Sunday, January 31, 2010

Benito's Trattoria keeps it all in the family

John Bucetaj took over Benito's Trattoria back in 2002, but that doesn't mean that former owner Alberto Dutaj, who is Bucetaj's uncle, doesn't stop by for a visit every so often. This is a family-run restaurant, after all.

"As a child, all of us have been in this business," Dutaj says. "We have families all over — New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas. New Jersey is a really beautiful state, and we like it here."

Located on Main Street in Chester, Benito's Trattoria, which serves northern Italian cuisine, has a reputation in town, as made evident by its Zagat rating.

"To be Zagat rated, it's basically a customer review," Bucetaj says, "And we've been in Zagat for the past 12 to 13 years."

All of this is due to the family's strict adherence to making sure that the food they serve here is top-notch.

"Everything's homemade here," Dutaj says. "From sauces, to everything we make, from scratch. It's very old-school and strict. We don't buy anything premade.

"It's been the same cook for 16 years, so the sauces and the preparations are continually staying the same," Dutaj continues. "Nothing changes except the specials. We play around with the specials. But the basics, the foundation, the sauces, are what keep this cuisine so delicious and unique from everybody else."

Some of those delicious and unique items are the Pollo Benito, which is a breast of chicken topped with portobello mushrooms, roasted peppers and goat cheese in cognac sauce, and the Vitello Della Case, which is veal scallopini topped with sliced tomatoes, salami, artichoke hearts and mozzarella cheese in a white-wine sauce.

"The menu is very, very good," Bucetaj says. "We (also) have homemade pastas, and the customers like (our) ravioli and linguini. All the pastas we make are in-house."

Benito's also has seafood topping the bill along with its stellar pastas and meat dishes.

"We get fresh seafood three or four times a week," Bucetaj says.

To go along with the great food is a warm and inviting atmosphere perfect for dates, family or friends. The restaurant's BYO policy allows customers to buy affordable alcohol to bring in to accompany their equally affordable meal.

"We prefer to do it this way" intead of having a liquor license, Dutaj explains. "It's affordable for the customer, (and they can) go into a liquor store and buy the same bottle of wine that they would buy in a place that had a liquor license for $30 less, so it's affordable."

Having such a sterling reputation also means that it's not the kind of place that you can just walk into and expect to find a seat.

"We recommend reservations," Dutaj says. "Absolutely on the weekends."

It's been busy like this for years, and Bucetaj makes sure that it stays that way.

"The business, when I took over from my uncle, was established," Bucetaj says. "But we changed a few different things, like the chairs, carpets, and tiles. At the end of February, the beginning of March, I'm (actually) going to do renovations."

What those renovations are, Bucetaj won't say, but as long as it means that the place will still be serving great food in Chester, that's absolutely fine.

"Chester is a beautiful town," Bucetaj says. "I've been working around here for so long that it's more like a hometown. I feel very comfortable (here)."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

You don't have to cross the Pond for tea

Owner Theresa Gaffney of the British-themed restaurant and tearoom Sally Lunn's in Chester can tell you all sorts of stories, ranging from her career in the music industry ("I was a musician, and I was signed to Atlantic records,") to the new book she's just written ("I'm a writer. I have a book that I just got published and I'm trying to get a movie deal for it.").

One of her most interesting stories is how her family moved from England, set up an antiques shop in Florida, lost that business and eventually came to own multiple Sally Lunn's. The Chester tearoom opened in 1991.

"When we first came to Chester, this part of the building was an employment agency," Gaffney says. "We looked everywhere for a store, and nothing was available."

Rewind to the '80s, and Gaffney and her family are moving from England to America, leaving their successful business across the Pond.

"My parents had a hotel and a pub and a very famous restaurant in England," Gaffney says, taking a sip of tea, "We sold it to emigrate here. My parents came to Florida with a lot of money, and we invested it. My mum didn't want to do food anymore . . . so we decided we were going to do an antique shop."

A poor location and the loss of the antiques on the way to their store put them in a bind, and they wound up having to auction the remainder of the antiques they wound up receiving months later. But instead of having a typical auction, they tried something a little different.

"We advertised it as an English auction with an afternoon tea, and the tea was more successful than the auction," Gaffney says. "And that's how we ended up back in the food business.

"My parents opened one shop, and the great thing about America is that you can grow fast. Within two or three years, they had five or six tea shops going."

Gaffney wasn't too fond of Florida, and she moved up to New York to pursue a music career. But after her father suffered a major heart attack, she left show biz and came to New Jersey to start a Sally Lunn's in Chester.

"We have a good product here. It's something very different," Gaffney says, "We have a lot of repeat customers."

The shop is at once ornate and quaint, stuffed to the rafters with pictures, glass cases and other items that fascinate customers as they wait for their order to be delivered.

"The Victorians were famous for cluttering their places," Gaffney says, "and that's what we try to do here."

She also says that everything in the shop is for sale, from pictures on the wall to the chairs.

"When my mum opened her (tearoom) in Florida, everything had a price tag on it," Gaffney says, "She decided she would sell the chairs. But it got to a point that she would have a table of six come in, and then they would walk out with all of the chairs. . . . That's why none of the chairs here match."

While there's plenty to please the eyes, but it's the food that really impresses here, with traditional English dishes such as Tiddy Oggi — ground sirloin, carrots, turnips, potatoes and leeks, wrapped in homemade pastry — and scones, which are accompanied by homemade clotted cream (this is made in a manner different from that used in England.)

Sally Lunn's also serves Cockney pie: "It's like a really high stacked pizza, and we sell so much of it," Gaffney says. "People come in here and say, 'Oh, I was in England, and I had the Cockney pie, and yours is much better.' Since it doesn't exist in England, we just smile and thank them."

The restaurant has teas from all over the world — " more than 70 flavors of loose tea," Gaffney says, "In England, most place have, like, five."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Calling All Cars! Servers Go Off-line Forever

Remember that David Jaffe love project, Calling All Cars!, he made after he leaving the God of War franchise? It was a cartoony, downloadable game for the PSN that was in the same vein of Twisted Metal, and it had a pretty steady fanbase.

The game, which had you driving around and blasting other vehicles and capturing escaped convicts, has been around since 2007, so the beginning of its decline in online players really isn’t that big of a shocker. But it’s still pretty sad to see a game like this go. I remember playing it at my friend’s house when it first came out. It wasn’t God of War amazing, but it was still fun.

Well, the dream is over and Mr. Jaffe, probably jokingly, calls it “the beginning of the end” of his career. No word yet on what Jaffe plans to do next, but hopefully, it’s another Twisted Metal.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fine food with a 'Publick' ambience

The Publick House Tavern & Inn was built on Main Street in Chester way back in 1810, and while it's now time to commemorate the building's bicentennial, there are plenty of other reasons to celebrate the place.

"We're going to have a plan for 2010," says general manager Abraham Ghebreal.

The Publick House recently opened a new banquet hall, and there are plans to open the upstairs inn portion of the building, which has been undergoing a three-year renovation.

"We try to advertise more for the banquet room, which can serve weddings and other special events," Ghebreal says.

"When the Inn opens, we're going to have deals, like one-night sleep-over deals with kids and families and a dinner, because we want people to come from different towns to Chester," he says.

"We try to bring the soul and the life of Chester back, especially to Main Street, where there are a lot of closings," he says.

A major reason the restaurant does so well is because of the food served in its multistory, brick-layer interior.

"Mostly, the people compliment us about the menu and the idea," Ghebreal says, "People believe in us, and I think this is why the business does well, especially in an economy like this."

The menu is a combination of old-fashioned American, including steaks, crab cakes, and burgers, and old-style Italian, with pasta dishes including penne with chicken, which has artichokes and sundried tomatoes on it. Even the pizza is much beloved here.

"It's old-style pizza, and people love it," Ghebreal says, "It's a personal pizza."

Also on the Italian portion of the menu is grilled chicken risotto porcini, which has arborio rice with porcini mushrooms topped with grilled chicken, and fusilli Siciliana — eggplant and tomato topped with melted mozzarella.

"The Italian influence is very hard to find here," Ghebreal says, "It's a mix of Naples style and Milanese."

On the American side are some great meals, too, such as the Publick House Angus burger served with house fries, and the Maryland crab cake, which is two jumbo crab cakes served with lemon butter, vegetables and the starch of the day.

Also on the first floor is the tavern portion of The Publick House, which offers a well-stocked bar.

"It's a full bar, it has all the hard liquors, and we have mostly California wine because I believe in California wine more than anyone else," Ghebreal says, "Our wine list is not expensive, so people can come buy it for an affordable price."

In addition to the building, one of the things Ghebreal loves most about working here is the town of Chester: "It's fun, and the way we communicate with the public, is nice. People like us here."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

KC's Coffee Place: A friendly place with good coffee, healthy food

At KC's Coffee Place, which recently celebrated its 10 anniversary in downtown Chester, it's never been just about the coffee, even though the coffee is highly praised by the locals.

Really, it's always been about the homey atmosphere of the place, and it's something that owner, Kimberly "KC'' Costello, really prides herself in.

"You make really great relationships here,'' KC says, "People [are] meeting people, and you see the kids growing up, and it's just so nice.''

The space, while small, never seems closed in. There are vibrant pictures and funny little signs adorning the walls, and it's a purely cozy environment just right for a slice of conversation with your morning or evening cup of Joe.

"It's kind of like a modern day general store,'' KC says while taking a sip from some of her own coffee and smiling. "You have people meet and greet, and I network with people. Someone [might be] looking for a job, whether it's babysitting, or landscaping or anything like that, and it works out well. I enjoy the people. It's fun.''

The place sells the kinds of beverages you would find in your typical coffeehouse, so whatever your tongue is slapping at the roof of your mouth for, KC's likely has it.

"I open at 6:30 in the morning, and we're on the right side for traffic, and that's good, so people can just pull over and run in because there's no shops open,'' KC says, "So they can just run in and get a coffee, an espresso, lattes, cappuccinos, and chai tea is probably one of our biggest sellers. We do a really good chai latte.''

But what kind of modern-day java joint would be worth its bag of coffee beans if all it served was Joe?

KC, a former cosmetologist who worked many jobs before, all of them involving people, acknowledges this fact, too. And that's why she's brought on one of her good friends and chef, Paul Viggiano, who has appeared on the Food Network show "Chopped,'' for his stellar cooking abilities.

"We try to do sandwiches that people really, really like, but a little different,'' says
Viggiano, who makes sure that all of the food he prepares is all-natural and delicious. "We gotta keep it healthy, right?''

Some of these healthy but sumptuous sandwiches include the unusual, such as salami with apple butter, and more traditional, such as another with roasted red peppers and mozzarella and a tarragon spread.

"Food is who we are, and we have to be as close to nature as possible, as far as eating,'' Viggiano says, "I mean, we have it available to us, in Jersey. So there's no reason to buy processed peppers.''

Along with great sandwiches, KC's also makes great soups, and what better way to cap off a stellar sandwich than with an outstanding soup?

"Yes, [we do] soups and we do little small sandwiches,'' KC says, "And with everything going on, with stuff being expensive, we're doing a lot more stews, like heartier soups, and we're doing the 12-ounce cup for $3.50. And then, [there's] the little sandwiches for $2.50. Together, we make it five dollars, and where else can you get soup and a sandwich for five bucks? Plus, it's good, and it's all homemade.''

KC's also offers some its cooking outside the restaurant.

"We've done a lot of parties, [and we] even [have] intimate cooking lessons in people's homes,'' KC says.

But if there's one message that KC would like customers to leave with when they exit her shop, it's this:

"You can get a little pick-me-up [here], you always have somebody to talk to, and it's cozy,'' KC says, as she caps off her own cup of coffee and offers a friendly grin.