Pickled mustard seeds!
Those unassuming little buggers disarmed me and swiped my heart, as I took a second, then a third bite of the octopus terrine at 100 Steps in Cranford. More of a loose layering than a formal terrine, it is all centered around tender slices of octopus set in a puree of castelvetrano olives, rings of fennel and pretty red-veined sorrel. It’s lovely, to be sure, and technically precise. But then the pickled mustard seeds go snap, crackle and pop—big pop!—in the mouth as they power up the octopus, and a wow factor sets in.
100 Steps is marching to a different drummer, and it’s very much in sync with a new owner, new chef and new attitude on its menu.
It was sad and shocking late, last winter when original owners Andrea and Jim Carbine sold 100 Steps, the offspring of their first-born A Toute Heure, located a hundred paces up Centennial Avenue. Then, in May, the Carbines also sold ATH, as the elder restaurant was affectionately dubbed.
A sequel, without the original stars, is a dicey enough proposition.
But the new proprietor Jack Tagmouti and chef Joe Beninato at 100 Steps aren’t re-casts of anyone or anything. Sure, they’ve kept “pots”—mussels, in particular—on the menu, and also the concept of a raw bar at 100 Steps. But while the ingredients remain seasonally driven and from-the-farm fresh, the dishes, and particularly the details, play on plates with chic sophistication.
Small bites are especially captivating: There’s a compact grilled pork belly, topped with tiny-cube mango salsa and set atop a feisty kimchi emulsion that sizzles with spice.
There’s a high-toned lobster panzanella artfully composed around a circle of toasted sourdough that leverages heirloom tomatoes, pickled cukes, roasted-till-sweet red onions and a generous tail-plus-claw of primo lobster meat to their max. The binder? A lightly creamy, rich, but not over-the-top sauce that’s a riff on “green goddess.”
Even the watermelon salad, which is getting overworked and ho-hum these days, is refreshed in Beninato’s kitchen with the addition of beautifully bitter black radish, toasted walnuts and a resolutely nutty walnut vinaigrette playing off the peppery leaves of arugula.
The concept of the lime-marinated shrimp, served attractively kebab-style with heirloom cherry tomatoes, pale leaves of celery, lime green wasabi tobiko and a faint wash of mild Bloody Mary emulsion, is terrific. But the shrimp were overcooked, throwing the dish out of whack.
It was the house’s only miscue.
Mourning the old here? Fear not, for the Summer Mussel Pot, with juice-spurting Prince Edward Island mussels and roasted potatoes taking a bath in a chimichurri-spiked white-wine broth, does its predecessors proud.
The Summer Clam Pot, brightened by charred Jersey corn, pickled Fresno chilies and earthy criminis, is positively luxe in a creamy unifier of corn stock enriched by scallion butter. The sourdough bread that accompanies these pots in and of itself makes 100 Steps a destination.
Seafood is the driving force here, so we snagged the scallops, also with a New Jersey pedigree: Fried squash blossoms and grilled peaches were the obvious and happy co-stars here, but slivers of chili and a layer of corn pudding offered opposing counterpoints for the densely meaty, sweet scallops. Yet they didn’t own the plate—the spiced popcorn did. It was another pickled-mustard-seeds moment at 100 Steps, the surprise of texture that comes with a walloping taste and elevates a dish from fine to unforgettable.
But they’re not done with you yet, these new folks at 100 Steps.
Pastry chef Angie Fulton will make you forget you’ve eaten till your heart’s content and seduce you into a confectionery coma. Her banana pudding, with salted caramel and a vanilla wafer, makes the South rise in Cranford.
Her flourless chocolate cake, served with a scoop of blackberry icy-ice cream and a cunning meringue-y cookie, will lure you with its artful beauty and take you down for the count as you try to track wisps of lime and coconut through the eating process.
A rough-formed blueberry crostada is humble pie re-orchestrated to Carnegie Hall splendor.
But it was the mint chocolate chip ice cream, natural and clearly all about the fragrant herb’s ability to tango with dark chocolate, that kept my hand affixed to my spoon. Best ice cream ever? Yeah, it ranks way, way, up there.
The Carbines were loving, caring, all-in restaurant owners. Clearly they kept to their mission till their very last act at 100 Steps, when they gave custody of a landmark to professionals who get it—and will run with it.
100 Steps, 215 Centennial Avenue in Cranford. BYO. Lunch and dinner daily, except Mondays. 908-276-0153; 100stepsrawbar.com.