Saddle River Inn, Saddle River
The dark, wooden barn and its disconcertingly bouncy, suspended balcony will strike some as romantic, others as just dark, but under chef/owner Jamie Knott, the tables (which are illuminated by pin lights) are full, and for good reason. Knott’s New American food is flavorful, elegant and gratifying, not just some of the time, but every night, which is not as easy as he and his kitchen team make it seem. Case in point: a recent Arctic char fillet in a lobster broth enriched with white wine, tarragon and chives. The magnificent, warm chocolate cake reaches way back to Knott’s formative years in New York, but then pastry chef Leticia Meneses comes out of the bullpen firing strikes—like an actually peanutty peanut-butter mousse and marvelous ice creams and sorbets. BYO.
2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016.
What’s a four-letter word for a dish that doesn’t get the respect it deserves? Soup. Especially in summer. But in the hands of a flavor whisperer like chef James Laird, who owns Serenade with his wife, Nancy Sheridan Laird, soup is sensuous and stunning. Exhibit A: his watermelon and tomato gazpacho, thick and teasingly sweet, with whole, paprika-dusted shrimp. Exhibit B: foam-crested, brandy-tinged lobster chowder with kaffir lime and summer vegetables. But Laird, who grows many of his own tomatoes and lettuces, in fact handles every dish and protein with creativity and loving care. John Jansma brings the same qualities to cocktails, and the staff make every customer feel valued.
6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303.
Two Fish, Haddonfield
In 2006, Bon Appetit hailed Mike Stollenwerk’s Philadelphia BYO, Little Fish, as one of the best seafood restaurants in the country. The Ocean City native then endured a decade of ups and downs before crossing the Delaware to reconnect with his best culinary self. He and his girlfriend, Felice Leibowitz, did this by opening Two Fish, which turns one year old next month. Its small, handsomely contemplative dining room (which she designed and he built) proves the perfect environment for relishing his transformative gifts: turning rings of calamari into a kind of sumptuous pasta in a Sicilian sauce that masterfully summons sweet, spicy and salty; making mackerel sexy and astonishing over merguez sausage, olives and white beans; enveloping scallops in a creamy almond “gazpacho” with whole red grapes for pops of sweetness. BYO.
26 S. Haddon Avenue, 856-428-3474.
Now a sweet 16-year-old, Verjus never changes but stays young by always coming up with fun twists. By which we mean Charles Tutino’s food never disappoints, never strays from perfectly executed and delicious. Neither does the engaging hospitality of his wife, co-owner Jane Witkin. Tutino’s wheelhouse is French, but the same consistent excellence applies to his theme-night menus: Shore, Irish, Italian and whatever. In the whatever category, new this summer is what Tutino calls Sour Grapes Cinema. Every other Sunday, he screens a personal-favorite movie (“an obscure, smaller masterpiece,” says Witkin), pairing it with a $35, three-course menu that fits the film. The grapes aren’t sour—not with Verjus’s finely curated wine list, with most bottles between $28 and $48.
1790 Springfield Avenue, 973-378-8990.
“I’m focused on just doing what I’ve always been doing and making people smile,” says chef/owner Joe Baldino. Baldino, 39, elicits those smiles by reproducing the food of Sicily, his father’s homeland, in all its complex simplicity. That is not an oxymoron, but a testament to the Sicilian genius for doing a lot with the hard-won gifts of a fertile, if mountainous, land and a generous, if tumultuous, sea. Ravioli filled with beans may sound dull, but fill the ravioli with a purée of fresh white beans, Parmesan, nutmeg and parsley and serve it in bubbling brown butter with capers and balsamic vinegar, and it’s hard to suppress a smile. Baldino’s Sicilian carbonara uses hollow bucatini instead of spaghetti, swordfish instead of pancetta. He adds eggplant as well as the traditional beaten egg, and when you eat it the smile becomes a grin. Finish with Zeppoli’s namesake dessert, sugar-dusted doughnut holes hot from the fryer, and now we are talking ear-to-ear. BYO.
618 Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670.