AMANDA’S (Hoboken) Step off the bustling sidewalk and into an oasis of easy charm. Owners Eugene and Joyce Flynn are restaurateurs of the first rank, attending to every detail. From seasonal game to perfectly prepared fish and steaks, the can’t-miss entrées are bolstered by intriguing salads and soups. Great for a leisurely Sunday brunch, too. 908 Washington St, 201-798-0101, amandasrestaurant.com.
ARTHUR’S LANDING (Weehawken) Thanks to the imagination and skill of chef Michael Haimowitz, the food (especially the sparklingly fresh seafood) finally rivals the jaw-dropping view of Manhattan. Port Imperial, 1 Pershing Rd, 201-867-0777, arthurslanding.com.
BLU (Montclair) It’s a canard, so to speak, that duck breast is best served rare. Chef and owner Zod Arifai makes a convincing case for the heightened flavor and improved texture of medium. His combinations click, whether classic (red cabbage and caramelized turnips with the duck) or novel (avocado soup with diced watermelon and raw oysters). Unerring execution brings out the best in every ingredient. Entrées run $18 to $24, a mind-blowing bargain. 554 Bloomfield Ave, 973-509-2202, restaurantblu.com.
CAFÉ MATISSE (Rutherford) It’s not just the framed reproductions but also the color scheme and décor that make you feel you’re stepping into a Matisse painting. After fourteen years, chef and owner Peter Loria still serves food as seductive as the mauves of the master’s palette. 167 Park Ave, 201-935-2995, cafematisse.com.
CUCHARAMAMA (Hoboken) Maricel Presilla’s invigorating and authentic Peruvian, Bolivian, and Venezuelan cooking made her a finalist for this year’s “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” award from the James Beard Society. Toast her with one of her Peruvian Pisco (brandy) cocktails. 233 Clinton St, 201-420-1700, cucharamama.com.
DAVID BURKE FROMAGERIE (Rumson) Burke’s reputation for tongue-in-cheek innovation might seem at odds with the 35-year-old Fromagerie’s genteel charm. But a lively, upscale crowd (including, on a recent night, Bruce Springsteen) is turning out for delicious Burke creations such as scallops Benedict on a flat potato cake topped with chorizo and lobster aioli. 26 Ridge Rd, 732-842-8088, fromagerierestaurant.com.
DAVID DRAKE (Rahway) The chef who helped put the Frog and the Peach on the map is at his confident and imaginative best in his six-course tasting menu. Recent home run: parfait of smoked salmon with fresh hearts of palm, blood orange segments, and blood orange vinaigrette. 1449 Irving St, 732-388-6677, daviddrakes.com.
EBBITT ROOM (Cape May) The 1879 Virginia Hotel, renovated in 1989, is a model of Victorian dignity and detail, but the food in its elegant dining room is sumptuous and contemporary. 25 Jackson St, 800-732-4236, virginiahotel.com.
FASCINO (Montclair) A hit from the day it opened in 2003, Fascino (accent on the first syllable) has gotten better as it’s gotten bigger. A 2005 expansion gave staff as well as patrons more elbow room. Conservative at first, chef Ryan DePersio, 29, has put more of his exceptional talent on the plate as his following has grown. 331 Bloomfield Ave, 973-233-0350, fascinorestaurant.com.
THE FROG AND THE PEACH (New Brunswick) For nearly 25 years, with different chefs, this downtown pioneer has sustained its creativity and excellence. Credit owners Betsy Alger and Jim Black and executive chef Bruce Lefebvre, the kitchen’s guiding hand since 2001. 29 Dennis St, 732-846-3216, frogandpeach.com.
FUJI (Haddonfield) Chef Matt Ito has relocated from a humble setting in Cinnaminson to a beautiful space in Haddonfield. The exquisite sushi and sashimi that drew devotees from around the region are still worth the drive. Wonders emerge from the expanded kitchen, too, including a sublime Chilean sea bass in garlic sauce. 116 East King’s Hwy, Rt 41, 856-354-8200, fujirestaurant.com.
GIRASOLE (Atlantic City) An island of serenity between casinos, Girasole is the Iovino family’s loving evocation of the sun-splashed food of their native Naples. That includes soul-soothing tomato sauce, crackly brick-oven pizzas, luscious pastas, a beef braciola for the ages, and the widest selection of ethereal crudos (marinated raw fish) in the state. 3108 Pacific Ave, 609-345-5554, girasoleac.com.
HAMILTON’S GRILL ROOM (Lambertville) Everybody grills nowadays. But Jim Hamilton’s canal-side hideaway reminds you that grilling at its best—over a hot charcoal fire—is an art. Chef Mark Miller has the maestro’s touch on fish, fowl, meat, even on a head of romaine for a terrific Caesar with grilled white anchovies. 8 Coryell St, 609-397-4343, hamiltonsgrillroom.com.
HIGHLAWN PAVILION (West Orange) Don’t let the limos and the bridal parties posing against the New York skyline put you off. Executive chef Mitchell Altholz, who broke hearts when he sold Jocelyne’s in Maplewood in 2005, turns out fabulous food, whether for two or 200. Eagle Rock Reservation, Eagle Rock Ave, 973-731-3463, highlawn.com.
LORENA’S (Maplewood) This cozy, romantic spot in the quaint downtown has a matchmaker for a chef. Humberto Campos Jr. puts seasonal ingredients together with American imagination and French flair. If you and your honey are as compatible as Campos’s combinations, you’re doing great. 168 Maplewood Ave, 973-763-4460, restaurantlorena.com.
MEHNDI (Morristown) The Mehtani family’s new space—three restaurants with one main entrance—shows the boldness of the founders’ scion, Shaun, 23. Mehndi, largest of the three, just happens to serve the best Indian food in the state. The innovative cocktail list is also available in SM23 (stylish bar) and Ming II (pan-Asian). 88 Headquarters Plaza, Speedwell Ave, 973-871-2323, mehtanirestaurantgroup.com.
NICHOLAS (Middletown) Plunk it down in Paris, Manhattan, or anywhere, and Nicholas and Melissa Harary’s bravura creation would still rate four stars for its relaxed yet impeccable service; comfortable, understated décor; and consistently brilliant food. The prix-fixe dinners ($55 for three courses or $75 for six courses) are a steal. 160 Rt 35 South, 732-345-9977, restaurantnicholas.com.
OMBRA (Atlantic City) As you descend the Borgata stairway, fine aromas beckon you into this grotto-like restaurant with its stone, tile, and 16,000-bottle floor-to-ceiling wine cellar. Appetizers include Italian specialties and 50 cheeses. Don’t pass up linguini fra diavolo, a spicy seafood pasta with sauce made from tomatoes grown on a Jersey farm bought specifically to accommodate chef Luke Palladino. One Borgata Way, 866-MY-BORGATA, borgata.com.
OSTERIA GIOTTO (Montclair) Chef Luca Valerin, a native of Padua, and co-owner Robert Pantusa, a Cedar Grove native who trained in Italy, added a second dining room and auxiliary kitchen in 2005, so a table is easier to get—and still worth getting for Valerin’s rustic, rewarding, and reasonably priced take on regional dishes. 21-23 Midland Ave, 973-746-0111, osteria-giotto.com.
PLUCKEMIN INN (Bedminster) The wow is not just the three-story wall of wine. Executive chef David Felton is an idea machine (hearts of palm salad with grapefruit, avocado, peanuts, mâche, and coriander). Several dishes can be ordered in appetizer or entrée portions. 359 Rt 202/206 South, 908-658-9292, pluckemininn.com.
ROOTS STEAKHOUSE (Summit) Roots “has the feel of an old-fashioned New York City steakhouse,” wrote one reviewer. Invoking New York does not impress us carnivores on the West Bank. What counts is that Roots nails the steaks, the appetizers, and the indispensable sides. The wine list is big but pricey, so stick with by-the-glass unless you’re entertaining clients. (Maybe that’s what they mean by a New York steakhouse.) 401 Springfield Ave, 908-273-0027, rootssteakhouse.com.
SCALINI FEDELI (Chatham) Still grand, from the hug of the embroidered, curved-back chairs to the repose of a velvety raviolo in truffle butter. Despite overseeing two Manhattan restaurants and his Madison original, Il Mondo Vecchio, owner and executive chef Michael Cetrulo has kept a firm hand on the rudder of his twelve-year-old flagship. 63 Main St, 973-701-9200, scalinifedeli.com.
SERENADE (Chatham) Less fat, more flavor—that’s one key to chef James Laird’s light yet satisfying treatments of meat, fish, and fowl, which feature produce from his organic garden. August 15 is the sixth annual tomato dinner, with Jersey’s famed fruit of the vine the focus of each course. 6 Roosevelt Ave, 973-701-0303, restaurantserenade.com.
SHIPWRECK GRILL (Brielle) Just another seafood shanty down the Shore? No, matey, toque Terry Eleftheriou serves seductive tuna tartare (resembling a burger on an avocado “bun”), lobster-stuffed ravioli, and irresistible peanut-butter cake. Want the basics? His steamed or fried fisherman’s platters can’t be beat. 720 Ashley Ave, 732-292-9380, shipwreckgrill.com.
VERJUS (Maplewood) Its location outside the village may keep it under the radar, but six years after launch, Charles Tutino’s French cooking remains magical. His roast chicken with tarragon is so good it’s profound. The welcome of his wife and co-owner, Jane Witkin, is always warm. 1790 Springfield Ave, 973-378-8990, verjusrestaurant.com.Click here to leave a comment