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Top Ten of the Year 2006
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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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Please note that these are the top ten of those restaurants visited during the year 2006 ONLY. They do not represent all-time favorites.

101 East Broad Street
Hopewell, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 333-1710

You will warm to the Blue Bottle Café the moment you cross the threshold. Its three diminutive dining rooms - replete with various representatives of the restaurant's namesake - exude an unassuming bistro-like Mediterranean charm. But while the ambiance may shout "bustling bistro," Aaron Philipson's contemporary American cuisine exhibits an air of casual sophistication. It is elegant without being egotistical, thoroughly exciting the palate without confounding the eye. If Mr. Philipson has a signature dish, it is undoubtedly his utterly transcendent potato gnocchi, in whatever incarnation it may appear. Indeed, I still dream of his summer presentation incorporating tender English peas, sautéed mushrooms, asparagus spears, and an exceptional brown butter sauce. Surely the sine qua non of your visit to the Blue Bottle Café. And desserts, courtesy of Rory Philipson, are every bit the equal of her husband's superlative appetizers and entrées. BYOB. Go to full review.

33 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, NJ
(732) 872-1311

The décor is very New York, and very, very chic. But it only takes one taste of the superlative regionally-infused Armenian/Mediterranean cuisine to convince you that Bobo's 33 is infinitely more than just another trendy restaurant. Appetizers include such illustrious representatives of Mediterranean classics as hummus and tabouleh. Salads also make excellent starters, as does the presentation of assorted olives surrounded by squiggles of aged balsamic and sprigs of fresh basil. Among the entrées, the tilapia is a standout. Marinated and perfectly grilled, it is set on a creamy seabed of herbed crab risotto and surrounded by an extraordinarily delectable lemon-basil beurre blanc. But be sure to try the "Monti," diminutive ground lamb balls seasoned with onion and parsley and seductively sequestered in spiraled baked wontons. And there are a number of possibilities to assuage your thirst. As well as a very nice selection of vintages by the glass, BoBo's 33 also features an extraordinary array of fine vodkas and an interesting assortment of foreign and domestic brews. Go to full review.

703 Belmar Plaza
Belmar, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 280-7501

Step into Brandl. and you somehow sense that you're at the Jersey Shore. There's a casual elegance about the restaurant that invigorates but doesn't intimidate. Be that as it may, it's chef/proprietor Chris Brandl's stunningly innovative American cuisine that sets off the bells and whistles here. He is a creatively restless culinary spirit, constantly tweaking the menu, developing new recipes, and working with local farmers to secure only the freshest possible ingredients. You can't miss with a starter of tuna tartare. Spiked with citrus soy sauce, it is arranged cylindrically on a base of avocado salad, crowned with a tiara of caviar, and surrounded by artistic squiggles of zippy wasabi crème fraîche. Of course, the pan-seared foie gras with bing cherry jus is equally difficult to resist. For your main course, consider the mushroom crusted sea scallops, day boat cod with kalamata olive jus, buffalo tenderloin, or loin of venison finished with red wine demi-glace. Desserts maintain the same high standards as their predecessors. BYOB. Go to full review.

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

The boutique restaurant boasts gleaming hardwood floors and rustic beams & exposed bricks artfully counterpoised by colorful modern paintings and soft, subdued lighting. There are three delightfully diminutive dining areas, as well as a cozy wine cellar that is utilized to accommodate small parties. The charming ambiance notwithstanding, it is chef/proprietor David Drake's internationally-infused innovative American cuisine that is the main drawing card. Among the appetizers, the pumpkin gnocchi & braised pork belly is a standout... ditto the tartare of yellowfin tuna and the exceptional New York State foie gras adorned with roasted gala apples, quince purée, and cider reduction. For your main course, be sure to try the pristinely fresh East Coast halibut, Pekin duck breast with hand-cut spaetzle and truffled game jus, or sumptuous braised short ribs teamed with savoy cabbage and potato and onion dumplings. Desserts are uniformly excellent; but the assortment of handcrafted cheeses is an absolute must, as is a selection from the compendious wine list. An absolutely marvelous dining experience. Go to full review.

4 Main Street
Hamburg, Sussex County, New Jersey
(973) 209-0300

Ensconced in a restored former bank building, Restaurant Kaya charms patrons with yellow wainscoting, pomegrante-colored walls and matching napery. The ambiance exudes a spiffy, casual island flair but is still decidedly intimate and romantic. The food, under the watchful eye of executive chef Sean Reid is an attractive amalgam of Caribbean, French, and Asian cookery. Presentations are innovative but never intimidating, comforting rather than contrived, and portion sizes are ample but not prodigious. Starters include an eye-catching epicenter of mesculin greens surrounded by candy swirl beet and Brie "sandwiches," an immensely satisfying seafood paella, and marvelously tender and flavorful Asian-braised shredded beef on a pliable pillow of glass noodles. Among the entrées, the sage- and horseradish-crusted swordfish is prepared to a beautiful golden brown and set on a sumptuous seabed of leek purée; moist and tender pork tenderloin receives an added boost from shallot- & vanilla-infused bacon; and the filet mignon is crowned with a tiara of herb compound butter. Save room for dessert, and be sure to sample a selection from the establishment's superlative wine list. Go to full review.

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

The They say that good things come in small packages; and that is certainly true of Lorena's, the enchanting jewel-box located in the very heart of Maplewood Village. Chef/proprietor Humberto Campos, Jr., offers up an enticing array of upscale French fare with international flair, admirably succeeding where many other chefs fail: engaging the eye without short-changing the palate. Appetizers are as beautifully presented as they are delicious. The Maine lump crabmeat salad is invigorated with a stream of tomato emulsion and smattering of sensuously salty sea beans; the superbly spiced yellowfin tuna tartare reaps the benefits of a subtly assertive ginger essence; and the marinated artichoke hearts luxuriate on a creamy pillow of eggplant purée. Entrées include a luscious lamb sirloin companioned by white bean purée and an exceptional rosemary lamb jus, meaty pan-seared Maine scallops on a bed of melted Napa cabbage, and sumptuous Cervena venison au poivre. Desserts, particularly the homemade ice creams, are all excellent; but the artisan cheese plate is not to be missed. BYOB... and a superlative vintage is certainly called for. Go to full review.

1114 Route 173
Asbury, Hunterdon County, New Jersey
(908) 238-0018

As you ascend the hill on Route 173, the lovingly restored farmhouse beckons warmly. The interior is simple but decidedly homey, adorned with black and white family photographs and crisp white napery. And Carmine Castaldo's innovative Italian cuisine is lovingly prepared, nicely presented, and amply proportioned. The thin-crust pizzette is a simple but seductive starter. On the other hand, the cornmeal- and Parmesan-crusted calamari are ethereally tender and find a perfect counterpoint in a spicy tomato aîoli. My favorite among the starters, however is the presentation of three tender eggplant slices topped with dollops of an extraordinarily rich and supernally textured Parmesan soufflé. Among the entrées, the grouper is delightfully crispy of countenance, moist and flaky; the osso buco is a standout; and Mr. Castaldo's superlative homemade lasagna is comfort fare personified. Desserts, courtesy of Jill Castaldo, don't miss a beat. RosaLuca's also boasts an extensive list of martinis and compact wine list. A warm and wonderful dining experience. Go to full review.

30 North Spruce Street
Ramsey, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 995-9333

The attractive interior resonates with a seductive flavor: rustic plaster walls, wide plank flooring, model sailboats in cozy niches above the bar, a plethora of wine cubes and cages, and the soft glow of flickering candlelight on snow white napery. But the center of attractive is clearly the spotlighted swell of shimmering ice populated by impeccably fresh treasures of the sea. And the gastronomic formula, which majors in Greek/Mediterranean fare, is a relatively simple one. Seafood possibilities are chosen from the eye-catching display, weighed, grilled over an open fire, filleted in the kitchen, and adorned with lemon, herbs, and a touch of butter before making their final journey to the table. Among the "Fish House Selections," the halibut steak is presented on a sumptuous seabed of spinach and rice, the grilled swordfish is pillowed on a luscious mound of roasted eggplant mashed potatoes; and the Chilean sea bass is baked to just the proper consistency and finished with a light but exceedingly flavorful tomato-herb broth. And appetizers and desserts, I am happy to report, are on the same high level as the entrées. The establishment also sports a first-rate cosmopolitan wine list, which includes some very nice Greek wines available by the glass. Go to full review.

200 Monmouth Avenue
Spring Lake, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 974-9755

Paul Bruno's charming little jewel-box hasn't changed much in eight years plus since I first penned a review. Tucked away in the Hewitt Wellington Hotel, the restaurant's casually elegant interior is as beguilingly romantic as ever. And Scott Girdano's contemporary American cuisine continues to dazzle the restaurant's many enthusiastic patrons. For starters, you can't miss with the chilled asparagus companioned by grilled fennel, roasted beets, and an enticing sesame vinaigrette. But if you're more in the mood for seafood, be sure to try the pristinely fresh sautéed shrimp, grilled pita triangles, and black bean cake all basking in the glow of a memorable honey-red curry sauce. When it comes to your main course, the grilled wild salmon filet arrives pillowed on kalamata olive-toasted pine nut Israeli couscous; and the grilled barrel-cut filet mignon is accompanied by a delectable Gorgonzola-potato cake and consummated with a tiara of heady cabernet-shallot butter. To conclude your evening at table, be sure to sample the classic tarte Tatin or the kitchen's unique take on bananas Foster. BYOB. Go to full review.

147 West Delaware Avenue
Pennington, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 737-4400

When Za opened its doors this past July (2006), the Brothers Valenza obviously hit the ground at full stride. The restaurant became an immediate hit with local residents, and the good news has continued to spread. Mark Valenza - an alumnus of the French Culinary Institute in New York City - sends forth an impressive array of "cross cultural comfort cuisine," while his brother, Chaz, a seasoned restaurateur, charms patrons at the front of the house. Appetizers include such diversified offerings as broiled portobello mushroom crowned with caramelized onion and fresh breadcrumbs and feathery hand-rolled semolina dumplings companioned by Prosciutto de Parma, house mozzarella, and heady diavolo sauce. For your main course, feast on such tempting treats as classic sole bonne femme, grilled brasciole, or fricassee lamb shank. To finish things off, when it is available, don't pass up the chocolate-peanut butter crunch mousse. Za is just the kind of restaurant every community needs: a casual and classy BYOB that serves up a comforting variety of eclectic fare in a pleasant environment with top-notch, personable service. Kudos to the Brothers Valenza! Go to full review.

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