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."