Editor’s Note: The original version of this article including American Cut Bar & Grill in Englewood Cliffs. The restaurant closed after the magazine went to print.
Top an oblong base of corn masa (Mexico) with a smear of buttery white beans (Southwest France), a layer of concentrated tomato confit, and a mop of shredded lamb (smoked Carolina-style), and you have lamb huarache, the dish that embodies the multi-cultural soul of Barrio Costero. Spawned by three innovative minds—Jamie Dodge (mixologist), Rob Feinstein (designer) and Derek Brosseau (beverages/operations)—it takes East Coast Mexican to new heights. Dodge’s cocktails, like the smoky Jalisco is Burning (blanco tequila and mezcal fired by chipotle and lime) seem at one with the food, executed with panache by executive chef Antony Bustamante (formerly with Mistral, Princeton). Even the daily taco sings, with tilefish cosseted by charred leeks and a kickin’ jalapeño salsa. The space, with art as bold and beautiful as the food and drink, fulfills Dodge’s playful vision of “a ’70s Acapulco hotel-lobby feel.”—AC
610 Bangs Avenue, 732-455-5544.
Blu Grotto’s electric-blue interior hums with energy, even on days when nothing is happening at nearby Monmouth Park Racetrack. The restaurant opened in July with swell cocktails and a menu ranging from hamachi crudo with yuzu and Calabrian chilies to steaks, pastas and an Italian cornmeal budino with mascarpone. Attempting so much, chef James Corona, best known for his tenure at Bocca in New York and Sogno in Red Bank, sometimes missed the mark. But at 51, he’s a pro. Our bet is that, his inaugural season behind him, he will more consistently spur Blu Grotto to the front of the pack.—FS
200 Port Au Peck Avenue, 732-571-7900.
Bluff City BBQ
Scott Hermo began collecting discarded doors three years ago. Before he even had a space, the Montclair resident had a plan: Leave his career as a bond trader, open a restaurant dedicated to the Memphis barbecue and Low Country food he fell in love with 20 years ago, and furnish it himself, turning those antique doors into tabletops. Friends introduced him to a chef’s chef, esteemed Jersey veteran Patrick Pierre-Jerome, trained in haute cuisine but steeped in soul. Their brand-new place (Memphis is known as Bluff City) has a great, bluesy vibe and real-deal food, including some of the most tender pulled pork ever, flavorful roast chicken, wings, shrimp and grits, righteous sides, and the instant crunchy-dessert rage, Raggedy Pecan Cornmeal Cookies. The servers’ T-shirts are emblazoned with the words No Bluffin’. Folks, that is just plain truth in advertising.—EL
21 Midland Avenue, 973-744-4657.
Having 24 tap lines is, in itself, no claim to fame these days. But fill those lines with a smart rotation of engaging and varied brews, many local, offer them in flights (as well as 4-ounce samples) and staff the place with servers and barkeeps whose knowledge matches their passion, and you’ve got something. Add engaging cocktails and wines, excellent coal-fired pizza, modern comfort food like short-rib grilled cheese on sourdough (with cheddar, blue cheese and horseradish aioli), and this Somerset County highway spot becomes a draw for the whole family. Yup, there’s a kids’ menu, too.—TN
171 Route 22 East, 732-968-5700.
Cellar 335: Pumpkin crumble with granola, butterscotch and vanilla whip. Photo by Eric Levin
From a subtle sidewalk entrance, you descend a few steps to a dimly lit, black-and-red boite with tufted upholstery, where servers deliver kicky small plates and Polynesian cocktails bedecked with umbrellas and flowers. Cellar 335 is so cheeky, it might have gotten by on shtick alone. But co-owner and executive chef Jamie Knott (whose other restaurant is the rustically posh Saddle River Inn) sweated every detail to far exceed party-hearty standards. Easy-drinking cocktails like the Smoldering Bastard and the Louie Louie will sneak up on you. You may look askance at something called Crack Fries, but these crunchy potato spears with bacon chunks, scallions and cheese sauce blow willpower out of the water. Same with the ridiculously meaty and tender Duroc pork ribs; the crunchy, multifarious avocado fried rice; and pastry chef John Chomenko’s colorful mini ice cream sandwiches. Finger licking at its finest.—EL
335 Newark Avenue, 201-222-1422.