The 30 Best Restaurants in New Jersey 2019

The Garden State's dining scene and chefs are ever more dynamic, adventurous and assured.

At Felina, the open kitchen is a blur of activity. It faces the bar, the social hub of the restaurant. Photo by Morgan Ione Yeager

It’s a golden age for New Jersey restaurants. So golden, that last year we increased our annual list of the state’s best restaurants from 25 to 30 positions. This year, we held the line at 30, but included on the list seven restaurants that did not earn the Top-30 distinction last year.

Choosing the best restaurants in NJ each year is a challenge. For you, the reader, choosing which ones to try first, might be even tougher. (See the winners of our 36th Annual Jersey Choice Restaurant Poll here.)

Café Panache

Ramsey

“I’m oceany in summer and gamey in the fall,” Kevin Kohler says of his menu moods. After 34 years running this relaxed yet elegant BYO, the 62-year-old is entitled to his whims. They have produced generations of regulars who delight in his New American creations with French and Italian accents. Dishes like filet mignon ravioli or duck with ginger and lavender honey never lose their appeal. This summer, he intends to “get more into the ocean, with tartares and ceviches and poke. I want you to feel like you’re on vacation here.” Ease into one of the two gracious dining rooms and skip the airport security lines, at least for an evening. BYO
130 E. Main Street, 201-934-0030

Clockwise from top: Crispy duroc ribs, hamachi tartare, Korean-style wings, tropical salad, shrimp and garlic.

Crispy duroc ribs, hamachi tartare, Korean-style wings, tropical salad, shrimp and garlic at Cellar 335. Photo by Laura Moss

Cellar 335

Jersey City

Jamie Knott’s basement boite keeps freshening its tiki-themed vibe and #letsluau cocktails without sinking into kitsch. He is correct that “the food is better than it has to be, and better than it’s ever been.” Crispy pork ribs with coconut, sesame and barbecue sauce have never left the menu, for good reason. Knott and chef de cuisine Jared Bane keep adding mad-scientist creations like Brocc-amolé: a purée of smoked guac, roasted broccoli and edamame, given crunch with whole edamame and roasted broccoli, and tang with brûléed goat cheese. For a literal cellar, 335 offers inordinate comfort, along with drinks in gonzo skull mugs and the like. These go down easy, but pack a punch.
335 Newark Avenue, 201-222-1422

Chez Catherine

Westfield

The haughty, haute French restaurant is a dinosaur. But modern French cooking is alive and agile at Chez Catherine. So are the charm and warmth the late Catherine Alexandrou brought to the restaurant when she founded it in 1979. Owner Stephane Bocket, maître d’ Robert Madden and chef Christine Migton are fully in sync. In a comfortable, home-like dining room, where white tablecloths bespeak hospitality rather than hauteur, Bocket and Madden are alert to your needs, but not intrusive. Migton’s food, from duck breast with raspberry coulis to Dover sole filleted tableside, is sumptuous and satisfying, light enough to leave room for her classic desserts. Soufflés, worth the $5 upcharge, may be the gustatory equivalent of sailing in a balloon over the Seine.
431 North Avenue West, 908-654-4011

Seared halibut with Chinese broccoli and roasted kelp gel.

Seared halibut with Chinese broccoli and roasted kelp gel at Common Lot. Photo by Brent Herrig

Common Lot

Millburn

Since opening in 2016, Common Lot has refined its marriage of French technique and Asian flavors. “We’re making dishes more simple, but more punchy in flavor,” says chef/co-owner Ehren Ryan. Punchy but not so simple is the torched avocado, a salad in which the flamed fruit is elaborated with sliced beans, almonds, puffed rice and a chipotle dressing that leaves a flicker of heat. The protein of the moment here is smoked, dry-aged roast duck. It comes with crunchy Thai eggplant, peanuts, pineapple gel and a red curry sauce made with duck stock and coconut milk. In another deft pairing, roasted and pickled beets mingle with chunks of tender lobster and contrasting dots of beet purée and perky chamomile gel. Similarly striking is the parfait: two layers of frozen mousse, one pineapple, one licorice, with grilled pineapple and macadamia nuts. Turns out licorice loves pineapple. Makes sense when you think about it, but only Common Lot did. BYO
27 Main Street, 973-467-0494

Cucharamama

Hoboken

[Editors note: Cucharamama closed in July 2020]

Though she’s won two James Beard Awards, Maricel Presilla constantly pushes forward. Or in this case, backwards, at least in time. “I’m going more plant focused,” she says. “Not just for health reasons. Latin American cuisine was very plant focused until the Spaniards arrived with their cows and pigs.” Cucharamama’s pineapple and pumpkin salad, with its contrasting flavors and kissing-cousin textures (compounded by pumpkin seeds), shows how gratifying plant focused can be. Meat eaters, don’t lose heart. The beef and chicken pot pie might flummox Fannie Farmer with its barely-there corn crust and subtly spiced, finely ground filling, but in the dish’s native Chile, Fannie Farmer is no household name. The Ecuadorian seafood stew in spicy coconut sauce not only has fervor—it feeds two.
233 Clinton Street, 201-420-1700

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Elements

Princeton

When you settle into an armchair at one of the well-spaced tables in the spare, high-ceilinged room, the neutral colors soothe the day’s jitters. From the open kitchen, chefs bring food—à la carte or from a tasting menu—to your table and explain its elements. In this rarefied environment, you expect the soundtrack to be zenlike. The volume is low, but the music is kick-ass rock. As your meal progresses, you realize how well the tunes fit the food. Combining ancient techniques with the state of the art, chef/co-owner Scott Anderson and chef de cuisine Mike Ryan produce food that is not just thought-provoking, but to use a rock term, mind-blowing—in flavor and composition, each course distinct. It’s some of the most advanced cooking in the state, but as the soft-spoken Ryan puts it, “Elements is only aiming to be a fun place to eat.” In its own patient, esoteric way, Elements is one heckuva playpen.
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-0078

Burrata-filled pasta with smoked pistachios & parmigiano broth (front); crab-stuffed zucchini flowers at Fascino. Photo by Laura Baer

Fascino

Montclair

While running four properties, including two wedding venues, chef Ryan DePersio has kept his 16-year-old flagship, Fascino, aloft by building a strong team. The lead cook, Reyes Toxqui, for example, started 12 years ago as a dishwasher. And Fascino has kept ahead of culinary trends. Thirteen years ago, before it was trendy, DePersio launched Fascino’s vegetarian tasting menu. You don’t have to be vegetarian to avidly polish off the mascarpone and local-mushroom agnolotti with marsala glaze. DePersio has a Florida connection that brought juicy softshell crabs to Fascino back in April, before almost anyone else had them. As ever, his mom, Cynthia, creates fetching desserts. All in all, says the chef, “it’s an amazing group effort.” BYO
331 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-233-0350

Felina

Ridgewood

Anthony Bucco has led several top restaurants in the state, most recently Latour at Crystal Springs. But until he opened Felina in January, he had never been an owner as well as the chef. Being Italian, he says, he wanted to “create an Italian restaurant that didn’t line up with perceptions of Italian restaurants in North Jersey, but built on my strength in local, seasonal, contemporary cooking.” Felina does that. From day one, he and co-chef Martyna Krowicka were deluged. Looking back, Bucco says, “we had to learn how to be busy before we learned how to be special.” They’re learning. Felina boasts a dramatic space with a major bar scene, terrific pastas and fish crudos, and a nose-to-tail approach to pork that pays off in a variety of starters and mains. If there’s a signature dish so far, it’s seared scallops with oyster mushrooms, roasted sunchokes and brown butter. Not your nonna’s Italian, but delizioso.
54 E. Ridgewood Avenue, 551-276-5454

The Frog and the Peach

New Brunswick

If Bruce Lefebvre sounds chipper when he says, “Our clientele is getting younger,” it’s because that was his intent. The F&P, founded in 1983 and taken over by Lefebvre, its chef, in 2012, is one of the longest-running exemplars of fine dining in the state. Lefebvre has been grooming a younger generation of cooks, chefs and managers and channeling their energy to serve a younger clientele. The leafy garden room and clubby dining room look the same, but the food and drink are irrepressible. A wasabi-edamame purée perked up a recent Jonah crab salad. A lamb’s-tongue gyro with feta on pita was a delicious hoot. For eaters of any age or temperament, the balsamic-marinated hanger steak with green peppercorn Cognac sauce is a Rushmore of beefiness—and a steal at $22.
29 Dennis Street, 732-846-3216

Hearthside: The grill, here, and the wood-burning oven beside it, give the open kitchen its strong pulse.

Courtesy of Hearthside

Hearthside

Collingswood

The beating heart of Hearthside is its side-by-side wood-burning oven and grill, which you can see through the glass walls before you even enter. Inside, your nostrils will pick up what chef/co-owner Dominic Piperno calls “the singe.” (Don’t worry, the place is well ventilated.) While the fire is literal—cooking superb steaks, fish and vegetables—it is metaphorical, too. “The energy [in the open kitchen] is terrific,” Piperno says. “We’re all flowing, all on the same path.” The brilliance of Hearthside lies in its balance: The smoky signature of the wood-fired dishes and the finesse and imagination of the salads, pastas, crudos and desserts. The latter group include a juicy hamachi crudo with rhubarb, macerated strawberries and chili; delicate agnolotti filled with smoked celery root in brown butter with black pepper and chopped almonds; a graham-cracker-crusted strawberry ice cream bar on a stick that is as delightful as it is whimsical. For the full experience, sit at the counter. You’ll be close enough to high five the chefs. Odds are you’ll want to. BYO
801 Haddon Avenue, 856-240-1164

Heirloom 
Kitchen

Old Bridge

Swordfish confit with crispy arancini, fava beans, olive tapenade and tomato beurre blanc at Heirloom Kitchen. Photo by Brent Herrig

Sitting at the kitchen counter at Heirloom ranks among the most interactive experiences a diner can have with a chef. This owes partly to Heirloom founder Neilly Robinson having created it as an intimate teaching kitchen for home cooks. While Heirloom remains a school and boutique, it has risen to a unique place in Jersey dining thanks to the imagination, technique and ebullient personality of chef David Viana, 38. Schmoozing with Viana, a 2019 Top Chef contestant, at the counter as he cooks is a kick, but the real kick is what he cooks. You don’t have to sit at the counter to revel in that. He’ll start with an idea like Chinese-takeout fried rice, add squid ink, a layer of romesco sauce, a layer of shrimp, and before he’s done, it’s closer to a paella. “I love playing with nostalgia, but adding whimsy and surprise,” he explains. Well-modulated flavors and visuals are a signature, as in his monkfish encased in a mixture of scallops and foie gras and wrapped in a cabbage leaf. The upbeat vibe at Heirloom stems also from every member of the cooking and service team being a valued and creative contributor. Sean Yan, 26, had never made desserts before Viana hired him. His yuzu-marjoram carlota (cousin of an icebox cake) has a crunchy coating of crumbled masa cookies and a tart, semi-frozen interior. It’s delightful and unlike anything else. Says Viana, “Everyone is a rock star here.” BYO
3853 Route 516, 732-727-9444

The Hill

Closter

Ben Pollinger won a Michelin star in his decade as executive chef of the Manhattan seafood restaurant Oceana. But he returned home to do something he had never done: open a restaurant and own it, too. Now a year old, the Hill has rounded into top form. Seafood, as you might imagine, is superb, each dish complex yet coherent, as in a recent roasted monkfish with artichokes, morels and a preserved Sorrento lemon vinaigrette. Pastas, too, are memorable, such as squid-ink fettucini with melty nduja sausage and a shower of the cured fish roe called bottarga. The space is airy and comfortable, the cocktails compelling. Desserts, by Pollinger, lagged at first. But a recent hibiscus panna cotta with lychee sorbet and candied kumquats picks up the energizing detail in the rest of the menu and runs with it.
252 Schraalenburgh Road, 201-899-4700

At Jockey Hollow, a rapturous take on canneloni, subbing raw tuna for the pasta wrap. Photo by Laura Baer

Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen

Morristown

Editor’s note: Following the print publication of this story, Jockey Hollow’s chef, Craig Polignano, announced he was stepping down. He has been replaced by A.J. Capella, formerly of A Toute Heure in Cranford.

In the grand 1904 Vail Mansion, Chris Cannon runs what amounts to three restaurants: the airy Oyster Bar and wood-paneled Vail Bar on the ground floor, with their terrific raw bars; the Rathskeller, a beer hall where bands hold forth, one flight down; and, up the broad marble staircase, daPesca, a fine-dining restaurant specializing in seafood. All are under the direction of one superb chef, Craig Polignano, 38. His menus are broadly New American, with strong Italian bones. Rathskeller: From schnitzel to latkes to whatever. Main floor: Great burger? Soups you could actually swoon over? Divine pastas? Check, check, check. Yet JHBK reaches its zenith upstairs at daPesca. Polignano’s lightly smoked Spanish mackerel with ham and fried-egg emulsion will redefine that maligned fish for you. No lobster is more juicy and seductive than his poached in Sancerre butter. And the quotes in his tuna carpaccio “cannelloni” are a wink. Instead of pasta, the Jonah crab stuffing is wrapped in sushi-grade raw tuna, its satiny redness ravishing amid a pool of spring-pea purée.
110 South Street, 973-644-3180

Grilled half chicken with roasted, spiced heirloom baby carrots, Greek yogurt, mint and lime.

Grilled half chicken with spiced heirloom baby carrots, Greek yogurt, mint and lime at Juniper Hill. Photo by Paul Bartholomew

Juniper Hill

Annandale

It’s a feat to turn a onetime drive-in bank into a space that feels like a country cottage. A greater one is to imbue that space with a sense of community and gratifying food and drink. That’s what chef Josh DeChellis and his wife, Jennifer, have done since opening in 2017. DeChellis, who has cooked on several continents, brought his refined skills and palate to his hometown “to be an amenity to our community.” Cooking Amish chickens over a mesquite grill makes them mouthwatering, especially when paired with harissa-spiced roasted carrots and chili-lime yogurt. Across its menu (most entrées under $30) and in its cocktails, Juniper Hill creates an American quilt, locally rooted but drawing from everywhere.
73 Beaver Avenue, 908-335-8905

Restaurant 
Latour

Hamburg

Since its inception in 2006, Latour has set high standards and been led by formidable chefs. But in little over a year, Aishling Stevens, 40, a Jersey native who earned her chef spurs in London and Australia, and chef de cuisine Matt Laurich have taken this destination restaurant from exceptional to extraordinary. (At the same time, Latour received a physical makeover that made it more comfortable and enhanced its connection with its natural surroundings.) Bare descriptions of Stevens’s dishes—turbot with mussel sauce; short rib with house-made hoisin sauce; chive sauce on noodles made entirely of scallops—don’t do them justice, because their complexity and the steps of flavor development are subordinated to the total effect, which is often off the charts. As she crafts a dish, Stevens says, “I am eating it in my mind, thinking of the person who will eat it, what they’re wearing, how they hold the fork and knife, how they’re going to feel while they’re eating it and after they eat it. I often sneak out and peek at the patrons to see the looks on their faces and how they’re eating. I want to make sure it all makes sense.” It does, and that’s before you factor in one of America’s deepest wine cellars (recently named to Wine Enthusiast’s Hall of Fame) under Susanne Wagner, and the bewitching cocktails and mocktails of new mixologist Dan Danovsky.
1 Wild Turkey Way, 973-827-5996 ext. 3

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Mistral is worth a visit even for its dry-aged burger. Photo by Laura Baer

Mistral

Princeton

Hitting several sweet spots—affordable prices; dishes emerging swiftly from the kitchen; exciting, pleasure-packed food—Mistral is unbeatable at lunch. But don’t overlook dinner. Since taking over last year, chef Joe Mooney, 31, has bolstered the entrée section with dishes any upscale restaurant would proudly serve, but probably not for prices under $30. Seared scallops, for example, are rapturous beside green-leek cylinders cut to mimic the scallops’ shape. The dish is bolstered with white globes of brown-butter cauliflower purée and a lip-smacking garlic-anchovy sauce. Ramp fettuccine with Jonah crab and asparagus sits on a luscious turnip purée that mingles with the pasta and multiplies the power of the sauce as you gather it on your fork. Mistral also happens to make one of the most satisfying burgers around (from dry-aged brisket, with bacon jam, garlic aioli and optional aged cheddar), and its extravagantly conceived desserts are a sophisticated hoot.
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-688-8808

Modine

NOTE: MODINE CLOSED PERMANENTLY ON JUNE 3, 2020

Asbury Park

When you burst from the gate as a Southern-influenced restaurant, as husband-and-wife chef/owners Chris Davin and Jill Meerpohl did 18 months ago, and your fried chicken with biscuits and sides is so good it becomes, as Davin puts it, “the cornerstone of what we do,” the question becomes, got anything else up your sleeve? They do. Shrimp and grits, of course. Also, beef shanks cooked sous vide 36 hours in barbecue sauce, crab fried rice with creole crawfish sauce, and in cold weather, brisket-wrapped scallops. This year, brunch took off with treats like bowls of hash browns smothered with pulled pork from suckling pigs, jalapeños and cheddar. The cocktail program and Meerpohl’s baked goods are cornerstones as well. “If we didn’t do stuff to entertain ourselves,” Davin says, “the job would get boring.” There’s nothing boring about the food or the high-ceilinged, big-windowed space plush with curved booths and lush with hanging plants—a bit of New Orleans, y’all.
601 Mattison Avenue, 732-893-5300

Nicholas

Red Bank

This month, Nicholas Harary turns 45, which is young—“except that those are restaurant years: 33 in the industry and going on 20 at Restaurant Nicholas,” he says with a laugh. One thing he has never rejected is the supposed kiss-of-death label, “special-occasion restaurant.” One he has always rejected is opening a second restaurant (on the theory that he can’t be in two places at once). “Continuity and consistency are our hallmarks,” he says. Harary blends his own classics, such as the crisp squares of bourbon-braised, pulled suckling pig with apple jalapeño purée, with new offerings from Kevin Koller, 31, promoted to chef last year, such as lump crabmeat salad with strawberry chimichurri and salted almonds. Each of the two dining rooms has its own ambience, and the big-windowed bar has its own fetching menu, not to mention sensational cranberry-walnut rolls they don’t serve in the dining room.
160 Route 35 South, 732-345-9977

At Osteria Crescendo, Robbie Felice’s new place offers ricotta-filled gnudi. Photos by Laura Baer

Osteria 
Crescendo

Westwood

The two immediate differences between Viaggio, Robbie Felice’s first restaurant (also on this list), and his new one, Osteria Crescendo, is that Crescendo has a liquor license and a “large format” section of the menu. With the license, beverage director Joshua Strauss has created a fascinating, all-Italian wine list and cocktails that range from the suave Suit & Tie to the playful Bei Sogni, a grown-up Creamsicle. Felice, 28, has made the large-format page a showcase for shareable entrées. These range from brilliant creations like crisp, prosciutto-wrapped scallops in a Sicilian quinoa sauce with prosciutto crumble ($38) to a $115 40-ounce T-bone, house dry aged 30 days. It feeds one, if Godzilla is your guest, or four just folks. One needn’t go large format to revel in Felice’s pastas, red wine arancini with gorgonzola sauce, and a ravishing rarity such as his red-prawn crudo topped with garlic crema and lemon gel, surrounded by a red pool of shrimp-head oil, shrimpier tasting than shrimp.
36 Jefferson Avenue, 201-722-1900

Osteria Radici

Allentown

Osteria Radici: Creste de gallo (cockscomb-shaped) pasta with speck, grapes and parmigiano.

Creste de gallo (cockscomb-shaped) pasta with speck, grapes and parmigiana at Osteria Radici. Photo by Felicia Perretti

Rarely does a restaurant remove seats, but last year, when chef Randy Forrester’s lone cook moved to Maine, making him a one-man band in the kitchen, Forrester did just that. Dropping from 24 seats to 18 enabled him to maintain the level of food that has earned him a James Beard Award nomination in each of the restaurant’s first two years. “Doing more with less is what being an Italian cook is about,” he says. Except for the pasta extruder, his equipment is basic. Simplifying his recipes, he has managed to intensify their pleasures. The menu, which changes often, is divided into two five-course tasting menus, each with its own dessert ($85; any item can be ordered à la carte). With just 10 dishes per night, “I want to make sure everything tastes different,” he says. Dishes don’t get simpler in concept than stir-fried strips of chicken thigh with ramps in spicy Calabrese sauce. But you find yourself not just cleaning your plate, but mopping it with a piece of crusty, house-baked bread. He’s just as good with fish and pasta, and his olive oil semifreddo with peanut crunch and dark chocolate shows that this lifelong Yankee fan can play all positions.
4 S. Main Street, 609-223-2395

 

Pluckemin Inn

Bedminster

This year, the Pluckemin took an unusual step for a fine-dining restaurant and simplified its menu. “Our regulars were asking for more of a steakhouse idea, with different cuts and a choice of sides,” says executive chef Kevin La Femina. “A lot of them come once or twice a week, and their comments are very important to us. Our owner [Gloria LaGrassa] likes specific things, and we like to keep her happy, too. I wanted to keep what I like to do—different crudos and appetizers and fish dishes.” (The inn’s Wine Spectator Grand Award and Wine Enthusiast 100 Best cellar can handle any pairing.) La Grassa gave the thumbs up and the change was made with no dumbing down. “We’ve had a really good response,” La Femina says. “We can cater to a larger group of customers, but still do fine-dining dishes with a tasting menu and specials available every night.”
359 Route 206 South, 908-658-9292

Poached Pear Bistro

Point Pleasant Beach

Just blocks from the Shore and its siren call of deep-fried and sugary treats, Scott Giordano’s New American dishes deliver Ferris-wheel heights of pleasure of a more sophisticated sort. His signature duck confit ravioli sports a tarragon demi glace and comes with grilled summer squash. Demand never slackens for his cider-brined pork chop with red cabbage marmalade, crispy spaetzle, caramelized apples and bourbon-cider reduction. The refined indulgences continue through dessert, courtesy of pastry chef Teah Evans. Her dark-chocolate mousse crepe cake rivals any boardwalk treat for self-indulgence. Hey, it’s summer. Go for it! BYO
816 Arnold Avenue, 732-701-1700

Red Store

Cape May Point

While opening several fun, inexpensive places to eat, chef Lucas Manteca has actually made his flagship, Red Store, in the verdant enclave of Cape May Point, better. In fact, after an off year, its seven-course tasting menu (a bargain at $65, cash only) is again a festival of generosity and eye-opening tastes. The first course is a board of cheeses, breads, cured meats and fish that is a meal in itself. Then comes an empanada (Manteca, a native Argentine, knows his empanadas); then a “little something” (Arctic char tartare with cubed beets, one recent night); a vegetable course (asparagus tempura with remoulade that night); a pasta (luscious gnocchi with sugar snap peas and grapefruit butter sauce); and—the one choice on the menu—an entrée of surf or turf. Each entrée comes with two vegetable sides tailored to the protein. A moist and meaty tilefish filet, for example, came with zucchini cut like spaghetti and potato cubes crunchier than French fries. The whole thing makes you want to curl up like a puppy and never leave. BYO
500 Cape Avenue, 609-884-5757

Pan-roasted Ora King salmon with beets, parsnip and bacon dust.

Pan-roasted Ora King salmon with beets, parsnip and bacon dust at Ryland Inn. Photo by Paul Bartholomew

Ryland Inn

Whitehouse Station

Chef Chris Albrecht’s playground begins at the back door—the Ryland’s half-acre garden. In summer, it bursts with berries and veggies, but it delights him even in winter, when he harvests his favorite Tough Mother kale and leaves carrots in the ground, knowing that, come spring, they will be sweeter for their struggles with frosts and thaws. Of course, it’s what he does with what both nature and purveyors provide that land him on this list. Rightly proud of his tilefish en papillote, he emerges from the kitchen to slice open the paper bag, releasing the perfume of herbs and white wine and presenting the fish over cabbage and shitakes with a sea-urchin-and-caviar beurre blanc. Would you like pastured beef? River Bend Farm in Peapack dry ages whole sides for him, and he dry-ages the prime cuts even longer. For dessert, chocolate-avocado cake, a collaboration with new pastry chef Michael Lantry, is delicious and gluten free.
115 Old Highway 28, 908-534-4011

Saddle River Inn

Saddle River

“As a young cook, you want to get it all on one plate,” says chef/owner Jamie Knott, 38. “But as an older cook, you want to get everything on the plate right.” Knott has been cooking in restaurants since he was 13. He now owns three: Cellar 335, also on this list; the new Saddle River Café; and the inn, a beloved old barn he took over in 2013, modernizing its fine-dining menu. Now he strives not for innovation, but for “the best rendition of a dish.” Thus, filet mignon with roasted-shallot potato purée, or cavatelli Bolognese, the sauce made from trimmings of all the prime meats in the house. Longtime dessert chef Leticia Menenses still romps. Her strawberry Bavarian involves strawberry sponge cake, strawberry compote, strawberry mousse, strawberry sauce and strawberry whipped cream. She just might get it all on one plate and get everything right. BYO
2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016

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At Serenade, tender lobster is served over vegetables and lobster consommé (left); the crabcake (right) is topped with shrimp. Photos by Laura Baer

Serenade

Chatham

“People say the restaurant business is hard,” says chef/co-owner James Laird. “I say, ‘Try running one for 22 years and making it better each year. That’s even harder.’” Laird and his wife and business partner, Nancy Sheridan Laird, make it look easy. Laird himself has an unusually sunny and gentle disposition, which seems to insinuate itself into every dish. Lobster tails have rarely been as tender and flavorful as his, or as effectively paired, as with this spring’s ramp and potato purée over an intense lobster consommé. “Patient, gentle cooking, adding flavor layer by layer—that’s what gives my food richness,” he says. The dining rooms receive just as much attention. “Every time we renovate,” Laird says, “our business always increases. This past year, we put in new carpet, new wallpaper in the ladies’ room. We’re now on our third set of chairs. Every little thing makes a difference.”
6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303

Verjus

Maplewood

It’s worth recalling how much Charles Tutino wanted to learn French cooking. In 1980, he quit his position at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and begged the great Jean-Jacques Rachou of La Côte Basque for a job. He got one, peeling shrimp. Before long, Tutino was a cook and then a chef himself. For the last 18 years, he has made Verjus a soothing and stimulating respite from the regular. Its appeal starts with Tutino’s French finesse, exemplified by supernal boeuf bourguignon, made with a thick slice of flatiron steak instead of the usual stewing cuts. His interpretations of American, German, Italian, Irish, Portuguese and Jersey Shore classics on theme Fridays are equally deft. Factor in the comfort of the home-like dining room, the heartfelt hospitality of Tutino’s wife, Jane Witkin, and reasonable prices—and what are you waiting for?
1790 Springfield Avenue, 973-378-8990

Viaggio

Wayne

Robbie Felice has a knack for creating dishes that taste even better than they sound, such as a recent tagliatelle with shrimp and corn in a buttery jalapeño pesto. You don’t want to share it, yet you want everyone at the table, maybe even the world, to taste it. At the same time, he reinvents dishes you think you know, like tricolore salad. The key is the ultrafine slicing of the endive and radicchio and the topping of radicchio cream, hazelnut brittle and a snowdrift of grated ricotta salata. His fried calamari eschews the mainstream marinara, instead imbuing the crispy rings with the flavors of seaside Sorrento—fresh lemon most of all, soothed with butter, sparked with Calabrian chilies and pickled shallots. “It’s one of the dishes that’s made us who we are,” he says. The bresaola, porchetta and other salumi he and his team laboriously create in house are stellar. At 28, Felice has realized his dream of owning a second restaurant: Osteria Crescendo in Westwood, also on this list. Riding herd on both places, breaking down sides of meat at a friend’s butcher shop, working out in the gym every day at 6 am, and tearing around on his racing motorcycles when time and weather permit, he has gotten where he is by never taking his foot off the pedal, in any sense. BYO
1055 Hamburg Turnpike, 973-706-7277

Vegan chocolate cake at White Birch. Photo by John Bessler

White Birch

Flanders

At his first restaurant, Slamwich Scratch Kitchen, a hipster’s dream of a diner in Madison, Sam Freund might have seemed a culinary Clark Kent. In fact, he is a chef able to leap culinary borders in a single bound, and he doesn’t need a phone booth in front of White Birch to do that. White Birch unleashes Freund’s fine-dining bona fides (after years working for Danny Meyer in New York and the equally esteemed Troy Guard in Colorado) and his creativity. Freund’s crispy cippolini onion tart baked with Gruyère and pine nuts has been too popular to remove from the menu since he opened last year. If you happen to invent an umami meter, this gorgeously brown, crunchy dome would probably blow its circuits. White Birch’s crispy-skinned duck breast with leg and thigh confit in beet sauce is one of the better renditions around. And the hamachi crudo with Asian pears and kimchi aioli shows Freund’s affinity for Asian flavors. “To express who you are in food is, to me, the coolest thing,” he says. “I’m not overconfident, but I keep telling people, ‘You haven’t seen nothing yet.’” BYO
380 Route 206, 908-955-0443

Zeppoli

Collingswood

“Heading into our ninth year,” says chef/owner Joe Baldino, “people are coming from Philly, from Central and North New Jersey, even New York. It’s pretty exciting.” You might think foodies would tire of a menu—dedicated to Baldino’s ancestral Sicily—that rarely changes, except for a couple of daily specials. But standards like the light, lip-smacking tagliatelli al limone never lose their luster. Likewise his bracing Sicilian fisherman’s stew with saffron and Tunisian couscous, and his sumptuous spinach-and-ricotta gnocchi topped with Sicilian caciocavallo cheese. In the narrow storefront with just 32 seats, Baldino has no room for a walk-in fridge, so he has to make the dough for his namesake zeppoli in small batches. Result: He sometimes has to ration these fluffy, crisp, hot-from-the-fryer delights. “If I run out of the dough,” he says, “people put a frown on.” The upside of being small? “You can really hone it, taste every single thing and make sure it’s exactly the way you want it.” Case in point: peerless pistachio gelato. Fortunately, his freezer is big enough that he never runs out. BYO
618 Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670

The Top 30 Restaurants and Critics’ Picks were chosen by deputy editor/dining editor Eric Levin after restaurant visits and consultation with our panel of food critics and reporters. Levin then interviewed the chefs and wrote the 30 briefs. THE PANEL: Michael Aharon, Marissa Rothkopf Bates, Susan Brierly Bush, Jill P. Capuzzo, Adam Erace, Josh Friedland, Karen Tina Harrison, John Holl, Tammy La Gorce, Lauren Payne, Peg Rosen, Rosie Saferstein, Ken Schlager, Fran Schumer, Tara Nurin and Shelby Vittek.

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