100 Steps Raw Bar and Supper Club, Cranford
If you walk from Andrea and Jim Carbine’s first restaurant, A Toute Heure, across Centennial Avenue to their new place, you’ve covered roughly 100 steps. You have not left the warm hospitality and serious food the Carbines (and their talented chef, Kara Decker) are known for, but you have entered a merry realm where servers in striped aprons rush platters of raw clams and oysters to convivial diners at wood tables. But don’t discount the kitchen. Decker updates old-timey foods like fried clam bellies by serving them on brioche with avocado purée and preserved lemon chimichurri. 215 Centennial Avenue; 908-276-6600.
For C.J. Reycraft and Julianne Hodges, French is the food of love. They met in 2011 at Westfield’s superb and classical Chez Catherine, where Reycraft was chef de cuisine and Hodges pastry chef. They had each earned degrees from the French Culinary Institute in New York. One kind of love led to another. Now married, they opened Amuse early last year, presenting a more freewheeling French menu in a more casual (and BYO) setting. Reycraft updates classic escargot, adding bacon and slender hon shimeji mushrooms to the garlic butter. The seasonal menu changes often, but potatoes pop up year-round in fetching forms, including classic frites worth the cals. Also worth the cals? Hodges’ desserts. 39 Elm Street; 908-317-2640.
Ariane Kitchen & Bar, Verona
Battello, Jersey City
On the Hudson River, its tall windows facing the towers of Lower Manhattan, with a liquor license, 175 seats and rooms for private parties, Battello is the big stage chef Ryan DePersio has long craved. He still considers Fascino, his family’s 11-year-old Montclair BYO, “my baby.” But at Battello, DePersio’s eclectic “Italian without borders” cooking earns the spotlight, especially the bold seafood dishes, like pignoli-crusted halibut braised in a pancetta broth with vegetables or skate wing in a rice crust with fava bean risotto. 502 Washington Boulevard; 201-798-1798.
Birravino, Red Bank
Vic Rallo, the irrepressible owner of Undici Taverna Rustica in Rumson and host of the Create TV series Eat! Drink! Italy!, converted his Basil T’s brewpub into Birravino in September. Birravino grounds itself in “la materia prima,” simple preparations of the freshest local ingredients. Salsiccia grigliata, for instance, combines Italian hot or sweet sausage with potatoes, onions and long frying peppers. The wine list offers more than 100 selections from Italy’s various regions. All are priced under $50 a bottle to support Rallo’s conviction that wine belongs on every table, as it does in Italy. 183 Riverside Avenue; 732-842-5990.
De Novo, Montclair
Demetri Malki may be the most gracious and personable New Jersey restaurateur never to run a hit restaurant. But that, we think, is about to change. De Novo has what his two earlier Montclair restaurants (D’metri’s and Table 8, both on Bloomfield Avenue) lacked: a liquor license. But De Novo (“begin anew,” in Latin) has more going for it than a full bar. For starters, the space, in the Upper Montclair train station, has been made more comfy and a little quieter than it was under previous tenants. Most important, the food is no mere caboose. Marika Villik, the chef at Malki’s first two restaurants, has created a strong menu. From starters (tender octopus with red-wine stewed onions, chorizo, potatoes and chili oil) to salads (roasted cauliflower with spinach, scallions, raisins and pine nuts with balsamic vinaigrette), to flatbreads (pears, bacon and blue cheese with arugula) to pastas (strozzapreti with shrimp, shiitakes, sundried tomatoes, mustard greens and parmigiano) and entrées (skate wing stuffed with mushroom-potato hash), the dishes are smartly conceived and well executed. 275 Bellevue Avenue; 973-893-5008.
Chef Jose Garces’ candy-colored cantina opened with a splash in July. Born in Chicago to Ecuadorian parents, Garces oversees an empire of more than a dozen restaurants from his Philadelphia HQ. Distrito modernizes Mexican classics with riffs like vegetarian enchiladas with kale and quinoa; black-truffled huaraches; and scallops on smoked corn purée. Distrito stocks more than 100 tequilas. “A real important part of Jose’s program is that absolutely everything is made in-house,” says executive chef Nathan Johnson. “When you get a fajita here, you get it with a tortilla made within the last half-hour. You can taste the difference.” South Jersey abounds with authentic Mexican food, but Distrito is the first to break the hole-in-the-wall taqueria mold. 400 W. Route 38; 856-252-0300.
Duke’s Southern Table, Newark
Demetrius Harrison, sous chef at Duke’s, has been cooking since he was in eighth grade, “when I had to have dinner on the table for my mom when she came home from work.” Today, under chef/owner Vonda McPherson, Harrison sends out righteous Southern specialties like oxtail stew, jambalaya and cornmeal-crusted catfish in hefty portions with hefty flavors. Accompaniments like collards, yams, cheese grits and potato salad swing like sidemen in a big band. Speaking of which, McPherson named Duke’s (her fourth restaurant) for the great Duke Ellington. “To me,” she says, “he symbolizes elegance and beauty. He made everybody feel welcome. That’s what I wanted this place to feel like.” Decorated in Ellington’s favorite wardrobe colors of black and white with red accents, and located near NJPAC and the Prudential Center, Duke’s does. The staff, as Ellington liked to say, will “love you madly.” 11 Clinton Street; 862-763-5757.
Farm and Fisherman Tavern, Cherry Hill
Josh Lawler began cooking at home in Philadelphia at 14 and went on to stints with Laurent Tourondel, Bill Telepan and Dan Barber. Under Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Lawler developed the daily tasting menus and honed his farm-to-table bona fides. Lawler opened the first Farm and Fisherman, a BYO, in Philadelphia in 2011, becoming a semifinalist for that year’s Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in America. The Cherry Hill edition has a full bar, featuring a lengthy list of craft beers, signature cocktails and even a couple of excellent barrel-aged numbers. Lawler and co-owner/co-chef Todd Fuller bring in meats and vegetables from their Pennsylvania farm. “Servers sometimes volunteer to work on the farm, which gives the restaurant a passionate staff, and the farm labor,” says general manager Ben Menk. Specialties include lively salads like the Old Smoky (with bacon, beans, goat cheese and creamy chipotle dressing over spinach and kale); three very different burgers; and lemon-rosemary chicken with yam gratin. 1442 Marlton Pike East; 856-356-2282.
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, Morristown
The 1920 Vail mansion, with its long reflecting pool and august marble facade, had been vacant for many years when veteran New York restaurateur (and Mountain Lakes resident) Chris Cannon audaciously set out to transform it into four distinct restaurant spaces with three different menus. It took more than four years of work, from securing a crucial concessionaire’s license from the town (to serve alcohol) to finding ways to install state-of-the-art HVAC, lighting and kitchen equipment without violating the integrity of the historically protected structure. (An empty elevator shaft and a dumbwaiter shaft proved godsends.) The two ground floor spaces—the brightly lit Oyster and Wine Bar, and the clubby Vail Bar—opened in October, joined before Christmas by the German-themed Rathskeller in the basement and the high-end, prix fixe Dining Room on the second floor. Chef Kevin Sippel, who trained extensively in Italy and France before helping Cannon and Michael White earn rave reviews in Manhattan, rejoined Cannon as JHBK’s executive chef. An unabashed Italophile, he also draws from other ethnic traditions to craft a menu that’s at once upscale and down home. Take, for example, what may be the world’s most marvelous meatball, made with veal, ricotta, parmesan and eggs over rapini in an amatriciana sauce. The raw bar features ravishing crudos and, at happy hour, $1 Barnegat Bay oysters from 40 North. Upstairs, Sippel opened with delicacies like grilled cuttlefish with a potato-and-sea urchin zabaglione. Desserts are simple, yet often smashing, like the fall’s pumpkin cheesecake and apple pie with crème anglaise. 110 South Street; 973-644-3180.