The 25 Best Restaurants of 2014

Our annual list of the best restaurants New Jersey has to offer. You'll find some rising stars, and plenty of old favorites.

Check out our updated 2015 list here!

Agricola, Princeton
11 Witherspoon St., 609-921-2798

The products and produce of Great Road Farm—the handiwork of farmer Steve Tomlinson—fuel the imagination of executive chef Josh Thomsen and fulfill the furrow-to-fork vision of Jim Nawn, who owns the farm and the restaurant.

Depending on the season, Agricola, now a bustling one-year-old, might offer a beautifully deep orange-yellow egg salad. That color generally tells you the hens were free to peck around a pasture, eating an omnivorous diet. (Great Road supplements the birds’ foraging with corn, soy, oats and vitamins.) Equally seasonal would be a kale salad, its leaves glistening with the very popular toasted pumpkin-seed vinaigrette. A pork chop from Eden Farms in West Milford might come with braised Great Road collards and a chutney made from Terhune Orchards apples infused with beet juice and tossed with crushed, toasted pistachios, house-cured bacon and pomegranate syrup. The pickled and fermented vegetable plate is plucked from glass jars that decorate the bar. “They’re not just a pair of pretty legs,” deadpans Thomsen of the jars, packed with house-cured fiddlehead ferns, napa cabbage and the like.

There is a poignancy to seasonal menus. One ingredient comes on, another wanes. “Which one of your children do you love the most?” asks Thomsen. Earlier this summer he was making his own burrata, serving it with asparagus, English peas and local strawberries. Now it’s tomato prime time; thus his tomato menu. But a standard since day 1 has been the Shibumi Farm mushroom flatbread, a fresh-from-the-oven celebration of umami, with accents of oregano and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

In readying an Agricola cookbook, due this fall, Thomsen has been reading David Tanis, chef and author of A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, while simultaneously rolling out Agricola’s pickles, kimchi and kale salad dressing (with tasty toasted pumpkin seed) as products for sale.

Blu, Montclair
554 Bloomfield Ave., 973-509-2202

(Note: Blu is closing, effective August 31.)
Since he opened Blu in October 2005 (with a seemingly physics-defying dish he called steam-seared chicken), chef Zod Arifai has kept himself at the forefront of New Jersey’s ever-ascending restaurant scene. But Blu will not be on the scene much longer. Arifai, 51, says he has decided to shut down the BYO—no sooner than December 31, but no later than March 2015, when his lease expires.

If you have never had the pleasure of eating his duck breast with fig-and-red wine emulsion, braised red cabbage and caramelized turnips, now’s the time. Always flouting convention, Arifai recommends it not rare or medium rare, but medium. And he’s right. The flavor comes forward as the flesh firms up a bit. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but this self-taught chef (and one-time rock bassist) has always followed his own compass.

Where his compass points now, at least as far as fine dining is concerned, is New York City. “I’m hugely grateful to my customers, who have supported me all these years,” he says, “but younger people, say 25 to 45, are not into BYOs. They want to order cocktails and craft beers. Older customers like to bring their best wines, but they eat out less often. In New York, the idea of high-level food in a super casual space is understood. Here, it doesn’t quite click.”

There is a chance Arifai (pronounced ar-EE-fay) will stay on this side of the Hudson, but only if he can buy the building that houses Blu and its more casual, lower priced, offshoot, Next Door (which won NJM’s 2010 Burger Showdown). He says he would then turn it into one big Next Door. “I might open more Next Doors in other Jersey towns,” he says. “One hundred percent of the population understands that food.”

Either way, Blu heads for the last roundup. It knocked down barriers between cuisines and combined flavors and textures in bold, successful ways. In these final months, Arifai is bringing back some of his benchmarks: the duck; charred octopus with chickpea purée, raisins and yogurt; seafood dumplings in chili-coconut broth; and the daring black olive cake with basil ice cream and orange sauce. The clock is ticking. Why wait?

Café Panache, Ramsey
130 E Main St., 201-934-0030
For any restaurant to last 30 years is remarkable. For a BYO to do it—lacking the profit stream a liquor license provides—is exceptional. And for the chef of that restaurant, after 30 years on his feet, to still be at the top of his game—well, that’s extraordinary.

The chef, Kevin Kohler of Café Panache, actually figures he has been on his feet almost every day for 40 of his 57 years, counting apprenticeships.

“One reason I succeeded,” he says, “is that I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t, and still can’t, be cool, or hip, or trendy. What I am is consistent. I make food that is impeccably fresh and not overcomplicated, not froufrou or over-garnished. I focus on the product and I try to get my chefs to keep the flavors clean.”

Long before farm-to-table became a buzz phrase, Kohler was picking his own fruits and vegetables every morning at Abma’s Farm in nearby Wyckoff. Sparklingly fresh ingredients are just the beginning. Whether you’re having his warm mushroom salad, his hand-made agnolotti in basil cream, last spring’s softshell crabs with ginger-carrot sauce, or for dessert back then, his intense, lip-smacking, hot blackberry soup with lavender-flower ice cream, Kohler’s food is pleasing, never ponderous; satisfying, never stupefying.

Chez Catherine, Westfield
41 North Ave. W, 908-654-4011

Last year, owner Didier Jouvenet’s long-time chef left to start a more casual French restaurant across town. Jouvenet, 65, a native of Lyon, France, kept right on clicking, like the ceramic crickets on his tables that are the emblem of Marseille, hometown of his wife, Edith. Under new chef de cuisine Alex Gomes, 32, who has worked at Blu and Lorena’s, Chez Catherine’s modernly light yet soulfully classic French food also clicks along, perhaps better than ever.

Jouvenet still fillets imported Dover sole tableside (as he did at New York’s La Grenouille for two decades). His wine pairings are masterful (Burgundian pinot noir with duck confit; Chateauneuf du Pape with roast chicken; Sancerre with smoked salmon). He personally presents the truly grand Grand Marnier soufflé, cracking the puffy top and pouring in the golden sabayon sauce. He is charming and gracious, never stuffy, but he won’t be doing this forever. You owe it to yourself to experience French food as it was meant to be.

Cucharama, Hoboken
233 Clinton St., 201-420-1700
Chef/owner Maricel Presilla lets no moss gather under her two James Beard Awards. For the Peruvian trade office, she created new Pisco cocktails, including one called Blood Moon that is all the rage at Cucharamama, her pan-Latin flagship. Made with purplish acai juice, orange and lime, “it looks like something Dracula would like to drink,” she says. Now using her wood-burning oven to cook whole vegetables (like a cauliflower stuffed with Peruvian garlic bread, parsley and almonds), she calls the dome-shaped oven, “the best investment we ever made.” From a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, she brought back the makings of mamajuana, a native drink made from vines cured with wine and honey. “It has this woody, fascinating flavor,” she says. “Every time I go anywhere, I find new stuff to work with. So I never get bored.”

Fascino, Montclair
331 Bloomfield Ave., 973-233-0350
Sounding quite boggled, Ryan DePersio says, “I have over 40 cooks working under my name at three locations. When I was 25, I thought no way would that ever happen.” At 36, DePersio is the consulting chef of Nico at NJPAC, executive chef of the stunning new Battello on the Hudson River in Jersey City, and executive chef of Fascino, his family’s BYO pride and joy in Montclair.

You might say he has a lot on his plate. What’s key here is how he feels about Fascino. “It’s my baby,” he says. “It made me who I am and I always want to make sure it is at the top of my priorities.”

In recent months he has updated the menu, removing some proven winners and replacing them with dishes that are proving to be as good or better. Bye-bye, barramundi with paprika-and-sweet-onion sauce; hello, pancetta-wrapped branzino stuffed with tomato confit. So long, porcini-dusted scallops; c’mon in cumin-dusted scallops with beluga lentils, sunchoke purée, hazel oil and lobster foam.

Some dishes will never take a hike, like the ricotta gnocchi with sweet-sausage Bolognese. Factor in the updated decor and the delightful desserts made by Ryan’s mom, Cynthia, and you have a spunky 11-year-old still feeling its oats—or rather, its red quinoa with salsa verde on the branzino.

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