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Top Ten Holiday Dining 2003
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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...

324 Millburn Avenue
Millburn, NJ
(973) 379-7020
Web site: www.basilicomillburn.com
Cuisine: Innovative Itali

Basilico - a touch of SoHo in the heart of downtown Millburn - is chic yet decidedly comfortable. The interior dazzles diners with an impressive array of floor-to-ceiling windows, polished oak floors, exposed brick wall, sleek and sensuous banquette, and a host of fanciful decorative embellishments. Co-proprietors Mario DeMarco and Angelo Delbecchi, both natives of Italy who were formerly associated with Sergio's, continue to serve up extremely creative and attractive Italian cuisine at moderate tariffs. And the steady stream of satisfied patrons is certainly testimony to their success. Start things off with a salad of roasted red beets, endive, pears, walnuts, and Gorgonzola cheese or, perhaps, plump and juicy mussels and clams set adrift in a sea of Pernod sauce. For your entrée selection, the grilled Mediterranean sea bass is hard to beat, as is the richly textured and flavorful New York strip steak. The extraordinary desserts are surely worth the additional calories. Basilico is exceedingly popular, so be sure to make your holiday reservations early. BYOB.

4 South Lakeview Drive
Gibbsboro, NJ
(856) 566-7300
Cuisine: Steak Plus

Located just a stone's throw from the Echelon Mall on picturesque Paintworks Lake, The Chophouse is a class act in every sense of the word. The stylish interior boasts faux brick walls, plush leather booths, mission-accented woodwork, and a lively bar scene -- the perfect venue to celebrate the good cheer of the holiday season. But it is the superior quality of the cuisine that truly sets this establishment apart. Begin with the New Orleans blackened shrimp served up in a mini cast-iron skillet or the sweet and succulent jumbo lump crab puffs presented with an outstanding house-made tartar sauce. When it comes to your entrée selection, red meat is the name of the game. The steaks - sirloin, filet mignon, porterhouse - are all outstanding& ditto the extraordinary domestic lamb chops. Majoring in cabernets, the wine list is both impressive and reasonably priced. The Chophouse also sports a nice selection of wines by the glass and after dinner libations.

416 South Broadway
West Cape May, NJ
(609) 898-8770
Web site: www.danielscapemay.com
Cuisine: New American

There are many excellent restaurants to be found in the Cape May area, but none seem to capture the warmth of the holiday season quite like Daniel's on Broadway. You may select from five lovely dining rooms: four Victorian with French accents and one Colonial. The latter, in my opinion, is to be preferred. Located away from the mainstream of activity, replete with a huge fireplace, rustic wood beams, and space for a scant sixteen diners, it quickly charms the senses and calms the restless spirit. So settle in comfortably and allow chef/proprietor Harry Gleason to work his culinary magic. Over the years, we've been treated to such succulent starters as baked oysters swimming in a Champagne cream sauce, plump Prince Edward Island mussels in garlic herb broth, coconut beer-battered shrimp, and a jumbo lump crab cake spruced up with a variety of invigorating accoutrements. Grouper Charleston - adorned with chunks of lobster, sweet corn, plum tomatoes, and a rich lobster sherry sauce - is Mr. Gleason's signature entrée, but confirmed carnivores need not feel slighted. The filet mignon is a classic presentation, as is the steak au poivre, both in the distinguished company of the chef's incomparable garlic/herb mashed potatoes. Desserts, needless to say, are every bit the equal of their illustrious predecessors. BYOB.

26 Ridge Road
Rumson, NJ
(609) 898-8770
Web site: www.fromagerierestaurant.com
Cuisine: Classic French

A visit to restaurant Fromagerie is always an extraordinary dining experience, but it is especially enchanting during the warmth of the holiday season when the comfortable chalet-style interior is so joyously decked out in its festive finery. For more than three decades, Hubert and Marcus Peter have presided over one of the Garden State's most prestigious and popular culinary establishments& and their star shows absolutely no signs of abating. The service is as smooth as a Japanese railroad, and the classic French cuisine with Germanic subtitles remains utterly incomparable. Offerings are robust yet refined, and the attending sauces, despite their invigorating and energetic presence, still manage to gently caress rather than smother the objects of their affection. Rack of lamb is something of a must here, and matters piscatorial are prepared and presented with a deft and discerning hand. For dessert, the warm Alsatian apple tart garnished with homemade cinnamon ice cream is without peer. You may also choose selections from an award-winning, world-class wine list to accompany your meal.

10 Wallace Street
Red Bank, NJ
(732) 741-1321
Web site: www.gaetanosredbank.com
Cuisine: Continental

Located just a few steps from Red Bank's bustling Broad Street, Gaetano's is as lively and spirited as the town itself. The atmosphere is festive, crackling with excitement: the carefully orchestrated commotion of an open kitchen, the energized whirlwind of young, enthusiastic servers, the animated conversations of the convivial clientele. From the moment you cross the threshold, you realize that this is no ordinary Italian restaurant. Something marvelous is in the air, and you want to be a part of it. The incredible brick oven pizza sporting a thin, house-made crust and variety of delicious toppings is reason enough to pay a call& but the good news doesn't stop there. Pastas are equally superb, as are the entrées and specialty dishes, courtesy of Chef José Estrada. Like everything else at Gaetano's, desserts are homemade and well worth saving room for. The restaurant is BYOB, but the Wine Cellar, situated just around the corner, offers a first-class selection of vintages to complement your meal.

313 Johnsonburg Road
Hope, NJ
(908) 459-4884
Web site: www.innatmillracepond.com
Cuisine: Continental/American

Set on a hillside in the picturesque village of Hope, the Inn at Millrace Pond incorporates three buildings with seventeen distinctive guest accommodations and charmingly rustic dining facilities. The focus of attention is, of course, the gristmill, where a massive stone wall and exposed posts and beams bask in the flickering candlelight of the formal dining room. And Chef Victor Diaz's cuisine, as you would surmise, is as romantically rustic as the enchanting surroundings. Start things off with the seared sea scallops in puff pastry embellished with pesto cream sauce or the vegetable ravioli swimming in a watercress/spinach beurre blanc, then move on to an intriguing array of entrées. A wonderfully moist loin of pork is stuffed with dried fruit compote and topped with an invigorating port wine demi-glace; the halibut is seared in sesame oil and spiffed up with soy sauce and mixed basmati rice; and the tournedos of venison are crowned with a cranberry demi-glace and accompanied by mashed roasted sweet potatoes. Our family has enjoyed several holiday excursions here, and we have always been delighted with both the cuisine and the service. You may even book yourselves into one of the cozy guestrooms and enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast the following morning.

73 Main Street
Toms River, NJ
(732) 914-9544
Web site: www.jeffreysrestaurant.com
Cuisine: New American/Fusion

Aesthetically, Jeffrey's is the perfect blend: It is sophisticated but not at all uptight or pretentious; cozy and intimate without being indolent or sentimental. It is unequivocally grown-up in its appeal. And, like the ambiance, chef/proprietor Jeffrey Schneekloth's cuisine is equally cultivated. It is also highly imaginative, colorful of countenance, and assertive of taste and of texture. His feet may be planted on American terra firma, but his heart and culinary inclinations have gravitated toward the East. His pan-seared yellowfin tuna presented on a seabed of zippy wasabi mashed potatoes with an exotic soy dipping sauce, for example, is guaranteed to tickle your tired taste buds. Dishes of a more occidental nature - his eye-catching Napoleon of veal paillards, rack of lamb, and Florida grouper in a potato crust - are equally appealing. Favorite desserts include a tangy Key lime tart, fallen chocolate soufflé cake, and banana Napoleon with roasted banana ice cream. At any time of the year, Jeffrey's is one of my favorite ports-of-call, but during the warmth and festivity of the holiday season, it is an especially desirable dining destination. A wonderful evening awaits! BYOB.

416 Tappan Road
Northvale, NJ
(201) 767-0063
Web site: www.madeleinespetitparis.com
Cuisine: Classic French

Before moving to their present abode, chef/proprietor Gaspard Caloz and his wife, Madeleine, had spent twelve years amongst cramped, rickety tables and blackboard menus in a former pizza parlor in Bergenfield. The image was bustling bistro personified, as diners jostled good-naturedly for elbow room and toted along their own libations. The quarters in Northvale, patrons are happy to note, are infinitely more comfortable and spacious, a full bar and wine list have taken up permanent residence, and what was Chez Madeleine is now Madeleine's Petit Paris. But not everything has changed& The French cuisine has remained as ingratiatingly delicious as ever, perhaps even more so. Appetizers include such splendid opening moves as Coquille St. Jacques, pan-seared foie gras with a splash of sherry vinegar, and sweet, succulent mussels swimming in a beautifully seasoned white wine and garlic broth. Entrées continue Mr. Caloz's classic culinary approach: Dover sole meunière; baby calf's liver sautéed with Calvados; rack of lamb with fresh herbs & garlic; and veal medallions sautéed with wild mushrooms. For dessert, be sure to sample Madeleine's signature soufflé.

53 West Passaic Street
Rochelle Park, NJ
(201) 843-1250
Web site: www.nanni.com
Cuisine: Regional Italian

Nanni Ristorante may be situated just a few short blocks from the Garden State Plaza, but it is a galaxy far, far away. You enter its precincts and leave behind the often hectic rush of the holiday season. Here dining is once again a sumptuously satisfying experience, superior service is the rule rather than the exception, and handcrafted cuisine is lovingly prepared and impressively presented in the Old World tradition. You would do well to begin with the sweet pepper half stuffed with a combo of chopped green & black olives, breadcrumbs, and Parmesan & mozzarella cheeses. It is then baked and sent forth bathed in a savory sea of marinara. Also not to be missed is the thick thread of grilled sweet Italian sausage set on a beautiful bed of brocoletti de rape. Like all that has gone before, entrées rely on time-honored traditions rather than eye-catching innovations. Go for the grilled Boston scrod topped with chopped tomatoes & breadcrumbs or the fork-tender veal scaloppini. For dessert, don't miss the superlative tiramisù, Kahlúa-infused ladyfingers caressed by mascarpone cheese and homemade zabaglione. No matter what the occasion - or the season - you will find Nanni Ristorante an exceptionally pleasurable dining experience. Buon Appetito!

66 South Clinton Avenue
Trenton, NJ
(609) 695-6868
Web site: www.petelorenzos.com
Cuisine: Steaks/Seafood/Italian

Ensconced across from the Trenton train station, the exterior of this former hotel is a bit on the weather-beaten side, but that only adds to the charm. Built in the 1830s and converted into a café by retired police officer Pete Lorenzo in 1918, the family tradition is ably carried on by Mr. Lorenzo's nephew, Armando Frallicciardi, Sr. So settle in at the century-old bar, order a martini or Manhattan straight-up, and check out the wood-paneled walls that seem to ooze sweet memories from every nook and cranny. At Pete Lorenzo's, beef is treated with devotion that borders upon the religious. It is shipped in by the quarter-steer, then aged for six weeks and cut to order on the premises. So if you consider yourself a confirmed and committed carnivore, nothing short of the porterhouse cut for two will satisfy your deepest longings. Truly a beef-lover's dream come true. And those of a piscatorial persuasion also need not fear disappointment. Fresh fish is delivered twice daily and is available in a number of delicious guises. While you're at it, be sure to take a gander at the voluminous and cosmopolitan wine list. You'll notice a preponderance of reds, of course, specifically chosen to match the hale and hearty steakhouse fare - and all offered at incredibly reasonable tariffs. When you're in the mood for a little holiday nostalgia - and some old-fashioned good eating - a visit to Pete Lorenzo's Café is highly recommended.

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