Zod Arifai is a man of ironclad convictions, which is why he’s both sole owner and executive chef of Blu—Montclair’s temple of exceptional food at everyday prices. After paying his dues in the 1990s at Bouley and Aureole in New York and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, Arifai opened Juniper in Lyndhurst to raves, only to lose his shirt to what he describes as a less-than-sterling partner, making him permanently leery of business copilots.
Since Blu opened in 2005, Arifai has spurned feelers from international restaurant groups and shrugged off dazzling press. He could make it anywhere but prefers to rule his own kitchen—a tangle of dark hair in his eyes as he squints down at meal orders for Blu and his other restaurant, the adjacent, more casual, and even less expensive Next Door. He has help in the kitchen, but he’s basically a one-man band. Yet if he gets worn down, you would never know it by the food.
Next Door is the drop-by-anytime place Arifai, 45, intended Blu to be. But Blu quickly took on a life of its own, driven by customer enthusiasm for his more ambitious efforts. The entrées on Blu’s vest-pocket menu top out at $25. A $10 appetizer of pristine, barely cooked bay scallops served with shaved fennel and a creamy, balanced lemon purée could have been candy, not only in terms of size and (gentle) sweetness, but in the compulsive gobbling they inspired. A dusting of poppy seeds added contrasting crunch and an enhancing faint bitterness. Another well-balanced conception, the $10 risotto, was sharp (thanks to Pecorino Romano), sweet (with sun chokes), and woodsy (from truffle oil) in perfect proportion.
Blu occupies a narrow storefront that formerly housed Mango’s Reggae Café. The room tapers gradually as it recedes, which gave me a slightly dizzy feeling I associate with too much reggae. But you’re not here for the room, which is loud even at half-capacity despite the maroon and red acoustic tiles that line one long wall. Arifai (pronounced a-REE-fay) is no stranger to high decibels—he developed his palate in the ’80s while touring Europe as guitarist for a hard rock band called Bang.
“In Paris, my bandmates would go out to McDonalds,” he recalls, “and I would eat at Joël Robuchon, alone.”
You can see Robuchon’s influence in the clarity of flavors in each dish. Like Robuchon and all exacting chefs, Arifai demands a lot from his excellent purveyors. “I get in a fight with my fish guy every single day to keep him on his toes,” he says, only half kidding. You’ll thank him for his vigilance when you taste his transcendent appetizers. The rich coconut-chili broth in which his luscious seafood dumplings swim had just enough gingery heat to spur the appetite while allowing the delicate flavors of salmon, cod, and mahi-mahi in the dumplings to shine through.
Sweetbreads, likewise, are a revelation—cooked sous vide for a creamy interior, then crisped in the pan to a buttery brown. Arifai teases out the glands’ affinities for sweetness with a red-cabbage-and-apple slaw and a swath of deliciously rich raisin purée.
If there’s a relative weakness in the starters, it’s Blu’s salads. Baby arugula with roasted cauliflower and feta was that and nothing more; a roasted beet and goat-cheese salad also lacked spark.
The quality and price of Arifai’s food draws a cadre of dedicated regulars. On one night, I heard two separate tables lamenting that the “old duck,” which featured a fig and red-wine emulsion, had vanished from the menu. I didn’t have the chance to try the old, but the $24 “new duck,” with braised napa cabbage, caramelized turnips, and a subtle cinnamon broth, was underseasoned, despite the exquisitely cooked and gamy breast meat (which the chef says is best eaten medium). Arifai went back to the “old duck,” then introduced a version with caramelized turnips and Swiss chard. By the time you read this, he may be on to something new.
Underseasoned is not a word you could hang on his hanger steak. Arifai recommends it medium rare, and medium rare is exactly how it arrived—with a crispy char and a luscious pink interior. Crumbled bleu cheese under the steak slices offered a pleasing counterpoint to the earthy richness of the meat, along with poached potatoes sautéed in butter and a slab of portobello so flavorful and juicy it could have passed for beef. The price: $22. I’ve paid twice that for steaks half as good.
A mahi-mahi special arrived in a delicious sesame crust, the fillet nestled between a foundation of black beans laced with peanuts and a crowning shower of chopped scallions. The meaty fish withstood the barrage of accompaniments, but it was more a tussle than a tango.
“I was never into subtle flavors,” Arifai explains—not entirely true, judging by the ravishing fillet of cod with chopped almonds and dollops of cauliflower purée that allowed the clean, delicate flavor of the fish to hold center stage.
Given Arifai’s individualism, it should come as no surprise that he is his own pastry chef. His black-olive cake is made with a purée of candied olives, lending it an unexpected and delicious pungency.
Unfortunately, the accompanying orange mousse and basil ice cream had an aroma and aftertaste reminiscent of the cosmetics aisle of a health-food store. A better bet is hazelnut-mocha parfait, served on coffee sponge cake with caramelized bananas. Arifai nailed the frozen mousse, and the coffee sponge offered savory and textural counterpoint. This triumph will set you back a bruising $8.
In a big-budget restaurant with partners to please and high rent to pay, prices like these would be pipe dreams. “I never looked at it from a ‘business’ point of view,” Arifai admits. “I’m not becoming rich here; it’s more to make myself happy.” In so doing, he makes many others happy, too.Click here to leave a comment