Thursday, June 3, 2021

The Closter Cluster

Exploring the gastronomic wonders of Closter, NJ, a mere ten miles south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
I dug Mario Cuomo ok, but will never give Andrew Cuomo - who changed the bridge name in the ultimate Uday Hussein move - the satisfaction, and neither, apparently, will Wikipedia.
I just can't do long eating surveys. Can't. I did way too many as a freelance writer, then the Chow Tour I was assigned by the company which bought my web site damn near killed me (here is the result, if you're curious).

I've had like 17 of these on hold, including delirious runs in places like Singapore ($435 r/t thanks to but they're not gonna happen. Too much PTSD. But I'll try to grind this one through via blithe sloppiness. First draft, very rough, sorry I didn't finely masticate the worms and guide them down your expectant throat. This is all you get.

I used to fantasize about staying a couple weeks in Worcestor/Framingham, MA, which boasted great Brazilian, Tamil, Sichuan, and also my favorite diner. I haven't been back in a while, but few of my standbys remain standing. Now it's all about Closter, NJ. There is a cluster in Closter - The Closter Cluster - and it is one for the ages.

First of all, understand that Closter is one of the north Jersey towns that's gone Korean. Nobody writes about this (did someone proclaim it "racist" to point it out?), but it's A Thing, and it's GREAT. Closter used to be like 50% vibrant Korean eateries and 50% clutching, stubborn, fading generic Jersey American/Italian/etc places, but the latter have dissolved and been replaced by either more Korean or else seriously artisanal miscellany, side hustling vistors to the Korean wonderment and delighting resident Koreans, with their smart, demanding, versatile palates.

Enough damn intro. Oh, and I shot only a few random photos. Because I don't love you anymore.

Doorebak (aka "Hi, Cook Catering") is the pinnacle of Korean grandma storefront cooking, exactly what every chowhound quests for. Real home cooking, lots of love, good price, nice lady (she learns about one word of English every two years. This year, she seems to have acquired "potato", which, to me, makes her fluent).

Great jun (pancakes) of various type. I scored some kimchi fried rice, some scorched rice, some jun of a flavor she tried to pantomime via penguin movements (I asked "Penguin?" and she frowned and considered, but did not think that was it). Also some sweets. It's just perfect. The perfect store. You want this. Takeout only, even pandemic aside. She somehow anticipated all this.

You'll understand better if you scan the yelp photos at above link (Yelp is not at all useful for tips or ratings. It is useful purely for its photos, which enable chowhoundish triage without burning gasoline).

The Fish Dock is, as you surely guessed, yet another Icelandic fish shop. Their fish is flown directly from over there. So if there's a storm in Iceland, they won't have any (read details here). I bought cod cheeks, which you just never ever see around here, marinated in black garlic. Also crab cakes. The whole scenario sounds expensive, but nope. $4.25 for each crab cake, and like $11 for three big fat cheeks. Nice Icelandic lady with white eyelashes and scary tattoos gave me helpful cooking tips. They will hopefully return to making fish and chips on Thursdays once the virus thing chills out a little more.

OH MY GOD NO WAY THERE'S A KOREAN WALNUT PASTRY PLACE. Had these once ages ago in Toronto, never found them again. Cocohodo does not have the customer volume to continually be making them fresh, so they're good-not-great, but they're frickin' Korean walnut pastries, a serious holy grail. I think the trick is to find out exactly when they prepare them and show up then. Though actually these might be the sucker order, as they're more famous for their taiyaki, which are hot and made to order. Taiyaki are filled waffle fish. Search through Yelp photos (link above) to get their vibe.

I also got "Grain" latte, which was whoozy-makingly great. It's made from Korean "misu", a powder combination of 7-10 grains which turns up in myriad contexts in Korean cooking (much like, for that matter, "miso"). I like this lady's description, though she's writing about a place of the same name in California which I'm pretty sure is not related so I'm totally confused, yet her description fits:
It's made with a combination of seven to 10 grains such as brown rice, barley, black beans and sesame seeds, the drink was a healthier choice from the menu. It had a frothy layer that created a thick, creamy texture. The warm latte had plenty of nutty undertones that paired perfectly with the walnut pastries. This drink is great for those looking for non-caffeinated, healthy options.
"Healthy", sure. It's so creamy and sweet, it's surely about 800 calories. But WORTH IT. Great people. Happy place. They know they're bad mo-fos. They run a walnut pastry place. God.

They also make this inexplicable item:
Occasionally Korean stuff can leave me utterly kerfuffled, like Archie Bunker irately demanding a turkey club. But let's persist, because this place is such a point of light that we need to take them seriously and not disrespect their blatant trend mongering.

Dalgona coffee, aka "quarantine coffee" has become popular during COVID. You make it by...
whipping equal parts instant coffee powder, sugar, and hot water until it becomes creamy and then adding it to cold or hot milk. Occasionally, it is topped with coffee powder, cocoa, crumbled biscuits, or honey
And because Korean food is considered by young Korean hipsters to be modular (sort of like Chinese cuisine is for iconoclastic Hong Kong kids), they're turning it into a whole thing, with boba and everything. Hey, I'm sure it's tasty as 좆까. Especially with a turkey club. See what I did there? That was a "call-back". Lends a zingy professional food-writing flavor. Damn, I'm good.

I've been going to Farm Cafe (formerly "Demarest Homestead" or something like that) for 20 years. It's this weird little farm stand run by a very nice lady who's addicted to having the absolute bejesus scared out of her by Fox News, and she assumes all customers share her indignation (this time she was grumbling about "Kids wearing masks! Can you believe it???"). I feel badly for her, she deserves happiness, seeing as how her task in life is to serve all of us reasonably priced burnt chocolate chip cookies. Here, I'm eating one now:
Also delightful pies, chicken pot pies, soups, muffins, lemon cake, stuff like that. Very fresh eggs. Some stuff is underpriced, some overpriced, I don't think she totally understands retail. She makes panini and other pizazz-sounding things, all delicious but wrong, like she saw panini in a movie once and tried to recreate it.

Your best move here is to over-order. Impulse buy whatever strikes you. Freeze what you don't eat. You'll be glad. But don't expect anything to be better than the burned chocolate chip cookies.

All the other places in this report are in a tight cluster (the Closter Cluster) but this one, appropriately, is on the fringe. Oh, and definitely not Korean. Like, at all.

Isabella's Fine Foods & Catering makes exotically non-Korean artisanal sandwiches, and is run by friendly, solicitous non-Koreans who seem to really care. I had meatball parm, which was pure Jersey (fine grained meatball with ample filler, black peppery tomato paste-heavy sauce) but on awesome bread and with a winning personality. The Platonic Form of shitty Jersey meatball parm sandwiches.

Sorry, this is happening all over right now as rusty food writers remember too late to take the fucking shot.

Their most popular item is something called a French Kiss (roast beef, french brie cheese and carmelized onions with horseradish mayo). Not really my jam, but it's supposed to be great.

Deja vu. La Tabatiere is another in a long line of pretentious Korean French-wannabe coffee shop/bakeries with a pretentiously small and concentrated selection of individually wrapped and fetishized yet oddly banal-seeming baked items. But my god. I got a "blueberry danish", particularly fetishy and track lit and expensive, and it tasted like it was made in a French country oven in 1881. That is not the accustomed outcome with fetishized Korean-French banalities.

You know how some Americans or Europeans go totally Japanese or Korean, cooking (or whatever) more authentically, staunchly, dogmatically classically Asian than any actual living Asian ever would do? That's how some Japanese and Korean bakers approach French baking: with a convert's meticulous zeal. So suddenly I'm in a Godard film, munching elegant baked goods in black and white, within stroking range of Catherine Deneuve's shimmering wavy hair. Welcome to Closter.

The "blueberry" in the blueberry danish isn't Acme jam smeared between layers of puff pastry. It's perfectly fresh, unblemished, fat, juicy glorious fruit, macerated via some deep and archaic technique, making this more of a tart than a danish (though, again, it's on puff pastry), blasting more beautiful butter flavor (imported, surely) than any shlub like me is used to - or deserving of.

I also bought soy bread, which I don't really understand. I asked whether I needed to warm it, and counter chick spoke the four most irritating words that can be uttered in such a scenario: "It's up to you!"

I feel so empowered!

I didn't try it but very much liked the looks of ma mi, a homey little Vietnamese joint. Now that I'm home and looking online, holy crap do their Yelp photos look great (yet again, via link above). I am very fond of absolutely everything about their menu.

I'm figuring a Korean restaurant can't possibly be bad here in the Cluster. But I've been fooled before, when it turns out that a dominant immigrant population cooks their own stuff at home and doesn't require restaurants. The local Koreans are probably going out for Icelandic fish and meatball parm sandwiches, so Tao Haus may be purely for tourists. Idunno. Menu looks good, vibe looks good, Yelp photos (see link) look good.

Zendiggi Kebab House is Persian, with much yelp love. I feel like I've tried it once before, but Chowzheimer's affects the best of us. But, anyway, I was pondering the question "what does Closter lack?" And Persian was the first thing I came up with. After "Icelandic fish store". Call-back.

But, seriously, it may be a very VERY smart move on the proprietor's part, given Koreans' love for non-Korean barbecue meat restaurants to break up their bulgogi monotony (this is why Koreans own many of this country's Brazilian churrasco-rodizios). It's just so exotic and titillating to NOT wrap your meat in lettuce, y'know?

Here's the menu (which, oops, I touched; go ahead and queue up jokes about Elvin prison):

The following are not clustered in Closter....but close to.

I haven't been, but got a tip from a real live Moroccan (the person who cooked this glory) that Mazagan Restaurant, a Moroccan place down beneath the cliffs in the weird hamlet of Piermont, is terrific, albeit pricey. As always with Moroccan restaurants, there is some anachronistic Middle Eastern stuff on the menu, because Moroccans know how to accept - and monetize - condescending ignorance from outsiders. That might have sounded harsh. Did that sound harsh? Wasn't trying to be harsh.

Roost is a cool-looking spot in the impossibly idyllic village (looks like "Willoughby" from the old Twilight Zone") of Sparkill, just north of Closter, so not quite of the cluster. I haven't been here, but get a good vibe (and, for those not aware, my chow-dar seldom fails).

Noble Cafe is a cool coffee shop also in Sparkill with good baked goods. Not Catherine-Deneuve's-wavy-hair good, but good.

I dream of booking an airbnb in Closter and soaking in local culture for a few days. But higher priority right now is Providence, RI, which has tons of Cambodian and Laotian, both rare cuisines (I don't think there've been more than five Cambodian places in NYC in the past 30 years). That's the golden destination right now. Also Mali. But for now can anyone direct me to a TURKEY CLUB???

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