Zod Arifai’s well-known restaurant, Blu, in downtown Montclair offers a sleek, professional, comfortable dining experience.
At a media dinner a few weeks ago, we were treated to Chef Zod’s take on modern cuisine with French, Asian, and Italian influences. Blu has been in business for six years, and truth be told, when I visited a few years ago, I was not as happy as I would have hoped. But the years have been good to Blu.
The road to the food business for Zod was paved through the music industry. As a musician, he traveled alot and one of his favorite things about being on the road was experiencing the food in different cities. At a crossroads, he decided that he wanted food to be his life’s work and opened his first restaurant in Lyndhurst. The kitchen wasn’t a totally unfamiliar place to him. When he was young, his best friend’s family owned a restaurant and Zod worked there as a busboy. And maybe it was in his blood. His father was a cook in the army and then at hotels in Italy. Zod learned at an early age from his mother that salt is the most important ingredient.
The menu at Blu changes constantly, based on Zod’s creative impulses. In fact, there are no recipes at Blu; it’s all done by eye and taste. One of his favorite ingredients is featured prominently on the menu – duck. The Montclair Thighs are his take on Buffalo wings. Composed of a duck thigh and leg, with skin so crisp and meat so moist, framed by whipped bleu cheese, celery root, and homemade hot sauce, I could have eaten an entire dinner of this appetizer. This beats traditional Buffalo wings any day and I sense this dish could become a classic.
We also loved the lightness and sweetness of the Bay Scallops with Fennel, Almond, Lemon Puree, and Poppy Seeds. And a bonus appetizer of Cod with Fresh Fava Beans and Truffle Foam blew us away!
It was not easy to choose an entrée from the small, but well crafted menu. A Black Angus New York Strip Steak with Sautéed Spinach, Strawberries, Peppercorns, and Bleu Cheese was perfectly seared and bursting with flavor. The strawberries were such an unusual plate-mate to the steak but their sweet juiciness was the perfect foil to the rich, meaty steak. This is a fine example of how Zod’s mind works!
Our other entrée was the Veal Short Ribs with Soft Polenta, Wild Mushrooms, and Black Vinegar. The short ribs were tender and flavorful, with a delicious black vinegar glaze. But, for me, the real winner of this dish was the “transport me to Italy” polenta. Thick and creamy, cooked to perfection, I’m ashamed to admit I considered licking the plate! A big bowl of Zod’s polenta is on my must-have list the next time I visit Blu.
Our waiter, Giorgio, appeared with the dessert menu. Your next question might be, could she really even be considering dessert after all that food? What do you think? Remember, in my world, dessert is my reason for being. The desserts at Blu are the definition of “thinking outside the box.” Consider our choices: Black Olive Cake with Orange Custard and Basil Ice Cream; Frozen Mocha Mousse with Coffee Foam and Hazelnut Crumbs; and Chocolate Truffle Terrine with Peanut Butter Ice Cream and Peanut Brittle. Has your mind exploded yet? The chocolate truffle terrine was so incredibly light it could have floated away, had it not been anchored by the crunchy house made brittle. And the icy mocha mousse surrounded by ethereal coffee foam was heavenly. Have you ever had basil ice cream? Until my dinner at Blu, I never had. It’s like your best summer day in a bowl.
When I asked Zod to describe his restaurant, he said, “not pretentious, very casual, but the food is sophisticated.” He didn’t want to open a fine dining restaurant, as it was perceived. People sometimes think of upscale food as stuffy and that is not true at Blu. With rock music playing softly in the background, and a friendly wait staff standing by, Blu invites you to relax and enjoy a fine meal.
Next door to Blu, is, well, Next Door, Blu’s sibling serving lunch and dinner. Started as a spot for serving comfort food, such as meat loaf, burgers, pastas, and salads, Zod slowly added some of Blu’s specials and noticed they were a hit. So he changed the menu at Next Door and revamped its feel to be “more restaurant.” The two restaurants share a kitchen so it made sense.
Zod also recently opened Daryl Wine Bar in New Brunswick. I wondered if it was difficult juggling three restaurants, with one being quite a distance away. The chef at Daryl worked with Zod for three months and then Zod did something unique in this business. He closed Blu and took his entire staff to New Brunswick to train the Daryl staff for three months. This might be the secret to Zod’s success – smart expansion.
So am I Blu? Only in the best sense of the word.
554 Bloomfield Avenue
Open for Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Terry Krongold is a life-long passionate baker. In addition to a full-time job in the pharmaceutical industry, Terry has been involved with food for many years, including co-ownership of a dessert catering company in the late eighties called I Love Cheesecake, specializing in fine cheesecake and unique desserts. Terry is the author of The Cook’s Tour, a blog focused on food, baking, and travel. When not working, writing, or baking, she spends time planning vacations around restaurants to visit. She can be reached at [email protected]