NEW JERSEY WEEKLY DESK DINING OUT; Janice Beckons By DAVID CORCORAN
HO HO KUS -- SOME restaurants, like some people, exist in their own world. Others are extroverts. Janice, a 65-seat bistro that took up residence here two years ago, is so outgoing it could just about run for mayor.
Ho Ho Kus -- spelled that way by the Postal Service, though locals prefer two hyphens -- is an affluent, somewhat reserved bedroom borough whose pleasant functional downtown has never had the fabric or street life of neighboring Ridgewood. Janice may change that through sheer force of personality.
It is open all day, six days a week, with plans afoot to make that seven. It inhabits a narrow storefront space with the telltale cramped booths, long counter and chrome stools of a 1940's luncheonette -- which it was, until Janice Tinari and her husband, John, decided to set aside their careers (he was a real estate analyst, she was a caterer) and create an upscale, bring-your-own bistro.
They peeled off layers of moldering tile to expose a nearly pristine hardwood floor, stained the kitschy pine paneling to a lustrous shade of cherry-mahogany, brought in tin ceilings from Manhattan's Lower East Side, hung an outsize French clock on a back wall, and set the room aglow with candlelight and fresh flowers. Their daughter Leah, a Brooklyn artist of some renown, painted a front wall with a giant, exuberant faux-naïf mural of three dozen family members, friends and relatives.
By now, the old luncheonette is as beckoning as a hearth, and at weekend brunch and dinner it can be hard to get a table.
Mr. Tinari -- who grew up on Arthur Avenue, still the Italian-food capital of the Bronx -- runs the front of the house with the sparkplug energy of a high school soccer coach. Mrs. Tinari, also a Bronx native (though the family has lived here for decades), presides over the kitchen and an open grill behind the old lunch counter.
Though the restaurant's literature speaks of Mediterranean influences, her cooking is straight-ahead American with predictable Italian touches, as homey and unthreatening as the Johnny Mathis and early Beatles vinyl that flows from the sound system.
At its best, it is very good, as in a bright and beautiful salad of impeccably fresh mesclun greens, sliced peaches, raspberries, goat cheese and candied pecans. The ingredients are bound, and their sweetness tamed, by a simple raspberry vinaigrette.
Two other salads are just as fine: mesclun with goat cheese, macadamia nuts and lovely fresh figs, and spinach with mandarin orange slices, dried cranberries and a heap of fine Gorgonzola. You will note that on paper, each list of ingredients looks just a bit much. But Mrs. Tinari clearly knows just when to stop. She has a fine knack for offsetting flavors and textures.
Oysters from the raw bar, well handled by a muscular young expert behind the counter, are also tinglingly fresh. A huge bowl of lobster bisque has the opposite effect: it's doubtless homemade, but the flavor is canned, and the creaminess becomes numbing.
Mediterranean ingredients do surface, in the form of full-bodied, garlicky hummus, slightly smoky baba ghanouj, feta cheese and triangles of fresh pita bread on antipasto platters. Grilled shrimp and calamari may be more Adriatic than Mediterranean, but they are terrific, with a rich complement of smokiness.
With one exception, main courses are more New Jersey than anything else. There are the usual veal chop, the steak with fries, the great slab of chicken breast, the aircraft-carrier-sized platters laden with the predictable pastas. (A great many of these are in the form of off-menu specials that must be listed by the waiter and memorized by the customer, a practice that ought to be prohibited by local ordinance.) The exception is Nile perch, which comes not from the Nile but from Lake Victoria in Central Africa. It is a mild tender fish, served filleted in a plate-covering slab; it would benefit from more oregano in the breading.
The veal chop is a good-sized cut, flavorful if not well trimmed, helped along by a sharp green-peppercorn sauce and porcini mushrooms. While the butterflied chicken breast has little flavor of its own, it does get a hearty, vinegary overlay of artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes. Beef short ribs have plenty of flavor, but their stringy, fatty texture suggests that they are not of the highest quality.
As for those pastas, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe is standard fare, and a whole lobster with mussels over cappellini in Fra Diavolo sauce is simply too much food, more a chore than a pleasure. I did like tender ravioli in an earthy, creamy porcini sauce.
The best desserts are Key lime pie and pecan pie. Each is fresh, restrained in its sweetness and served with a tempting cloud of whipped cream. Apple pie, zabaglione with fresh berries and a highly caloric cheesecake are all middle of the road. Something called affogato moka d'oro turns out to be a World War II-era sundae dish, filled with ice cream or gelato. You get a demitasse of espresso and pour it over the ice cream. A warning here. It is a mess.
Service here is uneven. The pace can be hectic, and the young servers have an overeager "Know what you're having, guys?" mode that can grow wearying. Worse, they sometimes vanish into cluelessness; one of them asked me how I wanted the short ribs done, when there is only one answer: braised, stewed and falling off the bone. Fortunately, John and Janice Tinari do an impressive job of holding everything together. As he later told me, proudly but ruefully, the restaurant has become a 100-hour-a-week proposition for them. That is 100 hours well spent. I hope they can keep it up."
Janice a Bistro 23 Sheridan Avenue, Ho Ho Kus, NJ
SMOKING -- Not allowed.
WINE LIST -- Bring your own.
RECOMMENDED DISHES -- Green salads, grilled shrimp and calamari, raw oysters, Middle Eastern antipasto; ravioli with porcini sauce; Key lime pie, pecan pie.