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Top Ten of the Year 2003
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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.

AMEA
1990 Route 70 East
Cherry Hill, NJ
(856) 874-0063
Cuisine: Mediterranean

Although sequestered away in the suburban Village Walk Shopping Center, Amea is decidedly "downtown," sporting an ambiance that is both cozy and charismatic. In addition to the dining area, which accommodates approximately forty patrons, there are also an additional six seats at the counter, where you may easily strike up a spirited conversation with chef/proprietor Eric Gantz as he goes about the task of preparing his savory Mediterranean cuisine. Appetizers cut a rather wide culinary swath, and all are quite recommendable. The hummus bitaheni is appropriately rustic, redolent of spices, and treats the tongue to a pleasantly potent after burn. The eggplant and goat cheese lasagna surrounded by a rich, savory sea of marinara is another appealing prelude. For your main course, be sure to try the Greek angel hair pasta, salmon with artichoke hearts, braised fennel, and roasted tomato, or the lamb tagine. Breads and an array of sophisticated dessert creations are courtesy of Robert Bennett's Miel Patisserie, located just a few doors away. BYOB

BULA WORLD CUISINE
134 Spring Street
Newton, NJ
(973) 579-7338
Cuisine: Global

You enter a narrow storefront, a former coffeehouse, and your eyes are immediately assaulted by a heterogeneous hodge-podge of works of art, photographs, antiques, a wall adorned with a Jackson Pollock look-alike drop cloth, and a bustling open kitchen. In the adjoining "b-lounge," you discover a larger-than-life statue of Homer, a one-time resident of Harvard University, holding court. Bula is funky and fun, a bit of Greenwich Village or SoHo tucked away on the quiet main drag of the Sussex County seat. Despite the eccentric environs, however, the chief topic of patrons' palaver is likely to be chef/proprietor Bradley Boyle's extraordinary globetrotting vittles. Start things off with grilled tortilla triangles crowned with melted Gorgonzola cheese and sweet onion jam or the incredible Caribbean shrimp cakes fired up with chipotle remoulade and cooled down with a mango-pineapple salsa. Entrées present such intriguing possibilities as chickpea vindaloo, herb-crusted pork, bul kogi beef, a savory Korean specialty, and scallops with baby spinach and jasmine rice. Delicious desserts and live jazz complete the delightful scenario. A winner in every respect! BYOB.

ESTY STREET
86 Spring Valley Road
Park Ridge, NJ
(201) 307-1515
Web Site: www.estystreet.com
Cuisine: Creative American

From the very first moment, you are going to like Esty Street: the dark wood paneling awash with a mélange of mirrors; the cozy, diminutive bar; the crisp white napery. And while proprietor Scott Tremble, dining room manager Larry Dunlap, and a personable & professional team of veteran servers keep you happy at the front of the house, executive chef Jack Mistretta will assuage your appetite with his substantive yet stylish American cuisine. Chef Mistretta's appetizers are especially noteworthy. The chilled jumbo lump crabmeat salad presented in a crispy wonton basket is embellished with a zesty sambal (chili/lime) aïoli, and the plump & sweet littleneck clams are thoroughly invigorated in a white wine parsley broth imbued with white beans and savory morsels of chorizo sausage. Entrée-wise, be sure to sample the grilled salmon crowned with a tiara of foie gras butter or the filet mignon locked in the enthusiastic embrace of a heady cabernet sauce. The homemade ice creams and sorbets are superb, as is the excellent wine list. Now celebrating its eleventh anniversary, Esty Street continues to parlay exceptional cuisine, impeccably professional service, and comfortable, pleasant surroundings into a totally beguiling dining experience.


JOCELYNE'S

168 Maplewood Avenue
Maplewood, NJ
(973) 763-4460
Web Site: www.jocelynesrestaurant.com
Cuisine: French

Jocelyne's, under the loving care of proprietors Chef & Mrs. Mitchell Altholz, is a tiny bit of Paris nestled in the heart of picturesque Maplewood Village. Mr. Altholz, a graduate of the CIA and alumnus of such illustrious kitchens as Maxim's in Paris and Paul Bocuse in Lyon, weaves together an urbane but comfortingly down-to-earth culinary tapestry lovingly and imaginatively imbued with the freshest possible combinations of ingredients. Begin with his decadent rabbit ravioli, perfectly textured pasta pockets luxuriating in a pool of foie gras broth or, perhaps, a warm island of peekytoe crab surrounded by a sumptuous sea of sorrel sauce awash with salsify and mushrooms. For your main course, the American rack of lamb dusted with porcini mushrooms and finished with a perfectly complementary thyme sauce should be at the very top of your dining agenda. But don't neglect matters piscatorial, as all are prepared and presented with a deft and discerning hand: The wild Alaskan king salmon is set on a plush pillow of melted leeks, and the pan-roasted filet of East Coast halibut reclines on a bed of French white beans invigorated with fresh basil sauce. If certain financial considerations prohibit your jetting off to Paris in search of suitably Gallic sustenance, you will find Jocelyne's a most enjoyable - and certainly less expensive - sojourn. BYOB.

PIERRE'S
995 Mount Kemble Avenue
Morristown, NJ
(973) 425-1212
Web Site: www.pierresbistro.com
Cuisine: French/Mediterranean

Pierre's is the quintessential bustling bistro. While MaryBeth Peters manages the always-lively front of the house, her husband and co-proprietor, Michael, aided and abetted by kitchen manager Rebecca Eggert and pastry chef Heather Lattig, turns out an appetizing array of homespun French country classics. Enjoy a preprandial libation at the attractive bar and then take a seat in one of the casually elegant dining rooms and allow Mr. Peters to work his magic. The country terrine accompanied by a sweet/sour Cumberland sauce and zesty celery root remoulade makes an excellent starter. Ditto the Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in a sea of white wine and butter imbued with minced shallots and parsley. Among the entrées, the "Fisherman's Stew," -- tender morsels of monkfish, crunchy shrimp, and plump mussels in a zippy sauce rouille -- is an absolute standout, as is the black sea bass set on a bed of braised cabbage spruced up with diminutive chunks of fresh bacon. Not to be missed, however, is Mr. Peters fabulous roast free-range chicken accented with rosemary. This is the very heart and soul of bistro fare and it is utterly profound in its simplicity. Pierre's sports a carefully conceived, moderately priced wine list and a number of excellent vintages available by the glass. Whether dining for business or pleasure, this lively, convivial eatery never disappoints

STAGE HOUSE RESTAURANT & WINE BAR
366 Park Avenue
Scotch Plains, NJ
(908) 322-4224
Web Site: www.stagehouseinn.com
Cuisine: French

The Stage House radiates a welcoming warmth that is a most congenial respite from the often intimidating glitzy decorative ornamentation characterizing many temples of haute cuisine. Dating from 1737, its cozy dining rooms are bathed in the muted glow of miniature lamps and come replete with fireplaces, timbered ceilings, and creaky plank floors. And chef David Drake's modern French gastronomy, like the ambiance, is stylish and sophisticated yet agreeably understated. There are a number of menu options available and, depending upon the state of your appetite and your wallet, all are worthy of consideration. Appetizer highlights include a charlotte of Maine peekytoe crab surrounded by a sea of incomparably sensual saffron-lobster sauce, warm wild mushroom and ricotta tart, and salad of duck confit. Entrées are equally transporting: seared diver Maine scallops finished with a bracing sweet/tart clementine broth; crispy red snapper on a seabed of tomato & baby zucchini risotto; roasted pork tenderloin consummated with an exotic tamari-sesame emulsion. Tim Horst's desserts are simply superlative, as is the world-class wine list. The Stage House Restaurant & Wine Bar is a dining experience that is not to be missed.

3 WEST
665 Martinsville Road
Basking Ridge, NJ
(908) 647-3000
Cuisine: Innovative American

You cross the threshold and leave the stereotypical standard issue strip-mall exterior far behind. 3 West's inner sanctum is a handsome, beautifully designed space abounding with rich woodwork, hardwood floors, glowing fireplaces, and a striking glass-enclosed kitchen. The urbane environs and convivial bar scene may be the initial drawing cards... but it is Bruce Johnson's outstanding innovative American cuisine that will keep knowledgeable diners coming back for more. If you enjoy the bountiful fruits of the sea, you would do well to begin with the perfectly seared honey-spiced shrimp or plump Prince Edward Island mussels swimming in a pungent pool of spicy coconut milk, lemongrass, and cilantro. And there is no need to fear a letdown, as Mr. Johnson's entrées are every bit as engaging as his appetizers. I am particularly fond of the roast duck breast or the wonderful meats and chicken grilled over hardwood charcoal. From the casually sophisticated ambiance, to the knowledgeable personable staff, to the lively bar scene, to the top-notch wine list, to Bruce Johnson's extraordinarily creative cuisine, 3 West is a class act, indeed.

TISHA'S FINE DINING
714 Beach Drive
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-9119
Web Site: www.tishasfinedining.com
Cuisine: New American Fare with Italian Flair

Tisha's bright and airy dining area affords a lovely view of the ocean and beachfront; it also boasts a wall of windows that is gently parted to allow tables to spill out onto the boardwalk for al fresco dining in warmer weather. Ambient attributes notwithstanding, it is chef/proprietor Paul Negro's exceptional cuisine that is the chief drawing card here. And in a community sated with New American victuals, the kitchen's Italian accents succeed in adding a good deal of pizzazz to the usual variety of over-visited gastronomic ports-of-call. The bill of fare features a nice balance of meat, fish, and fowl, with matters piscatorial leading the way in the specialty department. So why not start things off with the blackened shrimp embellished with roasted peppers, goat cheese, kalamata olives, and an invigorating splash of balsamic vinaigrette? But if you happen to be feeling Italian and lyrical, you may wish to indulge in more traditional preludes: bruschetta; escarole and beans sautéed in olive oil; or a special pasta e faglio alive with a wonderfully rich tomato broth. Entrée-wise, be sure to sample the fork-tender veal saltimbocca, Italian pork tenderloin, or the grilled Thai salmon enhanced with a zippy lime sauce. And Brooke Catanosa's delight denouements are equally praiseworthy. Tisha's is an oceanfront dining experience that will charm your senses as well as your palate.

TWO IF BY SEA
141 Shrewsbury Avenue
Red Bank, NJ
(732) 747-1586
Web Site: www.twoifbysea.com
Cuisine: American/Seafood

Ensconced in the space that was home to Sal's Tavern, a convivial watering hole and family-oriented neighborhood "joint" for some sixty years, Two If By Sea's proprietors, Scott Farrar and Vince DeVivio have elected to take a more urbane approach. And while vestiges of the past remain -- the charming antique bar, appropriately dubbed the "Flying Fish Saloon," and adjoining cozy booths and comfortable dining room -- the innovative American cuisine, in the capable hands of Chef Sean Foley, is decidedly upscale. As you have undoubtedly surmised, the noble inhabitants of Davy Jones' locker take center stage here... So why not begin with the marvelous sashimi-grade tuna tartare commingled with cilantro, scallions, chopped tomatoes, and finished with a zippy wasabi-soy vinaigrette? You might also consider the crispy shrimp and scallop spring roll or fried baby calamari as your opening move. Entrées continue the kitchen's creative work, so be sure to try the marvelous pan-roasted Long Island duck breast, pepper-dusted salmon with whipped potatoes and braised fennel, or the grilled "Hereford" rib-eye steak with cabernet demi-glace. In addition to the top-notch cuisine, another reason for paying a call at Two If By Sea is the exceptional catalog of fine vintages, a recipient of the Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence. The restaurant also features a number of interesting wines by the glass, as well as a commendable selection of ports, cognacs, and dessert wines.

ZOE'S BY THE LAKE
112 Tomahawk Trail
Sparta, NJ
(773) 726-7226
Web Site: www.zoesbythelake.com
Cuisine: Country French

As of this writing, Zoe's by the Lake might more aptly be dubbed Zoe's by the "Meadow." This sad state of affairs is the result of the dam that burst during a flood and emptied Seneca Lake. Marla Saben and her husband, Jean-Charles, a native of Paris, were well aware of what had transpired when they purchased the former Tomasso's, a 1940s tavern, with a dream of transforming it into a country French restaurant by a quiet lake. Fortunately for this charming, hard-working couple, their dream will soon be realized, as the refilling of Seneca Lake is scheduled to commence in the spring of 2004. But even if Zoe's, which is named after the couple's three-year-old daughter, were to overlook nothing more scenic than asphalt, it would still be worth a journey. And it is surely executive chef Scott Jacobson's incomparable French cooking that is destined to place this charming restaurant ever-so-prominently in the little black books of New Jersey's knowledgeable and enthusiastic foodies. So begin... perhaps with an exquisite sautéed crab cake partnered with roast corn salad and pungent red pepper coulis, homemade fettuccini with morels & porcini mushrooms, or baby beet and goat cheese salad. And main courses are every bit as scintillatingly soul-satisfying as their predecessors. The classic grilled breast of free-range chicken is carved into thick, sensuous slices and finished with a savory tarragon sauce. The glazed pork tenderloin is another superlative effort, as is the filet mignon, potato-crusted flounder, and grilled swordfish swimming in a roast garlic/lemon broth. Although open just one year, Zoe's by the Lake has already captured the hearts of its ever-growing clientele -- this reviewer included... And you, too, are surely destined to fall under its spell.

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