Saddle River Inn, Saddle River
In 1840, the big barn beside the trickling Saddle River was a sawmill and basket factory. Hans and Imelda Egg turned it into a fine French restaurant in 1981. Now, in its third year under chef/owner Jamie Knott, the inn has addressed some service issues and is producing food that lights up the barn’s dark wood interior visually and on the palate. Knott has assembled a smooth-running kitchen team that draws from many influences. Sous chef Michael Katzwer, born in Israel, brings Middle Eastern accents; fellow sous Andrew Flores knows Thai food; pastry chef Leticia Meneses loves homespun desserts. Knott pulls it all together. Out comes complex pleasures like hamachi tartare with compressed mango, spicy mayo and an avocado/yuzu purée sprinkled with fried quinoa that pops like popcorn. Knott slices wonton sheets into thin noodles for a pasta dish made from prime ground sirloin and skirt steak sautéed with Asian and Korean spices. He does a duck and foie gras raviolo with a Morello cherry sauce, sprinkled with house-made granola. Surprise in one form or another is always on the menu, but the surprises are relatable and rewarding. BYO. 2 Barnstable Ct, 201-825-4016.
Serenade has earned several Critics’ Picks from us over the years, showing respect for executive chef James Laird’s scrupulous French technique. The restaurant, which Laird and his wife, Nancy Sheridan Laird, opened in 1996, has always done well and earned a loyal following. But exquisite is not necessarily rousing, and Serenade’s tune has often seemed a lullaby. This year, however, the chef has turned the volume up to 11, to borrow that memorable line from Spinal Tap. At a recent dinner, every dish was so plugged-in and passionate that we felt like standing and holding up our lighted smartphones. The dinner featured an exceptionally meaty, darkly flavorful slab bacon appetizer topped with strawberries and pickled rhubarb; superb sea bass over asparagus risotto; tender octopus with preserved lemon and nicoise olives; and, most remarkable, that scary monster, calf’s liver, magnificently caramelized (no easy feat) with texture as fine as filet mignon but way more flavorful. It came with a crunchy bacon/onion tarte in puff pastry, bites of which stole hearts all around the table.
We were not just imagining a change. “I think I’m just maturing as a chef, artist and business person,” Laird said later. “I think I was too much a purist in my earlier time, and too much about simplicity. There was not a lot of rock and roll in it. I wanted to make sure I didn’t offend anybody. I’m a little bit more of a risk taker now. I’m reaching for different flavors. My wife says, ‘James, I don’t know what you’re doing now, but people are ecstatic.’” 6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303.
Editor’s Note: Ursino closed in September, 2015
Executive chef Peter Turso, 35, is also a snowboarder and guitarist, and he throws himself full bore into everything he does. His smoked swordfish carpaccio is a treasure, as is his chestnut agnolotti with speck, Brussels sprout leaves and brown butter. If you think you don’t care for venison, Turso’s tender, deeply flavorful rendition could change your mind even without its knee-buckling blandishments of sweet potato, chocolate, pistachio pesto and pasilla chiles. Equally memorable is the two-level, glass-walled space, like no other. Dinner on a summer evening means gazing out dreamily at the garden and gushing fountain as the light turns golden until the plates are presented and the food reels you back in with a snap. 1075 Morris Avenue, 908-249-4099.
Lovely, quiet, welcoming and largely French, Verjus isn’t the type of restaurant you’d think would conjure up an early Bob Dylan lyric. But here it comes, from Bringing It All Back Home (1965): “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Charles Tutino, a one-time Federal Reserve economist who became a consummate French chef, and his wife, Jane Witkin, the consummate open-hearted hostess, are busy breathing new life into their 14-year-old restaurant, building on the better-than-you-thought-it-could taste French classics it is known for. A few years ago, Tutino relates, “We took a chance, and I think it’s working.”
The roll of the dice was the creation of theme nights, now a charming year-round rotation. Shore Nights, the summer staple, always feature a broiled one-pound lobster but also pleasant surprises like a salad of broiled halibut cheeks with pickled cucumbers. After Labor Day comes Italian Nights (polenta gratin with melted Gorgonzola dolce, house-made tiramisu); German Nights (pike dumplings, wurst, potato pancakes with savory apple sauce and sour cream); and Bistro Nights (moules frites, crème caramel). In the works is a late summer Farm-to-Table/Vineyard-to-Table Night featuring local farms and six different rosés gathered from around the world. 1790 Springfield Avenue, 973-378-8990.
Such is the reputation of chef/owner Joe Baldino that on Monday nights, when most restaurants are closed, Philadelphia chefs cross the river in a pilgrimage to his tiny storefront, with its little wood tables and cane-back chairs. What packs the place is Baldino’s astonishingly delicious Sicilian food, the food of his father’s family. What makes it astonishing is its simplicity. Here are a few recent examples: Big, head-on shrimp sautéed with garlic, parsley, lemon and chili, served over white cannellini beans. Organic mixed green salad with fresh oregano in a lemon-fennel vinaigrette and a touch of honey for balance. Round spinach and sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi in a brown butter sauce with melted caciocavallo cheese glistening on each luscious green globe. (“You have to drop them in the water very gently,” Baldino says. “It’s not like cooking spaghetti.”) A Sicilian fisherman’s stew with saffron and Tunisian couscous. And of course, piping hot zeppoli, little round doughnuts fresh from the fryer to drag through warm Nutella. Turning humble ingredients into transcendent luxuries is a magic act, the secret of all great peasant cooking. Baldino, 37, in constant motion behind the stoves, pulls it off every time. BYO. 618 Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670.