Please note that these are the top ten of those restaurants visited during the year 2007 ONLY. They do not represent all-time favorites.
18 Piermont Road
Father & son Michael and Alexander Parlamis's Axia Taverna is a definite phenomenon, as it continually packs in weeknight crowds that most establishments would sell their gastronomic souls to entertain on free-for-all Saturday evenings. And it surely deserves both the praise and the patronage. Executive chef Alexander Gorant's contemporary Greek cuisine is exceptionally prepared & presented and, given the upscale locale, prices are more than reasonable. In lieu of the traditional appetizer/entrée scenario, the menu is divided into "Small Plates" and "Big Plates," so diners may do a good deal of mixing/matching, should they so desire. Among the starters, the Greek salad embellished with a generous portion of Dodoni's feta cheese and simple yet seductive olive oil-vinegar dressing is a standout... ditto the delicately fried tomato & fennel fritters and the ground lamb embraced by an ethereal pita pocket and sensuous sea of red wine sauce. Entrée-wise, the monkfish medallions exhibit a velvety texture and are kissed by an incomparable brown butter sauce; and two time-honored classics - moussaka and pastichio rhodos - are both without peer. Desserts, like their predecessors, are comfortingly homey yet imbued with a contemporary touch; and the catalog of vintages, half of which are of Greek origin, offers diners some excellent enological options.
BLACKBIRD DINING ESTABLISHMENT
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619 Collings Avenue
Every chef's dream is to open his own restaurant... and that dream became reality for Alex Capasso - formerly of Max's Fine Dining and Misto - with the opening of the Blackbird Fine Dining Establishment. In lieu of his usual Franco-Italian approach, Mr. Capasso has taken a more cosmopolitan stance, and the results are, indeed, most impressive. The menu is a compact affair supplemented by a select number of daily specials. You may, for example, begin with wonderfully crisp, cut on the bias chicken spring rolls set on a sumptuous pillow of Asian slaw and counterpoised by a sweet chili sauce and artistic dabs of spicy mustard. For those who enjoy crustaceans, the arborio rice-crusted shrimp are something of a must... as is the beautifully pan-seared diver scallop set on a seabed of Sardinian couscous, crowned with a sunny-side up quail's egg, and finished with a seductive lobster sauce. Entrées, of course, continue with style... The Atlantic salmon is kissed by an incomparably flavorful shellfish broth; the pristine halibut filet is gently dusted with polenta; strips of roasted lamb tenderloin are attractively intertwined with tortellini niçoise; and slices of oven-roasted veal filet are artfully arranged on a fricassee of morels and asparagus and finished with a natural jus infused with a touch of sherry cream. Definitive destination dining. BYOB.
CHAMBERS WALK CAFÉ AND CATERING
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2667 Main Street
With its plank floors, low irregular ceiling, and exposed brick walls, Chambers Walk gives off not-so-subtle subterranean vibes - but these are nicely offset by colorful works of art, a funky black-topped counter, and the culinary magic generated in the open kitchen. Executive chef David Ercolano and sous chef Katherine Ward's innovative American fare enhanced with international subtitles offers diners eye-catching combinations of the freshest possible ingredients. If you want to begin on an exotic note, the ancho chili chicken taquito - three crispy, deep-fried segments set on a bed of greens & caramelized onions and crowned with an evocative avocado-lime aïoli - might be just the ticket. Equally attractive is the presentation of gargantuan shrimp with a colorful splash of salsa verde and a special baby arugula salad tossed in a light balsamic vinaigrette with shavings of ricotta salata. For your main course, the Moroccan-spiced pork loin is incredibly moist and consummated with a sumptuous chickpea purée, tiara of lemon gremolata, and sprinkling of pine nuts; and the striped bass arrives at table on a seabed of roasted cauliflower florets, golden raisins, and capers. Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Melissa Conklin, have their own uniquely delicious rewards. Chambers Walk has been catering to the lunchtime crowd a good deal longer than it has been serving dinner. So if you've only managed to stop by at noonday from time to time, the deliciously innovative possibilities available at dinner will be a delightful and satisfying surprise. BYOB.
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54 North Franklin Street
Yes, I do believe in love at first sight... and first bite. And that pretty much sums up my feelings about DeAnna's, chef/proprietor Dianna Paterra's cozy Italian enclave in Lambertville. The interior is bathed in the soft glow of candlelight and boasts terra cotta-colored walls, vintage black & white photographs, plethora of throw pillows adorning comfy banquettes, and a striking mural painted by local artist Kevin Griffin after Sol Steinberg's 1957 New Yorker drawings. I particularly enjoy DeAnna's three-sided bar, the perfect spot to enjoy a preprandial libation or a more casual meal. The food is Italian comfort fare, pure and simple, as satisfying to the soul as it is pleasing to the palate. Among the starters, the pasta e fagioli, the soup of the day, is rich and rewarding. And the Neapolitan - layers of lightly breaded and sautéed eggplant, roasted red peppers, sautéed spinach, and mozzarella in an excellent marinara sauce - is also highly recommended. When it comes to your entrée selection, pasta, in my opinion, is clearly the way to go here. Morsels of clams and capers, for example, blend extremely well with a pleasant white sauce; or, for a bit more zip, try pasta with arrabbiata, a sauce incorporating tomatoes, pancetta, and chilies. Two other personal favorites include the pasta with Bolognese and pasta with sautéed chicken and escarole in a hearty marinara sauce. For dessert, nothing beats the moist yellow cake with creamy ricotta cheese filling. DeAnna's also offers a compact, carefully chosen wine list that marries quite nicely with the cuisine.
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160 Highway 35 South
There is absolutely question in my mind that Nicholas is the most superlative dining experience the Garden State has to offer. And a second review - my first was penned in 2001 - has only reinforced that opinion. What truly sets this restaurant apart, of course, is Nicholas & Melissa Harary's commitment to excellence, their passion to provide their patrons with a lovingly orchestrated harmonious gastronomic gestalt. Nicholas features a three-course menu, four-course vegetarian menu, and six-course tasting menu, as well as a small plates menu that is available in the bar/lounge only - and all are impeccably prepared and presented. To start things off, the Parisienne gnocchi is without peer, as is the ethereal beef carpaccio. On the other hand, who could resist the unmitigated joy of delicate flakes of peekytoe crab salad set on an infectiously crunchy coriander tuile chaperoned by a scintillating red pepper vinaigrette? And entrées are even more extraordinary: pan-seared wild Copper River salmon set on a texturally contrasting cold bean salad consummated with an incomparably complementary smoked tomato vinaigrette; golden crusted crispy halibut finished with an assertive lemon-caper sauce; and the electrifying interplay between cinnamon jus and tincture of quince that accompanies the incredibly moist braised suckling pig. Desserts, of course, exhibit the same flair and finesse as their predecessors... ditto the positively stellar artisanal cheese tasting and the outstanding wine list. This is urbane, sophisticated dining at its finest.
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153 Washington Street
Rocky Hill, NJ
One 53's interior boasts a comfy bar, modern lighting, and bare tables adorned with crisp white napkins. In true bistro fashion, accommodations along a banquette are in particularly close proximity, which only adds to the feeling of esprit de corps. The menu, which was created by proprietors Caron Wendell & Joseph McLaughlin and Chef Justin Braun, is a compact, focused affair printed on rustically textured brown paper. To start things off, the Maine mussels are of excellent quality, plump and succulent, and arrive swimming in a rich and exceedingly buttery white wine broth. But even better, in my opinion, is the presentation of grilled wild mushrooms over creamy risotto surrounded by a verdant pool of basil-infused truffle oil. Entrées offer diners an interesting array of possibilities. If you want to keep it simple, you can order up a top-notch One 53 burger crowned with Swiss or cheddar accompanied by crispy hand-cut shoestring fries. On the other hand, the thick & luscious grilled swordfish is obviously more upscale but still manages to maintain a casual demeanor companioned by greens & more of those delicious fries. Save room, though, as the desserts are superlative. The blood orange panna cotta is textbook and just the proper consistency; the hazelnut dacquoise with mocha mousse is a study in delightful decadence; and the chocolate bread pudding with caramel bourbon sauce and the apple tart garnished with vanilla gelato are homey delights. In keeping with the bistro theme, there is a very nice wine list to complement your meal - fifty-three wines under $53.00 - with a captain's list also available.
PIQUANT BREAD BAR & GRILL
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349A George Street
New Brunswick, NJ
How very fortunate that chef/proprietor Kirti Rahi, a native of Delhi, India, who spent 15 years as a software engineer, finally found her true calling. Indian food enjoys the reputation of often initiating fiery peristaltic reprisals... but the cuisine served here is subtle and sophisticated rather than searing. And it is both exotic and eye-catching, utilizing only the highest quality organic produce and all-natural kosher meats. For seafood lovers, the fish tikka, straight from the tandoor oven, is the perfect opening move. Also not to be missed, when it is offered as a daily special, is the sumptuous salmon cake served up with a wonderfully flavorful Meyer lemon chutney. And main courses continue to dazzle. The ginger & garlic marinated chunks of chicken tikka are incomparably moist and tender... ditto the exemplary chicken roulade slathered with a zesty chipotle glaze. Shrimp - whether the Goan shrimp curry or the coriander-crusted grilled crustaceans - is always a wise choice... as is the flavorful lamb chop sided by tumeric-honey mashed potatoes, sautéed kale, and an engaging mint sauce. Among the sides, don't be shy about sampling the extraordinary bread bar, the sine qua non of any visit to Piquant. If you are at all adventurous of palate, this wonderful restaurant is surely worth a visit. BYOB.
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1 West High Street
Welcome to John Proske's Tapastre, an establishment dedicated to "tapas," those tantalizing appetizers that originated in the bars and restaurants of Spain. But rest assured that this cozy, bustling restaurant ensconced below Mr. Proske's Il Pomodoro is infinitely more than a cleverly conceived culinary turn-of-phrase. Utilizing only pristinely fresh ingredients, executive chef Hany Elmokdem takes diners on an incomparable gastronomic tour of the Mediterranean rim - and more than delivers the goods. Spanish favorites include the irresistible lightly-breaded deep-fried olives sided by an addictive manchego cheese fondue and succulent kurobuta (Japanese black hog) pork sausage set on a bed of truffled white bean cassoulet and saffron sweet onions; and from Italy, I highly recommend the grilled short rib ravioli, al dente pasta pockets filled with tender beef, tomato, and toasted leeks enveloped in a pool of intensely flavorful pinot noir reduction. Hailing from the Middle East, the grilled marinated baby lamb chops are incomparable... ditto a triptych of delightful dips - artichoke, hummus, and baba ghanoush - sided by crisp, garlicky pita chips. Also not to be missed is the extraordinarily sumptuous Algerian eggplant "jam" endowed with preserved lemon and touch of saffron. The menu also suggests wines and cocktails that are appropriate to each region of culinary endeavor. Whether stopping by for a brief snack and preprandial libation at the bar, or settling in for lunch or dinner, Tapastre is a truly exciting dining experience.
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45 Broad Street
Red Bank, NJ
Even in a restaurant rich community like Red Bank, there is always room for an establishment that serves up first-rate, casually creative cuisine at reasonable prices. And this is surely the case with Rona & Steve Rosenstein's Thyme Square. Chef James Corona, the power behind the stove, cooks up an appetizing array of superb bistro fare with Mediterranean flair that is decidedly innovative but still manages to maintain a comfortingly homey touch. The beer-braised mussels & clams swim to table in a fabulously flavorful broth awash with piquillo peppers, chickpeas, zesty chorizo sausage, and crown of grilled country bread. The best bivalves I've sampled in quite some time. And the fritto misto - a combination of fried mixed seafood and seasonal vegetables presented in a metal spiral-encased paper cone - is another sensational starter. When it comes to the entrées, the messe-rigatoni - al dente pasta partnered with chunks of caramelized eggplant, fresh plum tomatoes, and touch of basil - is simple yet sublime and exhibits an excellent combo of flavors. Tender slices of skirt steak are set atop a luscious mélange of pesto fingerling potatoes and crowned with an ingratiating dollop of red onion marmalade; and the incredibly moist organic chicken breast is pillowed on potato purée, with chorizo & green olives adding a hint of spice and sweet & sour peppers a splash of color. Desserts, courtesy of Mrs. Rosenstein, are worthy of both the extra calories and the added expenditure. In true bistro fashion, Thyme Square is a bustling, often noisy space populated by a diverse cast of local characters... But that's all part of the fun at this top-notch trendy newcomer to the Red Bank dining scene. Go to full review.
95 Morristown Road (Route 202)
Basking Ridge, NJ
Chic and sophisticated Vine, the former Tre Vigne, remains one of my perennial favorites for upscale dining in the central New Jersey area. Afrim Berisha and members of his family are ever gracious and welcoming, and executive chef Eric Gomez's globally-inspired cuisine is a constant delight. The chilled "colossal" crabmeat cocktail, for example, is not only accompanied by a benchmark cocktail sauce but also a scallion-horseradish sauce that provides a passionate jolt to the palate. The lobster ravioli is kissed by an ethereal Champagne emulsion, and the baby arugula salad is embellished with shaved red onion, tossed with a perfectly balanced balsamic vinaigrette, and crowned with a tiara of warm pistachio-crusted goat cheese. Among the main courses, fish is treated with a gentle and discerning hand. The pan-seared Chilean sea bass luxuriates on a saucy seabed of braised fennel & onion sautéed with chorizo sausage & olive tapenade; and the potato-crusted tilapia is topped with a dollop of sour cream and swims to table in a heady red wine reduction. Meats, of course, are served up with equal aplomb. The braised lamb shank is unbelievably tender and is lovingly caressed by a rich Burgundy wine sauce; and the grilled Black Angus strip steak finds a perfect partner in a homey root vegetable casserole. Desserts, in the capable hands of pastry chef Julie Casey, are as sumptuously stylish as their forebears. And, with a name like Vine, you may rest assured that dedicated oenophiles will not be disappointed.
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