“I’ve put in my 10,000 hours,” says Jesse Ito, 26, the son of chef/owner Masaharu “Matt” Ito, 63. Though that makes him an adept by Malcolm Gladwell’s famous rule, Jesse has no illusions. “My father’s still a lot better than me,” he says. “He has a French flair. He’s still here every day, but he likes the kitchen. I like to do very pure sushi.”
Together, they make a formidable team. From Matt’s kitchen come compelling dishes such as broiled eggplant with sweet soy sauce, sesame seeds and pickled cauliflower; and pan-seared Chilean sea bass with garlic sauce. From behind the beautiful carved-wood sushi bar come Jesse’s sparkling creations. Jesse built Fuji’s website, which features a stunning gallery of his photos of Fuji’s food. While Jesse is clearly Generation Next, he is an old soul when it comes to sushi.
“It’s a whole-day process to get ready to serve that one piece,” he says. Jesse makes his own sweetened rice vinegar with which to temper the rice. “If somebody says something about my rice,” he says, “that shows a different level of understanding.” Some sushi bars buy tamago, the classic sweet egg cake, frozen. He makes his from scratch, which requires constant folding and flipping with a spatula to get the texture right. “Ours is a little darker,” he says, “because we use eggs from cage-free organic chickens.” Taste it. You’ll see he has a right to crow. BYO. 116 Kings Highway East, 856-354-8200.
The Frog & the Peach, New Brunswick
Let’s hear it for rhubarb, that tart harbinger of spring too often muffled under a sopping blanket of too-sweet strawberries. More specifically, let’s hear it for F&P pastry chef Brian Dymnioski, creator of the restaurant’s recent strawberry-rhubarb crumble, served hot in a black iron pan. The berry may get top billing, but the rhubarb is regnant. Dymnioski brings its uniquely lip-smacking flavor to the fore with a hit of ground spices: Japanese sansho pepper, lemongrass and Kaffir lime leaf. It comes with a mound of lemon-verbena whipped cream to escort it into the trophy room of memorable desserts.
Saluting a dessert before even mentioning a savory dish might seem odd, but in chef/owner Bruce Lefebvre’s kitchen, creativity and attention to detail abound in every course. Mushroom-ricotta gnocchi with goldbar squash and shaved porcini create a haiku of textures, which an arugula-butter sauce turns blatantly sensual. The bar at F&P was one of the first in the state to produce barrel-aged cocktails, and now its half-dozen house-made soft drinks reflect the nascent trend toward non-alcoholic cocktails, iced teas and lemonades that are delightful rather than dutiful. 29 Dennis Street, 732-846-3216.
*Girasole, Atlantic City
“Three months before I opened Girasole,” Gino Iovino recalls, “I read an article saying Atlantic City was the worst place to open a restaurant.” Two Italian restaurants had already failed in the non-casino space he was about to take over, but Iovino went ahead anyway. That was 1992. Not only is Girasole still there, a block from the Boardwalk, but 18 of its 22 employees are members of his family, the dining room is flush with the sumptuous fabrics and furnishings of designer Gianni Versace, the welcome is gracious, and the food is not just terrific, but a harmonious combination of timeless and contemporary.
Iovino, who grew up in Naples, came to America in 1972, at 18, and settled in South Philadelphia. A decade later, he launched an Italian fashion boutique there called Eleganza, representing Armani and, he says, introducing Versace to the U.S. in 1984. Iovino and his brother, Franco, opened Girasole in South Philadelphia in 1990. Two years later, Iovino opened the larger, more elegant Atlantic City branch, which shares space in the Ocean Club condos with Eleganza.
From the day Girasole AC opened, the soul of the kitchen has been Iovino’s first cousin Rosalba Morici, a Cordon Bleu graduate. She trained her staff so well that, since she returned to Italy in 2011 to care for her elderly parents, the kitchen has not missed a beat. (Iovino brings in guest chefs from Italy to keep the staff current.) The pizzas and pastas are iconic. The warm beef and cool fish carpaccios are sensuous treats hard to find elsewhere. And the beef braciole with sausage and meatball in Sunday gravy is an edible paradox, both humble and magnificent. 3108 Pacific Avenue, 609-345-5554.
*Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, Morristown
“None of us,” confesses executive chef Kevin Sippel, 38, “ever opened anything like this.” That is quite a statement when you consider the team that owner Chris Cannon assembled to open Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen last fall. Cannon himself—a Mountain Lakes resident and stalwart supporter of Jersey agriculture and aquaculture—trails a string of accolades from his days opening major restaurants in Manhattan. Sippel helped him earn rave reviews for chef Michael White at L’Impero and Alto. Star mixologist Chris James left the Ryland Inn to join the Jockey Hollow team, which is stacked with top talent at every position. Yet JHBK (the letters stamped on the door, the iPad menus and the drink coasters) dwarfs in ambition and complexity anything these all-pros have attempted before, let alone any Garden State opening of recent years.
Cannon and crew transformed the long-vacant 1917 Vail Mansion into four dining spaces on three levels. The ground floor Oyster and Wine Bar and, behind it, the clubby, wood-paneled Vail Bar opened first with a well-executed menu that ranged from a glistening raw bar to peasant dishes raised to sublimity, like octopus in a tomato-rice asopao.
One level down, the Rathskeller, primarily an event space memorably outfitted with vintage German beer and auto posters, adopted a wurst, schnitzel and smoked-trout menu of true distinction that may not be every customer’s cup of Himbeergeist Black Forest raspberry brandy. Climb the grand marble staircase to the second floor and you enter the fine-dining space called the Dining Room, with picture windows that overlook the reflecting pool out front. The four-course, $75 menu has been reorganized for better flow from the large and well-staffed kitchen. Sippel’s most elaborate dishes are to be found here, including delicacies like grilled cuttlefish with oyster and saffron vichyssoise or Arctic char confit with crème frâiche panna cotta.
“The four-part concept took awhile even for us to wrap our heads around,” admits Cannon. “Now people know they can have a nice dinner upstairs or just hang out in the bar and have a burger. We want to be one of the best restaurants in the country, but do it our way, delivering a fun experience that resonates for a long time.” 110 South Street, 973-644-3180.
Restaurant Latour, Hamburg
Of all the great kitchens in the state, the one best endowed for its singular purpose just might be Restaurant Latour at the Crystal Springs Resort. Open just Thursday through Sunday, and only for dinner, Latour exists to showcase its extraordinary wine cellar in an exquisite 40-seat aerie with superb service and tasting menus that are state-of-the-art in technique, yet approachable, delicious and rooted in the local-seasonal-sustainable ethos. Executive chef Anthony Bucco calls Latour “by far the deepest project I’ve ever been affiliated with. It’s an incredibly focused environment that allows special things to happen and requires incredible attention to detail. It’s also incredibly fun.”
Fun seems too mild a word to describe the guest’s experience. There is sybaritic pleasure in dishes like sausage-stuffed saddle of rabbit with creamy romaine soup, domestic caviar and baby vegetables, or roasted heirloom carrots with savory house-made granola and fresh black figs. Head mixologist Stephen Thomas, 34, as gifted as he is modest, creates amazing cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks for the entire resort. Still under the radar, he should soon be ranked alongside such mixology luminaries as Chris James (Jockey Hollow) and Jamie Dodge (Elements, Mistral). 1 Wild Turkey Way, 973-827-0548.