Café Panache, Ramsey
Kevin Kohler has spent the last 33 of his 60 years in his restaurant. Not glad-handing patrons, but doing the daily grunt work of shopping, prepping, cooking, running a kitchen and a business that (like so many Jersey restaurants) has no liquor license to help the bottom line. “Some days I feel like a washed-up football player who’s taken too many hits,” he says with a laugh. Those days don’t appear to be workdays. He still cares as much as ever. You feel it in the elegance and comfort of the two dining rooms (and the gorgeous afternoon light in the front room). His passion for flavor and finesse is even more evident on the plate—in a captivating puréed artichoke soup, a stupendous red wine-shallot marmalade on a flawless filet mignon, or an ice cream flavor of the day like port wine with cherries. Panache lives up to its name. BYO.
130 East Main Street, 201-934-0030.
Cellar 335, Jersey City
With its tiki-style cocktails and Polynesian-luau theme, Cellar 335 could have gotten by on shtick alone. But that isn’t chef/owner Jamie Knott’s way. A detail freak, he transformed an actual cellar into the most stimulating new restaurant of the year. Darkly elegant, artful and supremely comfortable, Cellar 335 is much more than a hipster boite. Cocktails like the smoky/tangy Fightin’ Five, served in a skull mug, taste even better than they look. And virtually every dish on the menu is both a hoot and a delight, from hot mini cheddar corn muffins topped with a melting pat of togarashi-spiced butter to tamarind-sauced Duroc pork ribs topped with toasted coconut. Three dishes reinvigorate their forms: the healthful, refreshing tropical salad; the ungreasy, vegetable-rich fried rice; and the colorful, gluten-free ice cream sandwiches that look like fancy French macarons. All at reasonable prices, with exemplary service.
335 Newark Avenue, 201-222-1422.
Common Lot, Millburn
Standing at the counter of his open kitchen, his round, ruddy face bowed and intent, chef Ehren Ryan is always applying final touches or working on something you can’t quite see. You feel a certain anticipatory excitement at the 17-month-old Common Lot. That’s because Ryan, 33, and his kitchen team so effectively combine ancient and modern techniques and global ingredients to create food as enjoyable as it is adventurous. In recent months, he’s shown that a poached-shrimp salad can be incredibly juicy and delicious with no mayo; that a tag team of avocado mousse and calamansi (Filipino lemon) gel can make salmon tartare seem acrobatic; and that (long phrase alert!) an off-the-menu, chipotle-maple-glazed, tea-smoked, 4-pound whole, roasted duck that feeds four, costs $110 and must be ordered a week in advance will prove a sensation. BYO.
27 Main Street, 973-467-0494.
Winner of two James Beard awards—as chef of the pan-South American Cucharamama (2012) and author of the 900-page omnibus cookbook, Gran Cocina Latina (2013)—Maricel Presilla is New Jersey’s most decorated chef. For her, stirring the pot (Cucharamama translates to “mother spoon”) and studying the origins of everything in it go hand in hand with growing herbs and a cavalcade of peppers in her Weehawken backyard. With the publication of her new book, Peppers of the Americas, diners at Cucharamama are now being treated to a panoply of dishes, sauces and condiments made from the harvest of Presilla’s garden. As lively as Cucharamama’s food are the art and artifacts on the walls and the handcrafted rum, pisco and cachaça cocktails.
233 Clinton Street, 201-420-1700.
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, Keyport
As a chef, Andrew “Drew” Araneo considers “New Orleans, Low Country and regional American food” to be his wellsprings, but he is always tinkering to boost the flavor and fun. Last spring, he bought a smoker and started making his own tasso ham and ’nduja spreadable sausage, which now enrich his gumbos and jambalayas. Then he developed his own take on the spicy, oil-glazed fried chicken made famous by Prince’s and Hattie B’s in Nashville. His comes with pickled vegetables, biscuits instead of white bread, and a creamy sauce “to cool things down.” By the time you read this, his next project may be ready as a special: candied, bacon-cured spareribs. Roll those words around your brain and try not to salivate. BYO.
25 Church Street, 732-739-9219.