Nicholas, Red Bank
Nicholas and Melissa Harary never walked away from fine dining when it was supposedly on the outs, but as the pendulum has swung back, they’ve done away with tableside carving and simultaneous lifting of silver cloches when dishes are presented—in addition to other things “to make it a little less formal,” Nicholas says, like rejecting the deconstruction fad and increasing portion sizes. In the restaurant’s 18th year, the New American menu, the service and the über-comfortable dining rooms remain exquisite. Picking up on the brown-liquor boom, he has bought entire barrels of rare aged bourbons to offer in flights and specialty cocktails, which are selling briskly.
160 Route 35 South, 732-345-9977.
Ninety Acres, Peapack-Gladstone
Waves of worry coursed through the foodie world last fall when the 500-acre Natirar estate, which includes Ninety Acres, hired Dallas-based Benchmark Hospitality, a global giant, to complete the long-delayed conversion of the 1912 centerpiece mansion into a prestige event space, and to manage it—which happened on schedule in June. Would Ninety Acres, which occupies the estate’s former carriage house, slide into corporate blandness? Relax, people. It remains a gem in every way: food, drink, service and setting. Executive chef David Felton, 41, has built a solid team, led by executive sous chef Chuck Bauer and pastry chef Lindsay Stewart. Whether you order a flatbread pizza or (to cite a recent wonder) the crab-crusted Chatham cod with Thai eggplant, you will have a benchmark (small b) experience.
2 Main Street, 908-901-9500.
Pluckemin Inn, Bedminster
When Andrew Lattanzio stepped down as executive chef early this year, owner Gloria La Grassa did what she has done before: hired a Pluckemin veteran. Kevin Takafuji, who was a sous chef at the inn in 2007, is the latest in a line of superbly talented and experienced chefs who have come into their own at the now 12-year-old restaurant. Takafuji, 47, who grew up in Hawaii, has worked for Eric Ripert, Laurent Tourondel, Daniel Boulud, Geoffrey Zakarian and, in New Jersey, he ran Blue Morel in Morristown for chef Thomas Ciszak. He calls his tender butter-poached lobster “not a complicated dish,” but with its hazelnuts and sunchokes and lobster sauce, it is incredibly compelling. Listening to Takafuji speak of refining dishes by pulling away everything that is not essential could make you think his food is elementary—until you taste it and realize its creator is a consummate pro who produces wonders with a self-effacing shrug.
359 Route 206 South, 908-658-9292.
Poached Pear Bistro, Point Pleasant Beach
The word that springs to mind when eating Scott Giordano’s food is hedonistic. Not in a bad-for-you way, though you might not want to eat food this sumptuous every day. But his use of top-tier proteins and vegetables, and his ability to target every gastronomic pleasure center, will bring you back often for delights like his no-filler crab cake with marinated portobello mushrooms and basil aioli; his duck-confit ravioli with sweet-potato purée and blood-orange butter; or his incredibly thick, juicy and flavorful pork chop with red-cabbage marmalade, crispy späetzle and caramelized apples. Finally, you must surrender to Teah Evans’s blissful desserts. They are big enough to share, though you may not want to. BYO.
816 Arnold Avenue, 732-701-1700.
Red Store, Cape May Point
Ever since they opened Red Store in 2012, chef Lucas Manteca and his wife, Deanna Ebner, have been giving people a reason to bike or drive the 2½ miles from downtown Cape May to the secluded enclave of Cape May Point. Inside the onetime general store, customers have been treated to deliciously adventurous food, often with Latin-American accents (oh those empanadas!) and laid-back country charm. Dinner is now an eight-course prix-fixe, no à la carte. If that sounds like a buzz killer, hold on. Not only is the meal varied, well paced and deftly executed, but at $65, it is also one of the best deals anywhere on the Shore. Half the menu changes each week, so every two weeks it is all new. You always have a choice of meat or fish entrée, and every type of dietary restriction is gladly accommodated. BYO.
500 Cape Avenue, 609-884-5757.