activision ESRB: Teen Rating:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Half-Minute Hero is a really fast and frenetic RPG. No, wait, let me start this all over again. Half-Minute Hero is a pretty good real-time strategy game, and, no, no, no. Damn, scratch that intro, too, let me try this just one more time. Half-Minute Hero is an awesome shooter, and aww shucks, the hell with this! Half-Minute Hero is a damn good game, period, and to stick it into any one category wouldn’t do this magnificent title justice. How is this even possible, you ask? Surely, it must fit into SOME category, and it does, I guess, but one that I’ve never even SEEN before in all my years of gaming. And that’s the RPG/RTS/Shooter/Escort Mission/Racing genre, combining four different types of games into one solid package, making it one of the best PSP games to date.

To call this game original is an understatement. There are a total of three different quests, really (With another, Knight and Wizard escort mission, action game tacked on for good measure that you have to earn), where your primary goal for each of them is to beat the level in as short a time period as possible, and no more than 30-seconds total. Seriously, I kid you not. There are actually RPG segments that I completed in under 20 seconds, leveling up with every single random battle that I fought until I got to a point where I could actually defeat some of the many humorous bosses in only one hit. Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper RPG without help from other characters, and that’s where the Time Goddess comes in, who replenishes your clock so you can save the world…but for a price, of course (Believe me, a time goddess who charges you so you can save the world isn’t even the quirkiest thing about this game).

But where are my manners? I’ve already launched into one of the many different quests in Half-Minute Hero without even warning you in advance, as I’m already talking about the RPG portion of the game right now. The thing is though, as vastly different as each genre is outside of this game, INSIDE of it, they all somehow snuggly fit together as one total package, making it feel like the RTS portion (More on that in a second) is just as easy to pick up and play as the RPG section, and just as easy to pick up and play as the shooter section. Seriously, Half-Minute Hero is a title for those who can’t stand RPGS or RTS games, as it’s so quick and simple that it goes beyond the plodding parts that so many twitch happy gamers are loathe to play through. On that same token, though, it’s also a game where people who love these respective genres will adore this game, too, as it’s both quirky and hardcore enough that you just can’t help BUT love its silly, outlandish ways. The RPG portion of this game is great all by itself, and it would be worth the price of admission just for that great, albeit short, quest on its own.

But it’s not on its own, as next up is the RTS section, which is actually, in my opinion, the weakest segment of the game as a whole but still great all the same. Unlike the RPG section, where, even in its quick format, you still fall madly in love with it, the RTS section may be a little TOO simple for its own good. You are offered a circle in which you perform spells in and you shoot out creatures with projectiles techniques, brute strength, and magic. As a whole, it’s effective, but even at only thirty seconds, it still seems a bit slow to me. It took awhile for me to get into it, but the further I got, the more fun it got, too. Again, it’s good, but definitely the weakest of the initial three games that you’re offered.

The shooting segment is by far my favorite in the whole package though. In it, you play a princess with a crossbow who has to get all kinds of different herbs, spices, and apples as a panacea for her father, the King. It’s a wild goose chase that is much more fun than it actually should be. And finally, there are the escort missions, which have to be earned. These segments are fun, too, as you fight off baddies during a timer/ But as wild as the other three games are, it actually doesn’t stand out as much as them and it’s a tad bit disappointing in the long run.

So, besides the slightly dull escort missions, and the good but not great, RTS quest, this game is perfect, right? Well, not exactly, as I have one MAJOR quibble with it that sort of sets it back, and really, it’s not really the game’s fault, but actually, more like mine. Well, being such a quick paced game, the one thing that suffers the most in it is the storyline, and that’s a MAJOR point with me for any game—the story. But the Catch-22 here, though, is that the storyline is actually REALLY good, as it’s funny and off-the-wall enough to keep you laughing all the way through. So, what the hell’s the problem then, Rich? Well, the problem is, that being such a quick and fast-paced game, often times, all I wanted to do was jump right into battle and not read the storyline at all. But on the same token, I wanted to read the storyline, too, just to giggle every so often and stay in the know with what my next task was. And thus came my conundrum of, should I just press start and bypass the great dialogue, or should I sit and read it all when I really just want to get to blasting or running into things ? My gaming fingers were so CONFUSED.

But that’s really small potatoes in the great scheme of things with this excellent game (And I haven’t even MENTIONED the great music, or the vintage, taking-it-back, 8-bit graphics that make this game distinctly reminiscent of past games and unique in its own right, too). Half-Minute Hero is SO good that it almost makes me believe in the PSP again as a viable handheld system. Almost, I say. It doesn’t matter if you like RPGs more than RTS games, or shooters more than action titles. Pick this game up if you have a heart on for good dialogue and fun. You won’t be disappointed. This game freaking rocks.

Players:1 player (Ad Hoc)(2-4 Players)
Platform: PSP
Developer: Marvelous Entertainment
Publisher: XSEED Games
Rating: Four and a half stars

A clip from the game:

Road Construction Doesn't Deter Diner's Regulars

Since you live in New Jersey, the likelihood that you've been to a diner is pretty high.

In fact, New Jersey is often referred to as, among other things, the diner capital of the world, having more diners across the state than we probably even know what to do with. But while every diner might appear the same on the surface, regular customers know that each diner is unique for both its history and its food selection, and the Chester Diner is no exception.

"When you look at the pie case, you're going to faint," says manager Nick Mates,who has been working at the diner for three years. "It's like a full bakery."

Along with the elegant cakes and pies, which range from traditional apple, cherry, and lemon meringue to more elaborate strawberry and chocolate cheesecake and chocolate mousse, the Chester Diner also has a deep-fried favorite that quickly is becoming a regular sweet treat in this country: fried ice cream.

Mates says: "Usually, we put in vanilla, but the customer can change it up. Some people don't like vanilla, you know.

"The people love it, they just love it. It's such a big plate, so for two people, it's enough. It's a big, big portion."

But the stellar dessert menu isn't the only thing about which Mates can boast. The diner has traditional Greek-American diner fare, with Greek wraps, paninis, sautees and seafood being very popular items on the menu. The diner also has special theme nights: Tuesday and Wednesday are pasta nights, and Thursday is steak night.

There's one item in particular that Mates cites as being the bestseller at the diner: the Greek salad with the grilled chicken on the lunch menu.

But it's not all clear skies for the diner. Road construction on Route 206 has hindered business a bit.

"The construction outside," Mates says, "has affected the business, especially in the daytime, but in the end, to get something better, you have to suffer. There's going to be three lanes on this side, and three on the other side. It will be pretty much easier for everybody."

The roadwork hasn't kept away the regular customers, some of whom have been coming to this diner every day for decades.

"We have people who come here for 20 to 30 years," Mates says, adding a hello to a cutomer who enters the eatery. "And they still come here 6 a.m. in the morning. They're very lovely people, and we look forward to always having them, and we do our best to keep them. They feel like they are home."

It's a home that has grown. Forty or more years ago, it was no bigger than a trailer, "and then, every year, the diner's founders expanded it to be better and better and better, so that's how it became what it is now," Mates explains.

The great diner is in a great town, he adds: "Chester is, I'm telling you, one of the very, very, very good areas, one of the very safe areas, and the people are so lovely, so you don't even have to worry about it for your kids and schools. And the people are so friendly, and everybody watches over everybody, you know. I'm really thrilled to be working here."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tradition! Important to family, pizza

Local pizza shops, the ones we know and love to the very bone, never just spring up out of thin air. No, they have a history behind them, sometimes, dating back several decades.

And Village Pizza, in the left corner pocket of the Mendham Village Shopping Center, is no different.

"Before we talk about the history of this place," co-owner Guy Poggi says as he sits at one of his booths with his fingers intertwined, "I have to tell you about the history of my father. He pretty much started everything."

Poggi's father, Robert Poggi, was born in Yorkville, N.Y., where he met his wife. They were married in 1951 and have been married for 58 years.

"I've been married for 15 years," Poggi says, referring to his wife, Audrey, who is the other owner of the shop. "So I can imagine 58 years."

In 1961, his father moved from New York to Randolph and worked as a butcher at the ShopRite in Mendham. He had bigger dreams, though; he purchased his own shop, which became the Colonial Pantry in Mendham as we know it today.

"He owned that building," Poggi says, "From there, he purchased Sorrento Pizza, which at the time was half pizzeria, half barber shop."

Currently, Sorrento is still family run — by Poggi's brother.

"It's great because we look at it as friendly competition," Poggi says.

From there, his father expanded his reach in Mendham, eventually purchasing Village Pizza and offering to sell it to his son Guy when he was still in college.

"At the time, I had no intention of buying it because I was working part-time here, but it was a good business opportunity," Poggi says, "So I purchased it from him, and I've had it for 16 years now."

The shop has a friendly vibe to it, with yellow and red walls and plenty of chairs and booths that fill the comfortable eating space. But Poggi wants to do a little more with one wall that's almost bare.

"It's always a work in progress," he says, "We're getting pictures of my father, of my grandfather, my great-grandparents, my mom's parents, and we're going to be covering the walls with them, kind of paying a tribute to them."

The food is the real tribute, though. The menu has been expanded while keeping many of the basic ingredients the same.

"We offer more gourmet pizzas now than say, they did years ago," Poggi says. "We have soups, and we have four pie sizes, an 18-, a 16-, a 14- and a 10-inch pie."

When asked which pie was the bestseller, he says, "Obviously, a 16-inch pizza is going to sell, because that's what most people sell. But being that we have an 18, that's kind of a unique thing. If people want to feed more people, they can get larger slices."

From these larger slices, they can get a wide variety of pizza, such as a tortellini Alfredo, a taco pizza, white pizza, buffalo chicken pizza and a flat variation of pizza that those in the know call a "grandma slice."

"Some people (will look at it) and say, 'Can I have a grandma slice?' " Poggi says, "And some people will come in and look at it and ask, 'What is that?' "

One of his favorite reasons for working at Village Pizza is because he loves the town of Mendham so much.

"Mendham is a great town. It's very affluent, but at the same time, people are very down to earth," he says. "We have a lot of our customers who are repeat customers who have been coming here for years. I don't even know their last names anymore because I know their first names. So it's a very close knit, tight community."