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Top Ten Holiday Dining 2005
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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 loved ones and friends 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 will help us enjoy the warmth, peace, and festivity of this wonderful season of the year. Wishing you and yours the very best...

1449 Irving Street
Rahway, NJ
((732) 388-6677

The setting is magical. The circa 1830 structure, which most recently domiciled an insurance agency, has been lovingly restored and refurbished by chef/proprietor David Drake and his partner, James Kennedy, the mayor of Rahway. The boutique 51-seat establishment now boasts gleaming hardwood floors and rustic beams & exposed bricks artfully counterpoised by colorful modern paintings and soft, subdued lighting. And while the ambiance will furnish just the proper venue for romantic holiday dining, you may also rest assured that the extraordinary cuisine will provide plenty of pizzazz for your discriminating palate. Mr. Drake's culinary emphasis has shifted slightly from his illustrious tenure at the Stage House in Scotch Plains, but his presentations remain stylish and sophisticated yet agreeably understated. His salad of Bibb lettuce is a study in innovative simplicity, his shellfish risotto, positively ethereal. Among the entrées, the skate wing is beautifully sautéed with a fall spice crust, and the braised pork is irresistibly moist and succulent. Desserts are equally superlative, as is the international wine list. Restaurant David Drake will feature a three-course $49.00 per person prix fixe on Thanksgiving Day with seatings from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. The restaurant will also be open on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve but will be closed on Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

13 White Street
Red Bank, NJ
(732) 345-7070

After an exhausting day of antiquing or holiday shopping at Restoration Hardware or Red Bank's sundry other specialty stores, Dish is the perfect spot to settle in for a thoroughly rewarding repast. Owned by Chef Anthony Ferrando and gracious front-of-the-house coordinator Judy Matthew, this charming, bustling bistro serves up hearty American fare punctuated by an ingratiating innovative tweak along the way. Among the treasures of the sea, the tilapia and shrimp combo is particularly recommended. The grilled salmon slathered with a zippy barbecue sauce and set on a bed of Israeli couscous is also an excellent choice. And the unabashedly carnivorous may revel in a first-class New York strip steak accompanied by extraordinarily addictive herb frites. Desserts, all made in-house, are well worth the extra calories. My absolute favorite is the gloriously gooey, delightfully decadent white/dark chocolate bread pudding. Served warm, with squiggles of rich caramel sauce, this is one sweet ending that will keep you coming back for more. This convivial eatery makes a most welcome addition to the ever-expanding Red Bank dining scene. Dish will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day, but will be open on Sundays beginning Thanksgiving weekend. BYOB.

49 North Main Street
Lambertville, NJ
(609) 397-5990

If, in preparation for the holiday season, you find yourself prowling the boutique shops in the Lambertville/New Hope area, 49 North Main would make a most congenial stopover for either lunch or dinner. Bob and Lynn Willis, both graduates of the CIA, serve up generous portions of moderately priced New American cuisine that resonate with a sophisticated air. To ward off the chill, the farmers' market soup -- a heady broth awash with chunks of fresh vegetables, macaroni, and dash of basil pesto -- should prove a most welcome starter... ditto the more robust three-bean chili. You might also consider the crab quesadilla filled with sweet crabmeat, potato, spinach, and cheddar cheese. And the homey entrées continue down the same easy-going path as the appetizers. The calf's liver is exceedingly flavorful, smothered in onions, and served up with a mound of killer mashed potatoes. The shepherd's pie is also a good bet, as is the macaroni and cheese, an incredibly cheesy pre-cholesterol-conscious concoction that is more deliciously soul satisfying than anything has a right to be. It is comfort food taken to the max, and it is simply not to be missed. Among the home-made desserts, the chocolate walnut brownie is particularly recommended. 49 North Main will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day, but will be open for lunch only on Christmas Eve and for dinner on New Year's Eve.

313 Johnsonburg Road
Hope, NJ
(908) 459-4884

Set on a hillside in the picturesque village of Hope, the Inn at Millrace Pond provides the perfect venue for holiday celebrations. The Inn incorporates three buildings with seventeen distinctive guest accommodations and charmingly rustic dining facilities. The major focus of attention, however, is 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 is as enchantingly homespun as the surroundings. Starters include a meaty portobello mushroom stuffed with breadcrumbs, feta cheese, tomatoes, and roasted peppers finished with a balsamic reduction and basil oil; grilled skewered shrimp served with papaya salsa; and mozzarella served up with sliced smoked salmon and fresh tomatoes. When it comes to entrées, I would highly recommend the succulent pork loin medallions, rack of lamb with raspberry mint demi-glace, or the seared tuna with soy-flavored sesame oil. You may even book yourselves into one of the cozy guestrooms and enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast the following morning. The Inn at Millrace Pond will be serving on Thanksgiving, open on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day, but will be closed on Christmas Day.

4160 Quakerbridge Road
Lawrenceville, NJ
(609) 275-5418

Located in the very shadow of the Quakerbridge Mall, KC Prime is a great spot to unwind after the rigors of hectic holiday shopping. The restaurant's casual upscale interior is arranged in a semicircle around an attractive bar area and open grill/carving station; and the food is quite good, boasting plenteous portions and more than reasonable prices. Your entrée, for example, is accompanied by an excellent complimentary salad, starch of one's choosing, and variety of delicious breads. But don't let this dissuade you from sampling the excellent array of appetizers. Particularly recommended are the colossal crabmeat cocktail, seared sesame-crusted ahi tuna, and grilled portobello with herb goat cheese and balsamic glaze. Topping my list of entrées is the 14-ounce center-cut New York strip steak; equally appealing is the succulent prime rib. The filet mignon is also quite good, ditto the gargantuan porterhouse. A compendious wine list -- sporting a goodly number of selections by the glass -- is available to complement your meal. And should you possess an incurably sweet tooth, just be advised that the homemade desserts are created for two persons but could probably feed four. KC Prime will be open on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and New Year's Day, but will be closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Atlantic & Pacific Avenues
Atlantic City, NJ
(609) 344-1133

After a good deal of political intrigue within the Latz clan, owners of this AC landmark since 1927, the restaurant was sold to Frank Dougherty, whose family has operated the nearby rival Dock's Oyster House since 1897. Following an extensive six-month renovation, the new Knife and Fork made its debut in July (2005) -- and the results are stunning. Mr. Dougherty managed to retain much of the building's original charm while moving it firmly into the 21st century. And the very same may be said for the menu, which gently drifts away from the old continental seafood theme toward the diversified drama of a modern steakhouse. The wood-fired grill is the main attraction here, turning out perfectly seared prime-aged steaks and chops. The treasures of the sea, however, have not been neglected. You might consider the pan-roasted halibut served up with crushed potato and tomato vinaigrette, grilled king salmon, or sautéed soft shell crabs with corn relish and grilled asparagus. Homey desserts -- peaches and bananas foster and lemon pie with Stoli blueberry compote -- add a nice touch to the proceedings, as does the restaurant's 10,000 bottle wine cellar. The Knife and Fork will be serving the regular menu on Thanksgiving, as well as a special turkey dinner priced at $32.00 per person. The restaurant will be closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day, but will be open for New Year's Eve.

740 Boulevard
Kenilworth, NJ
(908) 241-0031

Sleek and sophisticated, La Griglia woos patrons with its cozy bar scene, candlelit tables, and romantic, recessed lighting. But ambiance is only part of the story. This Italian seafood grill turns out an array of absolutely superlative cuisine. Entrée selections include a number of uniquely Italian chicken, veal, and pasta dishes, as well as grilled filet mignon, porterhouse steak, and country-style pork chops. But while this fine restaurant minors in the aforementioned savory offerings, it majors in matters piscatorial. Whatever your gastronomic preferences on a given evening, be assured that you will dine well here. Make seafood your choice, on the other hand, and you will dine exquisitely. Starters include a pristinely fresh raw bar, as well as "Oysters of the Day," and jumbo shrimp, fresh lobster, and crabmeat cocktails. Excellent main courses include grilled Atlantic salmon on a seabed of tri-color orzo, yellowfin tuna dusted with Cajun spices and, a personal favorite, a marvelous potato-encrusted red snapper served with fresh sautéed spinach and an exceptional chardonnay beurre blanc sauce. Scrumptious homemade desserts and an award-winning wine list are the perfect complements to a most memorable evening at table. La Griglia will be open on both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, but will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.

168 Maplewood Avenue
Maplewood, NJ
(973) 763-4460

Domiciled in the diminutive storefront jewel box that was home to Jocelyne's, Lorena's has already succeeded in making a significant splash on the New Jersey dining scene. Chef/proprietor Humberto Campos, Jr., and his fiancée, co-proprietor Lorena Perez, who charms patrons at the front of the house, carry on Jocelyne's tradition of serving up exemplary French-inspired cuisine wrapped in a warm, tastefully understated ambiance. Mr. Campos, a graduate of the CIA and alumnus of such illustrious Garden State kitchens as Nicholas and the Ryland Inn, weaves together an exquisite culinary tapestry lovingly and imaginatively imbued with the freshest possible seasonal ingredients. His style is innovate yet refined; he understands intuitively what will work and -- perhaps even more importantly -- what will not. Begin with such superlative syntheses as watercress salad embellished with warm duck confit, black Mission figs, and Roquefort consummated with roasted shallot vinaigrette and heady port wine reduction, pumpkin ravioli with sage, or orange-crusted veal sweetbreads. And entrées are no less enticing: sautéed striped bass with olive tapenade and verjus rouge emulsion; medallions of pork confit companioned by caramelized apples, chestnuts, baby carrots, and Calvados reduction; Colorado venison loin; and Manchester Farms pheasant breast finished with black truffle game jus. Desserts are something of a must here... but don't forget to BYOB. Lorena's will be serving on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, but will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.

2 Barnstable Court
Saddle River, NJ
(201) 825-4016

When it comes to holiday and/or romantic dining, the Saddle River Inn is a perennial favorite. The 150-year-old barn is authentically rustic, embellished with lace panels, fresh flowers, and an interior balcony overlooking the main floor. Swiss-born chef/proprietor Hans Egg's approach to cuisine is definitely 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 right at home here. Indulge in such diverse opening moves as sesame-crusted shrimp with curry dipping sauce and pineapple confit, spaetzle with creamy wild mushroom sauce and Parmesan cheese, and snails baked in brandy and herb butter. Palate-tempting main courses include roasted filet of beef with chestnut purée, béarnaise, and port wine sauce, sautéed swordfish in the company of oyster mushrooms and rich potato purée, and roasted rack of lamb sporting a mustard jus and marvelously rich potato gratin. Whatever your predilections on a given evening, however, be sure to order a side of the incredibly delicious roesti potatoes (for two). The Saddle River Inn is a BYOB establishment... and a superior vintage is certainly called for. This fine restaurant will be open on New Year's Eve, but will be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day.

615 Bloomfield Avenue
(973) 746-2233

In Montclair, a community certainly not bereft of first-rate dining opportunities, Table 8 has caused quite a stir. Demetri Malki, former proprietor of the exceedingly popular Dmetri's, now presides over a sensuous and casually sophisticated 75-seat establishment that comes replete with striking high-back crimson velvet chairs, art-deco tableware, and rich carpeting accented in attractive shades of red, brown, and beige. The exciting contemporary décor may, indeed, dazzle the eye, but it is the remarkable globally-inspired cuisine -- courtesy of chefs Marika Villik and Michael Clampffer -- that will surely beguile the palate. Who, for example, can possibly resist the considerable charm of dates wrapped in smoked bacon and stuffed with almonds and Gorgonzola cheese... or the superlative Napoleon of tuna tartar companioned by sesame crisps, radish sprouts, and zesty tamari citrus sauce? Then, of course, there's always a tasty array of plump steamed mussels swimming in a sea of spicy red sauce awash with sweet peppers and chorizo sausage. Entrees? Be sure to try the roasted striped bass with goat cheese ravioli and thyme emulsion, sautéed Chatham cod with a chowder of succulent baby clams, chicken Kiev enhanced with truffle herb butter, or roasted pork tenderloin stuffed with apples, walnuts, and Gorgonzola. Desserts, all prepared in the restaurant's kitchen, are worth saving room for. Table 8 will be serving their regular menu on Christmas Eve, but will be closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. The restaurant will also host two seatings on New Year's Eve, the latter featuring a special chef's tasting menu. BYOB.

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