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24 Nolan's Point Road
Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey
(973) 663-9600

By The Artful Diner
December 11, 2009

Perched on a steep hillside overlooking the shores of Lake Hopatcong, Alice's Restaurant beckons beguilingly. The top floor of this handsome structure, which has been home to several different eateries over the years, boasts vaulted ceilings, striking barn-wood walls, comfortable booths, and a full bar that extends from the restaurant's interior to the breezy deck.

The downstairs "Big Fish Lounge" provides the perfect contrasting complement to the casually-appointed dining area, exuding a cozily classy air. Here you find subdued lighting, sumptuous leather appointments, weathered mirrors, and an impressive marble bar. You can't quite shake the feeling that you're sipping cocktails tucked away below the deck of a luxury yacht.

But on to more important matters... When the restaurant first opened its doors this past spring (2009), I think it is fair to say that the food suffered from a number of inconsistencies. But since late July, when David Drake was brought on board as consultant/executive chef, things have changed dramatically -- and certainly for the better. Mr. Drake, formerly the celebrated power behind the stove at the Stage House Restaurant in Scotch Plains -- who now presides over both David Drake's in Rahway and Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant in New Brunswick -- has done a superlative job of fine tuning the cuisine.

Mr. Drake, of course, is well known for his innovatively upscale American fare. The food at Alice's may be more casual in scope, but it is utterly impeccable in the quality of its preparation and presentation; and the chef still manages to balance the soul-satisfying familiarity of comfort cuisine with dishes that are more creative in nature. The menu exhibits broad palate appeal -- and sports reasonable prices -- the perfect match for this resort community.

Appetizers, for example, offer a wide spectrum of possibilities: The earthy mushroom soup is garnished with wild mushrooms, chives, and a balsamic glaze ($6.50); the Maine crab cake is fried to a golden brown and embellished with coleslaw and baby greens ($8.00); and the spinach and bacon salad is tossed with an incomparable and judiciously applied Caesar dressing ($7.50).

And for those in search of homier pursuits... the spicy chicken wings are teamed with an addictive blue cheese sauce ($8.50); the homemade fried onion rings are served up with a zippy ketchup; and a hearty, country-style chili is guaranteed to ward off winter's icy chill. All are worthy of consideration... If I had my druthers, however, I'd vote for the fabulous "Mac & Cheese," which arrives at table in an individual iron skillet ($8.00). The Vermont cheddar imbues the dish with a rich, buttery texture, while chunks of thick-cut smoked bacon provide a touch of decadence. Not to be missed!

Entrées demonstrate the same alluring culinary diversity as their predecessors. If you're feeling laidback and lyrical, nothing satisfies quite like "Alice's Big Burger" ($10.00); savory and sumptuous, it is served up on a toasted onion roll and companioned by first-rate steak fries and homemade mayo. Equally comforting are the homemade meatloaf ($15.00) and fish and chips ($15.00). The former is a succulent combo of ground pork and beef accompanied by glazed Yukon gold potatoes and mushroom gravy; the latter features strips of fresh flounder rather than cod, lovingly embraced by a crispy, ethereal batter and teamed with benchmark coleslaw and zippy chipotle dripping sauce.

On the other hand, if you'd prefer to go a bit more upscale, matters piscatorial clearly take center stage. The Atlantic salmon ($18.00), for example, is beautifully grilled and set on a luscious seabed of red onion marmalade and topped with a tempting tiara of perfectly steamed asparagus. But even better, in my opinion, is the grilled swordfish ($19.00), aided and abetted by stewed tomatoes, spinach, black olives, garlic sausage, and sprinkling of fresh basil... Carnivores, of course, will find it impossible to resist the marinated, grilled skirt steak ($21.00).

And do save room for dessert... And the star of the show is the simple but sublime apple tart garnished with a generous dollop of vanilla ice cream ($7.00). Worth both the added expenditure and the extra calories.

The restaurant's only weakness is the wine list, which is clearly a work in progress. It is, to quote a turn-of-phrase, serviceable; but that is about the extent of it. Knowing Mr. Drake, however, I have no doubt that this situation will change for the better in the coming months.

As Lake Hopatcong is basically a summer resort community, many of the restaurants in the immediate vicinity generally close their doors or at least seriously curtail hours in the off season. Fortunately, Alice's owners have both the will and the financial wherewithal to remain open seven days a week during the winter months, hence establishing a strong culinary presence when the warmer weather rolls around.

I might suggest, however, that if you wish to avoid the frustrating hustle and bustle of the omnivorous summer tourist hordes, now would be the perfect time to pay a call at Alice's, which is surely destined to become a popular dining destination for year-round residents and visitors alike.

Cuisine: Casual & innovative American
Hours: Open 7 days from 5:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Highly recommended in summer
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate/Inexpensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: alicesrestaurantnj.com

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