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Top Ten Romantic Dining 2006
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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@verizon.netnet.

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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...

188 Spring Street
Newton, NJ
(973) 300-4192

As you enter, you discover a lovely, diminutive copper-top bar and wine boutique where you may enjoy a special preprandial libation or sample one of the select wines available by the glass. In the cozy main dining area, simple lace curtains adorn the front window while white Casablanca fans suspended from the black pressed-tin ceiling whirl silently overhead. Chef André deWaal's innovative American menu with eclectic subtitles changes fortnightly; but whatever comestibles he may decide to present on a given evening, you may rest assured that your discriminating palate will not be disappointed. Recently sampled was a beautifully grilled wild king salmon set on a seabed of basmati rice awash with crunchy haricots verts & julienne carrots and consummated with a most engaging tarragon beurre blanc. The New York strip steak is another winner. Strappingly robust, it is paired with a decidedly zesty horseradish-mustard sauce that, despite its heady countenance, succeeds in complementing rather than confounding the natural flavor of the beef. Desserts are equally stylish, as is the first-rate wine list. Andre's Restaurant and Wine Boutique invites you to celebrate Valentine's Day early, with a five-course $60.00 per person set menu for lovers only on Sunday, February 12th. On February 14th, the restaurant will offer a choice of four courses at $48.00 and five courses priced at $53.00.

27 Mine Brook Road
Bernardsville, NJ
(908) 766-0002

The Bernards Inn beguiles lovers with its handsome lobby, elegant dining rooms, cozy piano bar, fireplaces, candlelit tables, and crisp white napery. The ambiance is sophisticated yet refreshingly subtle... as is Chef Corey Heyer's contemporary American cuisine. Mr. Heyer succeeds in dazzling both the eye and the palate without resorting to the usual gastronomic glitz and glitter. Begin with such provocative preludes as Hudson Valley foie gras in the company of pumpkin bread, spiced apple, and Calvados caramel, yellowfin tuna sashimi with watermelon radish and pomegranate reduction, or Manchester Farms quail and pistachio couscous. And entrées are no less stylish: Massachusetts day-boat cod accompanied by green lentils and andouille sausage; Nova Scotia lobster with Mediterranean couscous and spicy coconut broth; and a superlative Colorado rack of lamb teamed with Tarbais bean cassoulet, lamb sausage, and rosemary jus. Desserts are outstanding... as is Wine Director Terri Baldwin's award-winning inventory of exceptional vintages. You may also elect to prolong this romantic interlude by spending the night in one of the lovely guestrooms. On February 14th, the Bernards Inn will be serving a special $90.00 per person prix fixe.

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

Very few restaurant openings have been as eagerly anticipated as David Drake's eponymous establishment. And this was one premiere that was well worth waiting for, as the decidedly romantic environs are as engaging to the eye as the cuisine is pleasurable to the palate. The charming ambiance notwithstanding, it is Mr. Drake's extraordinarily innovative American fare with international flair that is the main drawing card here. His charlotte of Maine crab - pristine threads of sweet, succulent crabmeat arranged on a foundation of curried celery root remoulade and crowned with a tiara of papaya and cucumber salad - is a superlative starter... ditto the luxurious shellfish risotto and stylish "Salad of Tender Bibb Lettuce." Entrée-wise, the sautéed skate wing is gently caressed by a flavorful fall spice crust, while the braised pork shoulder and tenderloin enlivened with a provocative plum purée form an incomparable combo. Desserts are surely worth saving room for, as is the utterly irresistible tasting of artisanal cheeses. To perfectly complement your evening at table, there is an exceptionally well-focused wine list, as well as a number of excellent vintages available by the glass. On Friday and Saturday, February 10th and 11th, Restaurant David Drake will feature their regular three-course prix fixe and selection of tasting menus. From Sunday, February 12th - Tuesday, February 14th, Chef Drake will prepare a special five-course tasting menu priced at $89.00 per person.

Atlantic & Pacific Avenues
Atlantic City, NJ

609) 344-1133

In July of 2005, following a dramatic change in ownership and extensive six-month renovation, the new Knife & Fork made its debut. Chef/proprietor Frank Dougherty, whose family has operated the nearby Dock's Oyster House since 1897, succeeded in maintaining the integrity of this AC landmark while, at the same time, imbuing it with thoroughly sophisticated accents. The enclosed porch that provided the backdrop for Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster's lunch in the film Atlantic City has been transformed into a hip martini bar, and the main dining room boasts a Gatsby-era style and elegance, setting the scene for a memorable romantic evening. The menu has also been updated, gently drifting away from the old Continental fare toward the diversified drama of a modern steakhouse. The wood-fired grill is the main attraction, turning out perfectly seared prime-aged steaks and chops. Treasures of the sea, however, have not been neglected. Savor such offerings as pan-roasted halibut, 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 your evening at table, as does the 10,000 bottle wine cellar. On Valentine's Day the Knife & Fork will be serving their regular menu plus a number of select specials.

520 Boulevard
Kenilworth, NJ
(908) 931-0888

Ten intimate tables bathed in the soft, muted glow of recessed lighting... a rustic brick wall... an alluring array of French prints. Charming little bistros like this seem to be found on nearly every street corner in Paris. In this country, however, they are rarities. Given this sad state of affairs, Le Rendez-Vous serves to remind us that extraordinarily fine casual dining is still alive and well in the Garden State. Chef/proprietor Philippe Lievre, who had been the power behind the stove for many years, purchased the restaurant in the spring of 2004. And he and Alexandre Gomes, his chef de cuisine, ably carry on the tradition of serving up superlative French/Mediterranean comestibles in an intimate, decidedly romantic environment. Appetizing preludes include pungently fresh sardines counterpoised by a luscious onion tart and beet vinaigrette, plump baked escargot served with sauce niçoise, velvety seared foie gras presented with a Roquefort fig tart and provocative red currant sauce. Entrées are no less enticing: seared saddle of lamb; braised rabbit in tomato-saffron broth; grilled strawberry grouper; and an incomparable bouillabaisse comprised to tuna, tilapia, black sea bass, snapper, shrimps, scallops, and array of nouveau vegetables. Le Rendez-Vous will be serving a three-course Valentine's dinner on Monday and Tuesday, February 13th & 14th, with seatings at 5:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The cost is $60.00 per person, excluding tax and gratuity. BYOB.

160 Highway 35 South
Red Bank, NJ
(732) 345-9977

The décor is subtle and sophisticated, the service polished but ingratiatingly personable, and the cuisine... Ah, the cuisine... It is utterly transcendent. Many of the culinary presentations are consummated tableside, yet without the usual flamboyant histrionics; all is accomplished with a quiet dignity and singleness of purpose. The food is fresh and vibrant, alive with the symphonic interplay of tumultuous flavors and tantalizing textures. Yet there is simplicity here... a clarity. You will find no ostentatiously lengthy catalog of ingredients, no contrived architectural gargoyles assaulting the eye while leaving the palate wanting. The culinary artistry is readily apparent, but it is the artistry of reasoned restraint... of purity of form and of substance. The restaurant also features a remarkable and prodigious prospectus of rare and fine wines that is sure to inspire even the most dedicated oenophilist. Nicholas and Melissa Harary are to be commended for providing their patrons with the finest dining experience the Garden State has to offer. On Valentine's Day, Nicholas will be serving a special three-course menu priced at $85.00 per person. Dinner will include a special box of chocolates prepared by pastry chef Anne Renk. A special menu will also be served on Saturday - Monday, February 11th - 13th.

103 Church Street
New Brunswick, NJ
((732) 545-6100

Step into Panico's and you step back in time. This is what fine restaurant dining used to be - and should be again. There's a definitive touch of elegance here: soft, subdued lighting, mirrored walls, rich hues of salmon & pecan, and a single rose gracing each table. And Nestor Ramos's lusty, seasonally-inspired classic Italian cuisine is the perfect inspiration for those in search of a bit of gastronomic romanticism. Starters include a carpaccio of portabello mushroom and lovely eggplant Napoleon tinctured with basil and splash of aged balsamic vinegar. Entrées are rustic and robust yet beautifully prepared and presented. And the star of the show is undeniably the branzino, a whole Mediterranean sea bass that is grilled, roasted, and filleted tableside. Also not to be missed are the benchmark osso buco and the luscious medallions of veal accompanied by truffle mashed potatoes and finished with a heady port wine sauce. Desserts are not for the faint of appetite. Especially recommended is the Strudel alle Fragole, phyllo dough filled with strawberries, mascarpone, and ricotta and garnished with vanilla gelato and decadent caramel sauce. Even after 18 years, Panico's remains a class act in every sense of the word. For that special occasion, or any occasion, this delightful restaurant continues to be the choice of knowledgeable and discriminating diners. On Valentine's Day, this fine restaurant will offer three seatings at 5:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m. & 9:00 p.m. and will feature their regular à la carte menu plus a select number of dinner specials.

1114 Route 173
Asbury, NJ
(908) 238-0018

Located just off Route 78 in Hunterdon County, Carmine and Jill Castaldo's RosaLuca's Italian Bistro is cozy, comfortable, and just the proper venue for those who prefer more sedate surroundings for their romantic gastronomic encounters. The interior is simple but homey, adorned with family photographs and crisp white napery. Mr. Castaldo's seasonally-inspired cuisine, however, is far from simplistic. The chef uses only the freshest possible ingredients - most of which are gleaned from the restaurant's 10-acre gardens and greenhouses - to prepare his extraordinarily creative Italian fare with new American flair. Antipasti include such delicacies as steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with Moretti Lager, chorizo sausage, and tomatoes; flash-fired cornmeal & Parmesan crusted calamari with a spicy tomato caper aïoli; and homemade mozzarella with grape tomatoes, roasted peppers, and basil. For you main course, consider the sautéed shrimp and sea scallops on a seabed of artichoke & sun-dried tomato risotto, veal scallopini stuffed with sweet Italian sausage, or vegetable and wine braised lamb shank presented with barley and roasted butternut squash. The restaurant also boasts a very nice wine list, as well as a fabulous selection of martinis. During Valentine's weekend, RosaLuca's will offer a three-course prix fixe accompanied by live classical music: Friday - Monday, $50.00 per person; Tuesday, February 14th, $75.00 per person (plus tax and gratuity).

Macomber Hotel
727 Beach Avenue
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-8811

Serenely sequestered in the newly renovated Macomber Hotel, you will find the Union Park's two formal dining areas both elegant and spacious, yet not at all intimidating. Rich cherry and mahogany predominate, and large, well-spaced tables are lovingly caressed by candlelight and adorned with fresh flowers. Whether casually attired or decked out in sartorial finery, you are certain to feel at home here. And Executive Chef John Schatz, formerly of Restaurant Maureen and Peter Shields, is certain to beguile you with his seasonally-inspired innovative American offerings. The presentation of Prince Edward Island Mussels swimming in lemon chardonnay butter makes a splendid opening move, as does the panko-encrusted crab cake adorned with a zippy horseradish crème fraîche. Entrées include such provocative possibilities as roasted baby veal chops with white bean cassoulet, halibut in the company of wild mushroom risotto, scallops and prawns companioned by herbed ricotta manicotti and sambuca sauce, and pistou-crusted rack of lamb. Should you be planning a romantic sojourn to this lovely Victorian hamlet, be sure to place the Union Park Dining Room at the very top of your dining agenda. On Valentine's Day, beginning at 5:30 p.m., the restaurant will offer their regular à la carte menu supplemented by a number of select dinner specials.

103 Spring Valley Road
Park Ridge, NJ
(201) 391-2230

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. 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. Whether you are a restaurant regular or newcomer on the scene, you may rest assured that the welcome will be warm and your evening at table a most pleasant experience. The cuisine here isn't about innovation... it's about tradition. The classic Italian offerings are lovingly prepared and served up in generous portions at reasonable prices. You would do well to begin with the Pappardelle Filetto di Pomodoro - homemade wide noodles caressed by a fresh and intensively flavorful tomato sauce embellished with basil, garlic, virgin olive oil, and prosciutto - or, perhaps, the ethereal homemade gnocchi. Entrées include an excellent filet of sole marechiaro, rolled and poached in a light tomato/clam broth, shrimp fra diavolo, and melt-in-your-mouth medallions of sautéed liver garnished with onions, bacon, and touch of balsamic vinegar. On February 14th, Valentino's will be serving their regular à la carte menu with a select number of dinner specials.

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