Sunday, February 5, 2012

Short Rib Sandwich - Taos, East Rutherford, New Jersey

Taos is a Bar/Restaurant in one of the residential areas a short drive from Giant's Stadium. I've had the occasion to grab a business lunch there twice in the past three months, and had the same dish both times, which, I think, can reveal a lot about a restaurant. I'm talking, of course, about the Beef Short Rib sandwich...

Taos, is a decent enough stop for a work lunch outing, but the place seems to have a little bit of an identity crisis. The name and the decor is Asian themed combined with a dose of American/European pub styling. The look and feel seems to imply that the menu is going to be Asian-Fusion oriented- however, the menu appears to be more of a mash-up of styles rather than a fusion. There are dishes that are distinctly Asian, others distinctly Italian/Mediterranean, a steakhouse style selection of steaks and American pub-style food, and even a tapas menu. The "Asian fusion" idea just doesn't seem to be evident in the individual plates- but lives, rather in the variety of dishes offered. The menu is not overly long, but it does seem somewhat unfocused- looking at the menu, I don't get a sense of what Taos is all about.

That said, the food itself is certainly of above average quality, and seems priced appropriately (perhaps a little high for the dinner menu- but almost all of the lunch menu is below $9 not counting drinks). There is clearly good thought process behind the food on the lunch menu- clearly evident in the dish I've had on two occasions- the Beef Short Rib sandwich.

This sandwich starts with a good quality long sandwich roll. The roll is lined with a few sweet potato fires, then piled high with sliced braised short rib in a rich, sweet and savory gravy, then topped with gruyere cheese and cole slaw. The sandwich is very rich and heavy, with deep dark flavors from the gravy and the meat dominating. The richness is complemented well by the sweet component of the gravy- which is best described as halfway between a beef gravy and a barbecue sauce. This sauce ties in well with the starchy-sweet of the fries. All the richness and tender soft components need a balance- that's where the slaw comes in- adding a little crunch and acidity. I could not specifically pick out the gruyere - so I assume that it melted into and became a part of the gravy/sauce. I would go so far as to say that the gruyere was not entirely necessary.

The real smart part of this dish is actually the pasta salad served as a side. Even with the slaw, the sandwich is still very rich and very heavy. The salad serves as a foil for this. It is a very straightforward, simple salad- penne rigate pasta, chopped tomato, black olives, and a generous amount of basil dressed dressed with a little oil and vinegar. The salad is light and acidic, with the herbal and sweet components of the basil as the star. The acidity of the dressing, and that lightness is exactly what you need to break up the deep dark, heavier world the sandwich lives in.

The other criticism I will make is about consistency- I've had this sandwich twice, and while it was very good both times, it was different enough that I noticed- the second time I had more meat, but was hard pressed to find the sweet potato fries- I had significantly more of them the first time, and it changed the balance of the dish - not in a bad way, but I could tell it was different.

In general, I would return to Taos- there is enough interesting items on the menu, and at a quality level I can appreciate. On the down side, it seems that the restaurant doesn't have a clear vision of who they are and what they are about - I have yet to see anything distinctly "Tao's" from them. I also feel that their business centers more on their bar and the tapas menu than on the sit-down meal service. Each time I have been there, the dining room is fairly quiet, but the bar is always busy. Perhaps they are trying to be a more upscale  Manhattan restaurant, but miss the mark for lack of clarity, and some minor consistency issues. It is clear that their kitchen knows how to prepare good food. I would like to see a more focused and distinct sense of identity to really bring them up to the level I believe they are striving for.

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