Marc Vetri, Philadelphia’s most acclaimed chef and a star by any measure, chose the Moorestown Mall for his sixth restaurant and first in the Garden State. Osteria’s regional Italian menu and excellent service landed it on our 2014 list of New Jersey’s Top 25 restaurants. Executive chef Mike Deganis has been getting to know his customers and vice versa. Among Osteria’s most popular dishes are gnocchi in truffled fontina sauce; lean skirt steak from Piedmontese cattle raised in Montana; and seasonal antipasti combining roasted, pickled and marinated vegetables. This winter Deganis is introducing porchetta—garlic-and-herb-rubbed pork tenderloin wrapped in pork belly and spit roasted—served with parsnip puree and grilled chicory-and-apple salad. “We’re working toward giving people a better insight into what Italian food can be,” Deganis says, “and people are starting to get comfortable with it. I think we’re in a good place.” 400 Route 38; 856-316-4427.
Pascal & Sabine, Asbury Park
Think of the Shore and you automatically think of…classic Parisian brasseries. Kidding! But Pascal & Sabine may start to change that. Smith, the Asbury Park company that created Porta and Brickwall Tavern, has beautifully evoked a vintage brasserie without shackling itself to tradition. The space is chic, intimate and comfortable. The food is très bon. Persuasive dishes include steak au poivre; coq au vin; cod with beluga lentils and parsnip-thyme foam; cheese and charcuterie; and milk-chocolate pot de crème with a layer of salted caramel. The restaurant is named for the young protagonists in the classic French movie The Red Balloon. At the end, Pascal is carried by a flock of balloons high above Paris, a joyride Pascal & Sabine customers can easily identify with. 601 Bangs Avenue; 732-774-3395.
Picnic on the Square, Ridgewood
Fans of chef Christine Nunn’s late lamented Picnic in Fair Lawn, rejoice. After a sojourn at Grange, she is once again her own boss, having serious fun, raising her neo-preppy style of cooking to dizzying heights. Read our review. During the two years between the closing of Picnic and the opening of Picnic on the Square, Nunn wrote the delicious (and refreshingly cheeky) The Preppy Cookbook, encapsulating her lively style of cooking, which is grounded in strong French technique. She also dreamed up many new dishes, which now grace the menu of the new restaurant. Small, elegant yet rustic, with a touch of whimsy, Picnic on the Square is a BYO that gives every sign of being a hit. 26 Wilsey Square; 201-444-4401.
The Plum and the Pear, Wyckoff
“The words ‘fine dining’ scare me,” says George Kalivas, executive chef/owner of the Plum and the Pear. “This place,” he says, “is warm, understated and comfortable. Those words don’t scare me.” Actually, Kalivas has always flown just under the fine-dining radar. His two previous restaurants, Bistro 18 in Montclair and Il Villino in Waldwick, both New American, were reasonably popular, but had limitations that Kalivas and his brother, Alex, the maître d’, have solved with the Plum and Pear’s large, handsome, comfortable space and eclectic menu. That menu, boldly encompassing French, Latin, American and Italian dishes, might scare some chefs, but George and his kitchen staff turn out compelling quesadillas of lobster, crabmeat and (sounds odd but works) melted Swiss; beef carpaccio with truffle cream and baby arugula; traditional cassoulet; and much more. And they offer gluten-free and vegetarian options for fright-free dining. 393 Franklin Avenue; 201-485-8793.
Poached Pear Bistro, Point Pleasant Beach
Chef Scott Giordano has made mouths water wherever he has cooked—as sous chef to Hans Egg at the old Saddle River Inn; as executive chef of the Park in Park Ridge; then in a memorable decade running the kitchen of Whispers in Spring Lake. What he has not had, until now, is his own restaurant. Last May, he and his brother, Marc, opened this BYO tucked between the ocean and the Manasquan River. Poached Pear brings imagination, elegance and gastronomic pleasure galore to an area hungry for it, to judge by the packed house on a winter Friday. The pear pizzetta, a flatbread topped with sliced pears, walnuts, chopped radicchio and an intense port wine reduction, lifts any dinner to a rousing start. The for-the-table hoot is asparagus fries—giant, cornmeal-crusted, Cajun-spiced spears poking out of a paper cone like extra-terrestial antennae. They’re irresistible with the creole dipping sauce. No mere spinner of overtures, Giordano composes mains that are main events, like veal tenderloin in puff pastry with a staggeringly good cognac wild mushroom sauce. As for pastry chef Teah Evans, she won an episode of Chopped—and with sophisticated treats like her lemon mousse Napolean with pistachio-dusted phyllo and blueberry sauce, she will win hearts here as well. 816 Arnold Avenue; 732-701-1700.
Just a few steps from the train station, Roosterspin’s facade, a blend of postmodern and retro-industrial, invites you into an even hipper interior with a wall of clear plastic shelves filled with vintage jazz and rock LPs. A DJ spins tunes, and on weekends live jazz trios play. The 80-seat space is the sister of Mono+Mono in New York’s East Village. (“Mono and mono together make stereo,” explains owner Mihae Cho.) The rooster part of the name refers to chef Hyun Han’s terrific Korean fried chicken, known for its thin, very crisp skin. “That’s our signature,” says Cho. “We also have standout Korean dishes developed just for this location that have never been seen in New Jersey.” These, all excellent, include kimchi-spiced fries; grilled corn on the cob coated with cotija cheese; pan-fried sweet potato noodles with beef and vegetables; and sliders of spicy tuna, shrimp-and-calamari or ground short-rib served between crunchy-chewy little rice cakes. 251 North Avenue West, 908-233-7333.
Scala del Nonna, Montclair
On the pedestrian promenade lining Montclair’s Church Street, the two-story space at #32 never gained traction (though several restaurants tried) until Michael Cetrulo opened Scala del Nonna, which quickly made NJM’s 2014 Top 25. Installing beautiful vaulted ceilings, brighter light and fewer tables than the room could hold, Cetrulo changed the vibe from gloomy to gracious. That brought people in. But what keeps them coming back is the warmth of hostess and co-owner Sally Gildea, Cetrulo’s sister, and Cetrulo’s menu, an elevated tribute to the nonna who inspired him, his father’s mother, Concetta. At 47, Cetrulo has founded and runs five successful restaurants. Scala, a BYO, just might be the one closest to his heart.
32 Church Street; 973-744-3300.
Terre à Terre, Carlstadt
The French name rhymes with fare has flair and translates as down to earth. Indeed, chef/owner Todd Villani has been on a tear since he opened his New American BYO (which offers wines from Unionville in Ringoes). Villani’s food can be ethereal as well as earthy. A memorable case in point was a recent swordfish special in a rich truffle sauce with maitake mushrooms. Villani says his early stint with chef Marcus Samuelsson schooled him in “refined technique applied to comfort food.” You will find that refinement in almost every dish, made as often as possible with local ingredients: Duck breast from Goffle Road Farm in Wyckoff (in a spiced-pear chive sauce); or chorizo from Nicolosi Meats in Union City (in a gnocchi mac and cheese). 312 Hackensack Street; 201-507-0500.
Upstream Grille, Lake Hopatcong
Is New Jersey’s largest lake big enough for two ambitious restaurants? Until last summer, Alice’s, at the lake’s midpoint, had bragging rights pretty much to itself. But Ken Salmon’s Upstream Grille could change that. Salmon, who had been executive chef of the upscale Mohawk House in Sparta, opened Upstream last July at the lake’s northern tip. It’s a good-time bar with a growing craft beer program and crowd-pleasing dishes like pulled-pork burritos and wings with seven different sauces. But look closer and you find seafood salad in a whole-wheat pita; delicate lobster-and-avocado summer rolls (a special); enticingly detailed salads; and several gluten-free (if not fat-free) options, including bacon-wrapped scallops with blue-cheese cole slaw and balsamic drizzle. Virtually everything is made from scratch and cooked to order. This summer, look for crowds to swim Upstream. 161 Route 181; 973-663-2222.
Washington House, Basking Ridge
“My pedigree,” says executive chef Crawford Koeniger, “is fine dining.” With stints at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, Jocelyn’s in Maplewood, the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster and Eno Terra in Kingston, Koeniger can back up the claim. “But my aim at Washington House,” he adds, “is to get to the essence of what people love to eat.” Get there, he does. His calamari, crab cakes, salads, tartares and wood-grilled steaks, chops, chicken and fish shine due to the care and detail that go into them, eschewing frills and squiggles. Easily recognizable, they win you over simply by being terrific examples of their kind—and square deals as well. The two-courses-for-$23 menu on Wednesdays and Thursdays is exactly that. For a splurge, try the Washington House Sundae. Studded with blondie morsels and toffee, topped with Callebaut semi-sweet chocolate sauce and whipped cream, it easily passes the food-people-love-to-eat test. 55 S Finley Avenue; 908-766-7610.