Wednesday, March 28, 2012
First things first: The Sticky Wicket makes a great tomato pie. A beautiful, flavorful crust, the judicious balance of cheese and sauce, it ranks among the very best tomato pies anywhere. On the menu, they call it pizza, but, make no mistake, this is a classic Trenton tomato pie, in the style of Palermo's and Pete's Steak House in Ewing and the Pete's Steak House Tavern in Hamilton (sorry, I can get a little nerdy about tomato pie). It was one of many surprises when the kids and I had dinner there last night for the first time.
It wasn't my first time at the Wicket. I had dined there many years ago (before the twins were born) for a business lunch, but like so many things for yours truly, never managed to get back there. I remember a good "bar pie" and a good burger from that first visit, and they are both still on the menu. Can't really explain why I'd never been back since that time, but I will not make that mistake again. The Wicket is a terrific restaurant.
Writing about restaurants over the last 30 years or so, I'll admit to getting a little jaded about the whole restaurant experience. The addition of kids to the mix does change the whole dynamic of where to go and what to eat most of the time. But I also use the kids sometimes as a gauge to measure a restaurant's hospitality, flexibility and family-friendliness. Many restaurants will claim to be "family-friendly" or "kid-friendly", but their afterthought "kids menu" and indifferent service end up turning me off.
The Sticky Wicket is not that kind of restaurant. Their kids menu contains 11 entrees, more than I have ever seen in any restaurant with a kids menu. Someone put some thought into it, too. Prices range from $4.25-5.25 (for baby back ribs!) and include things like chicken or cheeseburger sliders, pizza (more on that later) and those ribs along with usual suspects of chicken tenders, hot dogs, spaghetti & meatballs, etc.
What lured us to the Wicket last night was their Sunday-Tuesday promotion, where kids "pay what they weigh". In any economy, but especially this one, a brilliant and welcome promotion. We arrived on the night of a community fundraiser, a frequent occurance at the restaurant, whose owner, Dave Eide, is known for his enthusiastic support of many local causes.
Ben chose a hot dog and fries, Sophie chose the "kids pizza" and I chose "English Fish & Chips", along with an appetizer of Sweet Corn Nuggets, and Jalapeno corn nuggets, mini corn fritters by any other name, one batch with the added zip of chopped hot peppers.
Food came relatively quickly, considering the enormous crowd on hand. The corn nuggets were an inspired take on an heirloom starch stretcher; the sweet corn nuggets came with a cup of honey mustard dip, while the jalapeno version was served without a dipping sauce, which seemed odd to me. I would have served the spicy fritters with some ranch dressing to offset the considerable peppery bite. Just a thought.
Entrees came soon after, interrupting the kids' crayon coloring time (the kids menu doubles as a 4-page coloring book/puzzle book). But they both quickly dug into their food. Sophie was damn nearly ecstatic over her pizza, a full 12 inches in diameter, very generous portioning. My kids know their tomato pie, and Ben immediately wanted a taste; Sophie was glad to give him a slice, the pie large enough to be shared by two small kids. She offered me a slice, too, and one look at her pie told me to accept. The bottom crust had a nice tomato pie char, the aroma said fresh tomatoes and the cheese had that little extra tang from the addition of white cheddar or sharp American cheese. As previously stated, a superior tomato pie. Ben, on the other hand, took a bite of his hot dog, but played with and consumed his french fries in earnest (they were good fries). I could tell he didn't care for the hot dog. "It tastes plain," he said. Asked to clarify, he added, "It has no taste." I took a nibble, and the boy's palate was indeed on target: a duller doggie than the Dietz & Watson ones we usually serve at home. His generous sister offered him more pizza, and he was sated.
My entree was a huge platter of fish & chips, a giant cod filet, bigger and thicker than a large strip steak, beer battered and expertly fried, with an equally big mound of those good french fries. Billed as "English style", it came with requisite bottle of malt vinegar. All that was missing was some mushy peas. I actually wish some restaurant would serve the traditional English side dish with fish & chips, just to see if it works on this side of the Atlantic (seriously, Mr. Eide, a green vegetable would be welcome and healthy addition). It was a tasty version nonetheless, and I could barely polish it off.
The kids enjoyed ice cream sundaes after they finished their entrees. I enjoyed the last sips from my pint of Guinness.
Another pleasant surprise at The Sticky Wicket is the staff. Out booth (complete with TV and headphones for the kids--I'll reserve my comments on TV viewing during dinner for another time) was covered by at least 4 servers during our meal, each of them unfailingly pleasant and cheerful, and all of them talked to my kids as well as me, while helping with the serving of food. It seems like a very good team concept at the Wicket, and these are some of the best waitpersons I've encountered in a long time. The place was overrun with people last night and every table was occupied, but these servers didn't lose their cool . They're a real asset to this operation.
I'm glad I made it back to the Sticky Wicket,and I have a feeling I'll be returning frequently. Next time, I want a tomato pie all to my own.
The Sticky Wicket
2465 S. Broad Street
Hamilton, NJ 08610
Thursday, March 15, 2012
The Madness has begun. And if, for some reason, you don't know what I'm talking about, just keep surfing. Something will attract your wandering eye eventually.
This year, I've filled out EIGHT March Madness brackets,simply because that's how many I found by noon on Thursday. I'm hoping to do somewhat better than our Commander-in-Chief (that's Barack Obama, if you're still not sure what's going on here), who I think picked a fairly safe bracket with few if any upsets or surprises.
Here is one of my brackets, on the CBS Sports website for the bracket games:
We'll just see, now, won't we?
I LOVE this time of year.
Monday, March 5, 2012
It's been more than a few years since I've ventured north to Montgomery, NJ to eat at Ya-Ya Noodles, a sister restaurant to one of my favorite Chinese places anywhere, Tiger Noddles in Princeton. It was more than just geography that kept Ya Ya Noodles out of my culinary peripheral vision. It was the food. It was just not up to the quality of its older sibling in Princeton. Sure, the presentations were more contemporary than the homestyle cooking of the older mothership, but the dishes were just too bland, too Americanized, too blah. Were they playing is safer for the suburban crowd? Perhaps.
Well it's been about 10 years now, and Ya Ya has a new manager, Judy Tung, who's worked in the Princeton restaurant for longer than I've been dining there, and she's whipping Ya Ya into shape. We had dinner there Friday night to surprise her and congratulate her on her well-deserved promotion.
"So what's good here now?" we asked. "Chef here is very good with Thai dishes. Thai style is very good here," said Tung. This branch of the 3-location mini-chain (there is another Tiger Noodles on Route 1 South in West Windsor, next to a Whole Foods market)is a much larger place, seating about 125-150 maximum, and its menu is also a larger adventure, with more appetizers, several more Chinese entrees (including Creaky Chicken, a terrific dish) than the other two Tiger Noodles, a full page of Thai dishes and an extensive sushi menu.
Yes, Ya Ya Noodles is one of those hybrid Asian restaurants that merge 3 or more cuisines onto one menu. I am not a big fan of this style of Asian restaurant, and there are usually disappointments just waiting for a knowledgeable palate. But I have faith that Judy Tung will be making sure that each menu segment will be authentic and expertly made. Her personal standards for Chinese and Thai food are very high (we've dined with her many times and she's taught me a lot about what REAL Chinese should taste like, as well as Thai). I'm not a big sushi fan, but Tung is. The sushi at Ya Ya's gonna be fresh and expertly crafted, bet on it.
Friday night we ate around the menu a bit, mostly at Tung's direction. Seafood dumplings (it's Lent after all) were gossamer thin wrappers plumped with ground shrimp and scallops, pan fried to a nice golden shade. Popular at Tiger Noodles, these were a new addition to the Ya Ya menu and a good move. The kids loved their won ton and won ton egg drop soups; the wontons looked as delicate as the larger dumplings on my plate, a good sign of skilled handwork in the kitchen. A plate of spare ribs was also ordered, and they looked larger and meatier than any I've ever seen in a Chinese restaurant. But Lenten adherence kept me from sampling them, of course. Entrees included a zippy jumbo shrimp dish in a red curry sauce, with peppers and eggplant, dramatically served in a large handmade clay bowl; chicken in garlic sauce, the chicken, onions and peppers,sliced into matchsticks for an impressive presentation; another shrimp dish, this one with a fiery Szechuan sauce into which was tucked peppers, onions, mushrooms and crunchy broccoli crowns; more broccoli came with Ben's go-to dish, chicken with broccoli, and his empty plate at dinner's end said enough about what he thought of his choice.
Judy Tung has Ya Ya Noodles humming, with well-trained servers and highly skilled chefs in her kitchen. Expect more improvements as she gets settled into her new position as manager of the place. There will be serious Chinese, Thai and sushi in Montgomery at last. Stay tuned.