Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: Zeppoli

Disclaimer: We dined at Zeppoli with a cousin of chef/owner Joey Baldino, so we were treated to free desserts.

So it's over the Walt Whitman to check out the new and much buzzed-about Zeppoli, a Sicilian BYOB helmed by Joey Baldino, who has worked with a roster of culinary greats like Marc Vetri, Alice Waters, and Georges Perrier. What we found was awesome Mediterranean cuisine showing a level of skill, refinement, and attention to quality ingredients befitting the chef's impressive resume. You're not necessarily going to taste anything you've never tasted before, but rarely do you come across it prepared so well.

The interior is simply appointed: assorted cacti and other succulents on one windowsill, vintage photographs of the old country on the beige walls that are embellished with wainscoting said to be donated by the chef of Mr. Martino's Trattoria in South Philly. Between the small size, all the hard surfaces, and the open kitchen, it can get a bit noisy, but the space is otherwise cozy and lively at the same time without being overly formal.

The menu is divided into thirds with salads and antipasti serving as starters, a column of pasta dishes that can be ordered in either appetizer or main-course portions, and traditional mains. All three of my dining companions started with the simple insalata verde, mixed greens with shaved fennel, topped with caciocavallo cheese. I had the Panzanella Catania, a take on the traditional bread and tomato salad topped with some very mild capers and fresh white anchovies. I think I'm so used to Lauren's delicious yet bread-heavy panzanella that this felt more like a "salad with croutons" than a full-fledged panzanella, but the tomatoes were ripe and flavorful, and I loved the subtle fishiness of the anchovies on top.

The agreement between Lauren and me was that we would go halfsies on the steak and the Sicilian Fisherman Stew, but Lauren became so enamored of the stew that it ended up as barely a case of quartersies. Clams, head-on shrimp, and mussels all cavorting in a saffron-spiked, silken (and perhaps buttery?) broth that also played host to some of the most completely tenderized calamari I've ever had. This, and coarse Moroccan couscous providing some additional texture.

As for the steak, the maybe half-inch-thick rib-eye had a fabulously flavorful and crunchy crust and just enough fat marbled throughout to make it a succulent experience without being too greasy. The arugula and tomato salad on the side, though a bit of a repeat from my panzanella, did a great job as a counterpoint to the savory beef.

We didn't taste our friends' pasta dishes, but the spinach and ricotta gnocchi (very large, almost veering into gnudi territory) in brown butter sauce looked like a must-try for our next visit.

Thanks to our family connection at the table, we were treated to an assortment of desserts: a very lemony lemon tart, a sampling of three house-made gelati (caramel, torrone, and another flavor we couldn't put our fingers on), and an impossibly light and delicious chocolate and almond torte. The standout may have been the namesake zeppoli, looking just like small hole-less donuts, dusted in sugar and served with a chocolate-caramel dipping sauce. They were amazingly light and irresistible - if they put a drive-thru window in and start selling them by the sack, they could give Dunkin' Donuts a run for their money, even in Jersey.

Service was very pleasant, though the staff may need a little more time to get settled (a bottle of wine opened and left unpoured; some who-ordered-what pointing necessary when the mains were served). This is a minor quibble, though, and did not detract from our experience. The one thing I will say that though I think the portion sizes are ideal (not too big), they may be a touch on the small side for the price. The apps are all reasonable, but $19 for what I think was five or six (admittedly large) gnocchi and $29 for my not-particularly-large steak seemed a little high. I'm really not complaining; more of an observation, because given how satisfied we were with the quality of the food, there was no buyer's remorse. Update: word is that portions sizes have been upped a little. Investigating this is as good of an excuse as any for a return trip!

So I gladly give Zeppoli my highest endorsement for Jersey restaurants, the "Worth the Trip" seal of approval. It is not a place for culinary fireworks, but it excels at creating winning flavor combinations and letting the high-quality ingredients do the talking. Like its lighter-than-air namesakes, Zeppoli could be headed into the higher strata of the area's fine-dining atmosphere.

Zeppoli on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 15, 2011

It's a Vegan Coconut Flan

I've arrived at the conclusion that making vegan desserts is like being stuck on Gilligan's Island: coconuts will save your ass every time. Thanks to its creamy texture and pleasing flavor, coconut milk makes a great stand-in for dairy, and its tropical nature makes it easy to pair it with a variety of fruits.

So the next time the Vegan Harlem Globetrotters drop by for dinner, or you're trying to smooth things over between Ginger and Mary Ann, try out this dessert based on a recipe by The Professor Dr. Andrew Weil. Compared to the original, I upped the coconut quotient by using coconut milk instead of generic non-dairy milk, and paired it with a little pineapple-lime-ginger mixture. Should be ready in less than three hours! I'll stop now.

To be fair, this is not a 100% convincing vegan dessert. You can, to some extent, taste its constituent ingredients. But overall, it has a nice taste and not a bad texture, and if your guests aren't paying attention they may not notice its vegan-ness. The only trouble I had with this was bubbles remaining trapped in the flan as it set. I'm not sure what to do about this, other than more gentle blending, perhaps.

5 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 package soft tofu
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon of syrup (above)
Coconut extract to taste (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon)
Pinch salt
1 can coconut milk, plus half a can's worth of water
1 1/2 tablespoons agar agar, or 3/4 teaspoons agar powder

Place tofu, sugar, coconut extract and salt in your blender. Make the syrup by combining the brown sugar, water and vanilla in a saucepan and heating over low heat until it boils. Boil for five minutes, then add one tablespoon of the syrup to the blender, and divide the remaining syrup among 6-10 cups or ramekins. Swirl the syrup around the ramekins to coat.

Add the coconut milk and agar to the same saucepan and boil over high heat for five minutes (if it foams up too much, take off the heat for a minute). Add this mixture to the blender and blend carefully until smooth. Pour the mixture into the ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and cool in the fridge until set.

When it's time to serve, run a knife or small icing spatula around the inside of each ramekin, place a plate on top, invert, and pray that it comes out.

Serve as-is, or pair with something tropical, like diced pineapple with lime zest and ginger. Mango with ginger and maybe some black pepper would be interesting as well. Enjoy!