A sense of tempo, contrast and intensifying pleasure is essential to any multicourse meal. At Elements, chefs Scott Anderson and Mike Ryan and their team have refined the $99 five-course menu so that—with its preludes, intermezzo and coda—it builds from the ethereal to the symphonic and finally subsides in a shimmer. At a recent dinner, every course invited contemplation, from the smoked quail egg with warm, runny yolk that initiated the meal to the cold, chocolate-covered mint that followed dessert. The crescendos—seductively spicy blackfish with mussels, bonito bright with mustard; smoky-sweet strips of ribeye—were full and rich. The ingredients change with the seasons; the creativity remains constant.
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-0078.
After a year’s absence, the DePersio family’s 14-year-old flagship returns to this list, having recaptured the finesse and depth of flavor that made chef Ryan DePersio’s Italian-without-borders cooking a hit in the first place. Recent highlights include a panko-and-pignoli-crusted halibut with spring ramps, fiddlehead ferns and peas; rich lobster risotto with especially tender lobster; and the fresh pastas, all house made, with seasonal sauces. You needn’t be a vegetarian to enjoy Fascino’s long-standing, seasonally changing, three-course vegetarian menu (which can be made vegan on request). The dining rooms are comfortable and attractive, with reasonable sound levels; service is gracious; and the desserts of Cynthia DePersio, Ryan’s mom, reach their zenith in her marvelous gelatos. BYO.
The Frog and the Peach, New Brunswick
Chef/owner Bruce Lefebvre builds dishes “like a tree, branching off” from a strong trunk of proven flavor affinities. He can do so with a wink, as in a recent Griggstown chicken cooked sous vide for tenderness, then pan roasted for crispness and finished with truffled matzoh balls and a parsnip-and-dill consommé “like Jewish penicillin.” A leader in fine dining before fine dining was cool, the Frog is also a congenial neighborhood spot in a neighborhood flush with new apartments. Lefebvre embraces brining, curing, fermenting—all the old ways now being hailed for their health benefits. He knows how to bring deliciousness along for the ride. Add barrel-aged cocktails, comfortable dining rooms and polished service, and you have a peach of a place.
29 Dennis Street, 732-846-3216.
Girasole, Atlantic City
For 25 years, Gino Iovino has been entrancing customers with Italian food as elegant and authentic as the sunflower-themed Versace fabrics that upholster his light-filled restaurant. Girasole, which means “sunflower,” proudly blooms on its own on a street lined with casinos. Here you will discover the integrity of each grain of superb carnaroli rice in a properly cooked risotto; the firm yet supple crust of an expertly baked Neapolitan-style pizza; the well of marrow, lusher than foie gras, in a plus-sized veal osso bucco; the ethereal delicacy of a classic tiramisu. Girasole’s pastas are revelations, including the squid-ink spaghettini with crabmeat and artichokes he long wanted to introduce, but feared people would reject. It has become a best seller. “It’s so good,” he says, “to see people opening their minds and palates.”
3108 Pacific Avenue, 609-345-5554.
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, Morristown
When Kevin Sippel, executive chef of JHBK since it opened in 2014, left last winter to care for his ailing parents, the restaurant did not skip a beat. Owner Chris Cannon, who knows food like he knows wine (hence his world-class ability to pair one with the other), stepped in. With a rock-solid kitchen team led by chefs de cuisine Michael O’Shea and Brian Hanigan, Cannon recalibrated the menus in response to customer feedback, lightening without losing flavor. That’s menus, plural, because JHBK operates different concepts on three floors of the renovated 1917 Vail Mansion. Pastas, seafood, steak, a burger, serious soups and salads, you can pretty much order at random and eat well. From its bar program under James Gelmi to its desserts by Erica Leahy, JHBK remains a beacon of passion and professionalism.
110 South Street, 973-644-3180.