TOP TEN OF THE YEAR 2004

 

BERNARDS INN

27 Mine Road (Route 202)

Bernardsville, NJ

(908) 766-0002

www.bernardsinn.com

 

There is absolutely no question that the Bernards Inn is one of the most romantically imbued culinary experiences the Garden State has to offer& Your visit will commence with valet parking and a walk through the tastefully appointed European-style lobby. Following a pleasurable libation in the clubby piano bar, you will undoubtedly be escorted to the rear dining room, an elegant accommodation replete with classic coffered ceiling, discriminating collection of oil paintings, large stone fireplace, meticulous selection of greenery, and sea of snowy white napery. And you need not fear, in the midst of such ambient amenities, that the kitchens reach will exceed its grasp. Chef Corey Heyers contemporary American cuisine is, like the sophisticated surroundings, stylish but decidedly understated. To begin your evening at table, nothing matches the sensuously silky texture of Hudson Valley foie gras in the loving embrace of sweet corn pancakes and a provocative quince sauce. Entrées include crispy North Atlantic halibut kissed by lemon caper butter and Colorado loin of lamb garnished with pole beans, mango chutney, and a savory jus. The award-winning wine list will add immeasurably to your extraordinary dining experience.

 

BLACK DUCK ON SUNSET

1 Sunset Boulevard

West Cape May, NJ

(609) 898-0100

www.unionparkdiningroom/blackduck.html

 

Chef/owner Christopher Hubert, also the new proprietor of Godmothers just a few doors away, has transformed the old Peaches at Sunset into a bright, breezy, and tastefully unencumbered series of crisp white rooms adorned with classic black and white photographs. But the most significant metamorphoses have taken place in the kitchen. Mr. Hubert and his able chef de cuisine, Chris Crookston, have made dining at the Black Duck a truly memorable and exciting gastronomic experience. The creative American fare with international accents entices& intrigues& but never overwhelms. You may wish to begin with the orange almond salad gently caressed by honey lavender vinaigrette or, perhaps, the more exotic tempura shrimp and vegetables accompanied by miso soup and hot mustard. Main courses are no less superlative: pan-roasted salmon on an island of sweet potato purée surrounded by seductive ginger red wine nage; jumbo lump crab cakes adorned with Yukon gold potatoes; grilled New York strip with an impossible to resist house-made steak sauce. The excellent homemade desserts are also up to the mark. Having just completed its sophomore season, the Black Duck has already established itself as one of the Cape May areas premier dining destinations. BYOB.

 

THE CHOPHOUSE

4 South Lakeview Drive

Gibbsboro, NJ

(856) 566-7300

 

Situated on picturesque Paintworks Lake, The Chophouse is a far cry from the typical dark and murky, testosterone-driven décor of most standard steak emporiums. Faux brick walls and mission-accented woodwork predominate, along with plush leather booths and a lively bar/lounge that has become the newest in spot for the areas Porsche/Lexus/Mercedes/BMW set. Among the starters, seafood is the name of the game. The New Orleans blackened shrimp arrive at table in a mini cast-iron skillet accompanied by a ramekin of sweet pepper remoulade sauce. And the jumbo lump crab puffs  four sweet and succulent nuggets presented with a first-rate house-made tartar sauce  are also highly recommended. When it comes to entrées, red meat is definitely the kitchens strong suit. The 14-ounce New York sirloin is lavishly textured yet mouthwateringly tender and gushing with flavor. And the 12-ounce center-cut filet mignon is pure velvet and possesses infinitely more character than do most representatives of this particular genre. Majoring in red wines, particularly cabernets, the wine list is both impressive and reasonably priced.

 

FAT KAT

201 Main Street

Little Ferry, NJ

(201) 814-0234

 

The venue may strike you as a bit on the iffy side  the Kat cozies up to a chicken and rib joint and Suds R Us coin laundry  but dont be fooled; once across the threshold, youve entered a galaxy far, far away. The interior boasts soft lighting & equally soft jazz, walls adorned with original artwork, and a blazing fireplace in winter. And chef/proprietor Antonio R. Goodman, former sous chef at Café Panache in Ramsey, keeps his ever-expanding clientele happy with generous portions of reasonably priced, casually sophisticated New American cuisine. Preludes are particularly noteworthy and demonstrate both flair and finesse. If Mr. Goodman has a signature dish, it is undoubtedly his incomparable warm duck and wild mushroom strudel. Another worthy contender is the chefs take on the classic BLT, his PBLT, tiers of roasted portobello, arugula, tomato, and a crunchy crouton drizzled with vibrant hickory-smoked bacon/shallot vinaigrette. Entrée-wise, the hanger steak, sensuous and succulent, is anointed with an extraordinary homemade sauce. For dessert, nothing beats the pure decadence of the peanut butter-chocolate mousse crunch cake garnished with chocolate ice cream. BYOB.

 

49 NORTH MAIN

49 North Main Street

Lambertville, NJ

(609) 397-5990

www.nolegsneeded.com/49northmain

 

You enter via the side door, traversing a trellised courtyard, which, in warmer weather, is alive with patrons enjoying the pleasures of al fresco dining. But the interior is also quite inviting. Here you discover warm terra-cotta-style walls adorned with the work of local photographers, cathedral ceiling, and crisp white napery. The space is diminutive and cozy, seating approximately thirty-two patrons; bright and cheery by day, it turns softly romantic once twilight descends and the lights are turned low. Pleasant the surroundings may be, but it is the moderately priced New American cuisine prepared by Bob & Lynn Willis, both graduates of the CIA, that is responsible for 49 North Mains enviable rate of recidivism. If youre adventurous of spirit, start things off with the Chefs Whim, a tempting triptych of whatever treasures may strike his/her fancy on a given evening. But if youre feeling more down-home, the farmers market soup  a heady broth awash with vegetables, macaroni, and dash of basil pesto  might be just the ticket. Main courses continue down the same easygoing path as the appetizers: pan-seared calfs liver smothered with onions, New York sirloin in the company of killer mashed potatoes, and an incredibly addictive old-fashioned macaroni and cheese. Desserts, all made in-house, are equally agreeable& Try the chocolate walnut brownie or, when it is available, the scrumptious pineapple upside-down cake. BYOB.

 

MISTO

1990 Route 70

Village Walk Shopping Center

Cherry Hill, NJ

(856) 751-1711

 

Misto is modern and sophisticated and, as an added attraction, boasts al fresco dining in warmer weather. The interior  replete with black ceiling, black lacquered tables, black high-back banquettes, and polished hardwood floors  feels more like SoHo than South Jersey. Cuisine-wise, Misto serves up some of the most memorable French/Italian fare it has ever been my pleasure to ingest. Executive chef Alex Capasso and his chef de cuisine, William Connelly, strike just the proper chord between the customary and the creative. The handmade potato gnocchi caressed by a buttery tomato-basil infusion and sprinkled with fine herbs comprises the perfect prelude. The Arborio rice-encrusted scallops are positively hedonistic. Equally tempting is the fricassee of Prince Edward Island mussels artistically arranged around an epicentral pool of rich natural jus. Entrées include such crowd pleasers as intertwined strips of lamb tenderloin and goat cheese ravioli enveloping a nucleus of sautéed spinach; pan-seared yellowfin tuna garnished with salade niçoise and Roma tomato vinaigrette; and an alluring Napoleon of paillard of veal consummated with an assertive merlot sauce. Since Mistos menu changes seasonally, several of the items mentioned here may no longer be in permanent residence; on the other hand, they may very well put in timely guest appearances as daily specials. Whatever the choices or season of the year, however, this is one restaurant that will surely not disappoint. BYOB.

 

NUNZIO RISTORANTE RUSTICO

706 Haddon Avenue

Collingswood, NJ

(856) 858-9840

www.nunzioristoranterustico.com

 

This establishments December 2003 debut was much anticipated, as chef/proprietor Nunzio Patruno was, for many years, the power behind the stove at the fashionable Monte Carlo Living Room, a highly rated upscale Italian outpost on Philadelphias South Street. Decoratively and gastronomically, his current venture is infinitely more casual in scope. Tariffs are also firmly planted on trattoria terra firma; although, a few daily specials do hit the $30.00 mark. Among the starters, the braised rabbit swimming in a rich, soul-satisfying hunters stew surrounded by sensuous ribbons of homemade pappardelle noodles (also available as a main course) is outstanding. And the very same may be said for the tender slices of veal sausage, broccoli rabe, and cannelloni beans bathed in a lively tomato broth. This is Mr. Patruno at his very best& imbuing homey Italian classics with his own unique brand of cosmopolitan culinary charm. When it comes to entrées, the piscatorial pleasures are legion: pan-seared red snapper in the passionate embrace of a lusty livornese sauce; beautifully seared pepper-encrusted sushi-grade tuna endowed with an invigorating balsamic reduction; moist and succulent branzino, filleted tableside, bathed in its own natural herb juices and finished with an elegant butter sauce. And carnivores may revel in the rack of lamb marinated in a Barolo wine reduction, sprinkled with fresh herbs, and grilled to a right-on-the-money medium rare. When it comes to desserts, Mr. Patruno likes to keep his hand in. Be sure to sample his tiramisù or mille fogi, crisp puff pastry permeated with vanilla custard, whipped cream, and luscious morsels of seasonal fruit. A thoroughly enjoyable dining experience. The only drawback is the noise, which can be formidable. BYOB.

 

PALACE OF ASIA

540 Lawrence Square Boulevard South

Lawrenceville, NJ

(609) 689-1500

www.palace-of-asia.com

 

This charming restaurant is tasteful and subdued, chic and elegant of line and sophisticated of tone. The main dining area soothes the eye with a placid profusion of blues, browns & beiges and the sinuous sensuality of classically curvaceous banquettes. And the cuisine is in perfect harmony with the décor: demonstrative yet demure, a beguiling gestalt of aromas, tastes, and textures. Vegetarian specialties, the pride of southern India, are all first-rate choices. Several personal favorites include: bhartha, roasted eggplant simmered with green peas & tomatoes and jazzed up with ginger and garlic; aloo gobhi, cauliflower and potatoes in the company of onions, tomatoes, and seasonings; and daal makhani, black beans and lentils simmered in cream and anointed with just a touch of butter, onion, ginger, and garlic. Lamb is also a consistent winner, as is the chicken makhani, tandoor-baked with a decidedly Oriental flair. Among the homemade breads, I am particularly partial to naan, traditional tandoor-baked white bread, and puri, which is deep fried and balloon puffed. Kulfi, authentic Indian ice cream flavored with pistachio and cashew nuts, is pure delight; and the badam halwa, roasted crushed almonds commingled with sugar, homemade butter, and accompanied by vanilla ice cream, is hardly diet food but exceedingly difficult to resist. Palace of Asia also offers a compact wine list to complement your meal.

 

PICCOLA ITALIA

837 West Park Avenue

Ocean, NJ

(732) 493-3090

www.shorepoints.com/piccolaitalia

 

Sequestered away between a kosher restaurant and a tiny Chinese chophouse in the Cobblestone Village shopping center, Piccola Italia was originally a mom-and-pop Neapolitan nirvana majoring in marinara and garbed in red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. The current chef/proprietor, however, CIA grad Brian Gualtieri, has transformed the restaurant into a casually elegant dining establishment embellished with colorful murals, imported tiles, and fetching floral arrangements. And while the decorative alterations are quite becoming, it is the superior quality of the cuisine that has captured the attention of the culinary cognoscenti. Indeed, Mr. Gualtieri has assembled an impressive array of innovative Italian offerings complemented by occasional international dots and dashes. Traveling the more traditional route, you may start things off with a heady pasta e fagioli or vogole e cozze marechiaro, plump clams and mussels swimming in a sensuous white wine broth. The undeniable star of the show, however, is clearly more cosmopolitan of composition: the extraordinary grilled shrimp and soba noodle salad (see photograph). Topping my list of entrées is the swordfish livornese, benchmark zuppa di pesce, and grilled New York strip steak accompanied by roasted Yukon gold potatoes, Gorgonzola creamed spinach, and a consummatory truffle jus. Piccola Italia isnt terribly easy to find& but it is well worth the effort. Once youve succumbed to its considerable culinary charms, this (relatively) undiscovered jewel is certain to woo you back again and again. BYOB.

 

TRE VIGNE

95 Morristown Road (Route 202)

Basking Ridge, NJ

(908) 221-0017

www.trevignerestaurant.com

 

Presided over by Afrim Berisha and members of his family  the same management team that brings you the ever-popular Aquila in New Providence  this stately and elegant eatery has succeeded in significantly raising the bar for fine dining in the central New Jersey area. The interior is Tuscanesque in tone and resonates with the subtle, pervasive romanticism of a small European hotel. The menu is a reasonably compact chronicle; executive chef Eric Gomez gives you just enough choices to whet the appetite without causing a cerebral meltdown. If you enjoy clams, I would urge you to start things off with the littlenecks simmered in a sea redolent of garlic and tomato. The baby spinach salad adorned with generous chunks of Gorgonzola cheese, pear slices, and a host of candied walnuts also has a great deal to recommend it. And even if it is not to be found on the regular menu or listed among the daily specials, the kitchen can usually whip up the duck confit& and it is well worth a pointed inquiry. Main courses demonstrate the same care in preparation and presentation as do their predecessors. The striped bass is pan seared, its natural essences mellifluously mated with a seductive artichoke and root vegetable pesto sauce. The braised lamb shank paired with an addictive mound of truffle whipped potatoes is simply incomparable& ditto the veal tenderloin and grilled filet mignon paired with colcannon potatoes and Savoy cabbage. Desserts, like their antecedents, show a definitive sense of style. If you enjoy exceptional cuisine served in warm, romantic surroundings with impeccable service, Tre Vigne is certain to meet  and exceed  your lofty expectations.