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Top Ten Romantic Dining 2004
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For those romantically -- and gastronomically -- inclined, here are just a few suggestions to make this Valentine's Day a truly memorable dining experience... But many establishments are already nearing their capacity, so be sure to make your reservations as soon as possible.

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

You are destined to fall in love with Amanda's... The beautifully appointed brownstone encompasses three cozy dining rooms, each bestowing an understated European-style warmth and intimacy upon those in search of a romantic repast. And be sure to settle in at the bar for a preprandial libation and bit of culinary foreplay. The embroidered banquettes, fireplace, and pine-planked floor set just the proper mood for the amorous gastronomic experience yet to come. Amanda's special Valentine's Day menu commences with such scrumptious starters as duck confit and sweet turnip risotto, creamy polenta with tomato provençal and three cheese sauce, and crisp romaine leaves adorned with Maytag blue cheese, spicy glazed pecans, and a sensuous sprinkling of walnut vinaigrette. Entrées include pinot noir braised lamb shank, grilled salmon with crispy fingerling potatoes, and filet mignon with sautéed shiitake mushrooms. And you may conclude your evening at table with such delightful denouements as molten chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream or red wine poached pear with mascarpone and pistachio nuts. Amanda's special Valentine's Day prix fixe is $49.50 per person (plus tax, gratuity, and beverages).

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

Should you and your spouse/significant other be both romantically and gastronomically inclined, the Bernards Inn is an ideal and idyllic destination. The handsome, tastefully appointed lobby, intimate piano bar/lounge, sophisticated dining rooms, and candlelit tables are wonderfully inviting. And you will find chef Edward Stone's creative American cuisine equally enticing. Begin with Mr. Stone's ethereal wild mushroom soup or, perhaps, his perfectly grilled marinated shrimp served on a seabed of fennel & jicama salad and consummated with an extraordinarily seductive blood orange reduction. Entrées include a pristine pan-seared East Coast halibut filet, fork-tender medallions of venison enhanced with pesto gnocchi and roasted garlic demi-glace, and ahi tuna embellished with foie gras, caramelized pears, and mango coulis. For dessert, try the scrumptious lemon merinque tart, tropical fruit spring roll, or a combo of the house-made ice creams. Wine Director Terri Baldwin will be happy to recommend a suitable vintage from the extraordinary wine list. On February 14th, the Bernards Inn will be offering a three-course prix fixe priced at $110.00 per person.

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

There are many cozy culinary nooks for lovers in this beautiful Victorian community, but none as enchantingly romantic as the Ebbitt Room. Sequestered away in the Virginia Hotel, a charming boutique hostelry constructed in 1879 by Alfred and Ellen Ebbitt, 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. Chef Andrew J. Carthy, a native of County Wexford, Ireland, known for his subtle integration of the freshest possible ingredients, will surely delight your palate without overwhelming it. You might begin with such intriguing appetizers as seared foie gras with fig polenta and cippolini marmalade, Napoleon of house-cured salmon, or spiced rare-seared venison with poached pear and cranberry port glaze. Entrée-wise, matters piscatorial are extremely well represented, so you would do well to consider such possibilities as roast sea bass with truffle potato purée or fennel-dusted local scallops with tomato marmalade and scallion oil. Confirmed carnivores may revel in such delights as grilled beef tenderloin with foie gras butter or rosemary crusted lamb. The Ebbitt Room will be serving special appetizers, entrées, and desserts from their à la carte menu priced at $75.00 per person.

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. The main focus of attention is, of course, 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 enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine in the tavern below. The service here is warm and friendly, and you will find chef Victor Diaz's robust Continental/American cuisine the perfect complement to the rustic décor. Partake of such tempting delights as grilled salmon lovingly embraced by a spinach and watercress beurre blanc, seared duck breasts with cranberry demi-glace, or a spicy polenta-breaded seared tuna steak. You may even choose to spend the night in one of the seventeen distinctive guestrooms. So why not pack the kids off to their grandparents' and book yourselves in for a cozy Valentine's Day culinary excursion? On February 14th, the Inn at Millrace Pond will be serving a special prix fixe at $120.00 per couple, including such choices as filet of salmon, duck breast, or rack of lamb. The prix fixe will also include a split of Champagne or credit toward a bottle of wine to complement your dinner.

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

Both rustic and irresistible, replete with working fireplaces, small vases of fresh flowers, and the shimmering glow of candlelight on crisp white napery, proprietor John Byrne's La Campagne gently woos lovers to its romantic tables. And executive chef Eric Hall's creative southwestern French fare is equally alluring. Mr. Hall is both savvy and skillful in his combination of ingredients. He understands intuitively what will work... and, even more importantly, what will not. Join La Campagne's Valentine's Day celebration and begin with the chef's amuse-bouche for two: smoked salmon terrine, shrimp with crab mousseline, and duck "prosciutto" with green apple. Then move on to the lobster cappuccino with white truffle foam, petite greens enhanced with vegetables à la Provençal and sherry vinaigrette, and pan-crisped sea bass with leeks, tomato, and citrus beurre blanc. You then have the difficult decision of choosing between roast tenderloin of beef & double cut lamb chop or the salmon "osso buco" with diver scallop "marrow." Conclude your amorous evening at table with the Mr. Hall's incomparable chocolate sampler for two. The prix fixe for this sumptuous feast is $75.00 per person (plus tax & gratuity). BYOB.

167 Perryville Road
Perryville, NJ
(908) 730-9500
Cuisine: New American with French Accents

The Perryville Inn, or Brick Tavern as it was more commonly known at its inception, has been serving travelers since 1813. Proprietors Lorraine and Paul Ingenito took over the reins of this charming Federal-style brick structure in 1998 and have transformed it into one of the Garden State's leading dining destinations. While his wife presides over the front of the house, Mr. Ingenito, a native of Basking Ridge and 1984 graduate of the CIA, works his magic in the kitchen. The ambiance is decidedly romantic -- boasting four working fireplaces, chandeliers, and two large windows that overlook the rolling countryside -- as is Mr. Ingenito's impeccable cuisine. Begin with such delicacies as rosette of smoked salmon with American caviars and avocado salad, lobster and oven-dried tomato ravioli, or grilled lamb tenderloin served over a potato/goat cheese pancake. Entrées feature porcini-crusted Nova Scotia halibut, fillet of red snapper crowned with jumbo lump crabmeat, and spice roasted pork tenderloin. For dessert, don't miss the retro "Ring Ding." The Perryville Inn will be offering a special $70.00 prix fixe on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Valentine's weekend.

160 Prospect Avenue
Hackensack, NJ
(201) 678-1100
Cuisine: Contemporary American

Ensconced in the Excelsior luxury residential high-rise, The Restaurant is both comfortably elegant and consummately romantic. Your memorable experience will commence with valet parking beneath an enormous white canvas canopy, move compellingly through the beautiful flower-adorned lobby, and culminate in the rich, upholstered high-back chairs and well-spaced tables positioned strategically below tiered chandeliers suspended from the dramatic two-story dining room. And the quality of executive chef Dominic Bocchimuzzo's innovative culinary creations is certainly commensurate with the posh surroundings. Begin with an exotic tempura shrimp martini embellished with seaweed salad, an invigorating chili cocktail sauce, and diced mango or, perhaps, butternut squash ravioli gently caressed by sage brown butter. For your main course selection, consider the incomparable Chilean sea bass in rice paper partnered with zesty wasabi whipped potatoes, herb-roasted filet mignon with melted foie gras, or the wild mushroom risotto. Desserts are a feast for both the eye and the palate. On February 14th, The Restaurant will offer a select à la carte menu from 5:00 p.m. -- 11:00 p.m.

2 Barnstable Court
Saddle River, NJ
(201) 825-4016
Cuisine: French with Eclectic Accents

If you have a decided aversion to the usual gastronomic glitz and glitter, you will find the Saddle River Inn's setting exceptionally appealing. The converted 150-year-old barn is authentically provincial with an interior balcony overlooking the main dining area. And, regardless of the season, lovers are very much in evidence, holding hands and sharing intimate whispers in the inn's cozy corners. But while romantic rusticity may well be a strong drawing card, it is chef/owner Hans Egg's exceptional cuisine that is responsible for the establishment's large and loyal following. Mr. Egg's approach is definitely French, but he has successfully updated classic culinary themes with subtle Asian and Italian touches. Begin your evening at table with spaetzle with creamy wild mushroom sauce and Parmesan cheese or sesame-crusted shrimp with a pungent curry dipping sauce and pineapple confit. For your entrée, choose from such delectable options as sautéed swordfish on a bed of potato purée with basil and oyster mushrooms, or pan-roasted pork tenderloin adorned with braised shallots, blueberry-apple compote, and balsamic jus. And be sure to sample the incredibly delicious roesti potatoes for two. BYOB. As of this writing, the Saddle River Inn is fully booked for February 14th. You might give the restaurant a call with regard to the Friday evening of Valentine's weekend or some other special romantic occasion. Definitely worth a visit at any time of the year.

6 Roosevelt Avenue
Chatham, NJ
(973) 701-0303
Cuisine: Contemporary French

Speaking of culinary love stories... James and Nancy Sheridan Laird met in the kitchen of the Ryland Inn while James was the sous-chef and Nancy was an extern from the CIA. They were married in 1996 and opened Serenäde just a few months later. Their restaurant is, indeed, a labor of love... and the perfect venue for a day dedicated to the affairs of the heart. Ascend a flight of stairs and enjoy a preprandial libation in the cozy bar/sitting room warmed by a crackling fireplace, then adjourn to the cathedral-ceilinged main dining room beautifully adorned with a profusion of fresh flowers. And Mr. Laird's contemporary French cuisine with lively Asian subtitles is every bit the equal of the enticingly amorous ambiance. Commence your evening at table with incomparable fried Maine oysters embellished with Japanese seaweed salad and exotic soy-ginger mignonette and then move on to the roast rack of lamb or a marvelous selection of perfectly prepared and presented piscatorial fare. Desserts are well worth your consideration, as is the extraordinary wine list. On Valentine's Day, Restaurant Serenäde will be offering a special three-course prix fixe at $75.00 per person.

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

Ahh... Whispers. Tucked away in the lovely Victorian-style Hewitt Wellington Hotel, this diminutive jewel box remains a perennial favorite for those seeking an ardent evening at table. But have no fears about the cuisine taking a backseat to the amorous ambiance. Chef Scott Giordano, formerly of the Saddle River Inn and an alumnus of the CIA, creatively fuses his sumptuous American fare with a variety of other exciting culinary traditions and continues to surprise and delight his ever-appreciative clientele. The menu is short and selective, the choice of ingredients innovative without being overly complex or numerically ostentatious. Whatever your preferences on this special evening, rest assured that you will dine well. However, since Mr. Giordano's seafood preparations are pure gastronomic poetry -- nori-crusted center-cut swordfish stuffed with jumbo lump crabmeat, for example, or pan-seared Chilean sea bass embellished with shrimp scampi ravioli in a tomato basil sauce -- I would urge you to partake of these extraordinary representatives of his finest work. Desserts, of course -- tarte tatin, panna cotta with poached pear, or fresh berry beggar's purse -- are also not to be missed. BYOB. On February 14th, Whispers will be presenting a four-course prix fixe -- appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert -- at $65.00 per person.

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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