Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sweet Endings: Tasty treats, great atmosphere

Take two steps into Sweet Endings Coffee and Pastry Shoppe in Long Valley and you'll likely turn around to look at the door again — just to make sure you're not trespassing on somebody else's property.

"A lot of people, when they walk in here, they feel like they're walking into a living room," says Renee Giacco, who manages the popular bakery that recently was voted runner-up in the Best Bakery category in the recent Best of MendhamChesterWashington This Week contest. "And they have to double-check if it's the pastry shop that they're in because it's a little bit different layout of the building and the furniture."

She's not kidding. With sofas, pictures of animals sitting at tables eating desserts and an overall relaxed atmosphere, you'll feel like you just walked into your trendy next-door neighbor's house instead of a dessert shop. But it's all intentional.

"I went around with Matt, the general manager, and we went to the different stores in the area and purchased odd, eclectic seating, so it (didn't have the) franchise look," Giacco says. "It's a little more homey. We've got the fireplace, the pellet stove, and so it's a little bit different of an atmosphere. It's not so chainy."

Atmosphere only gets you so far, though. Luckily, Sweet Endings has the treats to back it up.

"More toward the city is where you'll get pastries like ours," says Giacco, who's been in the food business for more than 20 years and knows good food when she tastes it. "It's a little bit of the city coming out to the country."

Some of these city flavors can be found in delectable croissants, pies and quiches, all of which are tasty and delicious. But those aren't the biggest sellers.

"The best-sellers are probably the corn muffin and the cheese Danish," Giacco says. "And our brownies are to die for."

Giacco would like to taste the brownies once in a while, but there's only one problem: They can't stay on the shelves long enough.

"They sell out whenever we get them here," Giacco says.

Beside the foods, which range from pastries to breakfast sandwiches to salads, the crowds that frequent the shop are varied as well.

"We do seem to have the 'mom' crowd here," says Giacco about one of the many groups that come to Sweet Endings on a regular basis. "After they take their kids to school, they like to come in the morning and do their coffee clique."

Sipping coffee and discussing the day's events isn't just reserved for the moms, though as book lovers, business people and even those looking to explain the nature of existence itself all like to call Sweet Endings home.

"We have book clubs that come in and meet here," Giacco says. "We (also) like to host corporate meetings. Our one metaphysics group likes to get here late, like 7 on Friday or Saturday night."

This isn't even taking into account all the people coming over from Splash Seafood and Pasta and the Long Valley Pub and Brewery, which are only steps away.

"People seem to want an after-dinner dessert," Giacco says, "and they come over for something other than what the menus offer up at the Pub and at Splash."

Pub, Splash and Sweet Endings, it should be noted, are all in one single sector known as Restaurant Village at Long Valley.

"It seems like they needed one (bake shop) in Long Valley," Giacco says.

As for how Giacco feels Restaurant Village is as a whole for the Long Valley community, she thinks it could only make the town even better.

"It's a nice area, but it needs a little more brought in to the area," Giacco says. "I think that's what they're trying to do here with the theme of Restaurant Village. They're trying to incorporate all of them, just saying, 'Come on in, we have a little of something for everybody.' "

Monday, June 28, 2010

Redwoods: It's all about the diversity

Redwoods Grill and Bar in Chester is all about customer appreciation.

Everything from what comes and goes on the menu to the name of the restaurant was decided by and for the people who eat here.

"We actually had a contest and allowed our guests to name it," co-owner Keith Holmes says. "We ran it for about three weeks and Redwoods was the No. 1 name that the people picked."

This all occurred after a tense legal battle over the first name he and his partner, John O'Leary, had come up with for the restaurant.

"Our (original) name was Monterey Grill and Bar," Holmes says. "After we were here about eight months, we ran into a little snafu that was called Monterey Gourmet. It opened around the corner after we opened, which is the interesting part."

Still, Holmes has never been bitter about the incident and found it better to just change their name and rely more on the actual food itself. That, he says, is just one of the many reasons why the restaurant has been secure in the current economy.

"I know that at a neighborhood place, you gotta have some diversity," Holmes says. "So our menu is very diverse, from both the price angle and to the type of ingredients we use."

And he's not exaggerating the diversity. You want a steak? They have a steak (filet mignon, dry aged Kansas City strip, steak, take your pick). You want a fajita, they have a fajita. Heck, they even have a bit of Thai food on their menu if that's what you're craving.

"We have this Thai peanut-sauce dish that's got a rice pasta in it," Holmes says.

But their biggest seller?

"Salmon," Holmes says. "Believe it or not, it's our No. 1 dish for 14 years.

"The customers are going, 'Salmon doesn't normally taste this way. Yours isn't as strong.' Well, it isn't as strong because it's fresh. Salmon gets progressively stronger the older it gets, as the oils start to get a little bit more potent, but people come here and say, 'It's always so mild, it's always so nice.' "

The patrons are mostly from the area — Mendham, Chester, Gladstone and Randolph.

"It's funny because we've got to market to Randolph a little more (than some of the other places)," Holmes says. "We found in our research that people travel west to east.

"Randolph's three miles down the road, but people won't drive east to west. If they're in Randolph, they're saying, 'we're going to Morristown.' "

Redwoods also does catering, which Holmes said is a huge part of their business: "Catering has been a constant growth for 15 years. We literally pushed it by word of mouth from the beginning, and word of mouth has really grown to the point where it is today."

And where it is today, is about 250 parties and host at the restaurant. The events range from wedding showers to birthday parties to bar mitzvahs.

"It's so important to our business setup," Holmes says.

Also important to him is Chester itself, in which he's enjoyed working for the past 14 years: "Chester's a great community. People love to dine out — and Chester stands tall with that."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fresco? It means fresh, fresh, fresh

Marcos Rojas, the co-owner of Fresco Mexican, isn't just a one-menu kind of guy.

"I'm able to cook French, Italian, American," says Rojas, who recently took the idea of his Fresco de Noche restaurant from Flanders and made another one right here in Chester, changing the name only slightly.

"But I always focused more on what we do best, which is Mexican," he says, "It's actually our home cooking."

Rojas, who owns the business with his partner, Carlos Cervantes, has a full staff, many of whom he moved from the Flanders restaurant to the Chester spot, which has had a steady stream of customers since its April opening.

"Right after Cinco de Mayo, we got down to our standard sales, because we were building, building, building business on an incline all the way to Cinco de Mayo," Marcos says as a large crowd of customers step inside, requesting outdoor seating.

"On Cinco de Mayo, we had tremendous sales. We had a live singer over here. I had another live singer in the other place in Flanders, and both places were packed."

He attributes the success of this new restaurant with the fact that a lot of the people who used to go to the Flanders restaurant were Chester residents, so it only made sense to open a shop here.

"I was looking in this area specifically because 20 percent of our regular customers in Flanders were from here," Rojas says, "and we know they needed a place like this."

But don't think you'll walk inside and find a typical Tex-Mex menu with chimichangas and gorditas and the like, because Fresco Mexican sells only exactly what its name suggests — fresh Mexican food, not processed food.

"Tex-Mex is pretty much what some restaurants do — fast food, fried, in and out," Rojas says, "They diversify the flavor with a lot of cheese and with seasonings like cumin."

But, he explains, "Our cuisine is authentic, and in other words, our flavors are bold. Our cuisine isn't hot at all unless you request it."

And what a cuisine it is!

From the chips (homemade, of course), to the guacamole (also homemade, as is everything here), your taste buds will somersault when they savor how different and, most importantly, fresh all of the ingredients are. You might even think that you're trying a whole new sort of food if all you've ever had is fast-food Mexican.

"We have the skirt steak — that's the most popular," Rojas says, "It's a very popular dish, and we call it the carne asada, and the flavor of it is so rich, so flavorful that we only add a little seasoning to it."

Another popular dish here is the enchiladas, which may be a bit different than the ones you've had before.

"It's just corn tortilla stuffed with chicken and cheese. We bake that with red sauce, green sauce or mole," he says as his faces lightens up when he mentions mole (pronounced MOW-lay).

"Our mole sauce," he continues, nodding his head as if there's a secret code behind its deliciousness, "People who know the mole sauce are the ones who have more taste for very fresh flavors."

The chefs at Fresco Mexican will change the menu just for you, giving you even more accessibility to their diverse menu.

"A lot of people are allergic to flour," Rojas says, "and since we make everything to order, we can make it without flour."

He also caters to vegan tastes.

"A lot of people are vegetarian," Rojas says, "Our menu can be customized to be vegetarian. So it's very diverse. We have a chance to do everything."

Rojas is not only a great cook and boss, but also a great planner, with goals to reach out to the overall community in Chester.

"My friend is working on this idea to do a customer appreciation week," Rojas says. "I'm going to ask the town and the smaller businesses if they'll allow me to do a that, where we can bring a mariachi band, and we'd do, like, a cookout in the back, for free for a couple hours, so anybody can be welcome to our cuisine for different vendors in
the area in a fiesta way, in a mariachi time. So they can come over, enjoy, dance if they may and have fun with everybody."

Rojas would like to do all of this because he both respects and loves the town of Chester, which has given him so much, both in business and friendships.

"It's a wonderful town. People are so friendly," Rojas says. "What I like about this place is that everybody knows each other. I didn't have to advertise at this place. All of our customers were referred by other customers, so it was word of mouth."

Sunday, June 6, 2010

He's a third-generation chocolate-maker

J. Emanuel Chocolatier owner Tad Van Leer can explain so many health benefits from eating chocolate that it almost seems secondary that it's one of the world's most delicious foods.

"Dark chocolate is one of the perfect foods," Van Leer says while standing behind a case of the richest chocolates you can find in the area. "But cocoa, which is in milk and dark chocolate, has what are called flavonoids, which emulsify your LDL, while enhancing your HDL. So in effect, it lowers your cholesterol and also adds some elasticity to your circulatory system."

While all this choco-talk might be a little dense for some people, Van Leer just keeps on smiling, and in that smile you can see that he's quite confident about his work. He should be, too, as he is a third-generation chocolate-maker.

"My family was on the industrial side of the chocolate manufacturer," Van Leer says, "which means we imported cocoa beans from all over the world, and we roasted them, and we ground them and turned them into chocolate, and then we supplied them to ice cream and dairy manufacturers."

Those dairy manufacturers included Ben & Jerry's, Klondike and Haagen-Dazs. In other words, the big guys.

"Not only the big ones, but the good ones, too," Van Leer adds with a nod and a laugh.

Coming this chocolate background, Van Leer has strayed from the traditional adding some modern treats to his repertoire: "We actually infuse wine into the chocolate to make a wine truffle."

These delights have gained his shop top recognition from such publications as New Jersey Monthly, Cigar Aficionado and The Wall Street Journal.

"We also do a whole lot more in the wholesale area; we supply different wineries around the country — Napa, New York, New Jersey," Van Leer adds. "We also supply fine wine stores like Gary's."

He's talking about New Jersey's Gary's Wine & Marketplace — he's the friend of the owner.

"I was fortunate to be able to go to a wine auction, which was solely for the trade in Napa, through Gary Fisch," Van Leer says, "A good friend and I were introduced to many of the top Napa wine makers, and in making conversation with them, they asked about what I did. I told them about my chocolate background, and every time I brought up chocolate, it seemed to dominate the conversation."

Part of that conversation involved how many flavors are in both wine and chocolate separately, with chocolate edging out red wine by quite a bit.

"Red wine and chocolate are two of the most sophisticated flavors — red wine probably has 70 or 80 unique characteristic flavors. That's the second-most number compared to dark chocolate, which has 144," Van Leer says proudly.

The idea of combining the two flavor powerhouses into one super powerhouse was the direction Van Leer would take when he purchased the shop in Chester in 2004.

"We tried making (the chocolate/wine fusion) in Gary's location, and that didn't work," Van Leer recalls. "So we went to J. Emanuel Chocolatier (whose then-owner) had been a Gary's customer. He had a new endeavor and was interested in selling, so we just bought this business and have been busy ever since."

He's also busy teaching classes about chocolate-making and is involved in many local charities and events.

"I believe in giving back to the community," Van Leer says. "We're big supporters of things like K9 Companions, Battered Women's, Domestic Abuse and Rape Center, New Jersey Conservation Trust, and when they have events, we hand out truffles to bring people to the event."

Van Leer also presents his own special events to teach others how to make chocolate.

"I donate myself for a truffle-making party for six people, and it usually raises a decent amount of money for the charity," Van Leer says, stressing that he's going to be making this a more frequent event in the future.

Part of the reason he has classes is to show people that they should not fear chocolate-making. He says he thinks many people might have the impression that it's too difficult, so he tries to demystify the process.

"What I find is that people like to have fun with chocolate and that's what it's all about."