Month: November 2015

6 ways to enjoy the holiday season in Princeton

New Jersey may be chock-full of bustling downtowns, but many lack the charm and polish that Princeton, a Mercer County municipality that dates to before the American Revolution, possesses.

Surrounding the Princeton University campus, Princeton is filled with locally owned shops, restaurants serving cuisine from all ends of the world, and attractions that beat going to the mall to escape the cold any day.

Even if you just spend a few hours wandering the area without an exact itinerary of where to go, what to do or where to eat, you’re bound to come home with a satisfied stomach, bag full of new trinkets and tired feet from exploring the bustling municipality.

With the holidays arriving, the perfect way to get in the spirit of December is to head to Princeton for a day trip to enjoy the area’s coziest and entertaining things to do.

1. Hop on a holiday trolley tour with the Princeton Tour Company

Princeton is full of scenic and historic spots, but this doesn’t mean much to visitors unless they have someone to explain it to them. From Saturday, Nov. 28, to Saturday, Dec. 26, the Princeton Tour Company offers hourlong holiday trolley tours that meet at 116 Nassau St. for $15 a person.

These tours take visitors to the homes and hangouts of Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Madison, Aaron Burr Jr., John F. Kennedy and Nancy Drew, as well as the Palmer Square downtown district. For more information, visit princetontourcompany.com or call 855-743-1415.

2. Sample local wines at Terhune Orchards

When it gets chilly outside, the best way to keep warm to stay cozy indoors — with a glass of local wine. Terhune Orchards, located about four miles from downtown Princeton, produces 12 varieties of wine — dry whites, fruit wines, dry red wines, off-dry and semi-sweet wines — on nine acres.

The tasting room, inside a 150-year-old barn, is where visitors can try five tastes of any of the Orchards’ wines for $5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. at 330 Cold Soil Road. For further information, head to terhuneorchards.com or call 609-924-2310.

Terhune Orchards, located about four miles from downtown Princeton, produces 12 varieties of wine on nine acres. ~File photo

Terhune Orchards, located about four miles from downtown Princeton, produces 12 varieties of wine on nine acres. ~File photo

3. Check out an indie film at the Princeton Garden Theatre

Escape the cold for two hours and check out a cool indie flick by heading to the Princeton Garden Theatre, a nonprofit that plays classic Hollywood movies, foreign language films, filmmaker appearances and lectures, Saturday kids matinees and theatrically broadcast events such as from the National Theatre in London.

Admission rates range from $4 to $18 at the 160 Nassau St. theater, which is currently playing Spotlight, Trumbo, Coriolanus, the Book of Life, Hamlet and Where Are The Dreams of Youth. To get more information, go to princetongardentheatre.org or call 609-279-1999.

4. Pick up classic tunes at the Princeton Record Exchange

Looking for some music to listen to while you’re huddled up in your living room this winter? Head to the Princeton Record Exchange, one of the leading independent record stores since 1980, where visitors can buy and sell new and used CDs, used DVDs and used records.

On the shelves are 140,000 new and used music CDs, DVDs and vinyl records priced under $7 at 20 S. Tulane St. from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit prex.com or call 609-921-0881.

Visitors can buy and sell new and used CDs, used DVDs and used records at the Princeton Record Exchange. ~Courtesy of misdaventureswithmichael.wordpress.com

Visitors can buy and sell new and used CDs, used DVDs and used records at the Princeton Record Exchange. ~Courtesy of misdaventureswithmichael.wordpress.com

5. Get a taste of local culture at the Princeton University Art Museum

The Princeton University Art Museum may not look like the Museum of Modern Art, but it is one of the world’s leading university art museums with collections of more than 92,000 works. Plus, the museum — which is currently featuring exhibits on European art from the Pearlman Collection, Buddhist cave-grottoes located in the western province of Gansu near the city of Dunhuang, the Book of Kings and Ursula von Rydingsvard — is always free.

Visit the museum at McCormick Hall on the university campus on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Get more information by heading toartmuseum.princeton.edu or calling 609-258-3788.

6. Shop for books, apparel and food products in downtown Princeton

To pick up anything from used books to Princeton University garb to fudge in a quiet, clean and friendly atmosphere, take a stroll through Princeton’s downtown area, which centers on Palmer Square and is full of fine restaurants, apparel stores and specialty shops.

Make sure that you don’t miss the gourmet olive oil samples at Carter and Cavero, Food Network-recognized cupcakes from the House of Cupcakes, and the variety of books at Labyrinth Books. Plus, the area is full of every type of restaurant from farm-to-table to sushi. To find out more, visit palmersquare.com or call 609-921-2333.

The area is full of every type of restaurant from farm-to-table to sushi. ~File photo

The area is full of every type of restaurant from farm-to-table to sushi. ~File photo

Where to go for a hearty meal

And to finish it off

  • Ice cream: The Bent Spoon at 35 Palmer Square W.; thebentspoon.net, 609-924-2368
  • Cupcakes: House of Cupcakes at 32 Witherspoon St.; houseofcupcakes.com, 609-924-0085
  • Baked goods: The Little Chef Pastry Shop at 8 S. Tulane St.;littlechefpastries.com, 609-924-5335
  • Chocolates: Thomas Sweet at 183 Nassau St., thomassweet.com, 609-683-8720
  • Cakes: Chez Alice Gourmet Cafe & Bakery at 5 Palmer Square W., 609-921-6760.

Taste diner history at Cornelius Low House

For New Jerseyans, diners are a way of life. Omelets on a Saturday morning, pancakes at midnight and stacked sandwiches at lunchtime are the constants of all Garden State locals.

But how much do we know about diners? How much do we really understand about their significance to our small state?

With the Cornelius Low House Museum in Piscataway’s free exhibit “Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners,” which runs until June 26, we can see the bigger picture behind these classic food attractions.

This year, about 4000 people — schoolchildren, diner owners and those that have special connections to diners included — have visited the exhibit, which celebrates the New Jersey diner, presents its history and evolution, and casts light on the threats that these staples face.

“This exhibit has really engaged people,” said Mark Nonestied, division head of historic sites and history services for the Middlesex County Office of Culture and Heritage. “People are bringing their own stories and information that can be added to the exhibit, plus, we’re having the conversation of who serves the best what.”

With the Cornelius Low House Museum in Piscataway’s free exhibit "Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners,” which runs until June 26, we can see the bigger picture behind these classic food attractions. (Photo: ~Courtesy of ShoreGrafx)

With the Cornelius Low House Museum in Piscataway’s free exhibit “Icons of American Culture: History of New Jersey Diners,” which runs until June 26, we can see the bigger picture behind these classic food attractions.
(Photo: ~Courtesy of ShoreGrafx)

Nonestied said that the museum chose to do this exhibit because it is a quintessential New Jersey story that needed to be told, as there is a bigger picture behind what diners are to our state.

During the 20th century, more than 20 diner manufacturers operated throughout the state, such as the Paterson Vehicle Company in Paterson, the Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth and Kullman Diner Car Company in Newark, which shipped diners all over the world. These prefabricated, stainless steel and neon lunch carts on wheels were designed to have people come in for something quick, cheap and good to eat.

Richard Gutman, director and curator of the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and diner historian, said, “These have the look and feel that’s different from another restaurant in addition to great food and prices, 24-hour service and breakfast all day. It’s indescribable, but you know it when you’re in it.”

Diners may come off as kooky roadside attractions at times, but they were spurred as a survival mechanism for average workers who worked late and couldn’t afford to eat at high-end restaurants. They may have started to fulfill a basic need — to eat — but soon enough, people grew up with memories of diners and passed them on to their children.

Today, there are about 600 diners in New Jersey, many of which have evolved to stay relevant in today’s restaurant world — including the Skylark Diner in Edison.

About 4000 people – schoolchildren, diner owners and those that have special connections to diners included - have visited the exhibit so far. ~Courtesy of Middlesex County Office of Communication

About 4000 people – schoolchildren, diner owners and those that have special connections to diners included – have visited the exhibit so far. ~Courtesy of Middlesex County Office of Communication

The upscale diner is outfitted with futuristic and retro murals, taking design inspiration from the dawn of commercial jet travel in the ’60s and ’70s with brightly colored tiles, bold fabrics and sleek seating.

Plus, unlike a typical diner, the Skylark has a full bar, a wine list, a lounge and craft beers, served alongside diner classics and unique items.

“I don’t think that diners are ever going to go away, but I do think that the smart diner owners will evolve,” said Jeff McNamara, owner of Skylark Diner. “Diners are the independent unchain. You drive up Route 9 and you are going to see the same chains with the same menus. But instead, you can come here and get something a little different.”

The exhibit also shows the evolution of diners, from serving simple meals such as ham sandwiches, eggs and coffee to the addition of Italian and Greek cuisines.

Another type of ‘cuisine’ can also be found now at diners, thanks to the current trend of healthy and organic eating.

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“Diners have gotten even more popular than they ever were before because owners are smart,” said Gutman. “They continue to serve the food that people want to eat, so there are more options of fresh food, farm-to-table, gluten-free, vegetarian and diner classics.”

However, it hasn’t all been an easy transition for diners to move into the newest era of dining. Many have been demolished and replaced by chain restaurants, some that are slightly more upscale and appear to be more healthy and sustainable and offer consistency across state lines.

McNamara said, “As a consumer myself, if I am in a strange place, when you are driving down the road and you see a familiar place, you know what you’re going to get and you know what the price will be. People have become lazy and they say, ’OK let’s just go there because we don’t want to be disappointed.’”

Thanks to the culture of New Jersey, though, Nonestied, Gutman and McNamara believe that diners are here to stay.

Since we are a car-culture state between New York City and Philadelphia that receives a lot of driver traffic, diners present a comfortable option where people know they can get homemade desserts, a good burger and breakfast all day.

Plus, New Jersey had the right start to become a state known for its wealth of diners. Our strong working-class community needed accessibility to a reasonably priced meal at any hour, plus, the diverse population could get cuisine of various cultures on a single menu.

“This is the story of the people of New Jersey,” said Nonestied. “It’s a very diverse state that’s well reflected in diners. You can look at a menu and see everything under the sun and that represents the people.”

Skylark Diner's stuffed French toast is a twist on the classic breakfast item. ~Courtesy of Skylark Diner

Skylark Diner’s stuffed French toast is a twist on the classic breakfast item. ~Courtesy of Skylark Diner

 

Icons of American culture: History of New Jersey Diners

Where: Cornelius Low House Museum, 1225 River Road, Piscataway

When: Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, from 1 to 4 p.m., until June 26, 2016

Cost: Free 

Contact: Call 732-745-4177 or click here

Havana Central brings authentic Cuban cuisine to Edison

Jeremy Merrin, founder of Havana Central, a Cuban restaurant chain with a new fourth location in Edison, hadn’t planned to run what he considers to be the “Latin Cheesecake Factory.”

However, after the entrepreneurial Manhattan businessman noticed a missing slice of the restaurant scene in 2001 – and had fell in love with a Cuban girl while he was in high school – opening a Latin restaurant with live music, a bar scene and catering seemed like the perfect opportunity.

“It’s not that I ever wanted to be involved in restaurants. I simply detected a segment of the market that hadn’t been played to,” said Merrin. “Cuba is a very rich, sexy place, and the opening in the market gave us the chance to be exclusive.”

The first Havana Central opened in Times Square in 2002 and now, 13 years later, the restaurant which aims to be a national chain has made its way to the Menlo Park Mall where Champps Americana Restaurant was formerly housed.

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A grand opening cocktail party and ribbon cutting ceremony with Mayor Thomas Lankey was conducted on Wednesday, Nov. 4 after 10 months of construction and planning. The event brought in 300 attendees, including business people, association heads, chamber members, politicians and council members, to drink some of Havana Central’s famous mojitos and sangria and dine from a pig roast and paella stations.

“I can’t believe that this day is finally here,” said Carmine Marabella, manager. “It’s like a dream come true.”

According to Juan Naranjo, manager, it’s a dream come true for Edison locals, too.

“We have heard from many that they have been waiting for a place like this with Latin food and music where they can have a dance without going all the way to the city or New Brunswick,” he said.

Havana Central held its grand opening at Nov. 4 at the Menlo Park Mall.

Havana Central held its grand opening at Nov. 4 at the Menlo Park Mall.

Plus, Havana Central will have a fitting home in Edison, according to Merrin, because the Menlo Park Mall generates a lot of traffic and the area is home to many other successful restaurants, though very few that are Latin cuisine-focused at a large scale.

There also are not many other Cuban-cuisine-focused restaurants in Central Jersey. One of the only others is a longtime Somerville staple, Martino’s Cuban Restaurant. The family-run eatery is known for its large portions and a budget-priced lunch buffet.

In the long-term, Havana Central hopes to have other locations in places such as Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and southern Florida.

Edison’s Havana Central can accommodate 250 people for a sit-down meal and 350 people in the cocktail area. Plus, it utilizes a porch area that has been converted into an atrium and winterized.

Havana Central held its grand opening at Nov. 4 at the Menlo Park Mall.

Havana Central held its grand opening at Nov. 4 at the Menlo Park Mall.

“Every person that comes in feels like they are not in Edison, but they are on an island vacation,” Naranjo said. “They see this as their escape.”

The Latin restaurant is targeting Latinos in the area, as well as those who enjoy ethnic food in a vibrant atmosphere, as the eatery plays cultural music five nights a week. With its strong bar program as well as catering and events capacity, Merrin said that it is an upscale, adult atmosphere.

According to Merrin, Cubans have been responding very positively to Havana Central, which is challenging because “Cubans are tough – they all think that their mother is the best Cuban cook there is.” He said that due to the restaurant’s authenticity, many customers are Cubans, plus, when introducing new items, Havana Central presents the dishes to a panel of Cubans for their feedback.

Under executive chef Stanley Licairac, some of Havana Central’s most popular dishes are vaca frita, or crispy shredded beef sautéed until crispy and served with lime, ajicito peppers, garlic and onions as well as cilantro-flavored rice and a fried egg as well as salmon glaseado en salsa de mango, or mango-glazed Atlantic salmon grilled and topped a signature mango salsa and served on a bed of roasted vegetables.

Havana Central held its grand opening at Nov. 4 at the Menlo Park Mall.

Havana Central held its grand opening at Nov. 4 at the Menlo Park Mall.

With its authentic Cuban dishes, the eatery hasn’t gone without recognition. Havana Central has made the papers of the New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, Village Voice and others.

Merrin said that the quality of the food can be attributed to those who work in the restaurant, including the 110 local employees now working at the Edison location. “We do proper hiring and training and everything is done with love and it shows up in the food,” he said.

Natirar, Somerset County park fit for royalty

The Somerset County Park Commission (SCPC) is the holder of all sorts of county green spaces, from Franklin Township’s Colonial Park on the Delaware and Raritan Canal to Far Hills’ Leonard J. Buck Garden, one of the premier rock gardens in the eastern United States.

However, only one of the county’s parks has a history and beauty so rich that the King of Morocco once called it his own.

The SCPC purchased Natirar, a 407-acre property named for Raritan spelled backward, from the estate His Majesty Hassan II, late king of Morocco, in 2004 for $22 million after he had owned it for 20 years and never spent a single night in the 33,000-square-foot, 40-room mansion built in 1912 on the site.

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

“This was a very unique purchase for us because it’s not a type of park we have ever had before,” said Tom Boccino, principal planner of land acquisition at the SCPC. “We took this large estate and turned it into a park. Usually we are buying vacant land and building and here, we are altering it as little as possible.”

Since there are existing farm ways on the site, alongside historic estate buildings, the SCPC chooses to utilize those existing features for visitors, usually those looking for a pleasant walking trail, to enjoy.

Boccino said, “It is relatively flat and smooth and very desirable for people to walk.” The SCPC also uses the property for various events, such as cross country races or festivals.

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

However, the outdoorsy aren’t the only ones heading to Natirar. Being that the area was subdivided with the Somerset Improvement Authority, the property is also host to Ninety Acres, an upscale New American restaurant, making it quite the partnership between the public and private sectors. A hotel, spa and conference center are also in the works as this portion is owned by Sir Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines.

“The county didn’t have the resources to maintain these buildings and we wanted them to be saved, so for the county to work with a private group with the condition that the public could use the property is ideal,” said Boccino.

To allow the public to appreciate the historic property to its fullest extent, the SCPC has also made very few changes to the area, besides adding a trail network and doing exterior renovations to the buildings on the site, which are currently not open for visitors.

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

On the estate are 22 buildings, many of which are historic and date from the mid-eighteenth through mid-nineteenth centuries including the mansion, two cottages, a carriage house and a greenhouse, as well as six wells, three bridges, three streams, a pond and woodland. The North Branch of the Raritan River and the Peapack Brook also cross the property.

The park is made up of about 244 acres in Peapack-Gladstone, 124 acres in Far Hills, 40 acres in Bedminster and 89 acres that encompass the restaurant and where the spa will be.

“People say that it’s really scenic and tranquil. They appreciate that it’s left undisturbed,” said Boccino. “The feeling is that they are walking through an estate. You appreciate the serenity of it and it feels like you are going back in time.”

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

Courtesy of Somerset County Park System

Central Jerseyans flock to local craft breweries

As many craft beer lovers may remember, in 2012, there were only eight breweries in New Jersey for people to try, taste and tour. Today, just about three years later, that number has multiplied to 28.

This is because of legislation signed by Gov. Chris Christie in September 2012 that eased sales restrictions on craft brewers, allowing them to sell beer by the glass and up to a keg at one time. Before, craft brewers could give away only four-ounce free samples on-site following a tour and sell up to two carry-out six packs to a walk-in customer.

David Hoffman, owner of Climax Brewing Company in Roselle Park, said, “For 20 years, we were all strictly wholesale. Ever since they changed the laws, tons of other breweries have popped up.”

Whether it’s the law that brought about beer tourism popularity or the other way around, no one can say for sure, but one thing is certain — New Jerseyans are loving their craft breweries.

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“People wanted more variety and no two breweries are exactly the same,” said Hoffman. “For 50 years, they got handed all this crap and then other companies started putting out products that tasted different and they said, ‘That’s what beer is supposed to taste like,’ and that spurred their interest.”

Climax Brewing Company’s beers were impelled from this thought as well, as Hoffman was a home brewer for 10 years, owned a home-brew supply store and was a consultant for Gold Coast Brewing Company before he started Climax Brewing Company almost 20 years ago. With 20 years under his belt, Hoffman has seen a lot change in the craft beer industry.

“A lot of breweries now are making all of this crazy stuff,” he said. “We make regular, good drinking beers.”

The brewery offers an extra special bitter, a porter, an India pale ale, a nut brown ale and an Oktoberfest, as well as other seasonal varieties.

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Many breweries, including Climax Brewing Company, offer tours of their premises, giving a brief synopsis of the beer-making process, lasting from about 10 minutes to an hour depending on the facility and costing $5 to $10, which includes a beer tasting.

“If you go to a brewery, you get a better experience and the beer is as fresh as it’s going to get. When you buy beer from a liquor store, it could have been sitting there for a month,” said Hoffman.

Climax Brewing offers open house tours of their facilities on Fridays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. accompanied by a beer garden atmosphere. Visitors can do a tour and tasting for $10, which lasts about 20 minutes and includes six four-ounce samples. They can also be sold pints from the bar.

Home brewers tend to flock to these types of brewery tours, interested in the beer-making process as well as the opportunity to try new beers from local breweries.

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Mike Cerami, owner of J.J. Bitting Brewing Company in Woodbridge, has noticed.

“Some people are very interested in the actual brewing,” he said.  “You would be surprised about how many home brewers there are out there.”

J.J. Bitting Brewing Company conducts a free 10-minute tour on-demand of their beer-making facilities. Cerami said that the company gives about a dozen per week. They also offer a program called Brewer for a Day, which costs $145 and allows participates to join in on the beer-making process.

Cerami, who opened J.J. Bitting Brewing in 1997, began his career in the craft beer industry after 11 years working with restaurants after his wife’s friend showed him his new brewery in Lincoln, Nebraska, and he found it to be an interesting concept. When he noticed that the J.J. Coal and Feed Depot, a 1916 building that had been abandoned since 1962, was scheduled for demolition, Cerami thought he could make better use of it as a brewery.

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“I was one of the first to put an application in and I thought, ‘What a great concept that would be for Woodbridge,’” he said. “I always liked craft beers even though New Jersey didn’t have its own.”

Thus, J.J. Bitting Brewing Company became the first brewery to operate in Woodbridge since the repeal of prohibition in 1933 in a spacious, three-story restaurant inside the restored building.

It keeps seven beers on tap at all times, with three that are constant staples: the Avenel Amber, Victoria’s Golden Ale and the Raspberry Wheat Ale.

“We have a good customer base who come in on a regular basis,” said Cerami. “For a restaurant to be in business for so long, we have to be doing something right.”

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Neil Glass, co-owner of Harvest Moon Brewery in New Brunswick, is another restaurateur who found himself in the budding craft beer industry when he was looking to open a restaurant and came across a partner who was looking to open a brewery.

“It was never my thing beforehand, but I find it very interesting now. We get a lot of the beer crowd as well as the foodie crowd. This brings another aspect to it,” he said.

Although Harvest Moon Brewery does not offer tours of the facilities, it does specialize in pairing food items with their beer, which, as Glass pointed out, is difficult for someone to do themselves. Glass can also see how the industry has taken off since he opened the brewery, as the restaurant/brewery brings in 3,000 people every week. Harvest Moon Brewery creates a little bit of everything, including ales, coffee porters, double IPAs and seasonal items, like their current Pumpkin Ale.

“We have a great brewer, Kyle McDonald, who likes to try different stuff,” said Glass. “We are just much smaller so we can experiment.”

Although local Central Jersey craft breweries may not have the size that some other craft breweries enjoy, Glass has a point — they do have the ability to experiment. The unique tastes of these local beers accompanied by historic atmospheres are keeping Central Jerseyans coming back for another pint.

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Central Jersey breweries

Climax Brewing Company: 112 Valley Road in Roselle Park. Get more information by visiting climaxbrewing.com or calling 908-620-9585.

J.J. Bitting Brewing Company: 33 Main St. in Woodbridge. Find more information by visiting njbrewpubs.com or calling 732-634-2929.

Harvest Moon Brewery: 392 George St. in New Brunswick. Get more information by visiting harvestmoonbrewery.com or calling 732-249-6666.