*Ninety Acres, Peapack-Gladstone
Ninety Acres can make you drool long before the food arrives. It’s enough just looking at the line of luxury cars pulling up to the valets after the winding drive through Natirar Park up the wooded hill to the restaurant. Ninety Acres is a well-heeled scene par excellence, especially a bar scene, but last year it slipped as a gustatory scene and did not make the Top 25. This year executive chef David Felton’s kitchen is again firing on all cylinders.
“Not being on the list last year was a wakeup call,” Felton says. “It was upsetting. So we sat down and talked.” Felton and his chef de cuisine, Marty Kester, have been together a decade, since their days at the Pluckemin Inn. In the last few years, they’ve started families. Felton now has three children, Kester two. The youngest have reached age two. “That first year is just draining,” Felton admits. “Our game wasn’t on. Now as time goes on, we’re back into our groove.”
Recent visits have made that abundantly clear. A puréed summer soup of celeriac and golden beets was thick and luscious, with little treasures to be retrieved by the spoon—a tart tomato mostarda for flavor contrast and small squares of fried mozzarella for textural contrast. On a Tuesday, the nightly Farmer’s Plate, fried chicken, was a model of moist flavor wrapped in delicious crunch with silky mashed potatoes and gravy. Sautéed golden tilefish—a delicious white-fleshed fish from Jersey waters—came with a charismatic entourage of sunchokes, wilted spinach and a kind of wild card, salty-lemony marinated artichoke hearts, which were cool in temperature, in pleasing contrast to the warmth of the rest of the dish. The cocktail and bar program continues to shine under head bartender Christina D’Orata, as do desserts (like a stunningly fresh raspberry pie) under pastry chef Lindsay Stewart. 2 Main Street, 908-901-9500.
*Picnic on The Square, Ridgewood
“It’s a constant party in the kitchen at Picnic,” reports chef/co-owner Christine Nunn. That may sound worrisome, but the happiness carries over to the plate. Why the frolic? The business downturn forced Nunn to close her acclaimed Picnic in Fair Lawn on December 31, 2012. Apart from a spell as opening chef of Grange in Westwood, Nunn had almost two years to do little but dream of dishes she would make when—if—she ever got her own place again. That happened last November, thanks to co-owners Alex and Christine Parlamis. More happiness stems from the return of several Picnic staff, including chef de cuisine John Keyser.
Classically trained, a stickler for proper technique (“and good manners,” she says), Nunn is a paradox. She makes old school coq au vin, but also lamb chops with a lively orzo studded with capers, spinach and dried tomatoes. She sets out the proper Riedel wine glass for whatever wine customers bring; and with her many excellent fish courses, she presents a fish fork and knife (servers happily show customers how to use them). If you think that’s nostalgic, wait till you taste her signature lobster roll at lunch or her deviled-egg appetizer. Whimsy is the last piece of the puzzle. Exhibit A would be her pretzel-crusted, pork Milanese with apricot-peach-mustard compote and arugula salad—an international mash-up that pleases the palate as it tickles the funnybone. BYO. 26 Wilsey Square, 201-444-4401.
Pluckemin Inn, Bedminster
Andrew Lattanzio is one of those chefs whose food goes beyond expert to exciting. The menu is New American, but the magnet that pulls him most strongly is Italy, which he visits to hone his skills in making salumi and cheese. (“I haven’t bought a single piece of cured meat in a few years now,” he says of the former.) Lattanzio, 35, makes the tangy Talleggio that melts into his spinach risotto and lifts it heavenward on papery wings of crispy garlic. His vitello tonnato, the classic cold plate of sliced veal with tuna sauce, layers a particularly smooth and lip-smacking sauce over especially tender and flavorful meat and showers the dish with fresh-picked baby vegetables for a festive contrast of textures and colors. Another recent marvel was his meltingly soft Scottish salmon enthroned on a satiny potato-leek purée. A chunky porcini and walnut ragu surrounded it like a coterie of counselors.
The Pluckemin turned 10 this year, and under Gloria La Grassa, its co-founder and owner, it keeps getting better. Not everything is Italian. The signature dessert is apple strudel, endowed with a thick, dark, crunchy crust that is one-of-a-kind and too good to leave even a crumb untouched. 359 Route 206 South, 908-658-9292.
*Poached Pear Bistro , Point Pleasant Beach
There are many good places to eat on the Shore, but few great ones. The arrival of Scott and Marc Giordano’s Poached Pear Bistro a little over a year ago plants a brightly waving flag of gastronomic goodness at one of the Shore’s most beloved locations. Scott , 47, won many hearts during his decade-plus as head chef of Whispers in Spring Lake, but here—in his own restaurant for the first time, with his brother running the front of the house—he has truly come into his own. Short rib is rarely served as carpaccio, but Scott’s richly marbled slices have great flavor and texture, enhanced by a Worcestershire sauce gastrique mellowed with aged white balsamic vinegar. One of his most richly satisfying dishes, veal tenderloin in puff pastry with cognac mushroom sauce, is a twist on a classic he learned at the old Saddle River Inn under the venerable Hans Egg, who drops by now and then to feast on Scott’s new creations. These include a potato-crusted halibut with chanterelle mushroom fricassee; and puréed corn bisque studded with bacon nuggets and the submerged treasure of cornmeal-crusted goat cheese puffs. Teah Evans’s desserts ratchet the happiness even higher. BYO. 816 Arnold Avenue, 732-701-1700.
Red Store, Cape May Point
Chefs these days extol simplicity, while rarely mentioning the intense detail work required to raise a few great ingredients to ravishing heights. Three miles west of downtown Cape May, in the hushed green enclave of Cape May Point, chef Lucas Manteca has absorbed all that, but he embraces complexity. In fact, he converts it into a life-affirming expression of generosity. Earlier this summer, the native Argentine, 38, was doing a Peruvian ceviche of Kona kampachi (yellowtail) with avocado, shaved heart of palm, grilled pineapple, bell peppers, red onion, cilantro jalapeño vinaigrette and plantain tostones. It sounds like a jail break, but it came together like high-spirited choreography. That same sense of a lot going on, a well-orchestrated circus of delights claiming our attention, characterizes Manteca’s cooking, seen in everything from his blackened local flounder over wheat berries with pico de gallo and dill crema to his Red Store Pancakes filled with corn, crab, roasted poblano peppers and feta. If it sounds a bit overwhelming, just ease into one of his soulful beef empanadas and finish with a slice of dark and chunky flourless chocolate fig cake. BYO. 500 Cape Avenue, 609-884-5757.