For an idea of life in the kitchen at Avenue, picture cooks sitting around patiently peeling the skins off mounds of fresh English peas, one at a time. Not all of chef Dominique Filoni’s modern Mediterranean menu is so labor-intensive, but attention to detail enhances every dish. Take those peas. Filoni serves them three different ways with king salmon. Some are blanched, then skinned for lighter texture. Others, unskinned, are turned into a bright, luxurious purée. Pea shoots and tendrils, sautéed with roasted hearts of palm, complete the dish. Filoni’s food holds its own against the considerable distractions of the setting—a bar (with food) on the beach, outdoor tables overlooking the beach and a high-ceilinged, sun-splashed interior that brings a bit of the Riviera to Long Branch.
23 Ocean Ave, 732-759-2900, leclubavenue.com
Blu is chef/owner Zod Arifai’s gastronomic laboratory. To the onetime rock ’n’ roll bassist, a self-taught chef, creativity comes naturally. But what is remarkable about his approach to New American is not so much the number of ideas he has (even on a given day), but his ability to shape them into compelling, well-balanced dishes, expertly cooked. (A recent mackerel entrée was served with apple, wasabi and grapes.) Arifai’s delicate touch with seafood is well known, but he’s just as good with sweetbreads, duck, veal and other proteins. His desserts can be novel (black-olive cake with orange custard and basil ice cream) or almost traditional (coconut panna cotta with fresh pineapple). Reasonably priced, dinner at Blu is, paradoxically, both an adventure and a safe bet. BYO
554 Bloomfield Ave, 973-509-2202, restaurantblu.com
“I still make bordelaise sauce,” chef/owner Kevin Kohler says reassuringly, lest anyone misinterpret his fervor for what he calls “clean and healthy cooking,” which starts with him personally harvesting fresh vegetables from nearby Abma farm every day. “I’m trying to be a little simpler in the way I’m cooking at the ripe age of 55.” Favoring wild fish over farmed, sometimes adding uncommon proteins like elk and luxurious Kobe beef to the mainstays, Kohler is adept at making clean and healthy eating a pleasure, not a prescription. That holds true whether you’re having one of his fresh vegetable salads at lunch or indulging in his signature braised filet mignon ravioli at dinner.
130 E Main St, 201-934-0030, cafepanachenj.com
French cuisine was once the envy of the world, its techniques and stocks the foundation of every fine restaurant’s repertoire. In today’s multiculti environment, that dominion seems rather distant. But it lives at Chez Catherine, where every bite connects you not so much to the “glories” of classical French, but to its matchless caress of every ingredient on the plate and every aspect of the diner’s experience. Somewhere along the line, the tradition got tagged with two words: stuffy and heavy. Thanks to the solicitousness and puckish wit of owner Didier Jouvenet, a native of Lyon and for 20 years the maître d’ of La Grenouille, and his wife, Edith, stuffy is out. And thanks to the skill of chef C.J. Reycraft, an American, richness and flavor are heightened with little resort to butter and cream, banishing heavy. Weekday three-course dinner menus at $39 ($32 at lunch) take the heavy out of the tab, too.
431 North Ave W, 908-654-4011, chezcatherine.com
In May, Maricel Presilla became the second New Jersey chef ever to win a James Beard Foundation Award, the Oscars of the food world, when she was named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, besting the best toques in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, among other places. She follows Craig Shelton, who won the same honor in 2000. For Presilla—chef/co-owner of Hoboken’s Cucharamama (pan-Latin American), Zafra (Cuban) and Ultramarinos (a retail store and learning center)—the win, after several earlier nominations, brought her to tears on the stage at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, where the awards were presented.
“You see people crying when they win an award and think it’s an act,” she says. “Well, I found out it isn’t. For a person like me, coming from Cuba, from a very traditional town where I thought I would spend my life, and now I am on the stage at Lincoln Center…” She doesn’t finish the sentence, or need to. Rarely is the intensely voluble Presilla at a loss for words.
Indeed, words are as much her metier as flavors. A scholar of cuisine and culture (with a PhD. in medieval history), Presilla is the author of five cookbooks. Her magnum opus, Gran Cocina Latina, an 820-page illustrated survey of the richness and diversity of Latin-American cuisine, will be published in October. Its highly readable essays and commentaries reveal both her passion and erudition. Expect the volume to contend for a Beard award next year.
Presilla’s books, like her ever-evolving Latin menu and cocktails, arise from her tireless travel. “The more I travel, the more marvelous things I find,” she says. Still, if one cuisine is closest to her heart, it’s Peruvian. Her mentor, the influential chef and author Felipe Rojas-Lombardi, was Peruvian. One result of winning her Beard award was being invited to revive a scholarship fund for Latin-American chefs to study in the United States. She had a hand in starting it with Rojas-Lombardi, but it went dormant after his death in 1991.
Onstage at Avery Fisher Hall, Presilla dedicated her award to Rojas-Lombardi and to the entire Latin-American cooking community, whose members keep the kitchens of so many American restaurants of every style humming. Returning that night to Hoboken, where she lives, “I couldn’t wait to get back to work and start thinking about new things.”
233 Clinton St, 201-420-1700, cucharamama.com
The two daughters of co-owners Michael and Ariane Duarte—manager and chef, respectively, of CulinAriane—are deep into their teenage years. “They keep me busy, but they’re good girls,” says Ariane. Very busy. On top of parenthood, the Duartes’ catering sideline is growing, and Ariane, in demand as a former Top Chef contestant, often travels, “which keeps me fresh,” she says. Thankfully, intimate, 48-seat CulinAriane is still their pride and joy. “People are not going out as much,” Ariane says. “When they come here, I want it to be the best they can get.” Whether you start with her signature cornmeal-crusted oysters with horseradish cream or tuck into a new addition, like a dry-aged, on-the-bone ribeye with creamed spinach elevated by a cauliflower-Parmesan fondue, dinner delights at this New American. BYO
33 Walnut St, 973-744-0533, culinariane.com
This isn’t the first time Daryl has appeared in the Top 25, but the only things the new and the old have in common are name, location and excellence. New chef/owner Zod Arifai has reinvented the menu, the vibe and even himself. Since he opened Blu in 2005 and later the bargain-priced Next Door, which share the same kitchen, his cooking wizardry has been widely recognized. Both have depended on Arifai himself manning the stoves, raising questions: Could he teach, delegate, and develop a capable and dedicated cadre? With Blu and Next Door rocking steady and Daryl’s creative but approachable menu earning wows as the boss shuttles between his two bases, the answer is evident. With Daryl, Arifai gains things he has never had: a truly handsome, stylish place; larger seating capacity; and, crucially, a liquor license. So in addition to serving highly pleasing food at moderate prices, including several delectable pastas, Arifai has retooled the wine list to offer 100 wines under $50, plus 58 by the glass in three different pour sizes. We’ll drink to that.
302 George St, 732-253-7780, darylrestaurant.com
DAVID BURKE FROMAGERIE
If the menu seems to have less of Burke’s trademark whimsy these days (except for classics like his Hot and Angry Lobster Cocktail), that’s because the restaurant is going more (you’ll never guess) farm-to-table. “When you go to farm-to-table, you need to step back from the playfulness a bit. People are asking for simpler food,” says Burke. “But,” he adds, switching gears, “that doesn’t mean we can’t have some wow factor and fun.” Somehow the Fromagerie manages to have it both ways. The kitchen, under executive chef Phil Deffina, handles vegetables beautifully, creating delicious settings for top-quality meat and fish. Tuesday’s popular Burger Night offers a choice of hefty burgers, plus salad, fries and a glass of wine or beer for $25. Pastry chef Stuart Marx’s desserts are lively, and the rotunda-like dining room remains one of the most charming in the state.
26 Ridge Rd, 732-842-8088, fromagerierestaurant.com
“This is a restaurant that’s always evolving, investigating, learning and looking to do better things,” says executive chef Scott Anderson. “People have told us they were intimidated to come here, eat ingredients they don’t know about, but they have left so happy.” That’s because for all that Anderson pushes the New American envelope, his respect for seasonal ingredients—a dizzying variety, whether foraged, fished or farmed locally, or obtained from the best sources around the world—anchors his creativity. “More and more,” he says, “people are trusting us.” Elements puts the mmmm in modernism.
163 Bayard Lane, 609-924-0078, elementsprinceton.com
In thrashing New Jersey last August, Hurricane Irene flooded the basement of Eno Terra and closed the restaurant for 24 days. Not until Thanksgiving was it able to offer its full menu. The ordeal knit the staff closer and heightened their commitment to executive chef Chris Albrecht’s vision of an Italian-influenced cuisine focused on what he calls “a taste of place.” Perhaps that’s just another way of saying fresh, local, seasonal and farm-to-table (a phrase chefs are sick of even as they do it more). So almost 200 different kinds of fruit and produce flow during the course of the year into Eno Terra’s larder from its now two acres at Canal Farm down the road. A direct pipeline to fishermen is introducing fresher specimens and more varied species to the sparklingly executed menu. “People often look at us as a special-occasion restaurant,” says Albrecht. “I really want to stress that you can come in and enjoy us any number of ways that are value driven.” A $19 salad-entrée-dessert menu (no choices, but items change daily) is available every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, at least through Labor Day.
4484 Rt 27 (Academy St), 609-497-1777, enoterra.com
Though now juggling two other restaurants—Bar Cara in Bloomfield and NICO at NJPAC in Newark—chef/co-owner Ryan DePersio still cooks at the family flagship, Fascino, three days a week. “It’s my baby,” he says. But DePersio attributes the high standards of the 9-year-old creative Italian restaurant to his sterling staff, most of whom have been with Fascino at least five years. “Your talent can only go so far,” he says. “But your staff and your talent together make a perfect storm. I couldn’t do Fascino without [executive sous chef] Ernesto Aguilar.” While Aguilar and DePersio gently tweak or up the ante—the kitchen now makes 10 different shapes of pasta—customers won’t let some signature dishes disappear. So, long live the ricotta gnocchi with sweet-sausage Bolognese; the porcini-dusted sea scallops with faro risotto and spicy red-pepper foam; and of course the for-the-table must, mascarpone-polenta fries with Gorgonzola fonduta. BYO
331 Bloomfield Ave, 973-233-0350, fascinorestaurant.com
THE FROG AND THE PEACH
In one of the smoothest changes of ownership you’ll ever see, Jim Black and Betsy Alger, who founded the Frog and the Peach in 1983, sold it in April to Bruce Lefebvre, their executive chef since 2001. Virtually the whole staff stayed, and this cornerstone of New Brunswick’s culinary awakening hasn’t missed a beat, despite the water heater going kaput the day after the closing. Though working longer hours, Lefebvre is enjoying his increased responsibilities and freedoms. You may notice some new (for F&P) techniques, like sous-vide cooking, but the food on the plate still entrances and the setting is as elegantly relaxed as ever.
29 Dennis St, 732-846-3216, frogandpeach.com
Japanese food has its basic sauces, but, says chef/owner Masaharu “Matt” Ito, “Japanese food is not about sauce, it’s about individual tastes.” What repeat visits to Fuji (which Ito started in 1979 at another location) show is how many different tastes traditional Japanese cuisine offers. Not just in sushi, but in cooked dishes as well. Like other chefs, Ito is doing more with vegetables these days, including less-familiar Asian varieties. Fuji excels at all of it.
116 East Kings Hwy
(Rt 41) 856-354-8200, fujirestaurant.com
Until May 10, Lorena’s was Lorena and Humberto Campos Jr.’s only baby. Now there is Liam Thomas Campos, too. Anticipating the arrival, Humberto hired a talented chef de cuisine, Martin Rangel, who had worked at Bouley. This freed the boss to do more with local farms and work the bounty into the menu. Humberto’s sensuous, even sexy, French-influenced food, continues to dazzle: consider Barnegat scallops over parsnip purée with capers, pine nuts and raisins and a green-apple glaze. Meanwhile, the Camposes hired a noted Hamptons designer, Greg McKenzie, to redo the dining room, which now has a burnished bronze look graced by original paintings by Dora Maar, Picasso’s famous muse.
168 Maplewood Ave, 973-763-4460, restaurantlorena.com
“It’s about simplicity, quality of product, spontaneity and tradition—my favorite words.” Luke Palladino is talking about his approach to Italian cooking, which he further defines as “innovation linked to tradition.” Having lived and cooked in Italy, Palladino has a grip on the latter part. The tweaks and twists are subtle but enhancing. Last spring he did a raw asparagus salad, shaved thin on a mandoline, with an egg salad bound with herb aioli, the whole drizzled with olive oil and sea salt. Another spring dish was tortelli filled with braised peas, spring onions, Parmesan and mint, served in a brown butter sauce aswim with peas and Parmesan. Light, delicious and pretty healthy—more candidates for Palladino’s favorite-word list.
1333 New Rd, 609-646-8189, lukepalladino.com
Located waterside at Liberty Landing Marina in Liberty State Park, facing the Manhattan skyline, Maritime Parc may seem hard to get to, but it’s just three minutes from Turnpike Exit 14C. And worth the trip, as a growing clientele (largely from Hudson, Essex and Bergen counties) are finding out. As the name suggests, seafood is a specialty, enticingly prepared (hard to pass up the grilled oysters with leek and bacon cream). But executive chef Christopher Siversen has an equally persuasive touch with creatures of air and land—his braised rabbit with Dijon mustard, tarragon, green olives, black garlic späetzle and Italian dandelions would be stellar on any menu. Initially focused on American traditions when he opened in September 2010, Siversen has internationalized the flavor and ingredient palette this year, to good effect. But you still can’t beat his unique mashed-potato rings with grainy mustard fondue, a side dish crispy outside and heavenly inside.
84 Audrey Zapp Dr (Liberty State Park), 201-413-0050, maritimeparc.com
For its near flawless food, hospitality and comfort, Nicholas—now completing its 11th year—is probably the most consistently praised restaurant in the state, by critics and customers alike. Co-owners Nicholas and Melissa Harary (executive chef and administrative guiding light, respectively) work tirelessly to keep it, as Nicholas says, “on the cutting edge of everything.” (A complete facelift of the rear dining room is under way.) “I love that we have just one restaurant,” says Melissa, “and we have no desire to do another one.” The arrival of Nicholas, now 5, and Juliana, now 3, subtly changed things. “Before we had kids, we lived and breathed the restaurant 24/7, and maybe didn’t let people do their thing because we were all over everything,” Melissa says. “But people have stepped up to the plate, and we’re better for it.” The Hararys are still daily and demanding presences. But the unwavering excellence of the kitchen owes a lot to chef de cuisine Nicholas Wilkins, a 29-year-old Englishman who arrived about six years ago and has become, says Melissa, “just amazing.”
160 Rte 35 S, 732-345-9977, restaurantnicholas.com
Spacious and stylishly rustic, with slate patios and fire pits for outdoor dining or schmoozing, Ninety Acres is tucked away on a wooded hilltop in Natirar Park, an ascending, two-mile drive from Main Street to its valet-attended front door. If the arrival is memorable, so is executive chef David C. Felton’s ever-changing New American menu, much of it stoked by the farm that begins just past those patios. You expect Ninety Acres to do well on weekends, and it does, but more telling is the thrumming weekday crowd of patrons who get cozy around the fire pits, the bar or the communal table in the lounge. Felton offers everything from bar nibbles to highly evolved entrées, alluring cocktails, and Bring Me Food (BMF), his playful name for entrusting your meal entirely to the kitchen’s skill and imagination. “It’s definitely a challenge to do everything for everyone,” Felton says, “but that’s the ultimate goal.”
2 Main St, 908-901-9500, ninetyacres.com
THE ORANGE SQUIRREL
Chef/owner Francesco Palmieri packs layers of flavor and pleasure into food he describes as relatively simple. How he does it is not so simple. Take his signature chicken pot pie, a $19 entrée. Each of the eight or so vegetables is pre-roasted separately so they come out just right. The meat is all dark and is first confited. The liquid is a rich chicken stock thickened with a vegetable purée and bechamel. The pot pie comes to the table in a cast-iron skillet topped with a buttery, browned, French pastry crust. (Strangely, Palmieri sells more of them in summer than in winter.) That kind of care characterizes the whole menu, from soups to pastas to fish to his bravura sizzling ribeye to the fruit infusions he makes for cocktails at the bar.
412 Bloomfield Ave, 973-337-6421, theorangesquirrel.com
Christine Nunn, the former food writer who two years ago transformed her popular take-out business into a sophisticated yet merry restaurant, is back at the stoves after a period of delegation. “I’ve been really loving it,” she says. “I’m letting the food get simpler and 100 percent mine.” All chefs these days swear allegiance to simple, but enchantment is in the details. With Nunn, playfulness also is key. As a special, she made a green goddess dressing from scratch. “That was crazy,” she says happily. Or, “as a goof,” a chicken tetrazzini made with all fresh ingredients (except the classic crumbled Saltines on top). But all is not tongue-in-cheek. Take, for example, her halibut with peach Pommery mustard compote; or her barramundi and day-boat scallops with a ratatouille of summer squash, roasted heirloom tomato and asparagus, hold the eggplant and red peppers. What else is up her sleeve? Read The Preppy Cookbook, her first, due out in September. BYO
14-25 Plaza Rd N (Plaza Building), 201-796-2700, picnictherestaurant.com
This year could have been a disaster. Early on, two esteemed talents departed—executive chef Juan Jose Cuevas and pastry chef Joe Gabriel, leaving owner Gloria LaGrassa with big shoes to fill. After evaluating the situation, she promoted from within. Time has proven her choices wise. On staff three years, Andrew Lattanzio, a 32-year-old CIA grad who had learned a lot from Cuevas and other mentors such as Geoffrey Zakarian, has blossomed as the new executive chef. The same can be said of new pastry chef Kim Schielke, who had worked two years under Gabriel. Lattanzio expertly supports perfectly cooked proteins with intuitive combinations of purées, infused oils and delectable vegetables (many grown on nearby Three Meadows Farm or at the restaurant) that become true costars of the dish. Shielke does something similar with dessert components. Both send you out the door happy.
359 Rt 206 S, 908-658-9292, pluckemininn.com
During his five years as chef de cuisine of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, Kevin Pemoulié learned to prize flavor pairings and not let boundaries between cuisines inhibit his search for the most rewarding combinations. In April, Pemoulié, a Cranford native, and his wife, Alex, opened this small but light-filled establishment, joining a burgeoning restaurant scene he calls “Jersey City’s culinary uprising.” Thirty Acres—named for an area of the city that once hosted a famous Jack Dempsey title fight—shows that a gift for flavor pairings can raise dishes to dizzying heights with just classic technique, nothing complex or high-tech. Pemoulié’s raw arctic char with beet goat cheese, dill pickles, rye-sesame bits and trout roe is made for sharing, but you won’t want to. Trumpet royale mushrooms, salsa verde and garlic scapes partner lip-smackingly with roasted poussin (young chicken). Thirty Acres is part of today’s new wave—simple, low-key operations wearing their hearts on their plates.
500 Jersey Ave, 201-435-3100, thirtyacresrestaurant.com
In architecture and interior design, no restaurant space in New Jersey is more imaginative and invigorating than Ursino, its two curvaceous, glass-enclosed levels adjoining a LEED-certified science building on the campus of Kean University. But aesthetics alone wouldn’t put Ursino on this list. For that credit capable service, creature comfort and the appealingly modern food of executive chef Peter Turso. The fresh-local-seasonal zeitgeist comes alive on a dedicated farm a short walk from the restaurant. The farm produces a wide range of fruits, vegetables, herbs and botanicals, like lovage and valerian. They contribute to a changing menu as appealing to the eye as to the palate, whether burly—like glazed short ribs with smokey grits, collard greens and pearl onions—or ethereal—like seared Barnegat scallops with Tokyo turnips, braised radicchio, Fuji apple and clementine butter.
1075 Morris Ave, 908-249-4099, ursinorestaurant.com
With his French training (under the great Jean Jacques Rachou of Le Côte Basque), chef/co-owner Charles Tutino cooks a lot of dishes you think you know, not all of them French—roasted chicken with tarragon, mulligatawny soup, bouillabaisse, steak frites. He may tweak them a bit (like gazpacho with lemon-Sriracha sorbet, or a bluefish niçoise), but one way or another this modest, self-effacing chef makes you sit up in your chair and think, I never knew this could taste so good. Most appetizers are $8-$13, most entrées under $30. Add Verjus’s small, discerning, reasonably priced wine list; the quiet, comfortable room; and the warmth of host Jane Witkin, Tutino’s wife, and you have a lunch, brunch or dinner to treasure.
1790 Springfield Ave, 973-378-8990, verjusrestaurant.com
Chef Joseph Baldino’s family is Sicilian on his father’s side. After earning a business degree from Temple, the native Philadelphian went to culinary school, then studied in Sicily with the famed home cook and author Anna Tasca. Exactly a year ago, he opened the tiny, 35-seat Zeppoli, named for the irresistible, doughnut-like Sicilian treat. “Sicilian food is very homey and rustic,” says Baldino, 33. “It’s Italian comfort food.” From the open kitchen come such dishes as fisherman’s stew with couscous, or spaghetti with baby eel, garlic, chili flakes and parsley, often reflecting the culinary influence of Sicily’s various conquerors. There’s brio in every bite. BYO
618 Collings Ave, 856-854-2670, zeppolirestaurant.com
The Top 25 Restaurants and Critics’ Picks were chosen by our panel of food critics and reporters, headed by senior editor Eric Levin, who wrote the following briefs. The panel: Jill P. Capuzzo, Adam Erace, Sam Kadko, Suzanne Zimmer Lowery, Karen Tina Harrison, Adam Robb, Rosie Saferstein, Pat Tanner and Robin Damstra & Jim Salant.
By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.