SO CLOSE BUT SO FAR

Terre a Terre-Carlstadt NJ

While suffering through a sleepless night, I decided to turn the TV to the most boring channel I could find. No, it wasn’t an interview with some blathering politician spouting garbage so absurd that even he couldn’t believe it. It was the local channel of Verizon Fios. Thinking I had found a tonic that didn’t involve fermented grapes, I figured I’d be out within five minutes. No such luck. Just when I was about to finally start counting sheep, a story came on about a BYO farm to table restaurant….great, now I was screwed and knew I had no hope of sleep until I watched the entire piece. In sum, it painted a very appealing picture of Terre a Terre restaurant and chef-owner Todd Villani who talked about his passion for local ingredients. Being exhausted, I don’t recall much else but it sounded just like my kind of place.

The next day, I was able to get a reservation for the upcoming Saturday. My girlfriend and I took the 40 minute drive on a drizzly Saturday and were fortunate enough to find parking across from the restaurant’s front door. We were promptly greeted and seated in a very attractive space that can be described a little bit of the country in the city without being overdone. Menus mounted on wooden boards and burlap tablecloths were a fun touch.

After a few minutes, our server, who gets extremely high marks for being friendly, attentive and engaged, came to take our order. My girlfriend chose “Jersey Corn and Tomatoes” and “North Atlantic Mahi Mahi with General Tso’s Spicy Sauce”. Unfortunately having numerous food allergies I was limited in my choices. I picked the “Bistro Salad” which was a very appealing combination of watermelon, feta, wild pork confit, pignoli nuts and mustardy greens. The mustardy greens turned out to be arugula which is one the things I can’t eat-who would have ever thought a problem eating arugula! I asked for it to be substituted with field greens to which our server replied, “there are no substitutions allowed but since there’s a food allergy I’ll ask the chef.”  He returned a moment later to inform me that they were “out of field greens”. It seems a little suspect but given the restaurant’s use of fresh local ingredients I was willing to accept it as a plausible although very convenient denial. With no other options  for my first course I moved on to ordering my entre, medium rare “Goffle Road Duck Duo” lavender-roasted breast, leg and thigh confit, kohlrabi puree, rainbow carrots and cherry sauce (blueberry sauce was substituted that evening) . For those not familiar Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff NJ supplies outstanding chicken, duck and the like.

Off to a good start but the rest of the experience was very mixed. Not even enough time to enjoy a glass of wine and the first course appeared at the table. The corn and tomato dish was creatively presented on a piece of slate- scattered pieces of tomato and corn with a flawlessly prepared corn, chickpea and zucchini fritter and cucumber yogurt ….truly outstanding. Now less than ten minutes later, out comes the entrees. While the Mahi was perfectly cooked and the jasmine rice moist and flavorful, the sauce was a thick brownish sweet and spicy syrup that would have embarrassed the worst pre-packaged Chinese takeout sauces. As for the duck, bad preparation can’t be saved by good product-the breast, over cooked on one side to almost medium well while the bottom bordered on raw. As for the confit, it was more like over salted duck jerky. Like the General’s sauce this too was a cloying almost syrup consistency so overpowered with cinnamon and sweetness that it would have been better served with vanilla ice cream as opposed to something savory. To be fair, the meal finished on a high note with a non-house made toasted marshmallow gelato.

Given the first course I wondered why the entrees were so disappointing. The answer was in the dining room. For the second time this evening the chef was making his rounds. Certainly nice to see at a small chef owned establishment but in no way required for a good dining experience. Again, he was focused on hanging out with those who seemed to be regulars or friends while ignoring everyone else-the first time was before he managed to destroy my duck.  No qualm here as I’ve spent many nights having extended conversations with chef friends myself however exercise some common sense; show all your patrons that you actually appreciate their business with a 30 second visit to the other tables as well. If more time was spent focusing on the tasks in the kitchen as opposed to rushing out to socialize these miscues probably could have been avoided.
Chef Villani certainly has a fertile culinary mind, great knowledge of ingredients and if the first course was an indicator some real technique as well. Unfortunately it appears he has a lot to learn about running a restaurant-this even more shocking considering he has worked for chef Marcus Samuelsson as well as chef Thomas Ciszak of Chakra in Paramus. I had high hopes when I walked through the door of Terrre a Terre and despite trying very hard to like the place, it’s impossible to like an establishment run by its own worst enemy.

 

Update : the following rebuttal was submitted by Todd Villani :

Thank you for taking time to write a “review” of Terre a terre. Coming off the heels of 3.5 stars from Star Ledger, and being only one of 7 restaurants in the state with 3.5 stars from New Jersey Monthly as well as from NY TIMES. This was written or posted on November 17th   2 months after  Mr. Danzis dined with us September 13th Saturday at 8:13 pm at our corner table

Terre a terre is a farm to table that sources from a 300 mile radius with only a 65 square foot kitchen with the chef and 1 cook producing seasonal sustainable items from local farms.  Not the norm for every restaurant . So as our server explained we do not  do substitutions for one because it throws off the rhthym of the kitchen and  two, the flavors that the chef put together for that particular dish. As for the statement of substituting field greens , we had none in house for that particular menu. Our greens for the late summer was Baby arugula. FYI Field greens have traces of red oak, Mizuna, Baby arugula and also frisee amongst others. But it seemed a little “suspect” according to Mr. Dansik.

Moving on to his Duck Duo , The Leg and Thigh was confited. A procedure  which the legs are cured in salt and sugar that is cooked low and slow in its own rendered Fat, The Breast has been cured and has been rendered skin side down and turned over slightly in the pan for a rare appearance. Exactly prepared a million times at Aquavit with chef Samuellson.  Blueberries came into season and was substituted with no traces of cinnamon nor any sugar. What you tasted was the cure of 15 different spices including brown sugar and Amagansett sea salt.  The kitchen , nor the management ,nor myself was made aware of the dissatisfaction of the plate so we were unable to fix it . Mr. Dansik opted to not make us aware and go write about it . He does have the right to say anything he would like with no policing it. The internet allows anyone to say anything they wish with no consequences. “  For example I can write Mr. Dansik has 1 leg and 2 toes with no thumbs.  I have no facts.

As for the sauce was a thick brownish sweet and spicy syrup that would have embarrassed the worst pre-packaged Chinese takeout sauces. It is Kecap Manis , An Indonesian sweet soy, and sweet chili combined with garlic, lemongrass and ginger with a touch of sesame. Its seen in NJ monthly, and the Ny times as one of our plates the writers who have a backround in reviewing loved.

Due to a loved ones passing I was in the dining room paying homage to some of the people kind enough to come and lend support. Sorry if im a poor Business man because I didn’t spend the 30 seconds you so desperately needed. Ive been doing this long enough to know when I can leave my kitchen and when I cant. I would have surely come over if you were not satisfied with a certain dish but I was not called over to the table. It seems as though when you were snapping your fingers at all the staff in the dining room I didn’t catch it.

Finally the statement that I worked for Thomas Cizak is False. I have never worked in or around any of his kitchens in my career.  We did however do a joint venture at terre a terre and Chakra . A wine dinner and  separately a Tea dinner.

Terre a terre is considered one of the top 25 restaurants in NJ and after 1 year of being open we are very proud of that.We have been working very diligently to support local businesses farmers and artists. With no liquor it is a very tough business. Customers like yourself destroy businesses and you don’t even realize it. If your going to be a  writer get  punctuation and capatilization correct.  We are only as good as our last plate though and we realize we can’t please everyone. Especially when its run by its “own worst enemy”.
I will be sure to taste some of the Hungry Uncles sauces


Cheers,
Todd  P. Villani Chef/Owner
Terre A’ Terre
201 507 0500 P 201 507 0501 F
Eatery and Culinary Services
“Indulge in a Gourmet Voyage”
Rated :      Very Good NY TIMES ,
***1/2 stars  STAR LEDGER and NJ MONTHLY

Update: In response to Chef Villani’s unhappiness with my review.

Yes, I did ask for the “Mustardy Greens” to be substituted with Field Greens as they were offered that evening. While the Chef is taking the position that he had none in house for that menu, I’ve never been in the habit of asking an establishment to prepare something they don’t have as it would make no sense. Regardless, no matter how small and seasonal Terre a Terre may be a slight alteration of greens could hardly “throw off the rhythm of the kitchen”. As to the duck and my other dissatisfaction with some but certainly not all of the other food that evening, I simply relayed my experience so there’s no reason to rehash it now. However, I will say that our server clearly stated that the blueberry sauce contained blueberries and some cinnamon. I told him that it was much too sweet for my palate and asked if it contained any sugar. He responded that he wasn’t sure but probably just a little. Chef Villani says that no one was made aware of my dissatisfaction. The above was just one example of me doing so.

I did comment that the Chef seemed engrossed with certain customers at the expense of others and attention to matters in the kitchen. Unfortunately as unfair as it may seem, perception is reality. I never said as he puts it that I didn’t get the “30 seconds I desperately need”. In fact my exact words were that this type of interaction was “Certainly nice to see at a small chef owned establishment but in no way required for a good dining experience”   While I do not at all know Todd Villani personally, it is tragic when anyone loses a loved one and my sympathies go out to him and his family.

Whether in the world of food or any other profession no one gets it right all the time. Chef Villani wants to vilify me for rendering an honest opinion; so much so that he thought it appropriate to go back to his reservation records, retrieve the provided phone number (which belongs to my girlfriend and not me), call on Saturday afternoon and after a brief moment of civility start verbally attacking leaving me with no choice but to abruptly end the conversation. As unbelievable as this may seem, sadly, it did happen. My girlfriend was so uncomfortable from the incident that she immediately blocked Terre a Terre’s phone number. To state that customers like me destroy a business is categorically false. In fact I have been a long time champion of restaurants like Terre a Terre as well as the small farmers who supply them. I routinely seek them out and often drive in excess of an hour to experience and support them. While it’s certainly upsetting to read a review that contains harsh criticism as a business man I’ve always used them a tool for growth and improvement. I’ve spent in excess of 25 years building and managing various endeavors that operate in the greater retail sphere. As much as I enjoy reading the positive reviews, it’s the negative ones that provide an education. On that note, thank you Chef for pointing out the error in listing you as a former employee of Chef Thomas Ciszak. We did research this point but obviously the sources were incorrect.

For the record, Chef Villani was contacted by my business partner proposing that I revisit his restaurant after which I would once again publish my experiences in an unvarnished manner. He indicated that he did not want me to return.  No, I get no satisfaction in publishing negative reviews but could never in good conscience write something that’s not true or omit pertinent items. Those of you who are readers of these pages know that you must search quite hard to find criticism.