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Top Ten of the Year 2005
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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.net.

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ANDRÉ'S RESTAURANT AND WINE BOUTIQUE
188 Spring Street
Newton, NJ
(973) 300-4192
www.andresrestaurant.com

Nearly seven years ago, proprietors André and Tracey deWaal hit the ground running. They captured the immediate attention of the Garden State's knowledgeable foodies and every professional hired belly within reasonable community distance. And I'm happy to report that, after several recent visits, this charming establishment has matured with mellifluous grace. Tracey deWaal's welcome is as warm and as captivating as ever, and Mr. deWaal's innovative American cuisine continues to beguile patrons with gratifyingly delicious vistas of colors, tastes, and textures. Chef deWaal's menu changes fortnightly and has included such stylish presentations as wild king salmon with basmati rice and tarragon beurre blanc, strappingly robust New York strip steak consummated with a zesty horseradish-mustard sauce, and pan-roasted duck breast served with savory duck fried rice and ingratiating apricot-tinged sweet and sour sauce. The restaurant sports a first-rate wine list... and the menu also suggests reasonably priced wines by the glass that match up with appetizers and entrées (and desserts). A very nice touch and ideal for couples who may be of differing opinions with regard to the fruit of the vine. André's Restaurant and Wine Boutique is cozy, comfortable, and so very romantic. It remains one of New Jersey's premier dining destinations.

BLACK TRUMPET
7 Atlantic Avenue
Spring Lake, NJ
(732) 449-4700
www.theblacktrumpet.com

Chef/owner Chef Mark Mikolajczyk -- who cooked up a storm at Whispers just a few blocks away -- may have changed venues, but his sumptuous American fare is as congenially creative as ever. And since he is joined in the kitchen by his long-time sous-chef and now partner, David McCleery, you may rest assured that your discriminating palate is in extremely capable hands. You would do well to begin with the chef's signature starter, a "Panache of Appetizers," featuring an extraordinarily rich jumbo lump crab cake sharing the spotlight with a duet of perfectly grilled shrimp. The homemade pasta of the day is always a good bet, as is Mr. Mikolajczyk's unique take on the classic Caesar, a grilled sheaf of romaine replete with zesty dressing, Parmesan cheese, and smattering of crunchy croutons. Entrées, like all that have preceded them, are both subtle and substantive. The filet of day-boat fluke is beautifully plated and consummated with an exquisite brown butter; and the prime New York strip steak is propelled into orbit on the wings of a lusty port wine demi-glace. Desserts, courtesy of Chef McCleery, are worth saving room for. And topping my list of recommendations is his trio of crème brûlée -- white chocolate, pear, and dark chocolate -- all incomparably creamy and sporting picture-perfect caramelized tiaras. A wonderful evening at table awaits. BYOB.

CHEF'S TABLE
754 Franklin Avenue
Franklin Lakes, NJ
(201) 891-6644

Tucked away in the Franklin Square Shopping Center, rubbing elbows with a Dunkin' Donuts and Chinese takeout, the restaurant's cozy, intimate interior charms patrons with etched glass panels, oil paintings, plethora of copper pots and pans, and delightful collection of curios. But it is chef/proprietor Claude Baills' hearty French bistro fare that remains the drawing card. And his cuisine is as sophisticated as it is satisfying. Mr. Baills has an artistic bent, and this is clearly evidenced in his many eye-catching symmetrical presentations. Start things off with the shepherd's salad, a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and textures, all crowned with an invigorating sherry vinaigrette or, perhaps, tender spears of steamed asparagus topped with sautéed mushrooms and surrounded by a scintillating sea of beurre blanc. Entrées, of course, offer their own unique rewards. The tempura-wrapped medallions of monkfish filets are positively pristine, as is the veal Cordon Bleu and splendid sautéed calf's liver. Not to be missed, however, is the entrecôte Bordelaise, slices of rib-eye steak decked out in a heady cabernet sauce accompanied by irresistible French fries. Among the desserts, the warm French apple tart, tart Tatin, and crème brûlée are all benchmark. The Chef's Table is a wonderful restaurant to which I would gladly return at the drop of a fork. BYOB.

DENNIS FOY'S
816 Arnold Avenue
Point Pleasant Beach, NJ
(732) 295-0466

Dennis Foy is a consummate artiste, but his methodology is muted rather than maniacal. Architectural razzle-dazzle is conspicuous by its absence; culinary presentations are direct and forthright, engaging the diner's eye and palate in a discreet array of complementary and contrasting culinary constituents. "The proof of the pudding," as Cervantes noted, "is in the eating." And that is surely the case here. The tian of crab is a fabulous opener. Beautifully sautéed, there's just enough filler to hold the rich, meaty morsels together, just enough cracked black pepper to add a bit of zip, and just the proper amount of chive butter to provide the perfect finishing touch. The warm goat cheese tart is yet another of Mr. Foy's deceptively simple but totally beguiling presentations, as the creaminess of the tart is cleverly counterpoised by a substratum of diced tomatoes and tincture of thyme. Entrées travel the same high road as the appetizers. His seared sirloin steak is superbly textured, the accompanying béarnaise an unmitigated joy. And piscatorial pleasures also abound: Beautiful filets of sautéed Atlantic fluke recline on a piquant pillow of celery root purée, while the sautéed wild king salmon settles comfortably on a divan of flawlessly seasoned, not too creamy creamed spinach. Desserts -- including the most exquisite crème brûlée (Tahitian vanilla) it has ever been my pleasure to ingest -- are guaranteed to bring your evening at table to a most delightful denouement. BYOB.

DISH
13 White Street
Red Bank, NJ
(732) 345-7070
www.dishredbank.com

Presided over by Chef Anthony Ferrando and gracious front-of-the-house coordinator Judy Matthew, restaurant Dish -- although only a year old as of November 11th (2005) -- has already made a significant impact on the ever-expanding Red Bank dining scene. When the diminutive storefront is filled to capacity, which is most of the time, the atmosphere is joyously and bustlingly bistro... and the food fits right in. It is hearty, robust American fare with an occasional innovative tweak along the way. Be sure to sample the tender and succulent New York strip steak with extraordinarily addictive herb frites or, also highly recommended, the tilapia and shrimp combo consummated with an outstanding roasted garlic beurre blanc. Starters include marvelously crispy spinach, fresh greenery deep fried in canola oil and enhanced with a dash of sea salt; the spring roll of the day (perhaps a sweet potato purée spiked with ginger); and marvelously plump mussels served up in a lusty broth awash with arugula and bits of roasted tomato. Among the desserts, the gloriously gooey white/dark chocolate bread pudding is worth the price of admission. Every town needs a restaurant like Dish, a pleasantly unpretentious eatery that serves up lusty bistro fare in attractive, convivial surroundings. Whether making the rounds of Red Bank's boutique shops and antique emporiums, taking in a movie, or paying a visit to the Count Basie Theatre, Dish should be at the very top of your dining agenda. BYOB.

I CAVALLINI RISTORANTE
29 Highway 34
Colts Neck, NJ
(732) 431-2934
www.icavallini.com

Proprietors Lisa Cirillo and Elizabeth Rielly offer a warm welcome, and Chef Toni Froio; a native of Bologna, Italy, who is best known for her former culinary exploits at the Farmingdale House, will surely dazzle you with her own unique brand of innovative yet homey Italian cuisine. Among the antipasti, treasures of the sea abound: The baby clams are pristinely and pleasantly plump and swim to table in a light but savory broth that harbors a plethora of white beans and ingratiating "kick" of spice; succulently seared, marvelously meaty jumbo scallops recline on a sautéed seabed of broccoli rabe and pillow of whipped potatoes and are, in turn, surrounded by an addictive amalgam of finely chopped capers, Gaeta olives, tomatoes, and grilled shiitake mushrooms; diaphanous pepper-encrusted slices of tuna carpaccio tantalize the tongue before melting away into a velvety nothingness, their rich texture perfectly counterpoised by a tiara of fennel and pecorino salad. Entrée-wise, the veal chop Milanese -- replete with arugula, tomato salad, and drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette -- is exceedingly moist and tender; and the filet mignon, which arrives in the company of garlic mashed potatoes and wilted spinach, is equally pleasing. Desserts, of course, demonstrate the same sophisticated subtleties as their predecessors. The rich, creamy cheesecake is classic, the tiramisù nothing short of benchmark, and the luscious lemon cake with toasted coconut and mango purée positively seductive. I Cavallini Ristorante also sports a compact, reasonably priced wine list, as well as a very nice selection of dessert wines, ports, sherries, cognacs, and single malt scotches.

LAWRENCEVILLE INN
2691 Main Street (Route 206)
Lawrenceville, NJ
(609) 219-1900
www.lawrencevilleinn.com

The Lawrenceville Inn is a labor of love on the part of proprietors Jonathan and Elizabeth Hunt, who purchased the 1892 former farmhouse in August 2001 and spent the next two years carefully restoring the physical plant from attic to basement. From its inception in 2003, this lovely restaurant has always enjoyed the reputation of serving up sophisticated contemporary American cuisine in a stylishly rustic historic setting. But since his arrival in mid June (2005), Le Clere English, the current power behind the stove, has succeeded in taking the cuisine one step beyond in a very short period of time. He seems to understand intuitively the subtleties of culinary engagement, as his seasonally-inspired offerings are as scrupulously prepared as they are attractively presented. Preludes include a silkily seductive seared foie gras in the company of an alluring array of sautéed Terhune apples and cider gelée and wonderful wild mushroom risotto imbued with touches of aged Parmesan cheese. And entrées continue the kitchen's winning ways: a tumultuously flavorful New Zealand sirloin served with an incomparable sauce piquante; Nieman Ranch double pork chop pillowed on a rich vegetable gratin and finished with a provocative cranberry jus; and a special seared haddock set on a seabed of leek and eggplant ragoût and circumscribed by three scrumptious deep-fried haddock-potato dumplings. Among the desserts, the decadent dark chocolate terrine with an equally opulent peanut butter sauce is a standout. BYOB.

MATT'S RED ROOSTER GRILL
22 Bloomfield Avenue
Flemington, NJ
(908) 788-7050
www.mattsredroostergrill.com

Matt McPherson and Matthew Green, former roommates at the CIA, have combined their considerable talents to significantly raise the bar for fine dining in the Hunterdon County area. Mr. McPherson likes to refer to their culinary venture as an "American chophouse." This is, indeed, an exceedingly accurate description, as the cuisine is reassuringly and restoratively robust, yet decidedly sophisticated in both preparation and presentation; and the food, as you would surmise from the restaurant's moniker, also emphasizes the chefs' extraordinary expertise at the grill. Soups hold a prominent place among the starters, and as there is always a triptych of possibilities on the printed menu, diners are given opportunity to sample mini portions of all three. Preludes of a more substantive nature include pumpkin ravioli with sage brown butter sauce, wild mushroom tart in the company of Maytag blue cheese and port wine reduction, and grilled Camembert embellished with red raspberry preserves. When it comes to entrées, you can't go wrong with the grilled filet mignon with Bordelaise sauce or grilled "white marble" pork tenderloin companied by an apple cider glaze. And treasures of the sea are just as superb: a luscious salmon filet with stone-ground mustard beurre blanc, honey-marinated swordfish, or grilled whole fish of the day. Desserts, all made on the premises, are worth both the additional calories and added expenditure. Kudos to the chefs! BYOB.

PANICO'S
103 Church Street
New Brunswick, NJ
(732) 545-6100
www.panicosrestaurant.com

Step into Panico's and you take a 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 and pecan, a single rose gracing each table. And the charmingly retro ambiance is perfectly complemented by the Old World civility of maître d' Jose Solano and members of his staff. When it comes to the cuisine, executive chef Nestor Ramos ably carries on the restaurant's tradition of bringing out the very best in the freshest possible ingredients. Appetizers include such innovative dishes as carpaccio of portabello mushroom; eggplant Napoleon with homemade mozzarella cheese, tincture of basil and splash of aged balsamic vinegar; or winning salad of arugula and prosciutto embellished with crumbles of blue cheese and an assertive red wine vinaigrette. Entrées are rustic and robust yet beautifully prepared and presented. I would highly recommend the special branzino -- a whole Mediterranean sea bass that is grilled, roasted, and dexterously filleted at table -- as well as the benchmark osso buco braised in celery, carrots, onions, and white wine and pillowed on a bed of orzo. For dessert, try the tiramisù or incredible Strudel alle Fragole, phyllo dough filled with strawberries, mascarpone, ricotta, and embellishments of vanilla gelato and caramel sauce... and don't forget to check out the award-winning wine list. For that special occasion -- or any occasion -- this fine restaurant remains the choice of knowledgeable and discriminating diners.

TRAP ROCK RESTAURANT AND BREWERY
279 Springfield Avenue
Berkeley Heights, NJ
(908) 665-1755
www.traprockrest.com

Trap Rock is a microbrewery and, as such, turns out some first-rate handcrafted ales and lagers. It also sports a first-rate wine list, so lovers of the fruit of the vine need not despair. In addition, the bustling, convivial bar features an intriguing prospectus of martinis, ports, scotches, and liqueurs. Given the libationary high jinks, you could easily assume that this popular establishment's cuisine might be something of an afterthought. But this is surely not the case, as Chef Josh Fryer offers outstanding New American fare with provocative French and Asian subtitles. Among the appetizers, gifts from the sea play a leading role. And the two stars of the show are undoubtedly the seafood trio -- spicy salmon roll, tuna tartar, and jumbo lump crab and cucumber salad -- and the incredible lobster spring rolls presented with a tempting trio of spicy mustard, chili-lime marmalade, and coconut curry dipping sauces. And entrées are just as beguiling. The grilled pork loin is moist and meaty, reclines on a robust white bean and chorizo ragoût, and is consummated with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil; the pan-seared salmon arrives replete with wild mushrooms, black lentils, and truffle spinach; and the pepper-crusted rare tuna is accompanied by a sweet corn risotto, asparagus, and finished with a roasted red pepper vinaigrette. Desserts also do not disappoint. A personal favorite is the incomparably rich inside out German chocolate cake garnished with Heath Bar ice cream on a crisp coconut tuile, and finished with a fabulous toasted coconut anglaise. The Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery also offers a limited casual menu in the bar/lounge. And the Vermont cheddar burger and fish and chips -- ale-battered cod, pommes frites, chipotle slaw, and roasted onion tartar sauce -- are both worth the price of admission.

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