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Top Ten of the Year 2002
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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@worldnet.att.net.

BRUSCHETTA RISTORANTE
292 Passaic Avenue
Fairfield, NJ
(973) 227-6164
Cuisine: Creative Italian

Bruschetta is an altogether elegant eatery. And chef/owner Michael Frodella's creative Italian cuisine is as sleek and alluring as the tasteful décor. Indeed, Mr. Frodella has fashioned a dining experience that is decidedly sophisticated yet keeps its fiscal feet planted firmly on moderately-priced terra firma. The top-notch wine list, which features excellent representatives from both Italy and California, also sports some very reasonable tariffs... So a preprandial sampling of libations in the cozy bar is very much in order. Once settled in at table, you discover that the chef's seafood appetizers are especially noteworthy. Ahi tuna carpaccio embellished with grilled mushroom salad and zesty basil-wasabi vinaigrette is bold, beautiful, and outlandishly delicious. The exquisite marriage of temperatures, tastes, and textures makes this eye-catching starter an absolute must on your dining agenda. Also not to be missed are the Manila clams and Prince Edward Island mussels swimming in a heady roasted garlic clam broth. Entrées present a host of pleasant piscatorial possibilities, along with a superior veal "Bruschetta" and an outstanding array of pasta dishes. Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Susan Chiusano, are hearty of countenance yet exceptionally cultured. A winner in every respect.

THE FROG AND THE PEACH
29 Dennis Street at Hiram Square
New Brunswick, NJ
(732) 846-3216
Cuisine: New American

The Frog and The Peach has taken its rightful place as the distinguished elder statesman of innovative American cookery in the Garden State. But this fine establishment would never be accused of resting on its laurels. With Chef Bruce Lefebvre at the helm, the food manages to remain gastronomically challenging without becoming idiosyncratic. You may wish to begin with the chicken terrine adorned with a red onion & pistachio compote and a colorful mix of greenery lightly tossed with an ebullient sherry vinaigrette. And a superb spinach salad reaps the benefits of roasted sweet bell peppers, herb-cured black olives, and Coach Farms goat cheese. Main courses are cleverly complex, but the various ingredients complement rather than contradict; they manage to coalesce into a seamless gestalt without losing their individual identities. The grilled breast of Long Island duckling is wrapped in the tender embrace of an ethereal port wine sauce, and the tenderloin of beef set on a pillow of sautéed Swiss chard is a carnivore's dream come true. Sporting an exceptional wine list and a definitive sense of style, The Frog and The Peach remains one of New Jersey's most delightful and satisfying dining destinations.

FROMAGERIE
26 Ridge Road
Rumson, NJ
(732) 842-8088
Cuisine: French

During the year 2002, Rumson's Fromagerie, one of New Jersey's most prestigious and popular eateries, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. And in the fragile, often heartbreaking restaurant world where ephemerality is more the rule than the exception, this is no mean feat. Part of the reason for this establishment's longevity, of course, is clearly attributable to the unstinting devotion of its proprietors, Hubert and Marcus Peter. Hubert still keeps a watchful eye on the back of the house, butchering all the restaurant's meat and making certain that the kitchen remains on track. Marcus, suave and urbane, greets old friends and new acquaintances with equal congeniality and monitors the prodigious award-winning wine list. And under the auspices of executive chef Charles J. Meyer III, the incomparable cuisine exhibits an exquisitely crafted lusty rusticity that is as physically satisfying as it is aesthetically agreeable. All entrées -- whether meat, fish, or fowl -- are robust yet refined... and their attending sauces and accoutrements, despite their invigorating and energetic presence, still manage to caress rather than smother the objects of their affection. If you are planning a special evening à deux, restaurant Fromagerie remains one of the Garden State's premier dining destinations. Go for the cozy nook adjacent to the first floor dining area, or do your best to snare table eighteen in the bar/lounge. A truly enchanting evening awaits.


HARLEQUIN CAFÉ

322 South Main Street
Wharton, NJ
(973) 366-8154
Cuisine: Northern Italian

Although sequestered away in the hinterlands of Morris County, the Harlequin Café is surely worthy of a visit, as it is one of the few Garden State eateries that successfully blends an intimate atmosphere with a solid array of excellent vittles without breaking the bank. Lovers with an incurable gastronomic bent would do well to allow this charming establishment to provide the culinary centerpiece for their romantic weekend getaway. Chef Rudmar Vitche's food would never be accused of being wildly innovative, but it seems just right for the ambiance: cozy and comforting with a cautious tinge of creativity added to the familiar mix. And a suitable starting point is the salsiccia casalinga, a delightfully robust combo of grilled sweet Italian sausage, onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and plum tomatoes that have been gently sautéed in olive oil. The poached littleneck clams and the various pasta presentations are also highly recommended starters. When it comes to seafood items, the chef has a penchant for baking his finny fare in a delicately seasoned pignoli/herb crust. The tilapia is prepared in this manner, as is the filet of sole... and both are accented with a lively Dijon mustard caper sauce. Mr. Vitche also has a way with the "other white meat," so pork is always a good choice here. Whether in search of a romantic tête á tête or just a casual evening at table with family and friends, the Harlequin Café should remain high on your dining agenda.

LE RENDEZ-VOUS
520 Boulevard
Kenilworth, NJ
(908) 931-9244
Cuisine: French/Mediterranean

Ten intimate tables bathed in the soft, muted glow of recessed lighting... a rustic brick wall... a beguiling array of French prints. Incredible bistros like this seem to be found on nearly every street corner in Paris. In this country, however, they are rarities, indeed. Amid the plastic glitz and glitter of our all-too-impoverished restaurant experiences, Le Rendez-vous serves to remind us that extraordinarily fine casual dining is still alive and well in the Garden State. No matter what your predilection on a given evening, chef Sami Elsawi's exquisite French/Mediterranean fare will not disappoint. So why not begin at the summit...? The lightly seared and utterly sensual foie gras is set on islands of Riesling polenta and surrounded by a sybaritic sea of fig/porto sauce dotted with atolls of fresh fig halves. A decadent and delicious indulgence. Entrées are alive with the scintillating scent of the sea. And, when it is available, nothing quite matches the bouillabaisse Marseillaise -- tasty chunks of salmon, tuna, sea bass, and shrimp swimming in a light and flavorful broth -- a wonderfully exciting rendition of this venerable classic. Raid your cellar or pick a winner from your local wine merchant, as the cuisine at this classy BYOB is worthy of the very best the fruit of the vine has to offer.

MAHOGANY GRILLE
142 Main Street
Manasquan, NJ
(732) 292-1300
Cuisine: Eclectic/Fusion

True to its namesake, rich, dark wood is very much in evidence, both in the stylish bar area and in the chic dining room accented with hanging Tiffany-style lamps and cushy patterned chairs and banquettes. This lovely eatery burst onto the New Jersey dining scene in the summer of '01 like a culinary comet... and the brightness of its cuisine, in the capable hands of executive chef Christopher Ross, shows no signs of abating. Start things off with the chef's magnum opus, incomparably crisp spring rolls stocked with shredded vegetables and accompanied by an exotic citrus-soy dipping sauce. Of course, the grilled antipasto -- layers of eggplant, zucchini, and peppers surrounded by a kalamata olive tapenade -- is also an excellent choice. Entrées, whether meat, fish, or fowl, are absolutely first-rate. Extraordinarily tender grilled veal paillards are interspersed with a variety of garden vegetables, accompanied by a sprinkling of horseradish pommes frites, and finished with a heady red wine syrup. Delicate melt-in-your-mouth slices of roasted duck breast arrive in the complementary company of a crisp moo shoo pancake basket filled with a warm salad of duck confit, carrots, yellow peppers, scallions, and red onion. The chaperone is a delightfully perky plum sauce. Although located at the Jersey Shore, the Mahogany Grille is a restaurant that is worthy of a gastronomic pilgrimage during any season of the year.

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

The moment you catch a glimpse of the stately 150-year-old brick structure, a former Friends meetinghouse, you sense that this will not be business as usual. Inside you discover four diminutive dining rooms replete with two fireplaces, polished plank floors, and crisp white napery. Ingratiating the surroundings may be, but it is the superlative cuisine that is guaranteed to quicken your culinary pulse. Executive chef Alex Capasso strikes just the proper chord between the customary and the creative. Presentations are attractive and innovative, yet they don't overwhelm either the eye or the palate with a host of farcical and superfluous ingredients. Appetizers are utterly hedonistic. Feathery handmade potato gnocchi swim in a celestial sea of beurre de tomatoes and are lightly sprinkled with morsels of fresh mozzarella. Three beautifully seared diver scallops are set on a seabed of mashed avocado, topped with a tiny tangle of baby greens, and surrounded by dots and dashes of a creamy yellow tomato dressing. When it comes to entrées, matters piscatorial are, in my opinion, most worthy of your attention. Pan-roasted halibut reclines gracefully on a savory pillow of lobster potato purée, while the red snapper, steamed to moist perfection, luxuriates in a light but flavorful natural broth. Desserts are every bit the equal of their predecessors, as is an appealing cheese course. BYOB.

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

You enter Nanni Ristorante and step back in time. You have just been transported to a gastronomic galaxy far, far away... where dining is once again a sumptuously satisfying experience... where waiters are proud of their honored profession and excellent service is the rule rather than the exception... and where handcrafted cuisine is lovingly prepared and impressively presented in the Old World tradition. The reason for this elegant eatery's phenomenal success is most certainly attributable to the professional team at the helm. Chef Paolo Gilberto and maître de's Lino Queirolo and Manny Moreira -- all veterans of the dearly departed Archer's in Fort Lee -- purchased Nanni's very early on in its fifteen-year-history and have kept the establishment at the top of its game ever since. There is simply no substitute for experience... and that includes the salad and pasta makers, the gregarious bartender, and many members of the wait staff, all of whom have been on board almost since the opening bell. You would do well to begin with a thick thread of grilled sweet Italian sausage set on a tender bed of sautéed brocoletti de rape replete with roasted cloves of garlic or, perhaps, the linguine tossed with baby shrimp, bay scallops, asparagus, and chopped tomato. Like the appetizers, main courses rely upon time-honored traditions rather than eye-catching innovations. Go for the fork-tender veal scaloppini or the profound simplicity of grilled Boston scrod topped with chopped tomatoes and breadcrumbs. When it comes to dessert, the superlative tiramisù is in a class by itself.

THE PELICAN CLUB
Marquis de Lafayette Hotel
501 Beach Avenue
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-3995
Cuisine: New American with International Accents

Occupying the sixth floor of the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel, the space formerly inhabited by the Top of the Marq, this lofty dining room has received a charming contemporary facelift by brothers 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 and up-to-date as the ambiance. And it only takes one 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 bed of haricots verts, white asparagus, a velvety pillow of whipped potatoes, and consummated with a chive nage. The sautéed red snapper is kissed by a delicate ginger-carrot sauce and finds an invigorating counterpoint in a spicy sweet potato cake. Desserts -- a stellar macadamia nut cheesecake engaged in a delicious ménage à trois with a sweet coconut anglaise and tangy blood orange coulis, and a homespun banana bread pudding in the loving embrace of sensuous chocolate and caramel sauces -- succeed in taking sometimes all-too-typical denouements one step beyond. Bright, breezy, and less formal in tone than its venerable elder sibling, the Pelican Club continues to provide patrons with Cape May's best view... and some of its best cuisine as well.

VERJUS
1790 Springfield Avenue
Maplewood, NJ
(973) 378-8990
Cuisine: French

Chef Charles Tutino and his wife and co-proprietor, Jane Witkin, have put together a dining experience that is wonderfully exhilarating 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 at a minimum. This is a dining room designed for adults: stylish, sophisticated, sedate, but not at all intimidating... Ditto Mr. Tutino's cuisine, which is Gallic to the core but decidedly unfussy. Ingredients are impeccably fresh, presentations direct and straightforward, portions ample but not prodigious; all is in perfect harmony. Begin your culinary journey with a velvety textured duck liver terrine or the sugar and salt cured gravlax sprinkled with fines herbes, embellished with capers & a red onion confit, and drizzled with a Dijon mustard honey sauce. Entrées include an outstanding saddle of Australian lamb, a hanger steak that reaps the benefits of a red wine shallot reduction and luscious mound of garlic mashed potatoes, and a salmon filet accompanied by a lovely julienne of wilted cucumbers. Desserts are, in a word, superb... as is the compact reasonably priced wine list. Verjus pulsates with style and panache.

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