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.

The Frog & The Peach, New Brunswick
29 Dennis St., 732-846-3216
Do kielbasa and fine dining belong in the same sentence? They do at the Frog and the Peach, still dynamic after 31 years, thanks to chef/owner Bruce Lefebvre and his splendid staff. The kitchen makes the kielbasa from scratch, cold smokes it, roasts it until crisp. Meanwhile, the sauerkraut, also made from scratch, is mixed with fresh cabbage “to get two flavors,” Lefebvre says. On the plate go luscious whipped potatoes, soulful caramelized onions and a dollop of impossibly delicious mustard, also made in house in a time-consuming process involving seven ingredients, from lager beer to egg yolks. All this time and effort for one $16 lunch item. Insanely inefficient! But standard procedure for every Frog and Peach dish—be it seared red snapper with beer-braised calamari; the amazing $7 side dish of cauliflower-almond purée studded with golden raisins and capers; or the unique rice-pudding strudel with apricot coulis created by pastry chef Brian Dymnioski.

Fuji, Haddonfield
116 E Kings Hwy, 856-354-8200
“I start early in the morning and finish late,” says chef/owner Masaharu “Matt” Ito, 61. “I’m old-fashioned that way.” Nowadays his son Jesse, 25, can be found full-time at the sushi bar. He’s the next generation, but the first gen isn’t slowing down. In cooked food as well as sushi, Fuji has always been a bastion of authenticity. Now Ito is about to bring back various techniques and ingredients he says even traditionalists like himself seldom see in the United States. “My son says, ‘Why you work all the time?’ I say, ‘Because I’m a cook. I don’t sit in an office. Every day is new. That excites me.”

Latour, Hamburg
Wild Turkey Way, 973-827-0548

The late Gene Mulvihill, builder and owner of the Crystal Springs Golf Resort, created Latour in 2004 to showcase his world-class wine collection, led by its matchless ranks of his favorite Bordeaux, Chateau Latour. In 2008, he hired Robby Younes—born and raised in Lebanon and at 28 already a seasoned hotel and restaurant executive—to modernize Latour’s menu and service. In February, Younes, now the resort’s perfection-obsessed wine director and vice president of hospitality and lodging, made his boldest move yet, hiring New Zealand native Jean Paul Lourdes as Latour’s executive chef.

In a few months, Lourdes has taken Latour’s five-course and seven-course tasting menus from excellent to exciting (and, yes, more expensive: now $115 and $145). A smoked wagyu brisket he served in May—infused with Kansas City-style barbecue spices, cooked sous vide for 76 hours and served with foraged spring ramps three ways (charred, pickled and smoked)—was so flavorful and paradoxically firm yet yielding, it would make burly pitmasters weep. At the other end of the flavor spectrum was his first course of a wild black radish cooked in an olive tapenade and garnished with a gel made from sparkling cider, freeze-dried black olives and immature grapes. Its flavors and textures were as delicate and precise as a Japanese folding fan.

Lourdes, 35, has a unique background. A former pro rugby player, he holds a master’s degree in food science and nutrition and is the author of a children’s book about food. He has worked with the three-star Michelin chefs Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and Anne-Sophie Pic in southeastern France. Lourdes cooked with Joël Robuchon in Tokyo and ran the restaurants of the Shangri-La Hotel in Beijing, where he became interested in scent and developed a cocoa-infused perfume for the hotel. When Younes tracked him down, Lourdes was director of culinary research and development for the Stephen Starr organization.

The move to Sussex County was not a hard sell. Lourdes says he and the Philadelphia-based mogul “were going to do a restaurant together, but I did not want to do the large format Starr wanted. If someone dictates the menu to you, where is the freedom to be creative?”

Freedom, Younes convinced him, is exactly what he would have at Latour. The veep has kept his promise, rebuilding the kitchen to Lourdes’s exacting specifications; flying in whole fish twice a week from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market; hiring teams of foragers on both coasts; upgrading the dishes, silverware and glassware; and modernizing the decor of the dining room, already blessed with a panoramic view of the sun setting over the Kittatinny Ridge.

In May, Lourdes debuted Latour’s first brunch. Like his dinner menu, his brunch exhibits bravado, not a word previously associated with Restaurant Latour. A baked flatbread with maitake mushrooms and kale was loaded with fiery Calabrian peppers, an invasion on an empty stomach first thing in the morning. A Swedish open-faced sandwich was equally aggressive in spiciness and in the daunting layer of dense fat on the chunk of pork belly on top.

But Lourdes’s creative daring mostly succeeds, as in his Moroccan pancake with tandoori apples or his tartine of Iranian figs, burrata and lavender honey. Both the $55 and $75 prix-fixe menus come with a parade of marvelous house-made breads, pastries, jams, sodas (like Bing cherry and yuzu), compound juices (like the ingeniously balanced blood orange, prune and passion fruit), and organic coffees (Guatemalan, Sumatran and Ethiopian) that keeps coming until you beg for mercy.

Fine, you say. But can the guy do creamy-soft scrambled eggs (with, by the way, sorrel and Scottish salmon)?

Folks, get out your hankies.

Lorena’s, Maplewood
168 Maplewood Ave., 973-763-4460
For nine years, chef Humberto Campos Jr. has been bringing forth luscious food from a small kitchen. The BYO, named for his wife and co-owner, Lorena, is French in technique, but American in spirit.

“We’re always tweaking, always trying to make ourselves a little better,” Campos says.

The kitchen staff has been expanded and some spiffy new equipment added—like a sous-vide machine and a Pacojet, the Ferrari of food processors. “It will allow us to do more elaborate preparations,” Campos says. That will include what some chefs call a pre-dessert, a complimentary amuse-bouche that bridges the gap between the savory meal just ended and the sweets to come.

Whatever new recipes the new crew and equipment make possible, some things at Lorena’s will never change: the warmth of Lorena, the hostess; the hugely popular salmon tartare; the beet salad with goat-cheese quennelles and pistachio purée; the butter-poached lobster crepe with fava beans and mushroom butter.

For dessert, Campos says, speaking of what’s popular, “the carrot cake has really taken over. It’s light, incorporates some pineapple brunoise in the batter, has cream-cheese icing, of course, but also cream-cheese ice cream.” Two kinds of cream cheese? That’s living large.

Luke Palladino, Linwood
199 New Road, 609-926-3030
In this BYO’s original location, in a strip mall in Northfield, people used to wait outside to get one of the 30 cramped yet coveted seats. Since the restaurant moved up the road to a more village-y looking mall last October, there are now 70 seats and the kitchen is 20 percent larger. All of which means Palladino, 45, can please more people with a larger menu and a wider variety of regional Italian dishes.

In winter, Palladino finds his muse in the cooking of northern regions like Emilia-Romagna and Friuli. In the warmer months, he looks to the South—Calabria and Sicily. Yet Friulian Venice, overflowing with seafood and its own soupy style of risotto, is a year-round favorite of his. This spring, Palladino made a deeply flavorful puréed soup from artichokes and a hint of spring onions that could not have been creamier if it had cream in it, which it did not. Black spaghetti, colored with squid ink, is no longer novel, but Palladino prefers to make his from the much more flavorful ink of the cuttlefish (seppia). His spaghetti nero di seppia with garlic, oil, ramps, shaved bottarga (cured mullet roe) and crunchy little breadcrumbs is one of the little miracles Italian cooking is famous for—complexity from simplicity.

Maritime Parc Jersey City
84 Audrey Zapp Drive, 201-413-0050
The name and location, on a marina facing Lower Manhattan, strongly suggest that Maritime Parc, as chef/owner Chris Siversen admits, “will be all about seafood.” Indeed, you can count on great seafood, from grilled oysters with cream, leeks and bacon to pan-roasted mussels in Thai curry-coconut and ginger broth to pasta with scallops, crabmeat and shrimp in a lemon-thyme reduction.

But don’t let the waterside location deceive you. Siversen’s kitchen is just as adept with the bounty of land and sky. A superb dish of braised rabbit with black-garlic spätzle, green olives, ramps and peas in a grain-mustard broth upsets the apple cart of expectations. Which also topples the moment you taste his herb-marinated lamb loin with bits of crispy lamb breast, anchovies, roasted grapes and young spinach in sauce vierge, an herbal French sauce usually served with shellfish.

Pastry chef John Sauchelli makes it difficult to raise anchor after the entrées. It’s hard to say which was better on a recent night—his cherry pain perdu (the original French toast) with rhubarb compote and white chocolate-and-lemon cremeux, or his dark-chocolate fudge cake with cardamom-vanilla parfait and passion fruit caramel. When the plates were cleared, there wasn’t a crumb or a smear of sauce left on either.

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