By Jeff Bahr
I must disclose something before I begin. As a longtime Bloomfield resident, I have sampled relatively few of the township’s restaurants save for Hot Bagels Abroad – a much-celebrated bagel palace known for its fine water bagels and convivial atmosphere – plus assorted pizzerias around town. So, when I learned that Bloomfield was staging its sixth annual Taste of Bloomfield (TOB) event on Sunday, April 15, I strapped on my feedbag and set out to right this wrong. “Calories be damned!” I reasoned in a self-serving way. “I’m on a culinary mission to spotlight our township.”
As was the case in years past, Bloomfield’s 23-room Oakeside Mansion played host to the flavorsome event. This eye-catching holdover from the Victorian era, built in 1895, presented the perfect backdrop for the taste fest which registered more like a casual dinner party than a staged event.
Devised as an entertaining way to acquaint people with Bloomfield’s restaurants and several located in nearby communities, TOB drew hundreds of hungry patrons to its serving tables on this sunny and warm day. More than 20 restaurants and food concerns were represented for this year’s tastings, where the enticing aroma of Thai, Mexican, Jamaican, Italian and Greek cuisines (to name just a few) assailed the senses.
For $30 ($25 if tickets were purchased in advance), attendees could eat as much as they pleased, and eat they most certainly did. A casual inquiry into the number of restaurants being sampled revealed that most people tried at least 10 different outlets before folding their napkins and calling it a day. Others, even more gluttonous, told me that they wouldn’t rest until they’d sampled something from every vendor present. While I was doing too much munching to keep count, I’d guess that I hit somewhere between 10 and 12 displays myself; not too shabby for a TOB neophyte.
An accordion player made his way through the mansion, playing enjoyable tunes to improve the ambiance, but it was hardly necessary. The Oakeside has atmosphere in spades, so the taste-testers were sufficiently primed just walking in. Each room contained multiple vendors serving an array of dishes. This vast hodgepodge of food choices added to the fun, but it also presented a problem; people had to decide which food items were “must tries” and which fell into the “second string” category (those to be tried only if stomach space permitted). Choices, choices…
If folks couldn’t find exactly what they wanted to nibble inside the mansion, all they needed to do was walk into the rear yard where a large tent featuring an equally diverse contingent of food vendors was set up. Drinks were served here (for an additional fee), and the feeding frenzy occurring inside the big top was at least on par with that taking place in the mansion.
For the record, the dinner items that I sampled included:
jerk chicken, rice and peas at Taste it Again Jamaican Restaurant; mousaki, makarounes and spinach pie at Stamna Greek Taverna; eggplant parmesan, prosciutto and mushrooms at Calandra’s Restaurant; and indescribably delicious garlic mashed potatoes at Frungillo Caterers. Thanks, folks, you did Bloomfield proud!
Some unexpected food discoveries also occurred during the event. A notable find was the Brookdale Shop-Rite which knocked my low expectations straight out of the park with its mouth-watering meatballs in Italian sauce (“gravy” to Italian-Americans). After going back for thirds (hey, my fiancé hails from Avellino!), I asked the server if these scrumptious meatballs were available at Shop-Rite’s daily buffet. Alas, they are not. Anyone wishing to partake of these meaty masterpieces must hire Shop-Rite as their caterer; that’s something to keep in mind as the graduation season nears.
After stuffing myself to the gills, I did what any pot-bellied American male would do: I went hunting for sweets. Most of the dessert vendors were situated in perhaps the most fabulous room in the mansion – the eastern wing/sun porch. A notable exception was Anthony’s Cheesecake which, while buried deeper within the house, was well worth the trip.
I visited perennial favorite Applegate Farm ice cream for a scoop of their luscious vanilla; Cupa Cabana, for a cup of their full-bodied Columbian java; and, last but not least, The Sweets Boutique, a sinfully delicious and artfully-arranged enterprise that featured such tantalizing guilt-inducers as cupcakes, pudding/cake parfaits, brownies, cake shooters and push-up pops. Simply put, the sugary concoctions were a joy to behold and an even greater joy to eat. “I’ve always loved baking and I’m a candy connoisseur, so this (business) was a natural step,” said proud owner Rickell Hawkins of her artistic display.
She wasn’t kidding. Before the event ended, The Sweets Boutique was cleaned out of every single item on the table, including my favorite Oreo dessert cup which I had sampled earlier. It was a testament to the triumph of the sweets, and in a larger sense, to the event itself. I’ll be back next year but with a different strategy – to hit The Sweets Boutique first. As my absolute favorite taste of Bloomfield (to date), it’s only fitting.