Chef Zod Arifai just loves being contrary. “Locavore?” asks the new executive chef and co-owner of Daryl in New Brunswick. “I’ll tell you what farm to table means. I was a kid growing up in Kosovo. I want a glass of milk, I milk the cow. Grandma makes me a snack, it’s bread she just baked and butter she just churned. So for me, it’s not about trends. It’s about food you want to eat.”
You won’t find Arifai milking any cows in the kitchen, but he has a knack for turning out food you very much want to eat. At one time a bassist in an internationally touring rock band (in Europe he used to eat in Michelin-starred restaurants while his bandmates were scarfing fast food), Arifai as a chef is self-taught but for a few blink-and-you-miss-’em stints in the kitchens of David Bouley, Charlie Trotter and Charlie Palmer. At 49, he is best known for his Montclair BYOs, the haute-casual Blu (an NJM Top 25) and its drop-by-anytime sibling, Next Door (winner of NJM’s 2011 blind-tasting Burger Showdown).
Daryl, restaurant-goers will recall, launched in 2007 in the same building as the Heldrich Hotel. Co-owners Daryl Sorrentini (the restaurant’s namesake) and brother-in-law Bob Paulus hired David Drake as the opening chef. After Drake left in 2009, the restaurant soldiered on until closing a year ago while the partners sought a new chef. Among others, they interviewed Arifai, who wowed them. “Zod’s creative personality, hands-on approach and unparalleled talent has brought a new dynamic to Daryl that we were desperately seeking,” says Paulus.
For his part, Arifai liked the idea of running a bigger restaurant with a liquor license. “I got interested,” he says. “I have a lot of physical and mental energy. I was ready for a challenge.”
The result is a brand-new restaurant—new menu, new staff, even a new, contemporary look (gone are the imposing, high-backed white chairs). Daryl, which reopened in December, does retain the wine bar part of its identity. One wing contains a cocktail-table wine bar and retail shop modeled after an Italian espresso bar. Behind the main bar in the 75-seat dining room, more than 50 wines are piped by the ounce via Enomatic dispensers. (The bottle list—50 whites and 50 reds under $50—was put together by Arifai. There is also a reserve list of more expensive wines.) A wall of windows overlooks George Street. But the show is Daryl’s seductively presented and startlingly tasty food.
Arifai’s menu is executed most nights by chef de cuisine David Viano, formerly of David Drake in Rahway, Due Terre in Bernardsville and Uproot in Warren. “I trained David at Blu for three months,” Arifai says. “Everything is done the same way here as at Blu, but the menu at Daryl is a little less haute than at Blu, more approachable, more…Zod.”
Very Zod—meaning perfectly cooked, with intriguing accompaniments—is farmed Atlantic salmon, moist and delicious, served under an orange-mustard glaze with lightly salty brussels sprouts, puréed butternut squash and sweet flashes of dried cranberry. Rosy tuna comes with shiitakes, napa cabbage and a piquant ginger-chili sauce. Mahi-mahi, a mild fish that calls for backup, gets it from pineapple, jalapeño and black beans, a combination as pleasingly complex on the palate as it is to the eye.
A few Blu and Next Door classics turn up on Daryl’s moderately-priced menu of 14 appetizers, 8 pastas, 11 entrées and 7 desserts. Blu’s silken tuna tartare is bright with chilies, ginger and soy. Blu’s duck breast with caramelized turnips, braised red cabbage and red wine-fig emulsion is simply one of the tastiest duck preparations I’ve ever had. The velvety texture of the meat is unmatched, the result of slow cooking that also crisps the skin. Daryl’s wild-mushroom polenta appetizer (a Next Door favorite) is lushly creamy—astonishing for a dish containing zero cream or cheese. The secret is in the technique.
“Everyone says that starch gums up if you purée it,” says Arifai. “But not the way I do it.” Served with profoundly flavorful sautéed mushrooms, this polenta is a garden of earthy delights.
Daryl’s duck-meatballs appetizer evolved from “a duck slider I served at Blu for one week years back,” Arifai says. “My customers still ask for it. So here’s the duck slider, turned into meatballs.” The meat is seasoned with caramelized onions, ginger, paprika and milk-soaked bread crumbs. The tender meatballs are served with sliced dried apricots and yogurt sauce “that cuts the duck’s fat,” says Arifai, and adds a Levantine twist. The dish is sensational.
Daryl’s pastas (house-made, except for the spaghetti and linguine) are served in half and full orders. Each is worth trying. The highest priced, lobster fettuccine ($26), flaunts an entire, 1-½ to 2-pound lobster, shelled and cut into hefty chunks atop a light, buttery sauce with sliced almonds and the sweetness of cubed, sautéed pumpkin. Chicken-liver agnolotti are a triumph, their creamy (but creamless) filling puréed with caramelized onion and Arifai’s house-made rosemary-thyme-sage oil. His spaghetti carbonara is made with crumbled, rich, confit-style crispy duck rather than pancetta. Egg yolk, cracked black pepper and Pecorino Romano cheese give the dish a carbonara finish. And finish it you will.
Meatier mains are marvelous, too. Arifai’s take on short ribs showcases rich, but not fatty, veal rather than beef. It’s a 10-ounce hunk with a pleasantly crispy top and bottom and a soy glaze. It comes with creamy (but creamless) potato purée and terrific wild mushrooms.
Hard-core carnivores have four steaks to choose from, all Black Angus beef from Creekstone Farms in Kansas. Only the ribeye is aged—dry, for 28 days. “The cooking is key,” Arifai says. “Slowly, gently, with just the right amount of salt.” My 14-ounce strip steak was impeccably beefy and robust.
We dined at Daryl before its new pastry chef, Michael Corcoran, late of Ursino in Union, was in the saddle. Arifai’s own desserts are none too shabby. The profound flavor of his flourless chocolate cake results from nothing more than eggs, a touch of sugar and 65 percent-cacao Belgian chocolate. “It’s for chocoholics like me,” Arifai says. Semi-frozen mocha mousse delivers intense hits of espresso, chocolate and hazelnut. Cheesecake is cream cheese based, but its lemon-zest sauce and fig “caviar” (fig seeds) in caramel are anything but ho-hum deli.