The 25 Best Restaurants of 2016

Our annual list of the absolute best restaurants to eat in New Jersey. A star denotes a the restaurant is new to the list.

Red Store, Cape May Point

Chef Lucas Manteca on Red Store's front steps.

Chef Lucas Manteca on Red Store’s front steps. Photo by Eric Levin

Lucas Manteca grew up in Argentina a surfer. At 39, he still rides the waves whenever and wherever he can. He seeks out the big swells culinarily as well. He’s a flavor hunter, a freshness freak and a restless creator who now oversees a French bakery in Cape May (Little Store), a hand-harvested salt works (Cape May Sea Salt Company) in Cape May Court House, a hipster seafood shack in Stone Harbor (Quahog’s), and his flagship, the rustic Red Store in bucolic Cape May Point, three miles west of downtown Cape May. With Craig Russell, his talented, 30-year-old chef de cuisine, Manteca ranges from delicacies like smoked trout potted in brown butter to gratifying mains like house-made mushroom linguine with beef cheeks, king oyster mushrooms, pesto and poached egg. Lines form for Red Store’s weekend brunch, with its knee-buckling goodies like grilled cheese sandwiches made with smoked gouda, smoked duck breast and tomato jam, or huevos rancheros with house-smoked pulled pork, local black beans, house-made biscuit, cheddar, pickled jalapeños, guacamole and crema. Mercy! BYO. 500 Cape Avenue, 609-884-5757.

Saddle River Inn, Saddle River

Duck and foie gras raviolo with cherry sauce.

Duck and foie gras raviolo with cherry sauce. Photo courtesy of Saddle River Inn

If Jamie Knott doesn’t have one of the most discerning clienteles around, he certainly has one of the best dressed. Look around the old barn-turned-dining-room on a Saturday night; the big tables are buzzing and the twosomes are gazing deeply into each other’s eyes. Later, many desserts come out with candles twinkling. Little wonder. The service is polished, and the pinlights above the tables lavish love on the real stars of the show, food as beautiful as it is delicious, imaginative and often brilliant. “We do high-end, playful takes on classic food,” says Knott. “I have a lot of regulars, and I talk to them constantly. That’s what they’re looking for.” Recent example: a play on a lobster roll that drizzles basil oil on a playpen of crisp sourdough toast piled with poached lobster, hearts of palm, celery and chives in a zesty house mayo. Knott is the kind of chef who refuses to write off chicken as a sub-par protein. He starts with great birds from D’Artagnan, crisps them under a metal weight and sends them out with what he calls a “schmear” of garlic confit, chicken stock and white wine so lascivious it takes a sweet English pea purée to maintain some semblance of decorum. 2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016.

Serenade, Chatham

Serenade turns 20 in October, and so does the batch of sourdough starter that has put signature rolls on its tables since Day One. Daily inputs keep the starter young and frisky, and something similar applies to the restaurant. In recent years, chef James Laird, 47, has loosened the reins on his own creativity. With an engaged and spirited staff, he and Nancy Sheridan Laird, his wife and Serenade’s co-owner, are spreading delight across every course and mealtime. Everything is made from scratch. On Laird’s New American menu, rooted in impeccable French technique, vegetables receive special attention, as in a butter-poached lobster with grilled asparagus, tiny spring onions and chanterelles. Then there’s bread and pastry chef Herman Loria’s individual fresh-fruit pies and seasonal cobblers. “We’re busier than ever; I can’t believe it,” says Laird, as if pinching himself. “It’s fun making other people happy.” 6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303.

Verjus, Maplewood

Chef/co-owner Charles Tutino does just one thing, but few do it better. That one thing, ironically, is making whatever classic dish he cooks taste a) better than you thought possible, or b) the way you imagine it was always meant to be. Trained under the great Jean Jacques Rachou at La Côte Basque in Manhattan, Tutino takes no shortcuts with French (even buying roosters at Goffle Road Farm in Wyckoff to make genuine coq au vin). But his classic Thanksgiving dinner last November made us want to stand and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His rotating theme nights—German, Italian, Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, even Passover, featuring what his wife, Jane Witkin, Verjus’s most hospitable host and co-owner, calls “a mean gefilte fish and matzoh-ball soup”—are exemplary. Tutino, 64, also knows wine and hand selects Verjus’s audaciously short list for outstanding quality and value. Buy a bottle at $50 or more and receive a $20 gift certificate on your next meal. The certificate is good for 90 days. Verjus, which turned 15 in June, smoothly sails on, its sunset thankfully nowhere in sight. 1790 Springfield Avenue, 973-378-8990.

Zeppoli, Collingswood

If you reflexively skip over antipastos when perusing Italian menus, Zeppoli is a good place to break that habit. The eight or nine seasonal salads chef/owner Joe Baldino presents are, he says, “like a tour of Sicily, from the chefs in the seaside towns to the grandmas making delicious things” in the agrarian hills. Instead of a generic eggplant caponata, Baldino serves a distinctive one from Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, that substitutes currants for golden raisins and tempers the familiar sweet-and-sour with dark cocoa powder. From Trapani, on the island’s west coast, comes roasted cauliflower crisped with breadcrumbs and braced with anchovy. Zeppoli’s entire menu is, in fact, a tribute to his paternal homeland, which Baldino, 38, visits regularly, bringing back old recipes, new ideas and seeds to plant in his garden behind the restaurant (where he keeps his charcoal smoker). New crop this summer: Sicilian zucchini, fleshier and sweeter than the local stuff. He serves it with penne, fresh basil and a mix of Sicilian cheeses. Go. When it’s gone, it’s gone. BYO. 618 Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670.

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