SPRING CALLS for getting out of a rut. And while a weekend B&B in the country may be the ideal retreat after a long winter in the city, a short excursion over to New Jersey for some eats can fit the bill, too.
Five bucks on the High Speed Line will get you a scenic round-trip ride over the river to Collingswood. Here, there's a thriving row of restaurants within walking distance along the main drag. Beginning in May, there's a farmers market on Saturday mornings.
Be sure to sit on the river side of the train for the full effect - it's a bit of a thrill to feel as though you could tumble in the water instantaneously or almost catch a fly ball passing over Campbell's Field.
So, I enrolled some tasting travelers and headed east. We did some window shopping on our walk and made note that The Pop Shop Cafe and Creamery would be fun for a trip with kids.
About one-half mile from the station is a Cuban and Nuevo Latino restaurant, Casona, now in its third year. With Casona, partners Mark and Michele Infantado and Lawrence Grillo (formerly of Philadelphia's Tierra Colombiana and Mixto) have brought a Latin feeling to the 'burbs.
Casona means big house, and this 1902 beauty has a restored wrap-around porch that is perfect for watching Main Street life. Collingswood is a dry town, so you'll be packing wine on this journey.
For starters I was dubious about the Yuca Frita ($8.95), but I was outvoted. Knowing how starchy yucca is, I didn't think it would work as fries. But the end result was much better than I anticipated. True, these could never duplicate potatoes for that caramelized crunch, but they did have a crisp exterior, and the accompanying guacamole and a garlic sauce made the dish.
Cuban Springroll ($6.95) features pork, ham, cheese and mojo. The spring roll wrappers were crunchy, and this combo was an example of the "nuevo," but I found the traditional Empanada Queso ($6.95) superior as morsel-in-a-casing.
The Ensalada Citrica ($9.95), or Citrus Salad, was a disappointment. As a veteran "rubber necker" in a restaurant, I saw many a delicious-looking salad on other diners' tables. I should have taken better notice of what they were ordering, but was taken by the description on the menu of hearts of palm, avocado and orange slices with cranberry vinaigrette. The dressing was too harsh, and the salad was loaded with those soft canned black olives.
While the Vegetarian Platter ($15.95) certainly held no appeal to me, the noncarnivore of the group enjoyed the plantains, beans, rice and vegetables. Personally, I would have liked an accompanying sauce to liven things up and attention to presentation to make it seem less like a clump of sides.
Ropa Vieja ($16.95) is a very traditional Cuban dish. It translates into "old clothes," which doesn't sound very appetizing but certainly is descriptive of this dish of seasoned shredded meat. The meat is cooked to the point of, well, old ragged clothes. Accompanied by creole sauce, white rice and plantains, it was worth a try for authenticity, but not a keeper.
More to our liking was another traditional dish, Lechon Asado ($17.95).
The slow-roasted, citrus-marinated pork was also shredded, but the texture and flavor was much more appealing than the flank steak.
The stellar dish of the evening was a Nuevo Latino composition of Seared Striped Bass ($25.95) served over a scallop-and-corn risotto that was just exquisite in its texture and flavor. The creaminess of the risotto was accented with a colorful medley of pickled peppers.
I was disappointed that the Tres Leches cake wasn't available for dessert, but to soften the blow our waiter comped an additional flan so that we could try all three flavors. Although the chocolate and coconut had merit, we all agreed that the traditional caramel ($6.95) didn't need any embellishments.
Service is slow, although attentive and personable when you have a waiter's attention. Since this was a leisurely paced event, it was less of an annoyance than it would be ordinarily. And a walk back to the station is the perfect digestivo. *