When New Jersey Monthly’s food writers look at the map of our state, it’s easy to anthropomorphize its shape, seeing a character with a high forehead and a full belly looking west, as if to say, “I don’t know about the rest of you, but we eat pretty well here.” Indeed we do. Not only is the well-named Garden State blessed with a bounty from land and sea, but our dining scene is second to none in quality and variety.
As our thrice-weekly Table Hopping blog keeps readers abreast of restaurant news—such as this year’s top-line topic, the struggle to find enough staff—our reviewers base their judgments on multiple under-the-radar visits, which the magazine pays for. In this issue, we celebrate the establishments, large and small, that this year best exemplified the range and vivacity of dining out in the Garden State.
[RELATED: Announcing the Results of Our 2021 Jersey Choice Restaurant Poll]
Though they share a last name, chefs Shravan Shetty and Dayanand Shetty are not related, except in agreeing that the classic flavors and techniques of Indian cooking are guideposts rather than fence posts. This year, they added tandoori octopus on Indian-spiced risotto and a small-bites menu with arresting treats such as quail eggs in tomato-onion gravy, cradled in fresh curry leaves in a twig nest. BYO.
30 East Main Street, 732-333-0933
Perched on a pier facing Lower Manhattan, Battello rises to the challenge of making the food and drink as compelling as the view. Rewarding the trust of chef Ryan DePersio, executive chef Chris Zabita and chef de cuisine Matt Mobilio have made the menu their own, from an entrancing white gazpacho with Marcona almonds to the spice cure on a scrumptious pork chop. Do not overlook Schuyler Greenman’s cocktails or the house chocolate torte.
502 Washington Boulevard, 201-798-1798
When you enter this subterranean boite, you can’t help noticing a young woman gazing heavenward, fingers to her lips. She’s just a fetching image painted on the wall, but you can have what she’s having, for real. Try almost any of owner Jamie Knott and chef Christopher Abbamondi’s rollicking takes on American food with exotic winks. New to the menu are tiki masala chicken meatballs, crispy bass fillets in tomato lemongrass broth, and bracing seasonal cocktails from new general manager Gabriel Reiben.
335 Newark Avenue, 201-222-1422
If you wonder whether French classics like steak au poivre, cassoulet and Dover sole meuniére can still enchant in modern renditions, hasten to this small, sedate dining room to fall under the spell of chef Christine Migton and owner Stephane Bocket. With signature cocktails, a discerning wine list and service that is low-key but alert, evenings rise as smoothly as Migton’s daily dessert souffle.
431 North Avenue West, 908-654-4011
Chefs Brendan Ullmann, 27, and Tyler O’Toole, 29, met while cooking at Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in Manhattan. Ullmann grew up in Fredon, Sussex County, and that’s where they opened their own place this year, in a farmhouse on a country road, serving food that is farm fresh and city sophisticated. BYO.
310 Route 94, 973-862-6410
Feeling blessed with “an adventurous clientele,” chef Ehren Ryan takes them on journeys that draw from all over, but land as squarely as an Olympic gymnast’s dismount. New this fall are a spiced venison loin with chestnut purée and a sweet-potato side with roasted cashew and red-pepper curry sauce. BYO.
27 Main Street, 973-467-0494
While the restaurant’s name reflects chefs Scott Anderson and Mike Ryan’s fascination with ingredients and techniques both homespun and exotic, local and far-flung, their 5-course and 15-course tasting menus distill them into sensations of pleasure and surprise. A recent dish of madai (sea bream) served four different ways shows the pinwheel possibilities within even a single course.
66 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-0078
Ryan DePersio’s flagship turned 18 in June, exhibiting vigor and maturity. He was 25 when he opened the place. His new chef de cuisine, Keyon Coleman, has mastered the classics (cornmeal-crusted calamari, mascarpone polenta fries) and made his own mark with engrossing dishes like brined, pan-roasted pork shoulder with pickled radishes, smoked bacon and apricot chutney. Mom Cynthia’s biscotti never get old. BYO.
331 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-233-0350
One of the things that puts the modern in Olivier Muller and Dominique Paulin’s modern French brasserie is its 28-item plant-based menu, which manages to gratify like their modern French menu with Mediterranean accents. This month, the partners are reveling in mushrooms and root vegetables, along with classics like coq au vin and madeleines.
544 Bloomfield Avenue, 973-542-7700
Her promotion in May to executive chef made official what has always been clear—Felina is chef Martyna Krowicka’s ship, bridging Old and New World flavors. This fall’s pork cutlet with braised white cabbage harkens back to Poland, from which she emigrated at age four and where she still visits. She’s also a pizza whisperer. Signature cocktails are a major draw, thanks to manager/sommelier Alfredo Orlando.
18 Prospect Street, 551-276-5454
Continuing the travel-themed dinners they began after Covid-19 lockdowns, owner Bruce Lefebvre and chef Joe Beninato will do a German dinner this month, including dishes from Beninato’s maternal grandmother, who is German. There’ll be pork schnitzel with pear purée and pounded beef cutlets, pan-fried, with mashed potatoes and apple sauce.
29 Dennis Street, 732-846-3216
Your nose will confirm that you’ve arrived at Hearthside. Kiln-dried oak powers the brick oven and the grill in the open kitchen, with four seats at a counter fronting it. These are ringside seats for dinner and a show; but wherever you sit, chef/owner Dominic Piperno’s food—from the garden, the sea, hoof or wing—combines atavistic satisfaction with animating detail. BYO.
801 Haddon Avenue, 856-240-1164
Given its familiarity, there might not be a more challenging protein for a pro than chicken. Chef David Viana recently served a crisp-skinned breast stuffed with a farce of leg meat, leeks, cream and herbs. Whether the components are familiar or exotic, Viana and his team make every visit memorable, especially when you sit at the kitchen counter and watch them work. BYO.
3853 Route 516, 732-727-9444
Ben Pollinger learned focused complexity from his mentor, the late, Michelin-starred Floyd Cardoz. One example this fall is Pollinger’s lamb tagine, a stew amped with chickpeas, almonds and prunes, crowned with a dab of lime-and-agave yogurt. Another presents roasted Japanese eggplant and confited tomatoes as a base for seafood ranging from softshell crabs to king salmon.
252 Schraalenburgh Road, 201-899-4700
“I try to get people out of the norm, take them on vacation for a couple hours,” says chef Joseph Voller. His own travels to Italy inform his menu, as in an egg noodle called tajarin, almost as thin as angel hair, but heady with truffles. Likewise, he’ll reintroduce you to brussels sprouts, halved, and fried, with pecorino over a farro salad. Voller recently acquired a liquor license and hired the veteran sommelier Dan Tucker, from Elements in Princeton, to create a wine list and cocktail program.
184 Route 9 North, 732-851-6347
On the restaurant website, chef/owner Bill Van Pelt tips his cap to his supplying farmers and brewers. Seventeen of the 20 are in New Jersey. Even the peach wood he cooks on is local. He offers tasting menus in three sizes. From his crudos to iron-skillet chicken to Kelly Curtis’s chocolate budino, you’ll carry a sense of elevated elemental all the way home. BYO.
105 Main Street, 908-852-2131
Sandy and John Vizzone opened their inn, the Hugh, in April, vowing not to do that local staple, the crab cake. Instead, with chef Michael Schultz, they’ve created an ambitious, locally sourced, French-influenced menu as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. It’s a special experience curated for just a handful of diners per night.
653 Washington Street, 609-435-5458
The 1917 Vail Mansion is one of the more majestic settings for a restaurant in the tri-state area, and under chef Joe Mooney, who took over in August after earning plaudits at Mistral in Princeton, the food pairs boldness with finesse, familiarity with discovery. Recent standouts include crispy kung pao octopus with a French-inspired celery-root purée. But don’t overlook the burger.
110 South Street, 973-644-3180
For all their virtuosity, chef Aishling Stevens and chef de cuisine Matt Laurich never lose focus on the higher harmonies of flavor, texture and aroma. Whether in a 72-hour slow-cooked pork collar with braised celery and black lentils or Point Pleasant fluke in a clam veloute, you just want to eat, but you can’t help but marvel.
1 Wild Turkey Way, 855-977-6473 ext. 3
French chef Laurent Tourondel’s 14th restaurant, and first in New Jersey, occupies a light-filled, high-ceilinged space with capacious seats, nifty cocktails, an open kitchen and food that needs no translation. It’s fluent in everything from sushi to pasta to steaks, and its burger is one of the most satisfying around.
390 Hackensack Avenue, 551-287-6333
Open seven days a week for dinner and lunch or brunch, Nicholas and Melissa Harary’s former palace of fine dining continues its transformation into a family-friendly eatery that can satisfy cravings from thick burgers to butter-poached lobster. “I’m still the chef,” says Harary. “But now I’m fermenting my own pizza dough 72 hours, cutting my own fries, and pickling 35 gallons of kirby cucumbers a week.”
160 Route 35 South, 732-345-9977
Chef Freddy Vargas credits mentors Scott Conant and Geoffrey Zakarian with sharpening his sense of layering flavors. This skill is on display at Ninety Acres, as in his squid ink campanelle with breadcrumbs, shrimp and nduja sausage. Lindsay Spinnato’s novel carrot-cake fritters are just one of the things that make the pastry chef’s creations worth sticking around for.
2 Main Street, 908-901-9500
Steaks, dry aged 50–80 days, are one attraction that distinguishes Crescendo from chef Robbie Felice’s other restaurant, Viaggio, also a Top 30. Another is pizza (try the salumi pie, topped with prosciutto, soppressata and a sausage vinagrette). A third is the liquor license and its robust cocktail program.
36 Jefferson Avenue, 201-722-1900
Trained in classic French cooking but versed in the cuisines of Southeast Asia, chef Jason Ramos brings everything together in a New American menu that combines, for example, sweetbreads with black-truffled butter sauce for what you might call finger-licking luxury.
359 Route 206 South, 908-658-9292
Point Pleasant Beach
Veal tenderloin with cognac mushroom sauce? Almond-crusted halibut? With Scott Giordano in the kitchen, brother Marc up front and Teah Evans making dessert (including a riesling-poached pear with rice pudding), things at this American bistro are as they’ve been since it opened in 2014, which is to say—with apologies to the pear—pretty peachy. BYO.
816 Arnold Avenue, 732-701-1700
The timbers of the old barn that houses the inn suggest a certain timelessness that chef/owner Jamie Knott both honors and transcends. He’ll serve filet mignon with roasted-shallot mashed potatoes and duck with lo mein and bok choy. But, he says, “it seems we’re slowly morphing into a steak house. It’s giving the people what they want.” And doing it well. BYO.
2 Barnstable Court, 201-825-4016
James and Nancy Laird married 25 years ago and had a baby, Serenade. All three are doing great. Much of the original staff is still with them; many original customers, too. The attractions are unobtrusive hospitality and compelling versions of dishes ranging from crab cakes to short rib tortellini. “I cook for freshness—no cream, very little butter—the same way I cooked 25 years ago,” says James. “Only now it’s in vogue.”
6 Roosevelt Avenue, 973-701-0303
Brick pillars and wood timbers in this intimate space with an open kitchen set the stage for chef Robbie Felice’s rustic-meets-modern take on Italian. From salumi made in-house to ravishing pastas, a one-of-a-kind tri-colore salad and a two-fisted Piedmontese steak, Viaggio is indeed a voyage, and an exhilarating one. BYO.
1055 Hamburg Turnpike, 973-706-7277
The garden out front contributes its cornucopia, elevating house-pressed juices and sous chef Dave O’Connor’s cocktails. For fall, chef/owner Sam Freund is bringing back his local venison Wellington with locally foraged mushrooms as well as the pork shank he calls the Flintstone. For dessert, doughnuts, fried to order, come with a vanilla-bourbon milkshake.
380 Route 206, 908-955-0443
The fig tree in the back garden bursts with fruit this time of year, and chef/owner Joey Baldino turns them into fig tarts and a palate-cleansing fig granita. The garden also yields squash, which he serves with butter and sage sauce. To help you brace for cooler weather, Baldino draws on his Sicilian heritage and braises stuffed veal breast. The dish is called fasaumargu. You probably shouldn’t shout this word at a stranger, but if the person is Sicilian, his eyes will light up. BYO.
618 West Collings Avenue, 856-854-2670
*new to the list this year
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