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Top Ten Holiday Dining 2002
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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@worldnet.att.net.

Holiday dining is special in many ways. Not only does it afford us the opportunity to enjoy the bounties of the table... but the joys of gathering together with friends and loved ones as well. And while we still seek out excellent cuisine, ambiance also plays an extremely important role in our dining choices. We tend to frequent those establishments that are able to warm our hearts as well as satisfy our hunger. Listed below are just a few of the many Garden State restaurants that, hopefully, will help us to enjoy the warmth, peace, and serenity of this wonderful season of the year. Wishing you and yours the very best...

A LITTLE CAFE
118 White Horse Road
Voorhees, NJ
(609) 784-3344
Cuisine: International

Ensconced in The Plaza Shoppes just around the corner from the Echelon Mall, A Little Café is a charming culinary oasis. The diminutive dining room seats approximately 40 patrons and is spruced up with colorful paintings, a host of favorable restaurant reviews, and fresh flowers. This is a fun place to dine; you are just as likely to encounter a gregarious party of six as you are couples enjoying a quiet dinner and each other's company. And chef/proprietor Marianne Cuneo Powell's bountiful portions of International fare with Oriental flair will surely keep you coming back for more. Appetizers include luscious Vietnamese rolls accompanied by a wasabi-soy dipping sauce and a medley of wild mushrooms baked with Boursin cheese in a phyllo pastry bonbon. For your main course, the panko-crusted flounder with a zippy Thai chili sauce is quite up to the mark, as is the peach habañero chicken. Both are guaranteed to add a little spice to your life. Dessert? The homemade apple cake with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream is an absolute must... And be sure to check out the attractively priced early-bird specials. BYOB.

BLACK FOREST INN
249 Route 206
Stanhope, NJ
(973) 347-3344
Cuisine: German/Continental

The mention of German food generally conjures up visions of prodigious portions of eminently forgettable fodder dispensed by motherly waitresses in a boisterous, smoke-filled Brauhaus. And yet... haute German cuisine utilizes the freshest of fish and game and is prepared and presented with both style and finesse. One of the few restaurants on this side of the Atlantic where diners may experience the true subtleties of authentic Germany cookery is the Black Forest Inn. From the charming rusticity of classic Wiener schnitzel, sauerbraten, and veal schnitzelette Gruyere, to the elegance of pan-roasted sea scallops and other delicate denizens of the deep, an air of understated culinary gentility will pervade your evening at table. And this is true of the homey surroundings as well. Oak-beamed ceilings and stained glass windows warm the heart and imbue the senses with the joys of the holiday season. Guten Appetit!

BRUSCHETTA RISTORANTE
292 Passaic Avenue
Fairfield, NJ
((973) 227-6164
Cuisine: Northern Italian

Located just minutes from the Willowbrook Mall, Bruschetta provides the best of both worlds: It allows you to indulge your passion for bargain hunting and also your predilection for fine cuisine. You may, quite literally, "shop 'til you drop" before abandoning your fellow holiday hagglers to the gastronomic horrors of the food court and making a well-timed getaway to this chic and stylish eatery. Enjoy a preprandial libation at the cozy bar and then adjourn to one of the lovely diminutive dining rooms. Begin with an exquisite ahi tuna carpaccio crowned with a grilled mushroom salad and pungent dabs of basil-wasabi vinaigrette or, perhaps, the fried calamari sautéed with a touch of garlic and lemon and adorned with crispy leeks. Entrée-wise, I would highly recommend the pan-seared rock bass or the tenderloin of veal. Desserts are also quite excellent... as is the impressive international wine list.

FARNSWORTH HOUSE
135 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, NJ
(609) 291-9232
Cuisine: Continental

If you happen to be in the mood for a totally civilized dining experience a bit removed from the holiday hustle and bustle, the Farnsworth House in picturesque, historic Bordentown makes a very pleasant stopover. The atmosphere in this lovely old rambling restaurant is pleasantly rustic, and the first-rate Continental cuisine is as easy on the palate as it is on the pocketbook. Indeed, the culinary offerings are sophisticated enough to appeal to more adventurous diners, yet those with heartier appetites will not feel they've been short-changed. In a very real sense, the kitchen succeeds in bridging the gap between gourmet cuisine and comfort food. Entrées cut a wide culinary swath. They range from the satisfying robust simplicity of chicken saltimbocca to a more exotic combo of sea bass and jumbo crabmeat dressed in lemon and dill, flamed with Pernod, and served on a sumptuous seabed of spinach fettuccine. For dessert, be sure to sample the outstanding homemade ricotta cheesecake.

THE FRENCHTOWN INN
7 Bridge Street
Frenchtown, NJ
(908) 996-3300
Cuisine: French/Italian/International

After a strenuous day of shopping or sightseeing, you and your spouse/significant other may join couples young and old in the muted glow of one of The Frenchtown Inn's candlelit dining rooms. The menu is foundationally French with a sufficient number of international nuances -- most notably Italian -- to add a bit of spice to the proceedings. Executive chef/proprietor Andrew Tomko's presentations are just contemporary enough to quicken the culinary pulse, just traditional enough to assuage both the eye and the palate. Among the starters, I particularly recommend the slices of Anjou pear teamed with rich shavings of Parma prosciutto or the chef's incomparable charcuterie plate. Main courses include an excellent seared filet of beef enhanced with a heady red wine jus and slices of pork tenderloin arranged atop a rustic roasted pear and currant choucroute. The Frenchtown Inn is one of those special -- and extremely rare -- eateries with which you strike up a long-term love affair. A perfect dining spot for the holiday season.

HARVEST MOON INN
1039 Old York Road
Ringoes, NJ
(908) 806-6020
Cuisine: Creative American

You enter through the tavern, an altogether cozy and softly lit space replete with an attractive bar that provides an ideal venue for preprandial libations. You may also dine here, should you so desire; the Colonial-style dining rooms, however, offer more sedate surroundings. There's nothing flashy, just a homey, understated ambiance complemented by pleasant, unobtrusive service. The flash, I should add, is in the food. Chef/proprietor Stanley Novak brings a wealth of urbane international refinements to his decidedly innovative American fare. Begin with the grilled vegetable and goat cheese ravioli enhanced with a rich and savory Parmesan cheese cream sauce or, perhaps, sautéed striped bass in a broth redolent of leek and basil oil. When it comes to entrées, the pan-seared tuna wrapped in prosciutto and sage is excellent, and the grilled swordfish decked out in a provocative mango, peach, and black bean salsa is every bit its equal. I am also particularly fond of the moist and tender pork medallions embellished with a heady smoked tomato vinaigrette. For dessert, nothing beats the warm chocolate bread pudding dressed in milk and white chocolate shavings, dark chocolate sauce, and crème anglaise.

NICHOLAS
160 Highway 35
Middletown, NJ
(732) 345-9977
Cuisine: New American

Restaurant Nicolas has brought world-class cuisine to the Garden State. Adorned in ambient creams, beiges, and browns, this lovely establishment is always a unique and pleasant dining experience... but especially so during the warmth of the holiday season. Nicholas and Melissa Harary, whose distinguished credentials belie their youth (he, an alumnus of the CIA and former sommelier at New York City's famed Jean-Georges; she, a protégé of renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer), have unabashedly created a menu and a level of professional and personal service specifically designed to appeal to the sophisticated diner. The seasonally changing menu is a study in superlatives. The monkfish, moist and meaty, is set on a seabed of lentils, crowned with a julienne of apple and celery root, and then, at the last moment, enveloped in a pungent pool of lentil broth. The braised suckling pig, the pinnacle of succulent sensuality, is finesse personified, exhibiting just the proper hint of sweet/tart, courtesy of an electrifying cinnamon jus and tincture of quince. For dessert, be sure to sample the "Thousand Layers," tiers of caramelized pastry interspersed with fresh berries and mousseline encircled by strawberry gelée. Mr. Harary has also assembled a remarkable and prodigious prospectus of rare and fine vintages that is sure to inspire even the most dedicated oenophilist. A truly extraordinary dining experience.

SADDLE RIVER INN
2 Barnstable Court
Saddle River, NJ
(201) 825-4016
Cuisine: French with international accents

If you have a decided aversion to glitz and glitter, the Saddle River Inn will strike just the right chord for a most pleasant holiday dining experience. The converted 150-year-old barn is authentically rustic, embellished with lace panels, fresh flowers, and an interior balcony overlooking the main floor. Chef/proprietor Hans Egg's approach to cuisine is definitively French, but he has updated certain classic themes and integrated a variety of Asian and Italian touches. The food is sufficiently innovative without being aggressively avant-garde, attractively presented without being self-consciously fussy. Both traditionalists and those with more adventurous palates will feel at home here. His swordfish, for example, is simple and seductive; it is perfectly grilled and reclines on a velvety seabed of puréed potatoes and is finished with a touch of savory veal stock. And meats, which make up the majority of menu options, are every bit the equal of matters piscatorial. A most ingratiating dining experience. BYOB.

SOGNO
69 Broad Street
Red Bank, NJ
((732) 747-6969
Cuisine: Regional Italian

Inhabiting the space that was, for more years than I can remember, the Bow Knot, a popular luncheonette/coffee shop, Sogno typifies the marvelous renaissance -- economic, cultural, culinary -- that has revitalized this Monmouth County community. You may shop at a plethora of upscale boutiques and fine specialty shops, including a Restoration Hardware just across the street, and then repair to this stylish eatery for a bit of holiday sustenance... And the food will not disappoint. Chef James Corona's regional Italian cookery is both creative and energetic, relying on bold flavors coaxed from the freshest possible ingredients. Pastas are sumptuous yet subtle, as are matters piscatorial. And the extraordinarily tender Barolo-braised short ribs of beef are surely destined to steal the heart of any red-blooded American carnivore. For dessert, the panna cotta, a mellifluously silky eggless custard served in a coconut cone dressed with fresh berries, is truly in a class by itself. A most pleasant evening awaits. BYOB.

UNION PARK DINING ROOM
Hotel Macomber
727 Beach Avenue
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-8811
Cuisine: New American

Ensconced in the newly restored Macomber Hotel, the Union Park is both elegant and sophisticated. The two lovely dining rooms are decked out with fireplaces, cherry and mahogany furnishings, antique fixtures, and silver service. The well-spaced tables are gently caressed by candlelight and adorned with fresh flowers. It is, without doubt, the perfect venue for romantic and/or special occasion holiday dining at the Jersey Shore. And the ambiance is most assuredly matched by the quality of executive chef J. Christopher Hubert's New American cuisine. It is both light and flavorful, redolent of exotic ethnic touches that will tantalize the imagination as well as the palate. Start things off with the chef's decadent sautéed Hudson Valley fois gras "sandwich" or his incomparable venison carpaccio embellished with oven-dried tomatoes and Reggiano. Entrées feature such provocative presentations as grilled center-cut filet mignon set on a comforting pillow of cheddar, bacon, and scallion mashed potatoes finished with a heady red wine jus, or Mr. Hubert's famous yellowfin tuna in a sesame seed crust over stir-fried vegetables with hoisin and wasabi. BYOB.

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