My wife and I went on a short trip to France this month. It’s a mix of a much needed vacation for my wife, and a family plus business trip for me. And yes, it isn’t a great combination since the vacation part gets short shrift, but this was our only time and opportunity. On our way out, we had a 24 layover in Newark, New Jersey (long story) and we decided we should eat something that we wouldn’t find readily in France. Being Californian, we figured we’d pick up some sushi – until we realized that Newark isn’t known for sushi, at all. (Yes, that was obvious in retrospect, but we were tired and jet-lagged). Instead, Newark is known for Portuguese food. That didn’t fit our original criteria too well, but we opted for a reframing – we’d be eating a Newark “terroir” meal.
We ended up at Iberia Peninsula Restaurant, mainly because it was still open by the time we got there. We balked at first because almost every dish hovered at around $20, and being from San Francisco, it’s tough (for us) to justify $19.95 for a plate of cod unless it’s sustainably caught, with a seasonal preparation featuring ingredients from farms we recognize, slow food blah blah. But we were hungry, and this was the only place open.
And by the end of the meal, we were ecstatic, full, and not really that much out of pocket. We had really had an amazing, and Newark “terroir” meal. We started with deep fried calamari, which were fresh and soft, with a softer breaded covering than the usual pub-fare crisp. We originally figured we would split the house-special parrilhada (seafood platter) for two, but then saw one delivered to another table, and realized we didn’t have 4 more Newark constructions workers there to help us eat it, so we shared a paella marinera.
Sure, it’s technically Spanish, not Portuguese, but we were in an “Iberian” restaurant…. The thing came in a metal bucket 2/3 the size of a champagne bucket, the top overflowing with lobster. There was so much lobster, it was as if we had ordered lobster for two, and paella for four. Oh, and the paella was full of mussels, clams, scallops and calamari too. Oh, and it was delicious. We tried packing it down with a bottle of Portuguese white wine, but there was no way we could not eat it all – we couldn’t even finish the lobster!
The waiter was just as much part of the experience as the food. Age indeterminate, he had salt and pepper hair and a perfectly understated way about him, the politeness and efficacy of Jeeves with the life-long-waiter appeal of a Parisian brasserie server. Every choice of ours was a perfect choice, but recommendations were made if asked. Affirmative was a slight nod and closing the eyes, all with a hint of a smile that indicated we were the smartest patrons in the room – or whoever he happened to be talking to at that moment.
I finished with a cappucino just to see the crusty guy behind the counter make one on the enormous espresso machine. We grabbed a cab to return to our hotel, with our tub of remaining paella in hand (really, a metal tub so we could reheat it at home if need be). We asked the cabbie on a whim if there was somewhere we could find some homeless people to give the food to. He didn’t blink – he knew that they were usually around the train station, and yes, Iberia always gives you too much food. We found a guy in a wheelchair, and I hefted the remaining meal into his hands, and then returned to our hotel, amazed at the experience we never expected to find in Newark, New Jersey.
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