Late last year, I had the privilege of devouring a 7 course chef’s tasting menu at one of Montclair, NJ’s best restaurants, Restaurant Passionné. The heart and soul of Restaurant Passionné is Chef Michael Carrino. Chef Carrino is a classically trained chef having studied at the C.I.A. (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, NY. Chef Carrino is also a local celebrity having appearing on The Food Network’s “Chopped” (he was the winner of his episode), NBC’s “The Today Show”, and the New York Times to name a few.
The menu at Restaurant Passionné reflects Chef Carrino’s C.I.A. training, his Italian-American heritage and the fact that he is a product of the Garden State. Chef Carrino prides himself on using locally sourced meats and produce. In fact, during the winter he offers an indoor farmer’s market at the restaurant. He is also known to use the whole animal. Chef Carrino does not waste any part of the animal. I have been to Restaurant Passionné a few times in the past and have loved each of my meals there. So when I was invited to partake in this meal, I jumped at the opportunity. Chef Carrino had recently completed some cosmetic renovations of the restaurant, which included some fresh paint, an update of the restaurant’s artwork & and a tweaking of the menu. So this meal was a kind of reveal of the recent updates.
I am not going to go into minute detail about every dish because overall the meal was unbelievable! Instead, I would just like to touch on some highlights. Chef Carrino’s deconstructed caprese salad with basil ice cream was a real eye opener. A traditional caprese salad is fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, a drizzle of olive oil, sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper. Chef Carrino’s take used these elements but with a twist. Instead of fresh mozzarella, he used burrata, which is fresh mozzarella wrapped around a velvety filling of cream and pieces of mozzarella. If you’ve never tried this cheese it is worth the trouble finding it and devouring it! The tomatoes Chef Carrino used were confit-ed, which pretty much means that they were slowly cooked in oil. This gentle cooking really concentrates the fresh flavor of the tomato. For the basil, instead of using basil leaves Chef Carrino made a basil ice cream that was off the charts good. A few other components of the dish included a fried basil leaf, a smear of pesto and two skinny pieces of grilled bread, all great accompaniments to this wonderful dish.
Meatballs are a part of many cultures. Chef Carrino put an interesting Southern Europe meets North Africa meets Asia spin on his meatball dish. The meatballs themselves were a beef and pork combination. I am a big advocate on having at least two meats in any meatballs. To me, a just beef meatball has a boring flavorful profile. With addition of other meats, the meatball becomes more complex and the flavors are more interesting. The two meatballs were served over parmesan polenta. The polenta was very creamy and refined. There was roast pork demi-glace that made its way around the polenta in a thin stream. The demi-glace was super rich with a wonderful porky flavor. Directly on top of the meatballs were a splash of two sauces, a tomato butter sauce and a spiced yogurt. The tomato butter sauce was soft and smooth, with a subtle tomato flavor. The sauce had a perfect balance of tomato to butter. But what really blew my socks off about this dish was the spicy yogurt. For an Italian-American, this was an unexpected twist to an otherwise Italianesque dish. The spicy yogurt was velvety but with a little pop of curry spiciness. I loved Chef Carrino’s inventiveness with this dish. This is one of those dishes that masterfully bring cultures together.
The main course of the evening was seared skate wing. To be honest, that was the first time I ate skate; and after scoffing it all down, I had to ask myself why I never ate it sooner. It was served over Napa cabbage and broccoli rabe and drizzled around the edge of the plate was a Thai curry-shellfish sauce. The Napa cabbage and broccoli rabe were an interesting combination that melded perfectly together. The Thai curry-shellfish sauce had a subtle bite and was perfectly matched to the vegetable and protein on the plate. But the skate was the star of that dish. It was a thin piece of meat, but with a very meaty consistency.
There were two desserts that were presented to us, a poached pear with rum raisin ice cream and chocolate nibs and a chocolate soufflé. The poached pear was solid dessert. I especially loved those little chocolate nibs. They are a powerful burst of concentrate chocolate.
But for me, that chocolate soufflé was absolutely divine! I have had Restaurant Passionné’s soufflé every time I’ve dined there and have yet to be disappointed. In fact, it gets better and better. It is chocolate heaven in a ramekin with a dusting of powdered sugar.
While we were enjoying our dessert, Chef Carrino came to the table to take a break from cooking this superb marathon meal. He told us about himself and what his new vision and direction for Restaurant Passionné are. Chef Carrino is passion personified. He loves what his does and he loves making people happy by partaking in the fruits of labor. Chef Carrino has a lot to offer to the world of culinary arts in New Jersey and beyond. So keep your eye out for Chef Carrino in the future. In the meantime get yourself down to Restaurant Passionné and treat yourself to an unforgettable dining experience.
77 Walnut Street
Montclair, NJ 07042-4026
Living to eat,