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Top Ten Romantic Dining 2003
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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.

ANDRE'S RESTAURANT
182 Spring Street
Newton, NJ
(973) 300-4192
Cuisine: Innovative American with Eclectic Touches

I have sung Andre's praises on many previous occasions, and this cozy restaurant continues to maintain its ranking as one of the Garden State's premiere dining destinations. Simple lace curtains adorn the front window... White Casablanca fans whirl silently on the black pressed-tin ceiling... One wall is dressed in lime green and sports a series of French posters... Its opposite number is bright yellow and is decked out in weathered window frames and ivy trim... And recently this former BYOB acquired a liquor license and added a charming wine boutique and diminutive wine bar. The ambiance is still homespun, yet it exudes a decided touch of romantic elegance. And this is also true of Andre deWaal's extraordinary culinary creations. Recently encountered were such gastronomic delights as pan-roasted duck breast with roasted pears and fresh sage, slow cooked Arctic char with warm fennel salad and beurre blanc, and a marble brownie with white chocolate mousse. Mr. deWaal's menu changes fortnightly, but you may rest assured that, whatever the chef's whim on a given evening, your discriminating palate will not be disappointed. On Friday, February 14th, patrons will have their choice of a special four- or five- course menu priced at $55.00 and $65.00 per person, respectively.

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

The Bernards Inn quietly beckons lovers with its elegant dining rooms, piano bar, and cozy, candlelit tables. The ambiance is sophisticated yet refreshingly subtle... as is Chef Edward Stone's contemporary American cuisine. Mr. Stone dazzles both the eye and the palate without resorting to the usual brand of glitzy gastronomic hocus-pocus. You may begin with such delicacies as orange-dusted shrimp, carpaccio of beef tenderloin with roasted onion, watercress, and niçoise olives, or the incomparable Hudson Valley foie gras gently caressed between two corn pancakes and drizzled with quince sauce. Entrées include such provocative possibilities as pumpernickel-crusted sea scallops or Black Angus sirloin with baby root vegetables and Merlot sauce. Desserts -- including such delectable denouements as classic crème brûlée, French apple tart, and raspberry Napoleon -- are nothing short of extraordinary... as is the award-winning wine list. And you may even elect to spend the night in one of the lovely guestrooms. On February 14th, for those seated between 5:30 p.m.  7:00 p.m., Mr. Stone will be offering a special three-course menu at $90.00 per person. For those seated from 8:30 p.m. on, a four-course menu will be available at $110.00 per person.

LA CAMPAGNE
Kresson Road
Cherry Hill, NJ
(856) 751-6069
Cuisine: Country French

When lovers are in the mood for a romantic evening at table, John Byrne's La Campagne comes immediately to mind. The restaurant's interior -- replete with hardwood floors, working fireplaces, small vases of fresh flowers, and the shimmering glow of candlelight is both rustic and irresistible. And you may rest assured that Chef Eric Halls creative southwestern French fare is every bit the equal of the amorous ambiance. Mr. Hall realizes instinctively that a generous helping of innovation must be seasoned with a pinch of restraint; thus, you will find his combination of ingredients both skillful and savvy. Piscatorial presentations remain a highlight here. The Dover sole, for example, is always beautifully prepared and presented, and is one of the few versions of this noble species that does not suffer the deleterious effects of jet lag. Carnivores will also be pleased with their wealth of gastronomic possibilities. Desserts, as you have undoubtedly ascertained through the food-lovers' grapevine, are a gourmand's delight. I have sampled many over the years, but my favorite continues to be the incomparable tarte Tatin spiffed up with a delectable dollop of homemade burnt sugar ice cream. Friday through Sunday, February 14  16, La Campagne will be serving a special seven-course Valentines menu priced at $75.00 per person.

MAX'S FINE DINING
RESTAURANT CLOSED
160 Prospect Avenue
602 Route 130 North
Cinnaminson, NJ
(856) 663-6297
Cuisine: Italian with French Accents

Upon entering this former Friends meetinghouse, you discover four cozy, diminutive dining rooms boasting polished plank floors, two fireplaces, and crisp white napery. And the cuisine is as elegantly understated as the surroundings. Executive Chef Alex Capasso strikes just the proper chord between the customary and the creative. Scallops, rich and meaty, recline on a seabed of mashed avocado and are perfectly complemented by a sensuously creamy yellow tomato dressing... handmade potato gnocchi are a study in ethereality... and the orecchiette embellished with sweet sausage, broccoli rabe, and a touch of olive oil are agreeably robust of countenance. Entrées are nicely balanced between meat, fish, and fowl. Steamed red snapper luxuriates in a light but flavorful natural broth, and the oven-roasted beef tenderloin is aided and abetted by a crispy polenta cake and heady Merlot sauce. Even the pedestrian breast of free-range chicken, usually considered little more than a gastronomic escape hatch for those with less adventurous palates, proves to be a sensuously satisfying delight. The light and delicate chocolate banana tart tops my list of dessert favorites, and homespun bread puddings also figure prominently in the sweet endings department. Thursday through Sunday, February 13  16, Max's will be offering a special à la carte menu. BYOB.

NANNI RISTORANTE
53 West Passaic Avenue
Rochelle Park, NJ
(201) 843-1250
Cuisine: Northern Italian

Nanni Ristorante is a glorious step back in time. Here you may enjoy handcrafted cuisine lovingly prepared and impressively presented in the Old World tradition. After a preprandial libation at the cozy bar, you are escorted into a stylish dining area replete with crystal chandeliers, comfortably cushioned chairs, green & white napery, and fresh flowers in diminutive handmade ceramic vases... And you realize immediately that these lovely surroundings are not only conducive to fine dining but to intimate, romantic conversation as well. The cuisine here relies upon time-honored traditions rather than eye-catching innovations, and this is especially true of matters piscatorial, which hold a prominent place on both the printed menu and among the daily specials. The Boston scrod is simply grilled and then crowned with chopped tomatoes and breadcrumbs. Veal dishes are also highly recommended. The scaloppini, for example, is sautéed in a delicate white wine sauce and topped with mozzarella and chopped tomatoes. Seldom have I encountered such an exquisite presentation; the fork-tender medallions literally melt in your mouth. The extraordinary tiramisu, silken of texture and intensely flavorful, is truly in a class by itself, as is the exceptional ricotta cheesecake. On Valentine's Day, Nanni's will have seatings at 5:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 9:15 p.m. The regular à la carte menu will be offered, as well as an array of specials. Buon Appetito!

Marquis de Lafayette Hotel
RESTAURANT CLOSED
160 Prospect Avenue
501 Beach Avenue
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-3995
Cuisine: New American with International Accents

Perched atop the Marquis de Lafayette, the digs formerly inhabited by the Top of the Marq, this handsome establishment not only serves up Cape May's best view but some of its best cuisine as well. The contemporary space -- now boasting muted yellow walls, inverted cone-shaped lighting, and a wine tower stocked with hundreds of vintages -- was brought up-to-date by Michael and David Craig, also proprietors of the famous Washington Inn. And the New American fare with international flair, courtesy of Executive Chef Walter J. Jurusz, is just as snappy as the stylish décor. Over the years, Mr. Jurusz has developed a love of Cuban cookery, and you need sample only a single bite of his signature dish, a moist and succulent grilled Cuban-rubbed pork chop, to realize that this is one chef who knows his way around a spice rack. His seasonings are assertive yet sophisticated, and they surely succeed in tantalizing rather than traumatizing the taste buds. Finny fare is also handled with a deft and discerning hand. The peppercorn-dusted salmon is set on a seabed of haricots verts, white asparagus, and velvety pillow of whipped potatoes. And the sautéed red snapper is kissed by a delicate ginger-carrot sauce and invigorated with a spicy sweet potato cake. Desserts continue the kitchen's good work and succeed in taking sometimes all-too-typical sweet endings one step beyond. The Pelican Club will be open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Valentines weekend and will feature its regular menu plus chefs specials.

STAGE HOUSE INN
366 Park Avenue
Scotch Plains, NJ
(908) 322-4224
Cuisine: Contemporary French with Eclectic Accents

Constructed in the year 1737, the Stage House Inn is the ultimate Valentine's Day destination. The intimate, candlelit dining rooms embellished with rustic, uneven wood floors, fireplaces, and wall sconces provide an enticingly romantic milieu for those who anticipate an evening à deux. And Chef David Drake's incomparable culinary creations are completely commensurate with the lovely surroundings. They are elegant and urbane without being self-consciously fussy, innovative but not pretentious. The freshest of ingredients are gracefully and stylishly integrated without forfeiting their unique individual essences. Appetizers include such delights as a salad of crispy duck confit with fresh horseradish dressing, tuna tartare with sweet Japanese rice and aromatic sauce, and a seductive tomato consommé with scallops. You may then move on to the equally delightful crispy Tai snapper, thyme-roasted Chatham cod, or a lovely pork tenderloin with morel mushrooms and parsnip purée. Each presentation speaks with its own understated yet exquisite voice. The Stage House Inn will be offering a six-course tasting menu ($95.00 per person/$155 per person with wine pairings) on Valentines Day and Saturday, February 15th. On Sunday, February 16th, the establishments à la carte menu will be served.

TWO IF BY SEA
RESTAURANT CLOSED
160 Prospect Avenue
141 Shrewsbury Avenue
Red Bank, NJ
(732) 747-1586
Cuisine: American/Seafood

Following its move from Ocean Township several years ago, Two If By Sea found itself ensconced in an intriguing bit of local culinary history. Its current domicile was, for some six decades, home to Sal's Tavern, a convivial watering hole and family-oriented neighborhood "joint." Vestiges of the past, of course, still remain... The "Flying Fish Saloon," the establishment's charming antique bar, is the perfect spot for a quiet cocktail before dinner, and the adjoining booths and separate dining room are both cozy and comfortable. But whereas Sal's majored in marinara, proprietors Scott Farrar and Vince DeVivo have obviously elected to take a more urbane approach. The American cuisine, courtesy of CIA alumnus Jim Kavka, is decidedly sophisticated and upscale. When they are available, the Prince Edward Island mussels are a marvelous prelude. Plump and succulent, they swim to table in a spicy Thai/curry broth whose fiery attributes are tamed with just a hint of sweet coconut and sprinkling of bitter cilantro. Entrée-wise, the seafood specials take center stage, but one should not overlook pecan-crusted pork tenderloin garnished with pumpkin gnocchi or the robust "Hereford" rib-eye steak accompanied by decadent blue cheese scalloped potatoes. The restaurant's top-notch wine list, a recipient of the Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence in 2002, is a most suitable complement to the excellent cuisine. For Valentine's Day, Two If By Sea will feature its regular menu plus chefs specials.

VALENTINO'S
103 Spring Valley Road
Park Ridge, NJ
(201) 391-2230
Cuisine: Italian

Named after the legendary Hollywood heartthrob and set back serenely among the trees in a charming residential neighborhood, Valentino's pampers its patrons with valet parking and a delightfully romantic Old World ambiance. Dark wood paneling predominates, along with timbered ceilings, subdued lighting, and crisp white napery. If you are in search of an intimate tête-à-tête, the cozy, comfortable atmosphere will put you at ease the moment you cross the threshold. And the service is Old World as well. The tuxedoed waiters are completely professional yet not the least bit stuffy. Whether you are a restaurant regular or a newcomer on the scene, you may rest assured that the welcome will be warm and your evening at table a most pleasant experience. As you may have surmised, the cuisine here isn't about innovation, it is about tradition. The classic offerings are lovingly prepared, served up in generous portions and, given the posh Bergen County surroundings, quite reasonably priced. You will also find the compact wine list a most hospitable match for the solid and satisfying Italian cuisine. On Valentine's Day, Valentino's will be serving a special select menu.

WHISPERS
200 Monmouth Avenue
Spring Lake, NJ
(732) 974-9755
Cuisine: American/Fusion

Sequestered in the Victorian-style Hewitt Wellington Hotel, this diminutive jewel box remains a perennial favorite among those seeking an ardent evening at table. But have no fears about the food taking a backseat to the amorous ambiance. Even though Chef Mark Mikolajczyk has departed, a recent visit indicated that David McCleery, who is responsible for the restaurant's superlative confections, is carrying on in style. The menu continues to be selective, the choice of ingredients innovative without being overly complex or numerically ostentatious. Begin with a lovely salad of chilled asparagus, grilled fennel, and roasted beets finished with an enticing sesame vinaigrette or, perhaps, sautéed Maine diver scallops accompanied by smoked bacon, English peas, and a decadent béchamel sauce. Entrée-wise, the Dover sole with caper-brown butter sauce is extraordinary, as is the nori-encrusted swordfish stuffed with crabmeat and a duet of crispy shrimp. Mr. McCleery's sweet endings, of course, are not to be missed. On Friday, February 14th, Whispers will feature a special five-course menu priced at $50.00 per person, with seatings at 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. BYOB.

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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