BERNARDS INN (Bernardsville) Now in its centennial year, this mission-style inn has kept pace with the ever-rising sophistication of the Somerset Hills. After buying the inn a little over a year ago, John Hanson and his siblings (who live locally and also own the nearby Station Pub & Grub) have invested heavily to restore it. The redesign by Jeff Haines (of Butler’s of Far Hills) has raised the interior to a new level of comfort and style. Executive chef Corey Heyer, sommelier Terri Baldwin, and a friendly service staff provide the continuity that makes the new trappings meaningful. —Mark Konig
27 Mine Brook Rd, 908-766-0002, bernardsinn.com.
BLUE POINT GRILL (Princeton) Owner Jack Morrison also runs Nassau Street Seafood & Produce, one of New Jersey’s leading restaurant suppliers. The company is next door to the restaurant and connects to the kitchen by a passageway that effectively links diners to some of the choicest fish in the state. From an intimate, four-seat raw bar, the kitchen is visible over a mound of ice and oysters. The dual dining rooms are decorated with rustic fishing gear and a tank where live lobsters crawl. A meaty fillet of Gulf Stream swordfish is finished with lemon butter and parsley; a rich, flaky Nova Scotia halibut arrives with a sprinkling of capers. For more complex combinations, try an appetizer of jalapeño-and-lime grilled shrimp or the lobster roll.—Stan Parish
258 Nassau St, 609-921-1211.
BUDDAKAN (Atlantic City) It could be a pavilion straight out of Epcot, except the food is a lot better. You leave behind the hubbub of the Pier Shops at Caesars as you enter and find yourself under a purple sky filled with shooting stars—oops, that’s the ceiling. A huge golden Buddha smiles down at diners seated at a 24-foot-long table, one of the signature elements in Stephen Starr’s original Buddakan in Philadelphia and its successor in Manhattan. But this is perhaps Buddakan’s most opulent incarnation, and the only one with an ocean just outside.
Parties of six or more can sit in drapery-shielded alcoves; smaller groups can walk up to the mezzanine with its cherry-wood shutters. Wherever you sit, you will eat well.
The menu hews to the Asian fusion that has proven so popular at the earlier Buddakans. Portions are big enough to share, prices are reasonable ($15–$34), and the flavors are lively. An appetizer of ravioli filled with purée of edamame with truffles is served in a tangy sauterne shallot broth. The sizzling short ribs entrée is fork tender and topped with a sweet ginger glaze.
For dessert, try the signature Crying Chocolate— a crisp chocolate cookie shell filled with coffee ice cream and warm white chocolate ganache drizzled with caramel. For all its trappings of serenity, Buddakan makes the heart beat faster.—Mindie Barnett Lichterman
Pier Shops at Caesars, One Atlantic Ocean, 609-674-0100, buddakanac.com.
CALÇADA (Newark) The scene on the NJPAC patio is livelier thanks to the summer-long return of this extension of Theater Square Grill.
Mosaic-topped tables and a shady tent provide comfort while Chris Bilyk, executive chef of Theater Square Grill, oversees the open grill and wood-burning stove.
This year’s lunch and dinner theme, “Food of the Americas,” features daily chowders and chilled soups as well as grilled steaks, burgers, and Jersey-caught fish (produce is local, too).
Calçada is closed weekends, but there’s a free wine tasting every Tuesday from 5 to 6 pm. On Wednesday nights, $22 buys a 1¼-pound lobster with steamed clams, mussels, potatoes, corn, and a pint of draft beer. Thursday is barbecue night, featuring a platter of barbecued chicken, brisket, and corn for $18. Live music, too. Stop by after 3 pm Fridays for a free hot dog with every drink.—MK
NJPAC, 1 Center St, 973-642-1226, theater-square-grill.com.
CHRISTOPHER’S (New Brunswick) Hotel restaurants can be all sizzle and no substance, but this handsome, glass-enclosed space in the lobby of the new Heldrich Hotel has both. Overseen by executive chef Richard Varga, with chef Tom Drake in daily command, the kitchen is creating exciting New American food and doing it well. Crispy black sea bass with basil risotto is an early winner ($27). The salads on the menu show thought and care: a house salad of baby greens with toasted pecans and dried cherries; a Tuscan bread salad; a lobster Cobb; three kinds of Caesar; and a smoked duck and upland cress salad with local artisanal cheese, tangerines, and pistachios.—Rosalie Saferstein
10 Livingston Ave, 732-729-4670, theheldrich.com.
DUE TERRE (Bernardsville) Start with European owners who managed the Ryland Inn (Daniele Sbordi and François Rousseau). Add a New York Times three-star chef (Michael White from Fiamma in Soho), a 260-bottle wine list certain to win awards, and a modern space that channels Frank Lloyd Wright. The result, which opened March 22, is a supernova. The handmade pastas are a must. Porcini mushrooms adorn veal-filled agnolotti; chunky pork ragù bathes pappardelle-like paccheri; prosciutto, peas, and truffles caress garganelli; truffles also ennoble gnocchi. Can’t decide? Due Terre’s pasta-tasting menu is the heaven-sent answer. —Karen Tina Harrison
107 Morristown Rd, 908-221-0040, dueterre.com.
THE INLET (Somers Point) Facing Great Egg Harbor Bay, the building that houses the two-month-old Inlet offers great views, but two previous places that didn’t offer much else have closed at this site. Owner Marty Grims (Daddy-O and the Plantation on Long Beach Island, Moshulu in Philly, et al) has the marketing savvy that might give the Inlet a long run. The concept—more attractive surroundings than most spots where shorts are acceptable, easier on the budget than upscale places—strives for fun food with a little creativity. That would include executive chef Adam DeLosso’s barbecued chicken spring rolls, lobster grilled-cheese sandwich with avocado salsa, short rib sliders, and the customary crab cakes and shrimp scampi. There are 700 seats on two levels. Quality food is not synonymous with high-capacity seating, but that is what Grims and his team are striving for.—MK
998 Bay Ave, 609-926-9611.
MEDITERRA (Princeton) The cuisine is Mediterranean, but the freshness is a taste of New Jersey. Much of the meat comes from a farm in nearby Montgomery, and many of the other menu items come from local farms. Tapas change nightly. Keep an eye peeled for a delicious salad of beets, endive, shaved fennel, and goat cheese, served with creamy goat cheese croquetas. Leave the pastas to Teresa Caffe, Mediterra’s exclusively Italian sister in Princeton, and opt for robust entrées such as grilled king salmon with truffled potato purée and pea tendrils. The dish is enlivened by a crisp spring-pea gazpacho and a sprinkling of diced, pickled onions. A sweet and smoky Berkshire pork chop with bacon-infused fingerling potatoes and blueberry bordelaise is crowned with an indulgent dollop of blue cheese. The full bar features many wines by the glass. End with the luscious, olive oil-infused chocolate mousse or piping hot beignets.—SP
29 Hulfish St, 609-252-9680, terramomo.com.
RESTAURANT MC (Millburn) The imprint of consulting chef David Burke is obvious in dishes like his signature roasted Angry Lobster appetizer and his chocolate-dipped cheesecake lollipops, both on the menu at this fashionable new bistro. But executive chef Steve Permaul—a Princeton native and CIA grad who worked at Burke restaurants in New York and Chicago—has been given a free hand. A behemoth of an oven set to 950 degrees is Permaul’s weapon of choice. It sears fast and seals juices in, lending a moist, smoky flavor to meat, fowl, seafood, and pizza. Spot-on pastas make terrific appetizers or main dishes. Don’t mistake the Salad MC for a diet dish. The greens are lavished with bacon chunks and wedges of ripe French goat cheese. The salad is served with a walnut-oil vinaigrette, but MC’s garlicky Caesar dressing adds even more punch. —KTH
57 Main St, 973-921-0888, restaurantmc.com.
SAGAMI (Collingswood) Knotty-pine paneling, drop ceiling, paper lanterns. What keeps people coming back to this 33-year-old South Jersey institution is not the décor but the food, especially the consistently excellent sushi and sashimi. Sliced sushi rolls and hand rolls are generously proportioned, and à la carte delicacies like sea urchin, fresh scallop, and giant clam are sparklingly fresh and reasonably priced. The sticky rice is sublime, as are the steamed and chilled asparagus spears with sesame dipping sauce.—MBL
37 W Crescent Blvd (Rte 130), 856-854-9773.
SWANKY BUBBLES (Cherry Hill) As the name suggests, champagnes and sparkling wines flow plentifully here, but so do designer martinis and champagne cocktails such as the Blondie (champagne, vanilla vodka, and pineapple juice). This offshoot of the original in Philly has been embraced by a young and, yes, swanky crowd who heed the DJ’s hedonic soundtrack. What to eat with bubbles? Head chef Raul Bacordo (who oversees both kitchens) has created a harmonious menu of sushi and Asian fusion dishes. Meat eaters will enjoy the Imperial filet mignon with wasabi mashed potatoes and Asian broccoli with teriyaki sauce. Japanese mac and cheese, made with penne and four kinds of cheddar and topped with chunks of lobster and crab meat, doesn’t seem very Japanese, but it sure is popular.—MBL
482 Evesham Rd, 856-428-4999, swankybubbles.com.
TERRA (Maplewood) At this neighborly 40-seat BYO, chef Pete Burbela often comes out to sit with diners. Burbela, a Roselle Park native and former engineering project manager, assisted Ed Gruters in this kitchen when it was called American Fare. Burbela calls his eclectic menu “American bistro with global comfort food” and fills three menu pages with dishes like shrimp with grits, carnitas (pulled pork), and jerk chicken. The delectable pierogi, sweet with caramelized onions, are Burbela’s homage to his Ukranian heritage. Every week brings a different “Jersey’s best burger,” sometimes highlighting Cajun-style duck andouille sausage that the chef makes by hand. Generous entrées range from good (short ribs that can use additional braising time) to terrific (carnitas tangy with chili) to nearly mythic (tomato-sweetened Creole shrimp that sell out by mid-evening). Burbela devotes attention to sides such as quinoa, hominy, and rice of all stripes: coconut-flavored, saffron-perfumed, or nutty, naturally black “forbidden” rice. No such term should apply to the carrot cake and banana-chocolate chip cake, the kind of frosted behemoths you used to see under glass in luncheonettes. Yes, they’re as good as they look.—KTH
175 Maplewood Ave, 973-763-4005.
nanina’s named no. 1
Newman ’s Own, Rao’s, Patsy’s, Emeril’s, Victoria, Ragu, Prego. They all finished far behind Nanina’s marinara in an Italian Tribune taste test to crown the “Best Commercial Pasta Sauce.” The bottled version of Chef Vincenzo Loretti’s signature “gravy” was two years in the making. Now it’s available at King’s, ShopRite, and naninasgourmetsauce.com. Or you could wait for an invite to your cousin Frank’s son’s fete at the venerable Belleville banquet hall.—David ChmielClick here to leave a comment