Greene Hook, Jersey City
Chef David Drake is back in top form at this hip sports bar with way better food than you expect at any sports bar. 70 Greene Street; 201-721-5062.
Inspiration Roll, Morristown, Summit
Ramen is trendy, but it isn’t always as good as at the newly opened Inspiration Roll, which serves noodles made fresh daily with no preservatives and four kinds of broth, also made from scratch. “Pork broth takes a good eight hours to build flavor,” says Linton Ordaya, one of the partners. “We start it each morning, so it’s ready for the next day.”
Beyond the $12 ramen bowls loaded with pork, egg and vegetables (meatless available, too), and soulful steamed bao buns (pork or shrimp, two for $6), the real inspirations are the creatively named sushi burritos. These are $9-10 oversize handrolls wrapped in nori and filled with white or mixed-grain rice plus a carnival of cool stuff. Take the Edison, filled with baked salmon, cucumber, asparagus, kimchi, pickled red onions, fried onions and miso sauce. Fab! So is the Gandhi, packed with tempura eggplant, cucumber, guacamole, tamago, butter lettuce, peanuts and peanut sauce. “Some people say, ‘That’s crazy,’” says partner David Chung. “Others say, ‘That’s awesome!’” We’re with the awesomes. 46 South Park Place, Morristown; 83 Summit Avenue, Summit; 973-998-9449.—EL
Larimar, Spring Lake
Fine dining is dying, at least as a category restaurateurs want to embrace. But John Paulus and his family went against the upscale-casual grain in creating Larimar, a jewel of a restaurant with a spacious, comfortable (and blessedly quiet) dining room accented in larimar-crystal blue; warm yet polished service; and exquisite, primarily Northern Italian, food from chef Luciano Duco, 34.
“Fine dining isn’t as available as it used to be—not that it isn’t wanted,” says Paulus, 42, a Manasquan resident with 20 years of front-of-house experience at New York landmarks such as Jean-Georges, L’Impero, Alto, Morini and Ai Fiori. Duco, whose background includes stints at Del Posto and Marea, delivers depth and delight in rarely seen pastas like rolled campenelle with Tuscan beef ragu ($16/$24), and raises familiar ones like squid-ink spaghetti to inkier heights, accenting with chopped shrimp and lemon ($18/$26). Ocean scallops with olive tapenade and blood orange zabaglione ($32) are a sybaritic marvel. 1311 Third Avenue; 732-359-6700.—EL
Laurel & Sage, Montclair
CulinAriane, a longtime NJM Top 25, is a hard act to follow, which is largely why chef Shawn Dalziel sought the space when Ariane and Michael Duarte decamped to Verona. “We wanted to meet and even exceed people’s expectations,” says Dalziel, who may have done just that with a refreshed look, attentive service and highly accomplished New American food. In March 2015, Dalziel and his wife, Jennifer, opened this enchanting BYO, their first restaurant, naming it for their young daughters. The chef, 45, grew up in his father’s health food shop in Hollywood, Two Dollar Bill’s, where comedians like Sam Kinison and Howie Mandel and jazz musicians like Chick Corea performed. “The hustle and bustle of restaurants is second nature to me,” he says.
His resume unfurls from San Francisco to New York to several spots in Montclair over the last five years. His flavors and textures are bold, balanced and gratifying, as in a caponata cassoulet; a pomegranate-molasses braised short rib with sweet potato and kimchi; and last fall, a crispy softshell crab with bright corn salsa and creamy corn pudding. 33 Walnut Street; 973-783-1133.—EL
Ms. Nancy’s Place, Merchantville
Nancy Miller, a nutritionist who has run a catering company for 17 years, makes convincing soul food even though she will bake rather than fry chicken and fish on request, thickens with gluten-free corn starch instead of flour, and substitutes agave syrup for sugar and grapeseed oil for butter. Her husband is Muslim, so she eschews pork and uses only Halal meat. Her barbecue, jerk and pineapple-jerk sauces are lip smacking. Main dishes come with two sides from a robust list of nine (do not pass up the candied yams). On weekends, she offers more elaborate dishes such as brown oxtail stew. Ms. Nancy’s, a BYO, is compact, with just 28 seats at seven tables and two TVs that may blare throughout your meal. But Miller brews her own iced tea, and her four-person team (all family, ages 15 to 24) warms the room with attentive service and oft-stated appreciation for your presence. When Miller’s 10-year-old son, Carl, is around, he may ring you up and even offer to help carry your takeout or leftovers to your car. 177 South Centre Street; 856-333-6471. —TN
Noce 77, Montclair
What do two guys from Costa Rica know about Italian food with French accents? A lot, it turns out. Allen Rojas, 47, the manager and hospitality maven, and Allan Fonseca, 36, the BYO’s self-taught chef, who happens to be engaged to Rojas’s daughter, took over a restaurant space in July 2015 that has had several short-lived incarnations.
Noce 77 (noce is Italian for walnut, so the restaurant’s name is its address) deserves to stick around. Fonseca’s house-made pappardelle with lamb Bolognese, goat cheese and mint is not only superb, but at $19 it’s also a steal. His chicken mattone, a boneless breast seared under a brick (mattone in Italian) is a tender feast with caramelized cippolini onions, peppers, discs of sweet and hot Italian sausage, and a white wine cream sauce for $20. His pan-seared bronzino with pickled eggplant and dehydrated green olives in a tomato butter sauce ($29) is as rewarding as the preparation is novel. The list of winners rolls on: shrimp with white beans and kale salsa verde; house-made meatballs on risotto; arugula with walnuts, pears and Gorgonzola; chocolate lava cake; a winter fruit cobbler.
Rojas and Fonseca, natives of the province of Alajuela, came to the United States at different times and worked at many Italian restaurants before they met at La Campagna in Millburn in 2009. To complete the topsy-turviness, Fonseca’s sous chef is Gian Carlo Borletti. At last, an Italian! No, he’s Peruvian. Just keep doing what you’re doing, guys. 77 Walnut Street; 973-233-1019.—ELClick here to leave a comment