The words “supper club” in the full name of this buoyant Cranford BYO made me picture a swank Café Society haunt like Manhattan’s old Stork Club, with patrons in tuxedos or black dresses and pearls sipping champagne. That’s not what owners Jim and Andrea Carbine had in mind when they opened 100 Steps Raw Bar and Supper Club in January.
“In the Midwest, every small town has a supper club, a restaurant on Main Street,” Andrea, who was born in Minnesota and moved a lot as a child, told me on the phone after my visits. “They’re community driven, and everyone feels welcome. I wanted to bring that homey feeling to Cranford, while focusing on fresh, mostly Jersey seafood, which you don’t see enough of away from the Shore.”
The Carbines have a penchant for puzzling names. Their first restaurant, A Toute Heure (“at any hour” in French) is a fine farm-to-table New American. It stands across Centennial Avenue from its new sib, a journey of about 100 steps. The Carbines live another 100 paces away. In their backyard garden, they grow a lot of the produce used in their restaurants.
Andrea, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) in Manhattan, manages both 100 Steps and A Toute Heure, which opened in 2007 as an early farm-to-table exponent. “I was originally a chef,” she said, “but I like being hands-on and big picture, which in Jersey is our incredible bounty of produce and seafood.”
The 10-stool wooden raw bar and its deft, black-aproned shucker provide a focal point. Wooden tables without tablecloths are well spaced. Light pours in from the long row of windows facing Centennial Avenue. Wherever you sit, you can usually choose from four East Coast and four West Coast oysters, all plump and supremely fresh. In my visits, we enjoyed sweet, squishy Samish Bay oysters from Washington State’s Puget Sound and South Jersey’s firmer, more tangy Cape May Salts, the house’s top seller. Recently 40 North oysters from Barnegat Bay have been added to the list. No wonder 100 Steps’ buck-a-shuck happy hours are thronged.
Après oysters, the sure hand of executive chef Kara Decker takes charge. The lifelong Cranford resident—another International Culinary Center alum—oversees the kitchens of both restaurants. “My grandfather was an executive chef and hotelier in Switzerland and Germany,” she told me. “I learned a lot from him, and I knew I just wanted to cook and create dishes. I love being in the kitchen.”
Decker, 37, has a gift for turning familiar foods, like meatballs, into something special. She combines beef from Pat LaFrieda with chorizo from Pork King Sausage in the Bronx to create meatballs in which the two meats harmonize. She serves them in a complex tomato-based, parmesan-deepened sofrito.
She tweaks seviches and crudos with similar elan. A recent fluke seviche was made with red onion, fresh corn, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice, clam juice and crumbled peanuts. A scallop crudo was marinated in lemon-sherry-ginger vinegar with chopped fennel, fennel fronds and toasted sesame seeds. Both were brisk and delicious.
For her irresistible clam-belly sandwich on brioche bun, Decker chars unpeeled avocados on the plancha (griddle), purées the smoky pulp and spreads it on the bottom bun. She works bits of house-made preserved lemon into a thick, herbaceous chimichurri to slather on the top bun. Working with these and other ingredients, she constructs varied settings for “whatever’s fresh that day” from her seafood provider.
Complicating matters in a good way are Decker’s changing “boards,” such as a house-made burrata filled with ricotta, served with fresh figs and prosciutto, and salumi from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack.
“A quarter of my diners don’t get the small-plates concept, but the rest are into it, and I am, too,” Decker told me. “My first kitchen job was at Bobby Flay’s Bolo in Manhattan, with a tapas menu. I love the scale and creativity of these focused little dishes. They’re so much more interesting to make or to eat than an entrée with a meat and two sides. I love it when my diners order a bunch of small plates and share.”
Still, it would be a shame to bypass Decker’s entrée-sized plates. Octopus from the Aegean is tenderized for 90 minutes in olive oil in a 425-degree Dutch oven. Then it marinates in a tandoori spice mix made for her by Spice Hut in Westfield. Finally, it’s charred on the plancha. The “octo,” as Decker calls it, comes out unusually tender and tasty. A zesty dressing of Greek yogurt with chopped mild chilies and mint from the Carbines’ garden makes the perfect complement.
Cioppino was a highlight of one of my meals. It can be served in a big bowl for one person or divided into smaller bowls for everyone to savor and slurp. “Seafood stews are a showcase for your best shellfish—clams, calamari, scallops, shrimp, all added to the pot in stages so they don’t get tough,” Decker said. “This recipe is a more tomatoey variation on A Toute Heure’s bouillabaisse.” Decker’s shellfish stock is supercharged—made with whole mussels, which she strains out of the finished stock and discards. Those mussels are not sacrificed in vain.
The kitchen will also divide Decker’s five seasonal pastas, “all hand rolled in-house,” she said. I liked the pici—“long, fat strands, like spaghetti, but with no egg,” as Decker described them. The firm pasta stood up to its full-flavored duck ragù. The dish’s brilliant stroke is what Decker calls “its crispy bits,” made by pulsing crackly, dehydrated duck skin in a food processor with house-made bread crumbs, adding olive oil, salt and pepper, and sprinkling it over the dish.
Dessert could be a cheese board from Brooklyn’s Saxelby Cheesemongers. But if, like me, you sometimes crave the soulful satisfaction of chocolate, get the brownie. If it’s still on the menu—topped with chocolate mousse, caramel, smoked cocoa or other intriguing caprices—the however-many steps to your car will feel like a glide.Click here to leave a comment