New Jersey Restaurant Week: Sept 19 – 25

“I think people need to get out and get away from their daily grind – to relax, and let restaurants enable them to relax.” – Chef Marilyn Schlossbach

There are restaurant weeks, and then there are Restaurant Weeks. And when you have a Restaurant Week that covers every county in New Jersey, even capitalizing the words does not fully convey the size and scope. Starting on September 19, the New Jersey Restaurant Association (NJRA) will launch its 2nd Annual New Jersey Restaurant Week – an event that will have over 200 restaurants in all 21 counties participating. The event will run until September 25.

This past Monday, NJRA got the culinary ball rolling with a media gathering at their headquarters, known as Hospitality House, which is right across the street from the State House in Trenton. The event was not only a way for NJRA to help get the word out about the week-long event; it also gave a few Jersey restaurants a chance to showcase their talents with a special Jersey Fresh Menu. The list of restaurants included Milford Oyster House, Doris & Ed’s in Highlands, Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell, Erini Restaurant in Ewing, and Langosta Lounge and Labrador Lounge in Asbury Park and Normandy Beach respectively.

And let’s talk about the food that was presented for a moment, shall we? Chef Thomas Donahue of Doris & Ed’s made scallops that were served over a gastrique that included red onion, bacon and garlic. The scallops were nothing short of pristine; not a grain of sand to be found. And he was preparing his dishes in the main media room, so that wonderful fragrance was wafting all around.

Staying on the seafood theme, Milford Oyster House presented a shrimp and peach salad with a honey-mint vinaigrette. The combination of of the shrimp and the Jersey peaches worked well together, both in flavor and in texture. Milford Oyster House was also kind enough to have the recipe nicely printed out for anyone to take.

Cloverleaf Tavern went simple with spring rolls filled with chopped and julienned goodness from Jersey farms and garnished with a homemade sweet chili sauce. Crispy, and not heavy with oil, the spring rolls were happy finger food. And then, there were the seductive chocolate truffles with raspberries and whipped cream thanks to Langosta Lounge. The truffles were rich and not overly sweet, which made a nice contrast to the lighter raspberries, making them seem sweeter than normal.

While the food spoke volumes about the culinary talent that exists in New Jersey, it was soon time for the leaders of NJRA to deliver the message of why Restaurant Week is important. NJRA President Deborah Dowdell stated it simply: the restaurant industry in New Jersey is the largest private sector employer in the state, employing over 300,000 employees. Let that little fact sink in for a moment: the restaurant industry is the largest private sector employer in the state. Wow.

So, what are the special offers available during Restaurant Week? Restaurants will be able to have three different options:

* A special $35 prix fixe 3-course meal featuring Jersey Fresh ingredients, OR
* 20% off their bill (not including tax, alcoholic beverages and gratuity), OR
* a complimentary dessert and coffee with a purchase of an entree

“Last year, we decided to do it about two weeks before we launched Restaurant Week, and we also didn’t have specific dining offers,” explained Ms. Dowdell, comparing last year’s event to this year. “This year, we obviously have established the three offers, and we’ve been promoting it over three months.”

The number of participating restaurants are about the same as last year’s inaugural event; however, Ms. Dowdell indicated that the quality of the restaurants participating is different this year. And by that she believes that “they’re deliberately participating by offering something that’s meaningful that I think the public will certainly enjoy. We’re really pleased.”

There’s an additional piece to next week’s festivities: participating restaurants will have the option to collect donations from customers as well as donate a portion of their proceeds to Share Our Strength. Ms. Dowdell added that these donations would be staying to help those in need here in New Jersey. So not only will diners be helping to support their local businesses, they will also be helping hungry children in New Jersey.

Executive chef and restaurant owner Marilyn Schlossbach agrees with the notion that it’s important to support local businesses such as restaurants. She used her own business to illustrate. “We have over 200 employees, and when we get slow we have to start cutting hours and laying people off, so it affects both sides.” Thankfully, the restaurants she co-owns in Ocean and Monmouth Counties have done really well so far this year. In a year where the economy is limping along, it was encouraging to hear a real success story.

What’s the message that NJRA wants to get out to the dining public regarding New Jersey Restaurant Week? Chef Marilyn put it this way:

“We’re giving people an opportunity to enjoy restaurants they might not have gone to before because of price, and have a fixed way to say ‘Let’s go there and try this one this time’.”

John and Lisa Howard-Fusco Regional Editors, Ocean County.  Although they and their two kids call Ocean County home, their John and Lisa Are Eating in South Jersey food blog has them traveling all over the southern region of New Jersey.  They and their blog have been mentioned in articles by the New York Times, Courier-Post, and  Lisa has written articles and reviews for South Jersey magazine as well as for Ed Hitzel’s Restaurant Newsletter and Hitzel’s Restaurant Magazine.  And John could use a Gaetano’s cheesesteak right about now.