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.

Mistral, Princeton
66 Witherspoon St., 609-688-8808
Executive chef Ben Nerenhausen turns out beautiful, seasonal dishes multinational in concept and conversation stopping in deliciousness.

Nerenhausen, 31, is adept at juxtaposing flavors, colors and textures: a salad of cured beef carpaccio with marinated leeks and marrow; a fluke sashimi with tofu, asparagus and mint-like shiso leaves; roasted cauliflower on spicy house-made harissa dotted with house-made, sumac-flavored yogurt; and a unique, sweet buttermilk panna cotta with English peas, lemon curd and crumbled sablé (a French shortbread), all brightened by a pea-shell granita.

“We got whole pigs in, and we had some ears hanging around,” Nerenhausen relates. “So we did a crispy pig-ear salad with marinated tomatillos. We braise the ears, cut them in strips, toss them in Wondra flour and fry them. They get crispy outside and tender inside. I think they’re great, and it plays off Mexican flavors, so it makes sense in the whole spectrum of things.”

It went on the menu as a Crispy Pig Ear Salad, but the name must have been off-putting. When he changed it to Marinated Tomatillo Salad and, under the title, listed the components as jalapeños, crema and crispy pork, it took off. “We’ve had nothing but clean plates coming back to the kitchen,” Nerenhausen says. “When people ask what kind of pork, the servers are encouraged to describe it exactly. I would never hide things, but even though we’re in an area that wants new and different foods, you have to present things in a way people will accept.”

Mistral is the second culinary success of partners Stephen Distler and the talented chef Scott Anderson. Their more elegant (and equally delicious) Elements, about three-quarters of a mile away, will reopen in early 2015 in the same building as Mistral, enabling both to share the Elements liquor license.

Nicholas, Red Bank
160 Route 35 S, 732-345-9977
To most restaurateurs, the label “special occasion restaurant” means one thing: Next stop, extinction. Nicholas and Melissa Harary, however, embrace the term—and why not? It’s kept them on top for 14 years.

“The truth is, we create memories,” says Nicholas, 40, the executive chef. “It seems to me the younger generation of restaurateurs are into great food and farm-to-table, but I’m not totally sure that hospitality and attention to detail is their top priority. To us, it always has been. Weddings, anniversaries, birthdays—we owe it to those people to make it special.” With chef de cuisine Nicholas Wilkins in the kitchen, you can rely on sophisticated food that delights both eye and palate and never feels contrived. With the Hararys keeping a close watch on every aspect of the guest’s experience, you can count on service that eschews showiness and formality—and formality’s evil twin, presumptuous, icky informality. “People have gotten used to going to a chef-driven restaurant where the chef is not there,” Nicholas says. “That’s weird. Last week I worked 80 hours. I’ll happily do that until someday I’m not here anymore.”

Osteria, Moorestown
400 Route 38, 856-316-4427
Better known in South Jersey than North, Philadelphia’s Marc Vetri is one of America’s most acclaimed chefs and successful restaurateurs. Author of two books on Italian cooking and co-founder of the Vetri Foundation for Children, Vetri, 47, is also CEO of his restaurant company, which he calls Vetri Family.
That name makes you roll your eyes at first. But as South Jerseyans are discovering with the debut of Osteria Moorestown (Vetri’s sixth restaurant overall and first outside Philadelphia), the idea behind it is not spin or wishful thinking.

“The group offers a lot of knowledge and experience, if you’re willing to go the extra mile,” says Mike Deganis, 30, who worked at the original Osteria in Philadelphia and was executive chef of Vetri’s Alla Spina before becoming executive chef of Osteria Moorestown. “We all have the same camaraderie, we bounce ideas off each other and everyone is very creative. We make our own sausages, salumi, gelato, breads and pastas every day. It’s all very hands on, and for the cooks who work for us, it’s a great learning experience.”
It’s a great experience for those who eat the food, too. From the wood-burning oven come terrific thin-crust pizzas and puffy-crust Neapolitan pies, including novel combinations like the thin-crust Polpo (octopus, tomato, red chili flakes and smoked mozzarella) and the Neapolitan Mortadella (Sicilian pistachio pesto, mozzarella and mortadella). Let the pastas lead you into unexplored territory—tagliatelle with rabbit Bolognese and taggiasca olives, or robiola francobolli, floppy “postage-stamp ravioli” with royal trumpet mushrooms and thyme.

You could leave it at that, but the secondi—main courses—are excellent, too. So is the Italian wine list, which the sommelier can lead you through expertly. Desserts are worth the calories, and the space itself is comfortable, handsome and unusual in that it includes a row of seats facing the open kitchen—like a sushi bar except for Italian food.

The Pass, Rosemont
88 Kingwood Stockton Road, 609-961-1887

Editor’s Note: The Pass closed in April 2015.
Matthew Ridgway makes bacon, paté and sausages even in his dreams—that is, when he has time to sleep. Called to the phone at his sparkler of a place in a quiet village up the hill from Stockton (and six miles north of Lambertville), this charcutier-cum-restaurateur was in the midst of brining rabbit. The Pass, in a former general store, is small and rustic. So is the menu. The hours are few (Wednesday through Saturday nights, and a Sunday supper of oysters and charcuterie). And there is just one option: a $49, three-course, prix fixe menu.

But within those limits, Ridgway achieves maximum creativity: rabbit porchetta with stone-ground grits and an achar (an Indian style of pickle) made with shishito peppers; cured sockeye salmon with horseradish, peas and an escarole-fennel salad; roasted and boned Alaska halibut with snow peas, the spicy Hong Kong sauce called XO and dashi broth; hazelnut brioche soaked in ginger syrup, baked with hazelnut cream and drizzled with a syrup of strawberries, sugar and reduced red wine.

Ridgway recently switched from paper napkins to French cloth ones. He lets himself change the menu every two weeks rather than every week, as he did at first. He has improved his serving staff. But, he says, “we always want to do more.”

Peacock Inn, Princeton
20 Bayard Lane, 609-924-1707
The cuisine of Manuel Perez and his wife, Cyndi Perez, matches the bird for which this restaurant and boutique hotel are named: exotic and extravagant, yet familiar. Think foie gras terrine with cured strawberries, rhubarb-ginger foam, reduced balsamic vinegar and pistachio shortbread; organic Scottish salmon with a white asparagus purée, pickled red onions and red wine reduction; roasted Maine lobster over pappardelle, chanterelles, zucchini and asparagus, sauced with truffled, sous-vide egg yolks; and warm sticky-toffee date cake with toffee sauce and vanilla-bean ice cream.

The two—he is executive chef, she is pastry chef—live and breathe food. When they’re not cooking at the Peacock, they are reading food magazines or food books. Or they’re taking culinary expeditions to Philadelphia and New York, exploring ethnic enclaves. More often than not, the trip home is productive. Recently they drove to Brooklyn, ate at four spots, and by the time they returned home, they had conceived a new dish inspired by the pillowy gnudi and the charcuterie they had shared.

“We’ve been working together four years now,” Manuel says. “She’s gotten very acclimated to my style. I can trust her completely; she knows my palate. Of course there’s some dissension—not every single detail works—but we have each other’s backs. We can be critical of a dish without it affecting us as a couple. It’s very good. It’s better than very good. If you could choose an ideal situation as a chef, and you’ve got your vision out there, and you’re cooking the food you want to cook and your personal life coincides, it’s as close to perfect as you can get.”

Pluckemin Inn, Bedminster
359 Route 206 S, 908-658-9292
Gloria La Grassa puts her mouth where her money is. She eats almost every day at the inn she and her late husband, Carl, founded nine years ago. The Pluckemin Inn is the kind of place where anyone could happily eat almost every day. The menu changes often, and the food is as joyous to behold as it is to dig into.

Executive chef Andrew Lattanzio, 34, beautifully balances flavors, textures and colors, whether in a sautéed skate on potato-leek purée with a fricassee of fava beans and French mushrooms, or a luscious vegetable gazpacho, done as a purée with an island of smoked-salmon tartare, a radish salad and preserved lemon. Add the award-winning wine list, nifty cocktails and servers who make every guest feel important, and the Pluckemin lands on this list by pluck, not luck.

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