Best Restaurants in NJ
The wood-timbered barn that houses the inn is rustic, but chef/owner Jamie Knott’s food is among the most elegant around. Not as in reserved and effete, but as in ramped up yet refined, a ninja in a tux. Consider Knott’s escargots. Forget old-school in-the-shells with garlic butter. Here you get a glistening heap of naked yummies nestled amid crunchy bits of vegetables in lime butter on a truffled pea purée—a sensual riot. For rack of lamb, he assembles a global supporting cast of cumin-accented hummus, texturally vibrant ratatouille and piquant salsa verde. It shows world peace is possible, at least on a plate. Pastry chef Leticia Meneses pulls off a feat of her own: a peanut butter, banana and chocolate dessert for adults. BYO
2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016
Tenderness is a term of praise usually applied to meat, not to the temperament of chefs, either in person or on the plate. It does spring to mind, however, when eating at Serenade. All good chefs prize great ingredients and handle them with care. But in chef James Laird’s New American food, one detects an exhilarating sense of care that goes beyond respect for ingredients to an almost loving tenderness for their essence. Laird, 49, has an unusually sunny disposition for a chef, and it comes through on the plate, whether in a corn chowder or lush slab bacon with strawberries and rhubarb. Combined with the light-filled dining rooms, quietly attentive service, excellent wine and cocktail list, and the hospitality of co-owner Nancy Sheridan Laird, the sum is indeed a serenade.
6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303
New Jersey is blessed with great seafood and chefs who know how to cook it. Even in the company on this list, Mike Stollenwerk stands out. Calling him a seafood savant is tempting but doesn’t credit his knowledge, finesse and knack for creating dishes that exceed the sum of their parts, like grilled octopus with Ethiopian berbere spices, green olives, raisins and yogurt, or Spanish mackerel, a delicious, underutilized fish, with white beans, broccoli rabe, eggplant relish and romesco sauce. Equally remarkable at this 30-seat bistro he runs with his girlfriend, Felice Leibowitz, is that all entrées are under $30. Stick around for the terrific ice creams made by Stollenwerk’s mom, Karen Adams. BYO
26 S. Haddon Avenue, 856-428-3474
Back in 1980, Charles Tutino was a young economist with what seemed an enviable position at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Except he hated it. “I felt I wasn’t in touch with life anymore, and cooking would change that,” he recalls. “If you learn to cook French, then you can cook anything.” The great Jean-Jacques Rachou of La Côte Basque gave him a job peeling shrimp. “You couldn’t go lower than that, except dishwasher,” Tutino says. But in a year he was the fish chef and then the saucier. Fast forward: Verjus shows that Tutino was correct. Not only can he cook marvelous French food, he is just as good with Italian, German, American and other cuisines. He admits he is not a creator of dishes, but for 17 years, he and his wife, the gracious hostess Jane Witkin, have kept Verjus vital by making the tried-and-true seem new.
1790 Springfield Avenue, 973-378-8990
His fellow chefs have seen this coming; so have his customers, and so have we. Robbie Felice, whom we identified in last year’s Best Restaurants issue as a Talent on the Rise, has arrived. At 27, he has made his 2-year-old restaurant a rewarding journey (viaggio) for those who appreciate the intense care and craft underlying Italian cooking. You can get a tricolore salad at any Italian restaurant; at Viaggio, you get one as detailed as a Verdi quartet. The endive and radicchio are sliced fine, the arugula left uncut. The salad is topped with a radicchio cream, hazelnut brittle, and a blizzard of grated ricotta salata. Equally good is his branzino in parchment with fregola, fried capers and marinated currants. Felice and his team make several salumi and all their pastas from scratch, including a fresh spaghetti that turns that quotidian shape into the toothsome star of an opus featuring tiny shrimp in Meyer lemon butter, shrimp stock and herbs. BYO
1055 Hamburg Turnpike, 973-706-7277
Year after year, Joe Baldino’s regular menu barely changes. His compass always points to Sicily, the 40-year-old’s literal fatherland. Yet no one seems to tire of it. You think you know eggplant caponata? You don’t until you discover Baldino’s piquant, complex, and texturally perfect rendition. There’s discovery in an even simpler recipe, tagliatelli al limone. “I had it in a beach town in Sicily,” Baldino says, “and I had to bring it to New Jersey.” The silky noodles are coated with a spangling sauce of just lemon juice, pasta water, olive oil and lemon zest. He does create specials, always meaningful, such as a recent spinach gnocchi—each as big as a cupcake, plush, flavorful and cheesy, a plunge into the lascivious. Equally amazing are the namesake zeppoli: hot from the fryer, fluffy, lightly crisp, an ethereal delight even before you drag them through the chocolate ganache. BYO
618 Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670