This list began in 2007 as a Top 25. Since then, New Jersey’s dining scene has steadily gotten bigger, better, more varied and contemporary. Expanding to a Top 30 simply recognizes that fact. It was not an easy decision—Top 25 had a certain alliterative ring, and during its 11 years it became a recognized standard. But the need to expand the list is reason to celebrate.
In the last four years, Mitresh Saraiya, who came to New Jersey from India at age three, has worked his way up from line cook to executive chef of Agricola, the first of Fenwick Hospitality’s four meaningful contributions to Princeton dining (the others are the Dinky, Cargot Brasserie, and the latest, Two Sevens). It says a lot about Saraiya, 32, that he left a higher position, sous chef at the Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, for the opportunity to advance at Agricola—which he has done through a combination of unflagging energy, team building, and a gift for turning great local ingredients into polished, pleasure-packed New American dishes. Add attentive service, a terrific bar program, and a distinctive set of spaces, and you have a winning package.
11 Witherspoon Street, 609-921-2798
Call him old faithful. For 34 years now, Kevin Kohler has been piloting his handsome New American restaurant from behind the stoves. “All I do from when I wake up to when I go to bed is pay attention to the quality,” he says. Mornings, for much of the year, you’ll find the 61-year-old bent over the rows at MEVO Farm in Mahwah, picking organic herbs and vegetables. Kohler may have the most loyal following of any Jersey chef, which is why he brings back old favorites like pecan chicken and never takes off the filet mignon ravioli. “It’s amazing how many people I know through this restaurant,” he says. At the same time, his creative gears keep turning. This summer, look for halibut in lime zest-lemongrass sauce with sweet flowering shoots of bok choy and, for dessert, a coconut-fig bread pudding. BYO
130 E. Main Street, 201-934-0030
In theory, one could tire of a restaurant as conceptually gonzo as Cellar 335—you know, the whole subterranean boite thing, the #letsluau, the Polynesian cocktails in figurine mugs, the spicy Asian-fusion eats. Except chef/owner Jamie Knott and chef de cuisine Jared Bane don’t let that happen. The darkly handsome space is still wittily artful and unusually comfortable; the servers still aim to please. Most of all, the menu evolves. “We were pigeonholing ourselves a bit with the Southeast Asian thing,” Knott admits, “so we took a step back and got more global.” Three terrific examples: bright and creamy snapper ceviche with house-made plantain chips; crab pizza, a flatbread flush with crab, corn, tomato-ginger jam and red-curry aioli; and Chill Noodles, cool rice vermicelli in a refreshing coconut-lemongrass-lime sauce with juicy rock shrimp, strawberries and corn.
335 Newark Avenue, 201-222-1422
Last year, when Stephane Bocket and backer Mike Cowan bought Chez Catherine from Didier Jouvenet, its owner and consummate host, a chill overtook the dining room that chef Christine Migton’s marvelous French food could not overcome. Business slipped. Bocket, who had stepped back from his longtime role as maître d’, seemed withdrawn. His wife, Catherine Matthews-Bocket, soon diagnosed the problem: a brusque, impersonal maître d’, promoted from part-time, was killing the vibe. After he was replaced by the engaging veteran Robert Madden, the warmth tracing back to the restaurant’s 1979 founder, the late Catherine Alexandrou, reemerged. Bocket has come into his own, regaining his quiet charm and self-effacing humor. Migton’s food remains superb. Matthews-Bocket, who grew up largely on
the French Riviera, puts it this way: “You don’t have to go to Paris or Cannes to get that feeling. You have all of that here.”
431 North Avenue West, 908-654-4011
New dishes don’t just leap onto the menu at Common Lot. “We can spend two weeks refining and tweaking one dish,” says chef/co-owner Ehren Ryan. “It goes through two or three tastings with the chefs, then it goes to the front of the house. If those guys find it weird or unpleasing, they aren’t going to sell it. The hardest part is not to overcomplicate, but just refine and enhance it.” The result is intensely rewarding food. Every detail has purpose; the total is complex yet unified. Examples abound: tuna ceviche with salmon roe, avocado, chili, radish, lime and coconut cream; char-grilled octopus with onion relish and potato salad; goat-cheese cheesecake with walnuts and lemon gel. For all its sophistication, this food doesn’t ask you to bow down; it serenely lifts you up. BYO
27 Main Street, 973-467-0494
Maricel Presilla’s regular journeys through Latin America constitute the cucharamama, or mother spoon, that stirs the pot of her flagship restaurant. Her discoveries and enthusiasms, rooted in microcuisines from Mexico to southern Chile and Argentina, often wind up on the menu. Right now she is enraptured with wrapping fish in layers of plantain leaves and roasting them in her wood-burning oven. She is working on an Amazonian chicken soup steamed in a bundle of leaves. “It’s a primitive way of doing things, but to me it’s the ultimate sophistication, because it’s so hands on,” she says. “It’s a tradition that may be lost very soon.” To dine at Cucharamama, with its walls of South American art and its pisco and cachaça cocktails, is to help her keep those embers alive.
233 Clinton Street, 201-420-1700