The 30 Best Restaurants in New Jersey 2019

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

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

Related: The 21 Best Restaurants in Montclair

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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