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When we drive down the Turnpike near Port Newark and see the stretches of shipping containers stacked like apartment buildings, we like to look on the bright side. It’s a metaphor for all the ways New Jersey is packed and stacked with treasures, hidden and in plain sight.
One of those is its dining scene. We cover it 52 weeks a year online, and monthly in the print magazine.
Every year we devote the cover to the results of our search for the state’s best restaurants. These we present with the results of our annual poll in which our discriminating readers vote for their favorites.
It makes for quite a banquet, and we happily share it with you here.
“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing” is usually attributed to Mick Jagger. Jersey’s own rock-star chef, David Burke, makes the case with food extravagant in flavor, variety and portion, though not in price. At 1776, choose from sushi, salads, pizza, pasta, burgers, salt-aged steaks, lamb, chicken and fish, all compellingly rendered. This summer, Burke and chef de cuisine Brian Webber are offering basil-butter whole lobster with mozzarella-sundried tomato fritters. “It’s a celebratory food,” Burke says, “and people are ecstatic to be going out again.”
67 East Park Place • 973-829-1776
The paneer papad roll at Aarzu in Freehold. Photo courtesy of Jessica Murga
Celebrating its seventh birthday last month, this modern Indian restaurant keeps adding dimensions to classic dishes like tandoori salmon over Indian-spiced risotto. Working with chef Shravan Shetty, the owners recently introduced a tapas-style menu separate from the appetizer section. Its tempting bites include smoked quail eggs in curry-pepper glaze and panko-crusted potatoes with tamarind coconut chutney. New desserts include a kulfi ice cream made with rose petals and rose water. Its fascinating texture, dense yet smooth, owes to churning, Shetty says, “for hours and hours.”
30 East Main Street • 732-333-0933
Across the Hudson, Lower Manhattan shimmers, but what chef Matthew Mobilio puts on the plate and bar manager/mixologist Leticia Chica creates in a glass hold your attention: his pan-roasted sea bass with brown butter, garlic, thyme and smoked corn purée, for example, or ravioli stuffed with braised veal, ricotta and herbs. Just when the skyline beckons, out come Nijah Warren’s brioche doughnuts with peanut butter caramel and house-made marshmallow fluff.
502 Washington Boulevard • 201-798-1798
Buy our August 2022 issue here. Cover photo by Laura Moss
“I was looking for something to do,” recalls Michael Matonti of the first time he set foot in Café Panache 27 years ago. Poking his head in chef Kevin Kohler’s kitchen, he got a job washing pots. From there, he went to culinary school and built a career, always staying in touch. When Kohler died in January 2021, Matonti reconnected with the family and was invited to return. He has revived classics like the creamy cucumber soup, green with fresh mint; poached lobster in lobster sauce; duck breast in red wine sauce with espresso and orange zest; and flourless chocolate cake that has tasted like cake, not fudge, since before gluten free was a thing.
130 East Main Street • 201-934-0030
Fun food and serious food rarely converge, but they do in this actual, darkly suave cellar, with moss wall and dangling lamps. Owner Jamie Knott and chef Chris Abbamondi produce braised pork shank, seductive with garlic, ginger, coriander, chilies and pineapple juice. Cellar’s tiki cocktail shtick has been toned down (“We’re not in Disney World or on the beach,” says Knott), making the Cellar even more a neighborhood joint, with food worth the drive from the suburbs.
335 Newark Avenue • 201-222-1422
“The last two years have been very stressful for people,” says Christine Migton, executive chef of this modern French restaurant, “so the simpler, cleaner and more classic we go, the better.” Exhibit A is the Dover sole, artfully filleted tableside by owner Stephane Bocket. No coda is more classic than a soufflé, but Migton offers one with pumpkin spice, “which isn’t French,” she admits, “but it makes my heart happy.” How to say, stuff your face in French? She consults Stephane, who replies, “Bourre ton visage.”
431 North Avenue West• 908-654-4011
The Circle’s chef/owners Brendan Ullmann and Tyler O’Toole met while working in Manhattan. Photo by Christopher Lane
The Circle connects all the dots: the heartiness of American farm-to-table with French savoir faire; relaxed yet responsive service; rustic atmosphere (1720 farmhouse amid fields). Chef/owners Brendan Ullmann, 28, and Tyler O’Toole, 30, met at Manhattan’s vaunted Jean-Georges, where they both rose to sous-chef. A year and change after opening, their pastas are plush, their hanger steak with German potatoes and creamed leeks a feast. “This is only the beginning,” says O’Toole. “And we’re already having so much fun.” BYO.
310 Route 94 • 973-862-6410
The art and science of cooking come together at Elements, where the pace of a meal is dictated less by the number of courses (5 or 18) than by the way each bite rewards a pause to luxuriate in the patiently developed flavors, textures and aromas. On weekends, at least half the guests choose the big menu from chefs Scott Anderson and Mike Ryan. Half the courses come from the water, but the showstopper may be the strip of boneless Wagyu cooked on hickory bark with a hickory-bark syrup. For all the focused exoticism, dessert can be as simple as house-made vanilla ice cream, almost as smooth as soft serve, with caramel made from the whey left from churning the house butter. For a more casual take, try Mistral, the partners’ sister spot on the ground floor of the building.
66 Witherspoon Street • 609-924-0078
Chopped fine and served in a squared-off mound topped with creamy dressing and lots of toasted nuts, the salad looked like delicious fun, and it was. Did we just eat that much raw kale? Sure did. Would again. In its 19th year, chef Ryan DePersio’s flagship is sailing strong. Signatures like the polenta fries and ricotta gnocchi never lose their appeal, but new takes on familiar shapes keep things fresh, as in a creamy stracciatella-cheese agnolotti in black-truffle sauce. Instead of a traditional veal saltimbocca, chef de cuisine Chris Jonas makes a tasty one from a pounded pork chop stuffed with fontina and sage. Ryan’s mom, Cynthia, brings the love with her seemingly simple but unfailingly satisfying desserts. BYO.
331 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-233-0350
The modern French menu has always been seasonal, but now the adjacent patio also rocks year-round with live trees under a retractable, glass-paneled roof. On the menu from the wood-burning grill, chef Olivier Muller brings spiced lamb loin with a minted fava-bean purée and falafel. Late-summer peaches may be destined for duck with a Parmesan polenta and wilted greens. Notable cocktails include the lip-smacking (and alcohol-free) Golden Hour, made of elderflower tonic, blood orange and vanilla.
544 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-542-7700
Frog legs haven’t been on the menu in a long while, “though maybe we’ll bring them back,” says chef Joe Beninato with a wink. But summer is peach prime time, building to a five-course menu featuring the fruit this month through early September. One of those is a peach carpaccio with baby arugula, prosecco vinaigrette, crispy duck confit and almonds. “It hits every flavor note in your mouth,” he says. Another piquant summer specialty is seared scallops beside squash blossoms filled with scalloped corn and a hit of pickled chilies. New for summer is mixologist Daniel Xi’s watermelon-juice white negroni.
29 Dennis Street • 732-846-3216
Hearthside gets its name gets its name from the four seats at the counter that face the stone hearth. The fuel is oak, chef/owner Dominic Piperno explains, because “it burns the hottest and doesn’t put out an aroma.” That lets the 30-40-day dry-aged steaks lasso your nostrils on their own merit. Pastas are another pillar of the menu, lately featuring an agnolotti filled with a reduction of charred tomatoes, saffron, Parmesan and bits of Hearthside’s own sourdough bread. BYO.
801 Haddon Avenue • 856-240-1164
Neilly Robinson created Heirloom Kitchen as a recreational cooking school and boutique. Co-owner and chef David Viana gives classes and has made Heirloom a destination. Photo by Brent Herrig
“I like to think of our food as New American, hyper seasonal and globally inspired,” says Neilly Robinson, business and life partner with chef David Viana. They present a frequently changing (and never repeating) four-course menu that recently included char siu pork over fried rice; a Spanish-inspired duck with potato pancake, romesco and duck confit croquette; and masa corn noodles with charred corn salsa in lemongrass and coconut milk. Sitting at the kitchen counter amounts to dinner and a show. BYO.
3853 Route 516 • 732-727-9444
In a high-ceilinged room on a rocky bluff, with huge windows luring the eye to the lights of Manhattan, “the food needs to be special,” says new chef Will Prunty. He meets the challenge with dry-aged steaks cooked on a wood grill. His fish have finesse, and his pastas are potent, as in a recent spicy vodka sauce that caramelizes onions till creamy. A blueberry-almond crumble with house-made ice cream and sabayon make a fine finale.
1 Crest Drive • 973-731-3463
Ben Pollinger hasn’t forgotten his late mentor, the genre-busting Indian chef Floyd Cardoz, who died two years ago. Pollinger salutes him with a halibut in a rice-flake crust with a captivating watermelon curry. His own recipe for braised pork shoulder comes with an Italian cannellini-bean ragù and wilted spinach. Pollinger salutes children of all ages with a cheesecake by one of his cooks that has a crust made from “her favorite breakfast cereal,” Cinnamon Toast Crunch. There’s humor in GM Andrew Tyler’s cocktails, too, like the one made with bourbon, amaro, Grand Marnier and yuzu juice, called the New Yu.
252 Schraalenburgh Road • 201-899-4700
Always looking local, chef/owner Bill Van Pelt cooks on Jersey oak, hickory and peach wood and revels in seared Hudson Valley foie gras with foraged local mulberries and a purée of local corn. His golden tilefish from Barnegat Bay comes with peekytoe crab and frisée salad with avocado remoulade and peppery local nasturtium flowers. Venison loin perks up with Szechuan pepper, beluga lentils, golden raisins, house-made duck sausage and roasted maitake mushrooms. Cool the heat with Meyer-lemon mousse and macerated local strawberries. BYO.
105 Main Street • 908-852-2131
With its long reflecting pool and horseshoe driveway, the circa 1917 Vail mansion can seem imposing, as can the grand interior and the wine list. But the list is studded with bargains, and there’s nothing stuffy about the welcome from owner Chris Cannon in his porkpie hat and untucked shirt, or the bill of fare from newly arrived veteran chef Tom Valenti. Dry-aged prime steak? Roast local chicken? Check. “You can really put on the dog,” says Valenti, “or just have a simple meal with a great bottle of wine.”
110 South Street • 973-644-3180
From hand-pressed roast duck to escargots in Bordelaise to earthy cassoulets, classically trained chef Rich Cusack and his wife, Christina, bring an inviting French menu to a town well endowed with Italian restaurants. In an intimate space with gilded decorative touches, Cusack eschews the fussy molecular gastronomy that has gripped many French kitchens in recent years for the classic techniques and recipes he learned from French masters. It’s sophisticated yet rustic—the latter virtue reflected in surprisingly generous portions. BYO.
690 Haddon Avenue • 856-240-7041
When Lorena’s moved last year to a larger space up the street, nothing was lost but its BYO status. Seating tripled to 150. Rahway-raised chef/owner Humberto Campos named the place for his wife, Lorena, and the food and service do them both proud. Satisfying burgers, pastas and risottos coexist with crisp-skinned duck breast and a trout amandine on a lively vegetable hash. Desserts like warm chocolate cake and panna cotta seem like usual suspects, but the execution is exemplary.
160 Maplewood Avenue • 973-763-4460
Osteria Crescendo offers seldom seen dishes like whole fried octopus with cress leaves over eggplant puttanesca. Photo by Cayla Zahoran
Steaks, dry-aged in-house 30-120 days, are among the things that distinguishes chef Robbie Felice’s 3-year-old Crescendo from his first restaurant, Viaggio, also on this list. Another is the liquor license, giving rise to signature cocktails by director of operations Tommy Voter. One of those is a dry-aged old-fashioned in which dry-aged beef fat is liquefied and steeped in bourbon 24 hours, then strained. The clarified spirit makes for a muscular cocktail. Try one of the natural wines. “We have some that are a little out there,” says Felice, “but we’ve stayed away from the crazy ones.” Felice’s ricotta gnudi, a dumpling made with ricotta instead of the traditional potato, are a delightful whack-a-mole, turning up all summer in different guises—cacio e pepe, or whatever sauce Felice fancies.
36 Jefferson Avenue • 201-722-1900
With its wood-and-glass wine-storage enclosure at the center, the clubby dining room sets the stage for the lively work of chef Jason Ramos. Sustainably harvested Columbia River sturgeon from the West Coast comes with a stir-fry of bok choy, sugar snap peas and nutty hon-shimeji mushrooms. The veal chop is monumental. Katie King’s desserts, like the chocolate mousse, are so well elaborated, they seem like mini meals.
359 Route 206 South • 908-658-9292
Some recipes seem magical, gently introducing us to the unfamiliar. Chef Scott Giordano specializes in the opposite, putting a fresh face on the familiar. His grilled Spanish octopus, marinated in citrus, comes off the grill ravishing on a bed of field greens and local tomatoes. His grilled rib eye with garlic butter–smashed Yukon Gold potatoes and local asparagus makes a summer summit. There’s a new painting on the wall this year of a pear in the style of Monet. It sets the stage for Teah Evans’ elegant desserts, like a Key lime tart with Swiss meringue brûlée. BYO.
816 Arnold Avenue • 732-701-1700
In his teens, Hazlet native David Burke worked as a line cook in the Victorian mansion that was then the Fromagerie. He later bought the place, but had to shut it down in 2015. Now he’s back with a steak and sushi menu as classic as the building. He does a monthly, 10-course omakase for $100 that has featured lobster in dumplings and tempura. A sake martini makes a nice starter. The meal features in-person commentary by Burke, who calls it “dinner and a show.” Wednesday’s What’s Your Beef dinners include hors d’oevres, chopped salad, cheese, a glass of wine and three meats (short rib, filet mignon and dry-aged sirloin, or a fish or vegetarian option) for $70. Pastry chef Stuart Marx sends out his signature Tin Can cake fresh from the oven, possibly with, Burke says, “the egg-beater paddles to lick off the batter.” Having just acquired the venerable Dixie Lee Bakery in Keansburg, Burke offers what he calls its “not-so-humble pie of the day,” as well as fresh doughnuts, macaroons, and Dixie Lee’s unusual sfogliatella (lobster tail) pastry filled with banana pastry cream and strawberries. Sunday brings the bento box with Caesar salad and a burger for $25, or $32 with lobster roll.
26 Ridge Road • 732-576-3400
The sun setting behind the Kittatinny Mountains fills the floor-to-ceiling windows with a warmth equaled by the food that chef Aishling Stevens and chef de cuisine Matt Laurich prepare. Aided by sommelier Susanne Wagner’s ability to pair any course with the treasures of one of the deepest wine lists in the country, they roll out exquisite veal tenderloin, rare treasures like rabbit sausage with a velouté made from carrot-top greens, or glazed quail stuffed with fresh herbs, pine nut purée and cherries. A recent after-dinner palate cleanser was sorrel sorbet, which tasted like a dreamy cross of pear and coconut.
1 Wild Turkey Way • 855-977-6473 ext. 3
Entering this archetypal steak house (one of our favorites in the state) in the penumbra of the George Washington Bridge is like stepping into an enchanted time capsule, a clubby domain that has—saving grace—opened its arms to all. House-aged Prime Angus steaks are the draw, but equally good are the fresh seafood, imaginative sushi and lusty desserts. “Three-quarters of our diners are regulars,” says general manager Stephen Russ. “But our menu’s so varied, you could eat here every day for two months and not repeat a meal.” Credit chef Luis Montesinos for indulgent sides like lobster mac ’n’ cheese and sushi sensei Andy Lin for the more than 30 signature rolls named for Bergen County towns.
416 River Road • 201-224-2013
Having morphed into a steak house last year, Jamie Knott’s handsome barn has added an Italian accent. He takes a center-cut veal chop on the bone and pounds it flat. Now that becomes the making of an upscale veal Parm. “Ravioli, meatballs—maybe growing up in Nutley has finally influenced me,” he says with a laugh. “That, and my wife’s Italian family.” Other recent expressions include lobster ravioli in spicy vodka sauce topped with fresh arugula, lemon breadcrumbs and Reggiano-Parmigiano. “If that’s not Italian,” he says, “I don’t know what is.” BYO.
2 Barnstable Court • 201-825-4016
Now in their 26th year, James and Nancy Laird have kept Serenade homelike—albeit, with rooms that include a fireplace, a 50-foot ceiling and palladium windows. The welcome is felt in James’ New American food, in the sense that you recognize it, but marvel at how delicious it is. Eye-opening tomato bisque is made with “blemished, super-ripe tomatoes—chefs hate to waste anything.” There’s value here, too. The $49 rack of lamb (four ribs) comes with romesco sauce, potato purée, Asian broccoli, fava beans and pea shoots. “The plates come back,” James says proudly, “everything eaten but the bones.”
6 Roosevelt Avenue • 973-701-0303
Kunihiko Aikasa, who goes by Ike, was born in Japan, but has made his name here as a sushi sensei, or master. The spare elegance of his spacious restaurant resonates with the quality of the seafood, much of it flown in daily from Tokyo. Aikasa and his sensei on the rise, Livingston native David Seo, craft the ravishing, multicourse omakase. Notable creations such as the Shumi roll, a focused mélange of spicy tuna, shrimp, scallion, and the complex seasoning known as furikake. Teriyaki, tempura and ramen are expertly prepared as well. BYO.
70 East Ridgewood Avenue • 201-345-0808
“I’m always pushing, going harder, faster, stronger,” says chef/owner Robbie Felice. This year, the 31-year-old (whose Osteria Crescendo, in Westwood, also makes this list) plans to open a pasta/ramen fusion concept in Montclair with chef Luck Sarabhayavanija of Ani Ramen House. Viaggio, Felice’s intimate, original place, now six years old, is still a tough table, never mind that its small nondescript storefront is tucked into a strip mall. This spring, he wowed with a fazzoletti pasta with fresh ramps. His skills run well beyond pasta, and a great way to take it all in is to sit at the five-seat bar that faces the open kitchen. Order off the menu, or put yourself in his hands: “Six to eight courses, dietary restrictions honored, and we just cook for you. $110.” BYO.
1055 Hamburg Turnpike • 973-706-7277
For some things here, like the heirloom tomato salad, the distance from farm to table can be measured in feet. Chef/owner Sam Freund tends four 30-foot garden beds beside the restaurant. The garden also produces Japanese eggplant, chiogga beets and a long list of herbs. Restaurant guests can dine there at two large farm tables under an awning, or indoors. With David O’Connor, formidable forager and recently promoted chef de cuisine, Freund celebrates the season with marinated kampachi (amberjack), house-made squid-ink farfalle luxuriating in summer squash, and St. Louis baby back ribs with fermented plum sauce. Freund returned from a winter trip to Maui with a recipe for the Road to Hana, a cocktail of three fresh tropical juices and vodka of your choice.
380 Route 206 • 908-955-0443
(*new to the list this year)
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