The arrival of acclaimed chef Thomas Ciszak revives the vibe and stokes the sizzle at an atmospheric boîte on busy Route 4 in Paramus.
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Chakra gained some notoriety for two 2010 episodes of Real Housewives of New Jersey involving Danielle, a gangster acquaintance and Chakra’s parking lot. The Paramus restaurant has since become a pilgrimage destination for fans of the show. That’s hardly a reason to go, but this is: the arrival of new executive chef Thomas Ciszak.
If you’re a foodie, the name may be familiar. Ciszak established Copeland Restaurant at Morristown’s Westin Governor Morris Hotel as one of New Jersey Monthly’s 25 Best in the state. Now 39, he still oversees Copeland, where he hired chef Robert Trainor to replace him. But since last summer, when he became a partner in Chakra, much of his energy has been focused on the Paramus enterprise.
At first glance, Chakra is as enigmatic as its Sanskrit name, which in Hindu culture and yoga practice denotes what are thought to be the body’s seven energy zones. Chakra is a big brick box, but its ravishing interior resembles a Moroccan nightclub, with close to 200 seats, between the dining room and the lounge.
Its dizzyingly eclectic menu includes sushi, salads, pasta, elegant fish dishes, brawny steaks and even Wiener schnitzel (Ciszak was born and trained in Germany). When Chakra launched six years ago, the food had Indian and Asian accents, and the restaurant name made more sense. “We decided to remain as Chakra,” Ciszak explains, “because there’s a lot of name recognition.”
The name may be a red herring (which, by the way, isn’t on the menu), yet somehow the disparate elements merge into an engaging, sometimes exuberant, eating experience. “I don’t get stuck in cuisine labels,” Ciszak says. “I want to focus on what people love to eat. I just want it to taste great.”
The chef’s formative job, he says, was cooking at the two-Michelin-star Résidence restaurant in Essen, Germany, “Europe’s first high-end fusion-cuisine kitchen, influenced by what was going on in New York and San Francisco,” as he describes it. “Résidence taught me how to be creative and individual and still true to the ingredients. For a chef, it was a new kind of freedom and very exciting.”
There’s plenty of excitement on the new Chakra menu. My waiter justifiably raved about Ciszak’s Parma-ham sushi roll, prosciutto rolled around spicy tuna. Terrific horseradish-crusted crab cakes, a customer favorite imported from Copeland’s menu, are pan-seared in clarified butter. They’re also offered as an entrée. Ciszak’s lusciously tender grilled octopus is accompanied by an arugula pesto that is more tangy and peppery than traditional basil pesto. Yellowfin tuna tartare reclines in a fragrant and flavorful coconut-lemongrass-kaffir-lime broth.
Chakra’s non-seafood starters are equally tempting. The charcuterie platter of mostly house-cured meats, includes luscious pancetta from Hungarian Mangalitsa pigs raised on Sussex County’s Mosefund Farm. Tamarind-ginger-glazed chicken nuggets, another Copeland carpetbagger, is a small plate served in the lounge but also available in the dining room. If ever a dish triumphed over its moniker, this is it: The chef deep fries bite-size chunks of breast meat, bathes them in a perfectly balanced upgrade of sweet-and-sour sauce, and serves them in a lidded bamboo basket à la Shanghai steamed buns.
Chakra’s seasonal pastas are served as entrées and also as very generous starters. Shrimp fettuccine fra diavolo combines house-made pasta with delicately sweet San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh basil and a touch of heat, not from the usual red pepper flakes, but from Thai green chilies. A wintry rigatoni with rich braised short ribs packs some heat as well and is one of the menu’s most popular entries.
I can vouch for every one of Ciszak’s ample meat dishes. His TC Steak, another Copeland crossover, is a full pound of deeply beefy Colorado sirloin dry aged a whopping 40 days (instead of the more typical 21 to 28) for $38. It’s grilled to a light char and finished with butter “the New York steakhouse way,” says the chef. I scraped off the vinegary house steak sauce but wolfed down the side of spinach creamy with truffle butter.
Ciszak’s petit filet and Berkshire pork belly confit entrée pairs a 7-ounce Angus filet mignon with a just-fatty-enough hunk of belly. It comes with a savory, autumnal accompaniment of roasted squash, heirloom apples, quince and a dash of earthy Austrian pumpkinseed oil. The chef’s Australian lamb loin gets an aromatic Sicilian twist with roasted red peppers, raisins, black olives, shallots, garlic and thyme.
The chef is justly proud of his Wiener schnitzel—veal tenderloin “breaded just before frying and fried in clarified butter—no oil—so it cooks golden brown and crispy,” he says. “I love it as a during-the-week dish, nothing fancy, just really well made and homey.” Ciszak’s chili-cinnamon-glazed Chilean sea bass is more festive. Another Copeland hit, it involves a filet marinated for eight to ten hours in sake, miso and cinnamon.
Then it’s pan seared and sauced with the reduced marinade. With this delish fish comes a skewer of hefty shrimp wrapped with potato and poached in a nage of lemongrass, ginger, fish stock and butter. “Even diners who never order fish love this one,” says Ciszak. I can see why. The only meat entrée that disappointed was a curiously flavorless breast of chicken from Goffle Road Farms in Wyckoff. The bland bird was no match for its sensational pudding-like cornbread-chestnut stuffing.
Why so many dishes imported from Copeland? Ciszak explains, “When I announced that I’d be leaving Copeland for Chakra, my diners started asking if they’d be able to order their favorite Copeland’s dishes there: my Chilean sea bass, tuna tartare, crabcakes, TC Steak, and brioche bread pudding. Well, restaurants are part of the hospitality field, and everything a good restaurateur does is done for the diners. I want to give mine what they want to eat. A chef has to balance originality with popularity.”
Ciszak recruited a terrific Jersey pastry chef, Robert Gonnerman, who is best known for his cheesecake and chocolate dome at Weehawken’s now-shuttered Arthur’s Landing. Gonnerman’s Chakra desserts were more delicate but no less delicious. He is no longer at Chakra, however. Ciszak has taken over pastry duties, and I did not have the opportunity to taste his desserts. I wouldn’t be too worried about his capabilities, though.
I did finally make sense of the name Chakra. Looking up the body’s seven energy zones, I saw that manipura, the third chakra, rules the stomach. That’s the one Ciszak delights with nearly every dish.
144 Rt 4 E
New American cuisine, featuring grilled octopus with sun-dried tomatoes, grilled onion, and mushrooms; port-braised short ribs with foie gras; and caramelized pineapple tart