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.

Red Store, Cape May Point
500 Cape Ave., 609-884-5757

The fun Lucas Manteca is having in his converted village store made him a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Award for best chef, Mid-Atlantic. Manteca, 37, an Argentine who has worked with David Bouley, Dan Barber and Alain Ducasse, finds unexpected affinities of flavor and texture, as in a tuna crudo transformed into a refreshing salad with sliced strawberries, pickled cukes, Granny Smith apples, shaved fennel and his own house-made take on green goddess dressing.

“We always try to stay on top of what’s going on around the world with techniques and flavors,” he says. Red Store, a BYO, now works with a nearby 10-acre farm, Fincas del Mar, to grow fruit and produce for its kitchen. Manteca vacuum packs Griggstown poussin with lemon zest, herbs and garlic, cooks it sous vide, pan roasts it with butter, herbs and lemon and serves it over butternut squash with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms roasted until crisp. That’s a lot going on in one dish, but it harmonizes on the palate like a tango.

Ryland Inn, Whitehouse Station
115 Old Hwy 28, 908-534-4011
Replacing Craig Shelton as chef of the Ryland Inn is a little like replacing Vince Lombardi as coach of the Green Bay Packers. The predecessor casts a long shadow. After nearly two years as executive chef of the renovated and reimagined Ryland under new owners Frank and Jeanne Cretella, Anthony Bucco says, “We don’t own its history. That will always be Craig’s. But we feel we are redefining its present and future.”

Actually, Bucco, 38, and his equally talented and driven chef de cuisine, Craig Polignano, 33, burst from the starting gate with food as stirring as it was polished. Mixologist Christopher James has become a star. In the renovation, the one-time stagecoach station retained a sense of history, but became more comfortable and contemporary. The wine list and the service have improved under sommelier Adam Conovey, restaurant manager Chris McKee and director of operations John Williams.

“We have virtually the same kitchen staff we opened with,” Bucco says, “so that helps us elevate what we’re doing.” A good test of a kitchen is what it can do with chicken, the protein customers know best. Bucco cooks the breast sous vide for succulence and crisps the skin in a pan. He serves it with an heirloom black barley with local strawberries he smokes over applewood and white unripe strawberries he pickles. Stirring chicken stock into the barley turns it into a New World risotto. The bird is graced with nutty, smoky, sweet and tart flavors as well as textures ranging from plush to crisp.

Another new dish, squid, is Polignano’s creation. (Bucco jestingly calls it “the anti-calamari.”) The squid is grilled whole, tentacles and all, dressed with tamarind brown butter and served with a papaya-and-peanut salad with Thai basil.

“I wasn’t sure we could sell it,” Bucco says. “We replaced our best-selling octopus with it, and people are loving it. I think we’re beginning to fire on all cylinders.”

Saddle River Inn, Saddle River
2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016
A year and a half after buying the venerable (and slightly saddle sore) Saddle River Inn from its beloved founder, Hans Egg, chef/owner Jamie Knott has spruced up the charming 1790 barn and made the kitchen run like a thoroughbred. Service is crisp and accommodating, and the food is vivid, nuanced and deeply pleasurable.

Knott, 33, who grew up in Nutley, was executive chef of Terrance Brennan’s Artisanal in New York before buying the BYO inn with partner David Madison. His steak tartare, made from ultra-rich wagyu ribeye (ground twice for satiny texture), is seasoned with shallots, mustard and capers and topped with a raw quail egg, which you stir in for even more richness. As we say in Joizy, it’s the ne plus ultra.

Knott’s crabmeat and napa cabbage salad looks like it has no dressing. But in every bite, the flavor is eye-opening. One reason is that he seasons the napa and the crab separately and differently, combining them at the last moment.

Knott’s swordfish, moist and tender, comes with a white bean purée enriched with white wine, herbs and the lush sweetness of caramelized garlic. The bean purée mates uncannily well with the meaty fish.

Pastry chef Heather Lattig is a rising star. Try her chocolate panna cotta with port-steeped cherries and pink peppercorn ice cream, or that rarity, a peanut butter dessert (a chocolate-covered mousse) that is deeply peanutty first and sweet second.

“This kitchen is sort of a think tank,” says Knott, “because everybody contributes and feels a part of it. It makes for a very dynamic situation.”

Scala del Nonna, Montclair
32 Church St., 973-744-3300
Michael Cetrulo opened his first restaurant, Il Mondo Vecchio in Madison, when he was 23. His latest, Scala del Nonna, is his fifth. All are successful, well run and focused on pleasing the guest. But Scala, a BYO, just may be the most charming and irresistible. The name (“in grandmother’s footsteps”) is the 46-year-old’s tribute to the cooking he learned growing up in Wayne. At Scala, he imbues tradition with veteran know-how and youthful brio, as in scallops in a seductive prosecco-orange-saffron sauce or pappardelle with a hearty osso buco ragù. Scala’s food isn’t sassy or grandstanding; it’s sumptuous and gratifying. Not least of Scala’s pleasures is the interior. Once drab, it is now bright and elegant, with vaulted ceilings and generous space between tables. You feel like a padrone the moment you sit down.

Thirty Acres, Jersey City
500 Jersey Ave., 201-435-3100
Editor’s Note: Thirty Acres will close in late November 2015.

Everyone is used to plate as a verb. But it takes a Kevin Pemoulie to turn it into an adjective—and a pejorative one at that. “If things get a little too intricate or platey,” the chef says, “I try to get back to what we do, which is putting flavors together. Nothing fancy, but really sharp flavors.” A recent exhibit A was smoked Arctic char with quark and trout roe. Simple and superb. Another was zucchini cooked with salt, sugar and sherry vinegar, cooled, plated with a sauce made from fermented orange peel and red chili and garnished with fresh mint and candied cashews. That does sound a mite platey, but also very Thirty Acres in the thought that went into it.

The menu, like the kitchen, is tiny —rarely more than 12 to 15 items at dinner. The small work space also accounts for the dearth of desserts. If after two years you’re finally wearying of Kevin’s Mom’s terrific lemon bars, Pemoulie and his wife and co-owner, Alex (whose first child was born in June), now offer a cheese plate. Wait, it gets better. Having fine-tuned the kitchen staff, they’ve been working up ice cream and sorbet recipes. “I don’t know what direction we’re going,” Pemoulie says, “but I feel extremely well equipped for whatever it is.”

Ursino, Union
1075 Morris Ave., 908-249-4099
Editor’s Note: Ursino closed in September, 2015

Executive chef Peter Turso has an upstairs-downstairs thing going at this bi-level restaurant with its two-story glass wall facing a fountain and garden on the campus of Kean University. You enter upstairs, with its curving bar, cocktail tables, lounge menu and elevated view of the sun setting behind the greenery. Descend the spiral staircase, and you enter a realm of rare culinary creativity.

Upstairs and downstairs are both Turso. “Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it can’t be refined,” the 34-year-old says of the lounge menu, with its wood-fired pizzas, smoked swordfish with shaved fennel, and beef empanadas with avocado emulsion. Downstairs, a velvety cauliflower soup drizzled with curry oil is so good you want to pass it around the table. Duck with sweet carrot mole sauce, masa crisps and a margarita gastrique makes a mind-blowing mashup. Up or down, you can’t go wrong.

Verjus, Maplewood
1790 Springfield Ave., 973-378-8990
Charles Tutino long ago quit his job tracking millions at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to work for pennies in the kitchen of Jean Jacques Rachou’s fabulous La Côte Basque. Along the way he mastered the art of making dishes you thought you knew—from boeuf Bourguignon to roast chicken with tarragon—taste better than you thought possible.

At Verjus, Tutino and his wife, the charming hostess Jane Witkin, have been exceeding expectations for 13 years. Tutino regularly branches out from the haute and narrow with theme nights, including French Bistro, Jersey Shore, German and Italian. Even the regular menu offers irresistible excursions, like St. Louis baby-back ribs with pomegranate bergamot glaze. The wine and cocktail lists are small but discerning. And then there is Verjus’s $25 prix-fixe, two-course Sunday brunch, with choices including lovely French omelets, a lush smoked-herring salad and a terrific caramelized-apple pancake. You don’t have to be an economist to rally around the kind of stimulus Verjus issues every day.

The Top 25 Restaurants and Critics’ Picks were chosen by our panel of food critics and reporters, led by senior editor Eric Levin, who wrote the 25 briefs. The panel: Elizabeth Anderton, Jill P. Capuzzo, Adam Erace, Karen Tina Harrison, Melody Kettle, Terry Krongold, Tammy La Gorce, Suzanne Zimmer Lowery, Chris Malloy, Tara Nurin, Rosie Saferstein, Robin Damstra & Jim Salant and Pat Tanner.

Take a look at our 31st Annual Jersey Choice Restaurant Poll!

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