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Top Ten Romantic Dining 2005
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For those romantically and gastronomically inclined, here are just a few recommendations to make this Valentine's celebration a truly memorable dining experience...

1505 Ocean Avenue
Spring Lake, NJ
(732) 449-4700

Sequestered away beneath the Sandpiper Inn, the Black Trumpet inhabits a space that has been home to a number of other eateries over the course of the years. Yet despite the decidedly romantic, club-like setting -- rich carpeting, dark wood, walls of windows, cozy faux fireplace, etc. -- these various restaurant incarnations generally served up a variety of cuisines that could only be described as eminently forgettable. The current chef/proprietor, however, on the scene since November, lost absolutely no time in significantly enhancing the establishment's heretofore mediocre reputation. Mark Mikolajczyk, who cooked up a storm at Whispers just a few blocks away, may have changed venues, but it is quite obvious that his American fare is as sumptuously creative as ever. And since he is joined in the kitchen by his long-time sous-chef and now partner, David McCleery, diners may rest assured that they have entrusted their taste buds to extremely capable hands. Recently sampled starters included an exquisite tomato fettuccine surrounded by a pool of creamy basil pesto and crowned with a tiara of black trumpet mushrooms and an intensely flavorful curried carrot soup. For the main course, the chef's signature dish, pan-seared filet of fluke, is not to be missed... ditto Mr. McCleery's delicious desserts. On Valentine's Day, the Black Trumpet will feature a four-course prix fixe menu ($45.00 per person), which will be served from 5:00 p.m. -- 9:00 p.m. BYOB. Following dinner, you may also elect to spend a night or two, as the Sandpiper Inn is offering special romantic packages from Friday, February 11th -- Monday, February 14th.

West 144 Route 4 East
Paramus, NJ
(201) 556-1530

A high-ceilinged cavernous expanse (barely) illuminated by hundreds of flickering candles... a profusion of palm trees, ferns, and teak tables... gauze-curtained banquettes awash with velvet pillows... a wall of falling water with a continuous change of colors... Asian throw rugs and bas-relief panels depicting Buddhist prayer rites... the animated cacophonous cooing of the spirited singles scene clustered around a huge mahogany bar... Welcome to SoHo meets Casablanca. Chakra isn't for everyone. But if you enjoy your romantic gastronomic rendezvous imbued with a tinge of mystery and tincture of the exotic, this may be the right address. And chef Edward Lake's New American cuisine with Asian touches does not disappoint. Begin with the extraordinarily tender fried calamari or exceptional steak tartare sporting a garland of chopped egg and then move on to one of the beautifully-crafted pastas, seafood specialties, or the incredibly meaty short ribs of beef. Desserts, I would hasten to add, are every bit as enticing as their predecessors. For Valentine's Day, Chakra will be offering diners a three-course prix fixe at $80.00 per person.

329 Haddon Avenue
Westmont, NJ
(856) 858-9400

Giumarello's is one of those rare and charming eateries with which you strike up a long-term relationship; it woos you back again and again. The restaurant boasts three spacious, well-appointed dining areas, La Piazza for casual outdoor munching in warmer weather, and a cozy bar/lounge that also features a completely separate nonsmoking section... And chefs/proprietors Sam, Jr., and Gian Giumarello's excellent northern Italian cuisine with Neapolitan subtitles -- sampled by this reviewer on numerous occasions over the years -- just keeps getting better and better. You won't find a more satisfying starter than Melanzane Florentine, thin slices of eggplant wrapped around fresh spinach and rich ricotta cheese and topped with a benchmark marinara. You also can't go wrong with the feathery house-made gnocchi, ravioli del giorno (ravioli of the day), or succulent Maine mussels. Veal, in its various incarnations, is a specialty here. The kitchen also excels with finny fare, proffering such worthy contenders as salmon, swordfish, and sea bass marinated, grilled, and teamed up with a host of savory sauces or presented in their natural juices.  And be sure to save room for Chef Gian's scrumptious homemade desserts. On Valentine's Day, Giumarello's will be serving their regular à la carte menu.

39 North Main Street
Cranbury, NJ

(609) 655-3220

The atmosphere is decidedly romantic... The converted old house boasts three cozy dining areas -- two down, one up -- polished wood floors, subdued lighting, votive candles, well-spaced tables, and crisp white napery. And since Cranbury has never been known as a bastion of gastronomy, Hannah & Mason's contemporary American cuisine fills the gourmet gap quite nicely. Chef Chris Posner's culinary offerings, which sport a number of intriguing international nuances, are creative yet comfortable; they succeed in engaging both the eye and the palate without alienating those who may possess less adventurous appetites. On a cold winter's night, the soup of the day is always a solid opening move. Whether an earthy pottage of portobello or coarsely-puréed tomato bisque awash with rice and tiny morsels of prosciutto, you will find both intensely flavorful and immensely satisfying. On the other hand, who can resist the considerable charms of the fresh mozzarella Napoleon or bacon-wrapped scallops? For your main course, the honey-glazed duck is highly recommended, as are the almond-crusted rack of lamb, filet mignon au gratin, and the pistachio salmon. Given the diminutive size of the kitchen, a majority of the desserts are imported from off campus. However, the crème brûlée -- in whatever guise it may appear on a given evening -- is made in house and is always a sure winner. Although Hannah & Mason's will not be serving dinner on Monday, February 14th, the restaurant will be celebrating Valentine's Day on Friday and Saturday, February 11th and 12th. The regular à la carte menu will be featured, as well as a number of romantic specials pour deux. BYOB.

103 Church Street
New Brunswick, NJ
(732) 545-6100
Cuisine: Country French

Panico's has long been a personal favorite for special occasions and close culinary encounters of the romantic kind. Sporting mirrored walls, subdued peach-tone décor, and fresh flowers, the ambiance is both elegant and sophisticated. And service, majoring in the Old World tradition of tableside preparations, is uncompromisingly professional. You and your spouse/significant other are bound to feel special here, cozy and pampered... and this is due in no small measure to the superior quality of the regional Italian cuisine. The kitchen utilizes only the finest ingredients, and the combinations are both bold and flavorful. Pasta dishes, which are also available as half-portions, make marvelous starters... ditto the creamy, beautifully textured risotto. Piscatorial pleasures abound here, so be sure to sample the grilled whole fish of the day, various incarnations of salmon, or the pan-seared pepper-crusted sushi-grade tuna. And carnivores may revel in the osso bucco or grilled filet mignon. The show-stopping desserts are not to be missed, and there is also a first-class wine list to complement your evening at table. On Valentine's Day, Panico's will be featuring their regular à la carte menu with seatings at 5:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m.

500 West White Horse Pike
Egg Harbor City, NJ
(609) 965-3303

Sequestered along a quiet stretch of Route 30, just a few short miles from the hustle and bustle of Atlantic City's casinos, Jack & Toni Cordivari's Tre Figlio is a charming little gem that is superlatively suited for those who wish to add a touch of sophisticated serenity to their Valentine's Day celebration. The restaurant is a beautifully appointed, intimate space replete with a comfortable bar, award-winning wine list, and first-class service. And the cuisine, like the ambiance, is truly transporting; this is casually elegant dining at its finest. Antipasti include such exemplary offerings as a benchmark bruschetta, carpaccio served with horseradish cream and roasted peppers, and shrimp Antoinette, crunchy crustaceans in a lemon butter sauce with capers and red peppers over arugula. Entrée-wise, make it a point to sample the swordfish alla puttanesca or the house signature dish, a double-cut veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella cheese. Conclude your evening with the house-made almond biscotti or luscious ricotta cheesecake. On February 14th, Tre Figlio will be serving their regular à la carte menu supplemented by daily specials.

1790 Springfield Avenue
Maplewood, NJ
(973) 378-8990

Chef Charles Tutino and his wife and co-proprietor, Jane Witkin, offer a dining experience that is wonderfully profound in its simplicity. Ms. Witkin, whose grace and charm permeate the front of the house, has embellished the restaurant's interior in precisely the same manner. The off-white walls receive just the proper splash of color from the paintings of Mary Andrews and other local artists, tables and comfortably cushioned chairs are well spaced, and the deep brown carpeting keeps the noise level to a minimum. This is a dining room for adults: stylish, sedate, and sophisticated but not at all intimidating... ditto Mr. Tutino's cuisine, which is Gallic to the core but decidedly unfussy. This is French bistro fare with an urbane, cosmopolitan flair. Ingredients are impeccably fresh, presentations direct and straightforward, portions ample but not prodigious. Escargots bourguignon, plump snails served out of the shell in a ceramic crock, makes an auspicious starter, as does the extraordinary duck liver terrine. Entrées include a luscious roast chicken with tarragon, grilled yellowfin tuna and portobello mushroom, shell steak au poivre, and sautéed calf's liver. Denouements offer an array of classic desserts and assorted cheeses. On February 14th, Verjus will feature their regular menu supplemented by a number of Valentine's Day specials, including such romantic accoutrements as giant strawberries dipped in chocolate and pears poached in Beaujolais.

36 Prospect Street
Ridgewood, NJ
(201) 445-2914

Village Green began life as a tearoom-cum-restaurant, was transformed into a highly regarded American eatery under the co-proprietorship of Linda Schmitt and Thomas Goodman and, subsequently, following Mr. Goodman's untimely death in 2003, reincarnated yet again with Ms. Schmitt at the helm and Arthur Toufayan as the power behind the stove. The third time will undoubtedly prove to be the charm. Mr. Toufayan, an alumnus of the CIA and former sous-chef at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in New York City, brings a certain cosmopolitan culinary flair to the party. His cuisine is foundationally American but freely incorporates French, Italian, Asian, and Middle Eastern nuances. Just be prepared. À la carte is passé here. Mr. Toufayan sends forth a seasonally changing array of four-, five-, or seven-course gastronomic extravaganzas to tempt the palate. Your journey may begin, for example, with Hudson Valley foie gras or tuna tartare and then progress through one of the elegant soups and the fish course before reaching the bold flavors and textures inherent in tender slices of muscovy duck or Australian lamb. A sampling of artisanal cheeses and/or elegant desserts will provide the appropriate consummatory touches. Couples are certain to find the two intimate European-style candlelit dining rooms most inviting. On February 14th, Village Green will be serving a five-course tasting menu. BYOB.

141 Stirling Road
Watchung, NJ
(908) 755-9344

Water and Wine is brought to you by Messrs. Chris and John Tocci, who are also proprietors of La Griglia, an excellent and extremely popular Italian seafood grill located on the Boulevard in Kenilworth. The water, of course, refers to the lovely view of Werner's Lake; the wine, to the world-class selection of Italian vintages -- both of which are certain to add immeasurably to your Valentine's Day dining experience. Like La Griglia, the cuisine here is predominantly Italian with a strong emphasis on seafood. The raw bar, for example, features lobster, shrimp, and crab cocktails, as well as oysters and littleneck clams. You might also consider the classic Caesar salad, mushrooms stuffed with lump crabmeat and finished with a first-class chardonnay sauce, or sautéed shrimp and scallops in the distinguished company of wild mushrooms, asparagus, roasted garlic, and diced plum tomatoes. Entrées include a wonderful potato-crusted red snapper, grilled yellowfin tuna dusted with Cajun spices, or the kitchen's magnum opus, an incomparable -- and gargantuan -- zuppa di pesce. Confirmed carnivores, on the other hand, may indulge themselves in the veal chop Milanese, rack of lamb, or porterhouse steak. And be sure to leave room for Sherri Lepore's outstanding desserts. On February 14th, Water and Wine will be serving their regular à la carte menu.

112 Tomahawk Trail
Sparta, NJ
(973) 726-7226

With Seneca Lake now filled to 70% capacity, Zoe's by the Lake is truly Zoe's by the Lake. But as I mentioned in my original review (7/28/03), even if Zoe's overlooked nothing more scenic than asphalt, it would still be worth a journey. Marla Saben and her husband, Jean-Charles, a native of Paris, preside over a light and airy space replete with lively yellow walls, balcony, and diminutive bar. And executive chef Scott Jacobson's incomparable French cooking has placed this lovely establishment ever-so-prominently in the little black books of New Jersey's knowledgeable and enthusiastic foodies. Mr. Jacobson's culinary combos strike all the right chords: ingredients are pristine of countenance and superbly prepared; and presentations are attractive amalgams of colors, tastes, and textures without being self-indulgently "artsy." And so you begin... perhaps with the seared spiced tuna accompanied by chipolte aîoli, wild mushroom tart, or pan-seared foie gras. Entrées, of course, are no less edifying: grilled filet mignon with roast cauliflower/potato purée consummated with a zippy zinfandel sauce; garlic and herb roasted free-range chicken breast in the company of squash fritters finished with a rosemary jus; roasted black sea bass embellished with a fingerling potato, crabmeat, and roast shallot cake. Should you be feeling chipper and chocoholic, be sure to conclude your evening with the cast-your-caloric-fate-to-the-wind chocolate sampler. On the other hand, should your mood be more contemplative and classical, you would do well to avail yourself of the excellent cheese tasting. On Monday, February 14th, Zoe's will be serving from 5:00 p.m. -- 9:00 p.m. and will feature the regular à la carte menu plus a number of Valentine's Day specials.

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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