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I rarely do restaurant reviews and I’m not really doing one now, but I feel compelled to share with you my dining experiences at The Upper Crust in Boonton, NJ. Those of you who have followed my column are well aware that I’m no slouch when it comes to highlighting the foibles of the culinary world. Indeed, as the time honored adage states, we learn from our mistakes. But judging when something is off the mark is often facilitated by knowing what the optimum scenario should be. In other words we need to know what the ideal is so we have a benchmark by which to compare. The Upper Crust embraces that ideal, and affords me a model example by which to educate the dining public of what a good restaurant should be.
The Upper Crust is a European bistro that while sporting British décor and memorabilia, clearly incorporates French and other European influences. The Upper Crust was opened by chefs Andrew and Susan Chappell. Andrew, a Johnson and Wales graduate and Susan, a pastry chef, have over two decades of culinary experience from around the globe. This one-two punch of culinary talent has unequivocally lived up to its namesake.
So what defines a good restaurant?
The first differentiator between a good restaurant and a run of the mill eatery is the quality of the ingredients. Good restaurants will go the extra mile to find the freshest, highest quality raw materials. They will track down reputable purveyors, not accept sub-standard products, and be very finicky about what eventually ends up on your plate. They will inspect every piece of food before it is served to you and discard anything unacceptable. Case in point: The greens that accompanied my steak tartare at the Upper Crust were crisp, brightly colored, clean, and devoid of any signs of age or spoilage. (The steak itself was awesome but that’s another point). Conversely, the lettuce I received at a popular seafood eatery last week was strewn with brown spots. The speckled lettuce was in plain view of the cook who placed it on the plate and the server who delivered it to me. Yet neither bothered to remove it and replace it with unblemished lettuce.
As another example of food quality, allow me to describe the Upper Crust’s hanger steak. Hanger steak is a very tasty but not exactly tender, (relative to the loin or rib), cut of meat from the flank section of the cow.
Marinating it, not overcooking it, and cutting it against the grain will all minimize chewiness. Of course there’s one other thing you can do as well: Buy quality meat! Higher quality meat contains greater marbling, i.e., intramuscular fat, which contributes to the steak’s juiciness and tenderness. The Upper Crust’s hanger steak was unusually tender and quite frankly, the best one I’ve ever consumed. The superiority of their steak was beyond what careful cooking or perpendicular-grain cutting could produce. Clearly it started out as a superlative specimen.
OK, so we’ve got top-notch ingredients. Now what? Well, the very next thing that distinguishes a good restaurant is culinary competence. You don’t need talent to buy the best meat, you just need money. However, it takes a highly trained and experienced chef to transform those exceptional ingredients into an equally exceptional dish. Once again, the Upper Crust rises to the occasion.
Chef Chappell has a particular knack for braising. His braised short ribs are absolutely delectable and rival their counterparts from the best French restaurants of New York City. Braised for 5+ hours, they are falling-off-the-bone tender, rich in flavor, and leave no room for improvement. Equally flawless is his braised lamb shank. Braising, while seemingly quite simple, actually involves a series of flavor-enhancing techniques that require some technical know-how. These include proper seasoning and searing of the meat, deglazing, the suitable fluid level, cooking temperature and time, reduction of the sauce, and the proper cookware among others. The proficient chef is cognizant of each and every nuance and capitalizes on each one.
Culinary diligence is also exemplified by a dish as basic as the Upper Crust’s traditional English fish and chips. You might be thinking, “How difficult can it be to make fried fish?” Well, ask yourself when was the last time you had something perfectly fried in a restaurant. And by perfect I mean a batter that remained adhered to the food, a uniformly browned and crisp exterior, a moist yet thoroughly cooked interior, and most of all, no greasiness. If you think about it, you’d be hard pressed to recall an example that meets all of those criteria. That’s because once again, a seemingly simple technique deceptively involves attention to many unseen details. Adept frying encompasses the nature of the batter, when and how it is applied, the pre-frying temperature of the food, the size of the food, the type, quality, age, temperature, and amount of the oil, the number of items being fried simultaneously, etc. etc. etc. Knowing each and every one of these permutations, and even more importantly, being conscientious enough to attend to all of them, is what separates the gifted and meticulous, from the average and indolent.
Service Ambience and Price
After the quality of the food and skill of the chef, there are three remaining criteria that determine a good restaurant: service, ambience and price. The Upper Crust’s service epitomizes the gold standard of synchronicity: prompt and attentive without being intrusive or overbearing. You won’t need to flag down servers like a stranded motorist hitching a ride, nor will you be smothered. Your needs are anticipated and promptly attended to.
The ambience is distinctly tranquil and romantic with a view of the kitchen. However, unlike the atmospherically detracting vistas, (and noise), of some establishments, the peaceful glass encased panorama of the Upper Crust’s kitchen forms a harmonious backdrop to the dining room. Like a maestro before his assemblage, one can observe Chef Chappell conduct his smoothly flowing culinary orchestra.
Finally, special mention must be given to the prices which are disproportionately in the customer’s favor. The entrees typically range from the teens to the 20’s, unusually reasonable for quality of this magnitude. And as the Chappells are fond of saying: “Quality is easy, it’s all we know.” Peruse their website at www.uppercrustnj.com