A Taste of NICO Kitchen + Bar

Newark, NJ

NICO Kitchen & Bar is an hidden Italian gem nestled in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, NJ. The restaurant is owned and operated by Culinaire and its acclaimed Executive Chef is Ryan DePersio.

Once you enter NICO Kitchen & Bar, you instantly feel a shift in the atmosphere as the decor exudes a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Although the restaurant is spacious with many tables and a tall ceiling, you still get an intimate feel from the dim lights and warm colors that bounce off the walls.

A friend and I were sat in a comfy, leather bonded booth with a spacious table just ready to be filled with delectable plates of food. The waitress explained the menu to us, as she was very knowledgeable about the menu and made several suggestions.

We ordered an array of several dishes coursed throughout our meal experience. For the first course, we ordered Pomegranate Chili Wings, Lamb Meatballs, and Polenta Fries.

The flavors of the wings with creamy gorgonzola fonduta served my palette well with the  tartness of gorgonzola, light sweetness of pomegranate, and a hint of chili spice. The succulent lamb meatballs was served in a savory tomato sauce with roasted red peppers and crumbled feta cheese. Lastly, the toasted polenta fries was golden and crisp with a creamy interior.

NICO Kitchen & Bar has a brick oven and as noted by the server that the pizza dough was a family recipe often tested and perfected so I had to try to it. So we ordered the Magherita, a classic favorite with fresh ingredients.

For our third course we ordered PEI Mussels, Grilled Lamb Chops, and Buttermilk Baked Chicken. As the entrees arrived, the aromas were so inviting. The mussels were pan roasted in spicy shellfish broth with Sardinian fregola, fresh herbs, and served with a char grilled bread to dredge up the rest. The chicken was sous-vided then baked with a black truffle pesto, accompanied with broccolini and whipped potatoes. The grilled soy-paprika lamb chops were my absolute favorite, the textures of eggplant puree, wilted spinach, and sauteed turnips served as mouthwatering adventure.

Lastly, after eating all of this delicious food I was determined to make room for dessert. We ordered the chocolate sour cream cake and sundae. I must say that I’ve been to several restaurants and pretty much always have an idea of what the dessert is going to look like but not this time. The plate presentation was both surprising and appealing. Pure genius!

Come check out NICO Kitchen & Bar for both lunch and dinner. It is ideal for large functions, after-work cocktails, or an intimate date. Great food for fair prices.

NICO Kitchen + Bar
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
One Center St., Newark, NJ
Reservations accepted  by-phone or opentable.com  
Free Parking with Validation
Lunch Hours: Mon.-Fri.: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Bar Menu available 3-5 p.m.
Dinner Hours: Mon.-Thurs.: 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat.: 5-11 p.m.

– Isaiah Kelsey


Soul Flavors with Chopped Champion Wayne

Jersey City, NJ

A sunny afternoon I decided to take a walk down Grove Street in Jersey City and noticed a sign that read “TV’s Food Network Chopped Champion Chef Wayne” in bright colors right outside the window. Above it the awning read, Soul Flavors and it sparked the interest my friend and I to walk over to check out the restaurant.

As we proceeded to walk into the intimate 35-seat restaurant, we were warmly greeted by the Floor Manager, Willy who sat my guest and I promptly with a menu. As we reviewed the menu, it was apparent that it would be Soul Food but also had Caribbean dishes. The menu offered a large variety of appetizers, entrees, desserts, and even a $33 combo which seemed cost-efficeient as well as plentiful. The $33 combo included an appetizer, entree, side, and dessert. It is also noted that some entrees will take 25 minutes because they are made to order, which I could understand and appreciate.

Willy also served as our waiter who was ready to take our order. I decided on “Half & Half” [house made cornbread/biscuits]  as an appetizer, and for entree the Buttermilk Marinated Fried Chicken with sides Braised Collard Greens and Roasted Sweet Potatoes. My guest decided on the Buttermilk Marinated Chicken & Waffles [served with a maple cream reduction].

As we waited on my food, we were informed that it was a BYOB restaurant and that the nearest wine store was just across the street. I knew that the entrees that were ordered would take at least 25 minutes to be ready, as earlier noted. I ventured across the street to purchase a bottle of Relax Riesling and once returned the first course had just arrived.

The “Half & Half” was served warm with softened butter. Once I had taken my first bite of the biscuit it simply melted in my mouth with buttery and countless layers of flakiness. The cornbread, as I hoped favored a light yet dense pound cake with vibrant corn kernels nestled though out. It reminded me of great childhood memory, I was enticed and salivating for my entree.

       Once the entrees had arrived, I was awe by just the aromas and sight of succulent fried chicken, sweet smelling Belgian waffle, and mouth-watering side dishes. The chicken stared me down waiting for me to make the first move and I went in! Although I had eaten the chicken, I felt defeated because the moist, well-seasoned, crispy bird had brought me to its surrender. The BEST Fried Chicken I had ever had, so great it would make your mother jealous! As I tried the waffle it was  everything I ever wanted, sweet and moist inside yet crispy on the outside. The maple cream reduction complimented both the chicken and waffle so well. If that wasn’t enough both the collard greens and roasted sweet potatoes were great accompaniments to this well-orchestrated dish.

 I will frequently return to Soul Flavors for great food and genuine hospitality. It is recommended to make reservations at Soul Flavors via phone, fax, and their website, soulflavors.com as it attracts a wide demographic of all ages and races. It has caught the eye of Rapper Kanye West, where he hosted his own intimate birthday party and has listed Soul Flavors as his favorite New Jersey restaurant.

About The Chef:

Chef Wayne Lyons was featured on Food Network’s Chopped in 2010. Before his acclaimed fame, Queens native, had come from a rough lifestyle. He sparked his first interest in cooking as a child with making crepes and reading several cookbooks and magazines. From a young age to his adulthood he faced the worldly demons of drugs and alcohol, that almost took over his life. Once Wayne’s first child was born, he decided that it was time to turn his life around and “become a positive force in his son’s life”.

After Wayne got in himself back in order, luckily enough through his rough times he earned an architectural degree so he proceeded to continue doing that. After awhile, he grew uninterested and a family friend who worked with the Marriott Corporation introduced him to the culinary world. Wayne worked hard from bottom up to Executive Chef, eventually branching off into his catering business, Melange Caterers. He became very successful with his catering business, making great contacts. In 2007, he moved from Queens to Jersey City to open Soul Flavors, which started off rough because of the economy but as a result of him winning Chopped, it brought more business, great publicity, and a loyal customer base.

For more information about Wayne Lyons or Soul Flavors, visit soulfavors.com or come to the restaurant at 354 Grove Street Jersey City, NJ 07302. Call For Reservations at 201.217.3004 . Also follow him on Twitter @SoulChefWayne .

Thank You For Reading,

-Isaiah [@Urban_Foodie14]

Beyond The Apron: Rising Chef Vaughn Crenshaw

I recently spoke with my old colleague, Vaughn Crenshaw from Johnson & Wales University and he mentioned that he would be on Chopped, so of course I was excited for him. I decided to write about his story because not only do I believe in him but, to know him is to know his story.

Vaughn Crenshaw grew up in the city of Paterson, NJ, which others may consider “the hood,” he called it home. At the age of 9, culinary arts first sparked his interest when he saw Emeril Lagasse on Emeril Live. He thought “Who’s this BAM Guy! I want to do that.” So Vaughn decided that this might be something he might want to do as a career and something to make his family proud.

His family was surprised that he would be interested in cooking, since he experienced such a traumatic accident at the age of 4. Vaughn and his brother was in the kitchen one evening while his mother was frying chicken, one thing led to another and the pan flipped over on the two of them. Seventy percent of Vaughn’s body was third degree burned, it was miracle that they survived, according to the doctors whom didn’t think they would make it. The scars are very much visible and serves as a constant reminder from where he was then and where he’s going now.

At the age of 13, Vaughn’s mother kicked him out the house, leaving him to fend for himself on the streets of Paterson. He found an abandoned car where he laid his head nightly and would go to his friends for food and moral support. One evening while Vaughn was at his friend’s house, their mother had a fresh fish and he wanted an opportunity to cook a bit. From his memory of Emeril Live, he remembered how Emeril coated the fish with cornmeal but at that house they only had grits. So Vaughn got creative and coated the fish with grits, fried it, and came out with a great dish.

After months of living on the streets, he got in contact with his God parents who lived just across town in Hackensack, NJ where life was a lot better. Once Vaughn moved to this area it was a complete culture shock for him, especially once he was exposed to open biracial relationships. With Vaughn being socially deprived in his mind, it was almost unheard of.

As Vaughn adjusted at Hackensack High School, his friend suggested for him to join the football team. He was reluctant at first, but decided to try it. Vaughn ended up excelling in the game which seemed great but the power behind the tackle was built up anger from his past. In his mind it was a way to re-channel his negative energy and he also learned about teamwork.

Graduation was near and Vaughn received six full-ride football scholarships to several universities but in Vaughn’s mind he still wanted to cook. Unfortunately, those universities didn’t offer any culinary programs so he was bit stuck until Johnson & Wales University came to his high school. The college recruiter spoke about the university’s high culinary accolades and mentioned Emeril attended the university which immediately caught Vaughn’s attention. His grades weren’t greatest and his SATs weren’t the highest but, luckily for him at the time the university didn’t require SAT scores. Eventually, he applied, got accepted, and received financial aid from the state.

Once he started at Johnson & Wales, he hit the ground running with much passion. Vaughn moved forward to get his associate’s degree in Culinary Arts but then decided that he would stay at the university for another two years to receive his bachelor’s degree in Food Service Management. He learned a lot and made many great friends. Luckily for Vaughn, before graduation he had a job lined up back in Hackensack at Stony Hill Inn, where he worked at during breaks.

Vaughn returned to Stony Hill Inn, as the Asst. Banquet Chef making a lot more money than your average post grad. As a 22-year-old, he blew his money quickly on bottles, shopping, clothes, etc. Like most things it all came to an end when Vaughn was laid off during the economic recession, like many others. He was unemployed for about six months, until he got a Head Chef position at a local soul food spot, Jacksonville in Paterson. Vaughn didn’t stay there too long because of the indifferent relationship that he had with the restaurant owner.

After moving through several positions in different restaurants, eventually Vaughn learned much about himself,  experienced many learning curves and was provided with tools of knowledge on how to become a successful Executive Chef. After cooking for celebrities such Rap Legends, MC Lyte, Ice Tea, and Queen Latifah to name a few, Vaughn thought it would be time to take it to TV. So he decided to apply for Chopped on Food Network and after several weeks he was called by the selection committee to be on the show.

Check out Vaughn tonight on Food Network’s Chopped! At 10pm. See some of his culinary creations!

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Chef Vaughn Crenshaw is now the Executive Chef at Seafood Gourmet in Maywood, NJ. When he’s not working he enjoys coaching Track & Field at his former high school as well as giving back to the Charities of Paterson. For more information about my friend, Vaughn follow him @ChefCrenshaw.


– Isaiah

A Sweet Inspiration with Ron Ben-Israel

Sweet Genius premiered on Food Network this fall, putting Pastry Chef Ron Ben-Israel in the forefront as the host of this whimsical pastry show. The premise of this show to test the inventive ability and imagination of America‘s Up and Coming Pastry Chefs. Each round the chefs are given an inspiration, surprise ingredients, and a certain amount of time to create a dessert. The rounds consist of making a frozen, baked, and chocolate dessert with the oddest ingredients like cheese puffs, black garlic which pushes the chefs to think widely outside their comfort zone. The winners from each challenge advance to the next round, the winning chef receives a $10,000 cash prize and crowned Sweet Genius.

I was given the opportunity to speak to America’s Sweet Genius and Wedding Cake Extraordinaire, Ron Ben-Israel, check out my behind the scenes interview with him.

The Beginning

Urban Foodie: How did you get into baking and who was your inspiration?

Ron Ben-Israel: My mother as well as family and friends introduced to many desserts in Europe. I developed my first love then.

UF: Did you always to become a pastry chef?

RBI: I attended an art school for drawing and sculpting actually, which later turned into dance. I practiced modern dance for about 15 years but it wasn’t until I traveled to Toronto, Canada where I fell in love with a Chocolatier who introduced me to it. Since then it was no turning back, which at the time I decided to hang up my shoes and retire at the age of 30 to pursue my new found passion full-time.

UF: How did your pastry career begin?

RBI: It began by me interning at several different bake shops, learning from the bottom up. I later met Betty Van Norstrand, known as the “Queen of Decorating”, who specialized in cake decorating and sugar art. She took me under her wing and became my mentor in which I owe many credits to. I was always fascinated by her art and she told me to find my own way of doing things.

SOHO Wedding Cake Boutique

UF: You’re wedding cake boutique is referred as the Manolo Blanc of Wedding Cakes. What do you think makes your boutique stand out from so many others?

RBI: Well at the time I started out, I was the “new kid on the block”. I was rebellious to the standardized techniques of how all cakes were being designed. Techniques such as basket weaves and icing festoons were done to excess,while I wanted to decorate with confectionery lace that matches the bridal dress.

UF: What has been your greatest achievement thus far?

RBI: Every day and every week is an achievement for me. We’re always so busy.

UF: When are you the busiest throughout the year?

RBI:  We work 365 days a year, our busiest wedding season is September through November and April through July. We also do event as well as special occasion cakes that keeps us busy during the meanwhile.

Sweet Genius

UF:  I love your show, it’s very inventive and whimsical, what do you think sets your show apart from shows such as Chopped or Iron Chef?

RBI: Sweet Genius is strictly pastry, no panels of judges, and very inspiring to other pastry chefs.

UF: What do you hope your viewers get out this show?

RBI: I think the premise of this show, is simply for the pastry chefs be inspired to make and do whatever comes from their imagination.

UF: Ron, with my strong pastry background you have inspired me to possibly jump back into the kitchen. If  I were to consider being on the show or any other pastry chefs that might be interested, how would we sign up?

RBI: Be inspired, that would be great! Go to sweetgeniuscasting.com

UF: Thank you for time Ron, its been a pleasure!

It was a pleasure speaking with Ron, he is great guy and down-to-earth as well. He was the middle of making a cake for 550 guests with very specific flowers, as he makes most the cakes his self .

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Photo Credits: Ron Ben-Israel Cakes

Check out Ron Ben-Israel All Over The Web!

Facebook- Ron Ben-Israel Cakes #Like

Webpage- http://www.weddingcakes.com

Twitter: @rbicakes #Follow

Thank You For Reading! Happy Thanksgiving! Look Out For Many More Great Articles & Subscribe!

– Isaiah Follow Me- @Urban_Foodie14