The 25 Best Restaurants 2015

Our annual list of the state's finest dining experiences.

The Top 25 Restaurants were chosen by our panel of food critics and reporters, led by deputy editor/dining editor Eric Levin. An asterisk denotes a restaurant is new to the list.

Café Panache, Ramsey

Beet and goat cheese ravioli with shaved ricotta salata and crispy beets.

Beet and goat cheese ravioli with shaved ricotta salata and crispy beets. Photo by Romulo Yanes

Don’t all weep at once, but Kevin Kohler is “not puréeing potatoes with butter anymore.” The chef/owner of Café Panache is no Scrooge. “I’m roasting little fingerlings with good olive oil and herbs,” he says. “I want a more clean style of cooking. I want the food to taste good, and I want people to feel good eating it.” Buttery potatoes aside, this is not such a huge departure. Kohler has always been a wizard at extracting sometimes startling levels of flavor and satisfaction from every ingredient. His daily forays to pick fruit and vegetables at Abma’s Farm in nearby Wyckoff are well known. As he puts it, “I come back with black fingers and wet feet.”

This summer, Kohler, 58, is serving his popular duck duo (confited leg, roasted breast) with fresh peach purée and, for crunch, organic red quinoa with toasted pecans and shallots. Ever price sensitive, he is adding more pastas (another of his great loves) “because pasta makes it a little more affordable for people.”

Café Panache is a startling 31 years old. Renovated in 2009, the dining rooms remain soothingly beautiful, creating an ambience that the smooth, gracious service unobtrusively enhances. BYO. 130 East Main Street, 201-934-0030.

Chez Catherine, Westfield

Souffle au Grand Marnier.

Souffle au Grand Marnier. Photo courtesy of Chez Catherine

With each passing year, dining at Chez Catherine becomes even more an experience to cherish. It’s not so much that ever-present owner Didier Jouvenet, 66, will pass the torch in the next couple of years to his long-time maitre d’, Stéphane Bocket, 46. Bocket, after all, is just as superlatively old school as Jouvenet. Rather, the restaurant world keeps tacking away from the verities of French cuisine and the elegant yet personal service to which Jouvenet and Bocket, Frenchmen both, have dedicated themselves.

The beautiful little dining room, with just 35 seats and flowers on every table, sets the tone of care and refinement. The new kitchen team of chef de cuisine David Huenergardt and sous chef Christine Migton, personally trained by Jouvenet, is bringing forth dishes that please—much like rereading a beloved novel or discovering that some supposedly august tome is actually one you can happily curl up with.

Of the 375 selections on Chez Catherine’s mostly French wine list, more than 50 are priced under $65, and there is value at all price levels—even a few steals. “I have about 25 collectibles that I priced 12 years ago and never updated the price,” Jouvenet says. Example? 2002 Chateau Petrus, the empyrean Pomerol. “I have it for $3,000. You cannot buy it in a New York City restaurant for less than $5,000. I checked on that.” Rush, before somebody else snaps it up. 41 North Avenue West, 908-654-4011.

Cucharamama, Hoboken

Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche with bowls of crushed peanuts and plantain chips.

Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche with bowls of crushed peanuts and plantain chips. Photo by Laura Moss

Maricel Presilla curates and creates in equal measure. Scholar, author, traveler and chef, she has made the 11-year-old Cucharamama an ever-evolving expo of the food, art, implements and culture of South America. (Its sister restaurant, Zafra, a block away, is her ode to the food of her native Cuba.) For her guests, she says, “I don’t want a theme-park experience, like what a tourist would get. I want a place that a South American would recognize, but is a modern interpretation.”

On the plate, that means Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche in a vivid sauce made by juicing fresh tomatoes instead of using tomato paste, as is traditional in Ecuador. Presilla’s corn tamales, though appetizers, are intensely detailed labors of love. One unfolds to reveal duck braised in Peruvian chicha de jora, a traditional drink made from fermented corn. Another delivers meaty cubes of glazed slab bacon. Cucharamama’s menu ranges from Argentinean chorizo roasted in the wood-burning oven with peppers, onions and red chimichurri pesto to ripe sweet plantains served with crème fraîche.

The cocktail and beer list completes the Latin American immersion. There is wine from Chile and Argentina—and even from Spain, the wines and sherries of the Spanish conquistadors receiving nods of ungrudging affection. 233 Clinton Street, 201-420-1700.

*Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, Keyport

Voodoo Shrimp in spicy Worcestershire cream sauce.

Voodoo Shrimp in spicy Worcestershire cream sauce. Photo by Karyn Baggs

Andrew Araneo grew up in Keyport, on Raritan Bay, and worked for his father’s roofing company for 14 years before he slipped on a wet roof and tore up his knee. “So then,” he says with a chuckle, “I switched to a job where I have to stand 12 hours a day.”

He did have a leg to stand on: his lifelong love of cooking and cookbooks, dating to helping his Italian mom in the kitchen as a kid. His parents, passing through New Orleans, once sent him a copy of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. The die was cast. Araneo entered culinary school at 32, held several jobs after graduation, and opened Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, his own take on New Orleans and Southern food, 10 years ago.

The present location, the restaurant’s third (Sandy KO’d the second) is the largest and most comfortable. The food has reached a new peak, a combination of experience, individualism and the use of high-quality, local produce and proteins. Several weeklong eat-arounds in New Orleans and other Southern culinary magnets have educated Araneo’s palate, but not hamstrung his imagination. His terrific, jam-packed City Jambalaya comes with an overly cautious menu warning: “It is spicy, and we are not kidding—no crying.” Araneo works a Puerto Rican cilantro sofrito into the cayenne and habanero base. The heat is multileveled, not sadistic. He’s always creating new contexts for his signature pork chop. Recently, the big bruiser sat on a throne of Gouda bread pudding and a green-chili stew. Araneo’s Voodoo Shrimp shows his penchant for balancing sweet and spicy, in this case in a Worcestershire cream sauce that conceals a buried treasure, a sauce-absorbing hunk of house-made jalapeño corn bread. BYO. 25 Church Street, 732-739-9219.

Fascino, Montclair
Like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, Fascino abides. Now 12 years old, it is the calm center of chef Ryan DePersio’s spinning universe. He is consulting chef at Nico at NJPAC; executive chef at the huge and hugely successful Battello on the Jersey City waterfront; provider of recipes to readers of the New York Post; a sometime TV presence in demos and competitions; and a husband and father. Other projects may continue to entice him, but one thing you can count on is that the food and service at Fascino will be as steady as a GPS signal bookmarked home.

Indeed, with Ryan’s mother, Cynthia, turning out her delicate desserts, and his father, Anthony, watching the bottom line, Fascino is a family affair. The long-tenured kitchen staff, 17 strong, are like family, too, and they expertly execute DePersio’s imaginative and gratifying takes on Italian tradition. Want to know if a chef really cares? Order chicken. DePersio’s recent buttermilk chicken with crisp skin and black-truffle pesto on creamy fontina polenta might even convince the Dude that something that once clucked can beat a White Russian. BYO. 331 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-233-0350

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