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Top Ten Romantic Dining 2002
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For those romantically -- and gastronomically -- inclined, here are a few suggestions to make this Valentine's Day a truly memorable dining experience.

AMANDA'S
908 Washington Street
Hoboken, NJ
(201) 798-0101
Cuisine: Innovative American

It's easy to fall in love with Amanda's... The beautifully appointed brownstone encompasses three cozy dining rooms, each bestowing its own unique warmth and intimacy upon those in search of a romantic repast. And be sure to stop by at the bar for a preprandial libation and a bit of culinary foreplay. The embroidered banquettes, fireplace, and pine-planked floor set just the proper mood for the amorous dining experience yet to come. The menu changes on a regular basis, but appetizers are particularly recommended here, as are the excellently prepared seafood offerings... And don't forget to check out the array of homemade desserts. On Valentine's Day, Amanda's will be offering a $39.50 prix fixe per person, including a choice of three appetizers, three entrées, and three desserts.

BERNARDS INN
27 Mine Brook Road
Bernardsville, NJ
(908) 766-0002
Cuisine: Contemporary American

The Bernards Inn beguiles lovers with its handsome lobby, elegant dining rooms, piano bar, fireplaces, candlelit tables, and crisp white napery. The ambiance is sophisticated yet refreshingly subtle... as is Chef Edward Stone's contemporary American cuisine. Mr. Stone succeeds in dazzling both the eye and the palate without resorting to the usual brand of gastronomic glitz and glitter. Begin with such delicacies as orange-dusted shrimp, white asparagus salad with wild leek vinaigrette, or Hudson Valley foie gras gently caressed between two corn pancakes and drizzled with a provocative quince sauce. For your main course, you might consider the pumpernickel-crusted sea scallops, herb-marinated organic chicken with sweet potato gratin, or Black Angus sirloin with baby root vegetables and merlot sauce. Desserts are outstanding... as is the award-winning wine list. On February 14th, the Bernards Inn will be serving a three-course prix fixe at $82.00 per person from 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m. You may also elect to the spend the night in one of the lovely guestrooms.

CATELLI RISTORANTE & CAFÉ
Kresson & Evesham Roads
Voorhees, NJ
(856) 751-6069
Cuisine: Northern Italian

There is a decidedly romantic air about this upscale Italian establishment, and Chef Lou Imbesi's outstanding cuisine is every bit the equal of the posh ambiance. His pasta selections, available as appetizers or entrées, are positively ethereal, and his veal dishes are prepared to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. For my money, however, his true talent lies in the piscatorial province. His daily offerings of fresh finny fare are simply incomparable. On one occasion, you may be treated to a whole roasted pompano that is filleted tableside and then embellished with a light and delicate sauce of lemon, olive oil, and white wine; on another visit, Chilean sea bass or grilled filet of salmon may take center stage. And do take a gander at the dessert tray. These sweet endings are all made in-house and are as exceptional as their predecessors. Catelli will be featuring a special à la carte menu with seatings at 5:00 & 5:30 p.m., 7:00 & 7:30 p.m., and 9:00 & 9:30 p.m.

THE EBBITT ROOM
The Virginia Hotel
25 Jackson Street
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-5700
Cuisine: New American

After the rigors of the tourist season, Cape May goes into winter hibernation at the beginning of each year... but awakens from its peaceful slumber for the festivities of February 14th. There are many culinary nooks for lovers in this beautiful Victorian community, but none so enchantingly romantic as The Ebbitt Room. Freshly cut flowers and live piano music underscore the sophisticated elegance of the handsomely restored dining area, and the adjacent fireplace lounge is the ideal venue for pre or postprandial libations. The cuisine, I would hasten to add, is every bit the equal of the ambiance. The new executive chef, Andrew Carthy, is clearly of the less is more school of American gastronomy, and his subtle integration of ingredients succeeds in challenging the palate without overwhelming it. His roasted Maine cod embellished with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, savoy cabbage, smoked bacon, and parsley sauce is a standout; ditto his Colorado rack of lamb spruced up with butternut squash risotto, Swiss chard, and bordelaise sauce. In addition to his duties as executive chef, Mr. Carthy also retains responsibility for desserts... and they are superb. The Ebbitt Room will be featuring its regular à la carte menu for the Valentine's Day celebration.

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

Ensconced near the banks of the Delaware River in historic Frenchtown, this enchanting inn beckons to lovers... and lovers of fine cuisine. The setting is appropriately rustic -- exposed brick walls, fireplaces, a cozy bar/lounge with an excellent variety of wines available by the glass -- but chef/proprietor Andrew Tomko's superior culinary preparations are as contemporary as today's newspaper. Why not begin with the shaved Parma proscuitto over Anjou pear slices or baked oysters embellished with an irresistible sherry cream sauce? Entrée-wise, choose from such delicacies as an exquisite onion-crusted Chilean sea bass, sesame-coated tuna consummated with a ginger soy marinade, or robust loin of venison garnished with celeriac potato purée. On Valentine's Day, this fine establishment will be offering a three-course $48.00 prix fixe per person from 5:30 - 9:30 p.m.

HARLEQUIN CAFÉ
322 South Main Street
Wharton, NJ
(973) 366-8154
Cuisine: Northern Italian

Sequestered away in the hinterlands of Morris County, this alluring eatery is a bit off the beaten track... but well worth a journey for lovers who are gastronomically inclined. The simple white walls and railings of the porch-like, bi-level dining area are decked out with tasteful artificial hanging vines, comfortable lattice-back chairs, and colorful harlequinesque paintings and objects d'art. There's even a tiny bar and a pianist sandwiched into the diminutive space. Decidedly amorous the surroundings may be, but it is the excellent northern Italian cuisine that keeps patrons coming back for more. The Vongole alla Marichiara -- littleneck clams poached in a heady seafood broth -- makes a superb prelude to your meal, as does the Penne Don Antonio, penne pasta topped with tomato basil sauce and rich chunks of fresh mozzarella. When it comes to entrées, the tilapia baked with pine nuts and a zesty Dijon mustard caper sauce is first-rate, ditto the beef and veal dishes. On Valentine's Day, the Harlequin will be serving its regular à la carte menu and a select number of specialty items.

LE RENDEZ-VOUS
RESTAURANT CLOSED
160 Prospect Avenue
520 The Boulevard
Kenilworth, NJ
(908) 931-0888
Cuisine: French/Mediterranean

I realize that there are undoubtedly those who may consider this tiny BYOB somewhat less than romantic. The décor is an eclectic amalgam of exposed brick, brightly colored sponge-painted walls, and heterogeneous works of art. The tables crammed into the bistro-like space seat a scant thirty-five diners, and the noise level may be somewhat daunting upon occasion. And yet... there is a cozy, quixotic camaraderie here, the intimacy of hands held and lovers' secrets shared in the midst of a room filled with those dining à deux. Chef Sami El Sawi's cuisine is sumptuous and sensual, a treat for both eye and palate: goat cheese Napoléon with sautéed red cabbage; escargots à la Provençale; frisée salad with duck prosciutto and raspberry vinaigrette; sautéed striped bass with wilted spinach and tomato jus; seared venison with chestnut flan. Desserts, like their predecessors, are utterly exquisite. As of this writing, the Valentine's Day menu had not yet been decided upon. Please call the restaurant for additional information. BYOB.

SHELBY'S
RESTAURANT CLOSED
160 Prospect Avenue
4 Main Street
Hamburg, NJ
(973) 209-0300
Cuisine: Eclectic

Tucked away on a quiet side street in Hamburg, a tiny Sussex County hamlet, Shelby's is a charmer of the first order. The lovingly restored former bank building boasts delicate lace curtains, pressed-tin ceilings, and a lovely diminutive antique bar. And proprietors Terry and Susan Earl add their own special touch of class to the surroundings. Mr. Earl may often be seen holding court behind the bar or turning out an array of delicious desserts; his wife, the consummate hostess, is as stylish and attractive as the understated country décor. Glen Walsh holds forth in the kitchen, and his eclectic amalgam of American, Asian, Italian, and Southwestern flavors is a perpetual palate pleaser. The service is professional, the casually styled clientele quite sophisticated, and the atmosphere decidedly romantic. Shelby's will be offering a special à la carte menu for Valentine's Day.

INN AT MILLRACE POND
313 Johnsonburg Road
Hope, NJ
(908) 459-4884
Cuisine: Continental/American

The Inn at Millrace Pond incorporates three buildings set on a rolling hillside in the picturesque village of Hope. But the main focus of attention is the gristmill, a landmark limestone structure erected between 1769 and 1770, where a massive wall of stone and exposed posts and beams bask in the flickering candlelight of the formal dining room. Before settling in at table, however, be sure to descend the open staircase to the tavern below. Here you will discover an enormous walk-in fireplace, grain chute, and assorted memorabilia spanning the building's 180-year history as a working mill. During the past several years, my wife and I have dined here on an annual basis, and we have always departed feeling gastronomically and romantically assuaged. Chef Victor Diaz's robust continental/American fare seems to get better every year, and it is the perfect complement to the rustic décor. You may even spend the night in one of the seventeen distinctive guestrooms and enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast the next morning. The Inn will be offering a four-course prix fixe -- which includes choice of soup or appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert -- at $49.95 per person.

LA CAMPAGNE
312 Kresson Road
Cherry Hill, NJ
(856) 429-7647
Cuisine: Country French/Continental

Rustic and irresistible, replete with working fireplaces, small vases of fresh flowers, and the shimmering glow of candlelight, John Byrne's La Campagne gently woos lovers to its romantic tables. And Chef Eric Hall's creative southwestern French fare is equally alluring. Begin with the almond-crusted Brie or, perhaps, the incredibly decadent seared foie gras. Mr. Hall is both savvy and skillful in the combination of ingredients. He understands intuitively what will work... and, even more importantly, what will not. His sautéed Dover sole with lemon caper brown butter is benchmark; and his grilled salmon with tapenade and basil oil, while more robust in nature, is no less satisfying. Desserts are not to be missed. On Valentine's Day, La Campagne be serving a five-course prix fixe at $75.00 per person. BYOB.

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The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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