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
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
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 He has been replaced by A.J. Capella, formerly of A Toute Heure in Cranford.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
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
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
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
NOTE: MODINE CLOSED PERMANENTLY ON JUNE 3, 2020
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
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
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
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