Chef de cuisine Ben Nerenhausen has a deceptively simple credo. “It has to be fun,” he says of his food. He keeps finding new ways to make it so. Chilled English pea soups are a spring staple, but this year, Nerenhausen, 33, not only worked tarragon, parsley and mint into the purée for an herbaceous twist, he also submerged a tangy disc of manchego panna cotta in the bowl, topping it with a quenelle of steak tartare poking up like an island. The tartare bristled with fried capers and crunchy chips of fried fingerling potato for a texture rapture. To be fun, food also needs to be affordable. Mistral clears that bar as well. The pea soup, big enough to share, is $14. Have it with the amazing $16 bowl of squid-ink tagliatelle with braised calamari, custardy egg yolk, green garlic cream, ’nduja sausage and shaved bottarga, and you’ll amble out not only happily full, but still flush. 66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808.
Nicholas, Red Bank
In their 17th year of embracing a banner many others shun, that of special-occasion restaurant, Nicholas and Melissa Harary and their all-pro staff actually seem to be raising their game. Their two large dining rooms, illuminated by extraordinary fixtures created by Belle Mead glass artist Robert Kuster, are as dramatic as any—and more tranquil and evening-long comfortable than many. Service is impeccable and perfectly timed. All of that is, in fact, unchanged. Where the game seems elevated is on the plate. Credit Nicholas, the chef; Melissa, the arbiter of taste; and Michael Metzner, the chef de cuisine for the exclamations of joy that interrupt conversations when guests dip into recent treasures such as a smoky sweet Vidalia onion soup with royal trumpet mushrooms and bourbon-brie fondue, or insanely luscious, slow-roasted Icelandic cod with coconut-cauliflower purée, Fresno chilies, lemongrass and cilantro. Kelly Kennedy West’s desserts target pleasure centers with laser-guided accuracy. And the take-home gift, a remnant of a more formal era, is alive and well here. It includes a tiny box of four different Kennedy West custom chocolates, each described on a grid to facilitate negotiating over who gets what. 160 Route 35 South, 732-345-9977.
Ninety Acres, Peapack-Gladstone
The raising of expectations begins with the winding, 2.5-mile drive through Natirar Park, up the steep hill, around the corner, into the woods, to the valet waiting outside the converted stable house to welcome you. What’s remarkable is not just that executive chef David Felton and his staff fulfill those expectations deliciously on the plate and attentively in service, but that they do so on a scale found nowhere else in the Top 25. Fanning out from the large open kitchen are dining rooms varying in style and size, private rooms, a bar, a patio and seating around fire pits. Depending on weather, the layout adds up to 250 to 300 seats, which translates on a busy night into roughly twice that number of covers, industry-speak for fannies in those seats. Given such volume, you might expect a limited menu. In fact, the menu brims with enticing choices that range from down home (fish & chips, fried chicken, crispy pizzas, a burger) to upscale (crab-crusted halibut in hot-sour broth, beef tenderloin with morels in Bordelaise sauce). Everything is expertly executed. Add a sophisticated cocktail program, long beer list and serious, if pricey, wine list, and you appreciate having that long descending drive through the park to gently return you to everyday reality. 2 Main Street, 908-901-9500.
Pluckemin Inn, Bedminster
Executive chef Andrew Lattanzio responds to praise with becoming modesty. When his chilled zucchini soup—a purée eventful with tender lobster, luscious burrata, snipped basil, tiny sourdough croutons and poignant violet flowers—is called creative, he replies, “It’s just basic.” He also shrugs off praise for his delicately seared scallops in a peperonata sauce beautifully poised between sweet and tart with a hint of heat. Lattanzio, 36, deflects attention to his tested and talented deputies, chef de cuisine Kevin LaFemina, 28, and sous chef Jason Ramos, 35. Garland them all, because the word that comes to mind for so many of their dishes is masterful. Take, for example, the firm sheets of fazzoletti pasta enrobed in a fine-grained short-rib ragú with rosemary, pine nuts and Parmesan. It’s an unabashedly masculine dish with a filigree of refinement worthy of a silversmith. Under owner Gloria La Grassa, the Pluckemin turns 11 also boasting one of the best wine programs in the state, under Brian Hider and Christopher Cree, and a lively bar scene with its own embraceable and affordable menu. 359 Route 206 South, 908-658-9292.
Poached Pear Bistro, Point Pleasant Beach
The regular menu at chef Scott Giordano’s gastronomic oasis is so packed with hits, he doesn’t dare change it. Instead, he tempts his regulars away from proven pleasures like short-rib carpaccio, potato-crusted halibut, and veal tenderloin in puff pastry with specials like the recent poached, charred, then chilled octopus topped with the textural cousins mango and avocado in a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Seductive fish specials abound all summer. Giordano, 48, and his brother, Marc, who runs the front of the house, have steadily built a following since opening Poached Pear, the first restaurant of their own, two years ago. Another reason to visit is pastry chef Teah Evans, whose enticements include a rice pudding that salutes the restaurant’s name with a sublime Riesling-poached pear. BYO. 816 Arnold Avenue, 732-701-1700.