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Top Ten Romantic Dining 2008
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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...

27 Mine Brook Road (Route 202)
Bernardsville, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 766-0002


With its handsome lobby, comfortable piano bar, and cozy candlelit tables, the Bernards Inn is a perennial favorite of those who enjoy indulging in a sedate and sophisticated touch of gastronomic romanticism. And executive chef Corey Heyer’s superlative contemporary American cuisine is the perfect complement to the amorous ambiance. Provocative starters include prosciutto-wrapped black mission figs teamed with Rogue Creamery blue cheese & apple cider balsamic reduction; roasted royal trumpet mushroom tart; and coriander-spiced tuna sashimi presented with fresh wasabi and a pomegranate reduction. For your main course, be sure to try the crispy slow-cooked suckling pig, black trumpet-crusted halibut, organic Scottish salmon finished with scotch & lobster cream, or the impeccably prepared prime tenderloin of beef with sauce Bordelaise. Desserts are something of a must here, as is a selection from wine director Terri Baldwin’s award-winning catalog of vintages. On February 14th, the Bernards Inn will be serving a 3-course prix-fixe menu beginning at 5:30 p.m. The price is $105.00 per person and also includes an assortment of chocolate truffles for each couple created by pastry chef Duane Hendershot. Romantic overnight packages are also available.

754 Franklin Avenue
Franklin Lakes, NJ
(201) 891-6644

Tucked away in the easily missed Franklin Square Shopping Center, sharing space with a Dunkin’ Donuts and rubbing elbows with a Chinese takeout, the Chef’s Table doesn’t look like much from the outside. The interior, however, is cozy and intimate, replete with etched glass panels, a variety of oil paintings, plethora of copper pots & pans, and a delightful collection of curios. And chef/proprietor Claude Baills’ comforting and comfortable French bistro fare is a stylish as it is substantive. Start things off with a hearty shepherd’s salad – an appetizing kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and textures crowned with an invigorating sherry vinaigrette – or, perhaps, tender spears of steamed asparagus sprinkled with sautéed mushrooms and surrounded by a pool of beurre blanc. For your entrée, choose from one of the Table’s plats du jour: sautéed calf’s liver, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, or Dover sole. Among the desserts, the warm thin French apple tart, tart Tatin made with apples and pears, and the crème brûlée are all benchmark. A diminutive jewel that provides the perfect venue for intimate, romantic dining. On Valentine’s Day, the Chef’s Table will be offering its regular à la carte menu. As of this writing, only 5:30 p.m. seatings are available. BYOB.

1449 Irving Street
Rahway, Union County, New Jersey
(732) 388-6677


When it comes to romantic dining, David Drake is hard to beat... In point of fact, it was my wife's first choice for the celebration of her birthday. The boutique 50-plus-seat establishment boasts gleaming hardwood floors and rustic beams & exposed bricks counterpoised by colorful modern paintings and soft, subdued lighting. The charming ambiance notwithstanding, it is Mr. Drake's extraordinarily innovative American fare with international flair that remains the main drawing card here. His creamy organic cauliflower soup is infused with tender leeks and sweet Maine crabmeat, and his cannelloni of smoked salmon is replete with remoulade and radish salads and American caviar. For your main course, be sure to try the deep sea diver scallops bathed in parsley sauce, braised short ribs with potato and onion dumplings, or loin of lamb "La Planche." You will find the tasting of artisanal cheeses utterly irresistible and the wine list exceptionally well focused. David Drake's Valentine's Day celebration will extend from Monday, February 12th through Wednesday, February 14th. A five-course tasting menu will be offered (with choices for each course) at $95.00 per person; $140.00 per person with optional wine pairings (plus tax and gratuity).

Virginia Hotel
25 Jackson Street
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-5700

There are numerous cozy gastronomic possibilities for lovers in this beautiful Victorian community… but none as irresistibly romantic as the Ebbitt Room. Tucked 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 chef Andrew J. Carthy, known for his subtle integration of the freshest possible ingredients, will delight both the eye and the palate. Begin with such intriguing appetizers as butternut squash soup embellished with smoked trout, stewed apples, and pancetta; calamari with lime-ginger aîoli and organic baby greens; and seared New York State foie gras in the company of golden raisin polenta, fig jam, and heady red wine reduction. For your main course, select from such delicacies as potato-crusted Chatham cod, pistachio-dusted local scallops, grilled hanger steak with scallion mashed potatoes, or an incomparable vegetable and chanterelle risotto. Desserts include chocolate truffle cake, steamed sticky toffee pudding, and a variety of homemade ice creams and sorbets. On February 14th, the Ebbitt Room will present a 4-course tasting menu priced at $65.00 per person /$100.00 per person with appropriate wine pairings.

47b State Road (Route 206 North)
Princeton, NJ


Rubbing shoulders with a dry cleaner, video emporium, and convenience store in a well-worn strip mall, Gennaro’s exterior isn’t particularly prepossessing. Once across the threshold, however, you’re in a different world. The light and airy precincts charm patrons with stucco walls, terra cotta tile, and lace window panels enlivened with colorful draperies. The osso buco, which is not listed on the printed menu, but which is usually available, is a superlative effort. The tender veal is of incomparable quality, enveloped in a rich and intensely flavorful reduction, and perfectly complemented by a creamy risotto. The tilapia al fresco – a sautéed filet stuffed with chopped fresh tomatoes, kiss of fresh mozzarella & baby spinach, and baked in a light scampi sauce – is another sure winner, as is the pappardelle Bolognese, homemade pasta basking in a luxurious amalgam of veal, beef & pork. To start things off, the broccoli rabe and sausage is first-rate, as is the zucchini rollatine, delicates slices embraced by an ethereal batter, rolled with Prosciutto de Parma and fresh mozzarella, and enhanced with a light tomato sauce. As a fitting closure to your evening at table, be sure to try the house-made gelati of the day. On February 14th Gennaro’s will be offering a special prix-fixe menu. BYOB.

Eagle Rock Reservation
West Orange, NJ
(973) 731-3463


The view has always been magnificent, a panorama of the Manhattan skyline that is an indisputably romantic feast for eye from the George Washington Bridge to the Verranzano-Narrows. The gastronomy, on the other hand, could never quite live up to this spectacular vista. Not until recently that is. With the arrival Mitchell Altholz, the former chef/proprietor of Jocelyne’s in Maplewood, this idyllic scene now has some exceedingly strong culinary competition. Seductive starters include a sumptuous Maine lobster salad fortified with a celestial truffle-Tahitian vanilla emulsion, a creamless wild mushroom soup awash with tender asparagus tips, and a jumbo lump crabmeat salad counterpoised by a zesty mango-mustard sauce and mellifluous avocado mousse. Among the entrées, the Halibut caressed by a delicate syrah sauce is a standout… ditto the Atlantic Maine salmon with herb spaetzle and lobster sauce. And carnivores can revel in the roasted rack of lamb, grilled filet mignon with a heady Bordeaux wine reduction, or loin of venison finished with red currant sauce. Desserts also deserve serious consideration, as does the excellent wine list. On Valentine’s Day, the Highlawn Pavilion will be serving a special 4-course prix-fixe priced at $79.00 per person.

4 Main Street
Hamburg, NJ
(973) 209-0300


If you should find yourself on safari in the wilds of Sussex County in need of civilized physical sustenance, Kaya is an absolutely essential addition to your little black book of restaurant possibilities. On the other hand, you might want to make the gastronomic pilgrimage for its own sake… Yes, Kaya is that good… and a romantic charmer as well. Proprietors Christian Skillen and Phil Prapopulos are always on hand to make certain that your dining experience is a pleasant one, and executive chef Shawn Reid and sous chef Donald Schauger will assuage your palate with their attractive amalgam of Caribbean, French, and Asian cookery. To start things off, I highly recommend the Asian-braised shredded beef presented on a pliable pillow of glass noodles and consummated with a hoisin reduction or, perhaps, the arugula salad tossed with an ingratiating warm bacon vinaigrette. For your entrée, the pan-seared sushi-grade tuna is presented with an exotic black bean, avocado, and tropical fruit salsa; the moist grilled pork chop is finished with mango coulis; and, for a change of pace, be sure to try the vegetable lasagna embellished with Gruyere and Parmesan. The desserts are all homemade, and the outstanding wine list is an oenophile’s dream come true. On February 14th, Restaurant Kaya will be offering its regular à la carte menu supplemented by a number of special appetizers and entrées.

168 Maplewood Avenue
, Essex County, New Jersey
(973) 763-4460


Lorena’s, an enchanting jewel-box located in the very heart of Maplewood Village, is the perfect venue for intimate Valentine’s Day dining. And chef/proprietor Humberto Campos, Jr., offers up an enticing array of upscale French fare with international flair. Mr. Campos, a graduate of the CIA, utilizes only the freshest possible, seasonally-inspired ingredients and weaves them together with verve and imagination. His presentations are artistic without being anachronistic, innovative but not ingenuous. To begin, the locally cultivated organic mushroom risotto with freshly grated Regiano Parmigiano and white truffle oil emulsion is ethereal; and the roasted red, golden, and candy stripe beets are embellished with a breathtaking Roquefort fondant. Among the entrées, the lamb sirloin is utterly superb and consummated with an incomparable red wine-rosemary jus; the remarkably tender hanger steak is caressed by Gorgonzola cream; and Scottish salmon is dusted with black olive powder and companioned by melted snow peas, tomato confit, and provocative fennel purée. Desserts, particularly the homemade ice creams, are excellent… as is the marvelous artisan cheese plate. A truly remarkable dining experience. On Valentine’s Day, Lorena’s will be serving its regular à la carte menu. BYOB.

95 Morristown Road (Route 202)
Basking Ridge, NJ
(908) 221-0017


Vine’s interior is chic and modern, but its reds, blacks, and oranges are nicely counterbalanced by understated tones of gray, beige, and brown. A glass-enclosed wine cabinet graces the foyer, and a separate bar/lounge area is sleek and contemporary yet completely comfortable. And the cuisine, in the capable hands of executive chef Eric Gomez, is Mediterranean in flavor but globally inspired. Among the starters, seafood figures prominently. Tender fried calamari is served with a spicy marinara and tangy lime mousseline; the chilled “colossal” crabmeat cocktail is augmented by both cocktail and scallion-horseradish dipping sauces; and the plump and succulent steamed littlenecks swim to table in a savory tomato broth. For your main course, I would highly recommend the lobster ravioli kissed by an ethereal Champagne emulsion tinctured with wasabi, the potato-crusted red snapper, the first-rate pasta pomodoro, and the sumptuous rack of lamb teamed with horseradish mashed potatoes and a fabulous port wine demi-glace. For dessert, be sure to try the warm chocolate cake with pistachio gelato or the signature biscotti plate comprised of white chocolate, pistachio, and dried cranberries. If you enjoy exceptional cuisine served in warm, romantic surroundings, Vine is certain to meet – and exceed – your lofty expectations. On February 14th, Vine will be serving a 3-course prix-fixe priced at $75.00 per person, with seatings at 5:30, 6:30, 8:30, and 9:30 p.m.

200 Monmouth Avenue
Spring Lake, NJ
(732) 974-9755

Whispers, Nicholas Bruno’s charming little jewel-box, is beguilingly romantic and the quintessential destination for those in search of an amorous gastronomic rendezvous. And the contemporary American cuisine, under the watchful eye of Scott Giordano, is a feast for both the eye and the palate. To start things off, the grilled lamb tenderloin is something of a must, with succulent strips cozying up to a salad of French green lentils and consummation of apricot demi-glace. And the same may be said for the combo of pristinely fresh sautéed shrimp, grilled pita triangles, and a luscious black bean cake, all basking in the glow of a memorable red curry sauce. When it comes time to choose your entrée, bear in mind that the chef prepares fish to perfection. The grilled center-cut swordfish is enhanced with tomato-basil butter, and the North Atlantic flounder filet is finished with an addictive fennel cream sauce. Carnivores may feast on a flavorful New York strip steak finished with a zippy chipotle demi-glace and the grilled double-cut pork chop presented with a pungent applewood smoked bacon barbecue sauce. Whispers has remained remarkably consistent over the course of the years. The cuisine continues to dazzle, the service shines, and the ambiance is irresistibly romantic. On Valentine’s Day, Whispers will be seving a special 4-course prix-fixe menu priced at $69.00 per person, with seatings starting at 5:30 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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