This year's top ten features three old favorites and seven distinguished newcomers. So whatever your gastronomic and fiscal preferences and predilections on a given evening - flamboyant or frugal, fancy or funky - you're bound to discover a number of intriguing eateries to placate your palate.
33 First Avenue
Atlantic Highlands, NJ
Trendy and stylish are the two words that best describe BoBo's 33. But don't be fooled; this is more than just another pretty face. The kitchen delivers the goods, as does the energetic wait staff. Chef Brad Rust, a CIA grad and alumnus of the Molly Pitcher Inn and Wilmington's excellent Restaurant 821, artfully infuses traditional Armenian/Mediterranean fare with a decidedly creative regional flair; and his culinary creations are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate. Appetizers include such illustrious representatives of Mediterranean classics as hummus and tabouleh, with a number of intriguing salads in strong supporting roles. Among the entrées, treasures of the sea abound - chili shrimp, curried lobster, red snapper, tilapia, tuna, etc. - and kebabs and meatier matters are also expertly prepared and presented. The restaurant boasts a first-rate wine list, as well as an extraordinary array of fine vodkas and interesting assortment of foreign and domestic brews.
703 Belmar Plaza
Step into Brandl. (yes, the period belongs there) and you somehow sense that you're at the Jersey Shore. There's a kind of casual, funky elegance about the place, an ambient interior that invigorates but doesn't intimidate. Be that as it may, it's chef/proprietor Chris Brandl's stunningly innovative American cuisine that sets off the bells and whistles here. Among his many culinary talents, Mr. Brandl, who once spent seven months working on a two-man commercial deep-sea fishing boat as mate to the captain, has a way with seafood. His tuna tartare - spiked with citrus soy sauce and arranged cylindrically on a base of avocado salad - is a fabulous starter, ditto his crispy calamari. When it comes to entrées, the monkfish encrusted with a crown of sweet crabmeat is a wonderful combo of tastes and textures; but his crispy Atlantic fluke set on a seabed of purple passion sticky rice is even better. For dessert, be sure to try the chilled Vairhona milk chocolate semifreddo or the "Citrus Burst," layers of sweet/tart custard interspersed with tiers of praline/almond crust. BYOB.
50th & Landis Avenue
Sea Isle City, NJ
Domiciled just across the street from a 7-Eleven, Brennan's doesn't look like much from the outside. The interior, however, exudes a casual elegance with decidedly homey touches. And anyone who knows David Brennan's pedigree - CIA grad, longtime power behind the stove at DiLullo Centro in Philadelphia, and proprietor of restaurants Bistecca and Simpatico, both located in the Chatawhile Inn in Reading, PA - knows that Mr. Brennan's sophisticated and innovative Italian cuisine will be right on the mark. Begin with the chef's unique take on the ubiquitous Caesar salad - a grilled sheaf of romaine interspersed with layers of melted Reggiano Parmesan - or, perhaps, his equally delicious baked barbeque clams with provolone and bacon or delicate Fontina fritters complemented by a zesty honey mustard sauce. Entrées include a crisp and tender veal Milanaise topped with Reggiano Parmesan, a benchmark bouillabaisse (cappellini topped with shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, and salmon in an excellent saffron broth), and an intriguing array of daily specials. Mr. Brennan also serves up a dynamite breakfast each morning during the summer season. BYOB.
311 Mansion Street
Cape May, NJ
Now entering its second season, Island Grill, is Chef Harry Gleason's foray into the Cape May family-friendly sweepstakes. Mr. Gleason, as you may recall, was the chef/proprietor of the critically acclaimed Daniel's on Broadway in West Cape May. His current venture, however, melds flavorful tropical fare with a colorfully casual motif and moderate tariffs& and the result is gratifyingly successful. Entrées include a selection of fresh fish that may be served grilled, sautéed, or blackened with a variety of finishing sauces. On the other hand, you may also choose from a number of lighter possibilities: a scrumptious barbequed pulled-pork sandwich; "Big Daddy" island burger; or a delicious curried chicken salad embellished with grapes and walnuts. To start things off, try the zippy Caribbean black bean soup, Cajun chicken egg rolls, or ethereal beer-battered shrimp adorned with a Jamaican rum glaze drizzle. Desserts, all made on the premises, are equally up to the mark. Reservations are not accepted. BYOB.
357 West 8th Street
Ship Bottom, NJ
La Spiaggia remains a personal favorite of this restaurant reviewer and the perennial preference of many visitors to and residents of Long Beach Island. In the midst of gung ho casual Jersey Shore dining, this fine establishment represents a decided touch of elegance in both its character and its cookery. The dining rooms boast handsome dark wood wainscoting, soft, subdued lighting, and selected works of art. Chef Daniel Stragapede's creative northern Italian cuisine, of course, is commensurate with the upscale décor and seasoned service. Starters feature an excellent "Trentino Salad" - fresh roasted beets, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, mixed organic greens, red onion, and walnuts gently tossed with a sherry vinaigrette - little neck clams steamed in a white clam broth with tomato concasse and fresh herbs, and an exquisite eggplant rollatini. For your main course, choose from such delights as veal La Spiaggia, tender scallops of veal paired with sliced portobello mushrooms and a heady cabernet wine sauce; pork tenderloin medallions caressed by a Kahlua cream sauce; and mare con salsa Bianca, lobster tail, shrimp, calamari, clams, and scungilli poached in a seafood-garlic broth set over squid ink tagliatelle. A decided touch of class on LBI. BYOB.
LUCKY BONES BACKWATER GRILL
1200 Route 109
Cape May, NJ
Lucky Bones is a casual reincarnation of the old Pelican Club. The owners remain the same (Michael and David Craig, also proprietors of the Washington Inn), as does executive chef Walter J. Jurusz; but the menu is more eclectic, family friendly, and decidedly less expensive. Mr. Jurusz has brought along several of his signature dishes - grilled Cuban spice-rubbed pork chop, crab & shrimp cakes, and mussels in Gorgonzola basil-tomato sauce, for instance - or you may avail yourself of such worthy presentations as Cape May flatfish (changes periodically) sautéed with a marvelous lemon beurre blanc, grilled filet mignon with blue cheese butter, or "Backwater Lil's Italian Pasta." Lucky Bones also cooks up several fabulous renditions of thin crust brick oven pizza. There is a compact twenty dollar per bottle wine list, as well as some very nice vintages available by the glass. Just be forewarned: Lucky Bones does not accept reservations. When we visited late in April, the restaurant had been open less than two weeks and was already packing them in. If you pay a call at the height of summer, my advice is to come early for dinner& or drop in for a late lunch.
7908 Long Beach Boulevard
Harvey Cedars, NJ
Proprietors Marty Grimes and Brian Sabarese have transformed this venerable Victorian building, the former Owl Tree, into one of LBI's hottest dining destinations. The bi-level interior is chic but casual, rife with rattan and reminiscences of the South Seas; and Jeff Alberti, the power behind the stove, turns out a marvelous array of contemporary fare with tropical/island flair. A favorite starter here is the incomparable grilled chicken quesadilla with roasted corn-black bean salsa, guacamole, and drizzle of ancho-lime crema. You might also consider the baked crab and artichoke gratin or, perhaps, the shellfish trifecta: shrimp, clams, and Maine lobster swimming in a buttery shellfish reduction awash with fennel, shallots, and tomatoes. For your main course, you can't go wrong with the luscious Eastern Canadian halibut companioned by a root vegetable & mushroom hash and finished with a heady veal reduction. The grilled center-cut filet is also highly recommended, as is the Jail Island salmon with mustard thyme sauce. Desserts, most endowed with an island accent, are not to be missed. Every once in a great while a restaurant comes along that seems to break the mold, an eatery that is capable of firing the imagination as well as tantalizing the taste buds - and Plantation is just such place.
998 Bay Avenue
Somers Point, NJ
Ensconced in the sprawling space that was the Waterfront, after a multi-million dollar renovation, Sails is nothing if not spectacular. The ambiance - which includes posh white leather banquettes, sparkling seashell chandeliers, double-tiered bayside deck, and swinging bar scene - is chic and sophisticated but still manages to retain a certain Jersey Shore jauntiness. The contemporary cuisine, of course, is equally stylish, boasting such mouthwatering presentations as grilled ahi tuna with coconut-lemongrass sticky rice, jumbo lump crab cakes with creamy truffle polenta, broiled market catch of the day (in my case, perfectly prepared mahi mahi), braised osso bucco, and filet mignon adorned with a shiitake mushroom/pearl onion/tomato ragout, buttermilk-horseradish mashed potatoes, and beef red wine sauce. If you stop by for lunch, you will find the prices less intimidating and a number of delicious sandwiches companioned by a provocative garbanzo bean salad and excellent array of pommes frites. The restaurant also offers a first-rate wine list to complement your meal. Even if you're not staying at the Jersey Shore, Sails is worth a journey.
8307 Third Avenue
Stone Harbor, NJ
Tucked away between a seafood emporium and a pizza joint, this tiny (43-seat) eatery may not appear terribly prepossessing from the outside; but chef/proprietor Lucas Manteca and his wife, Deanna, are making significant waves in the South Jersey area. The cuisine could very well be described as cosmopolitan comfort food, drawing upon Portuguese, Japanese, Argentinean, and French culinary traditions. Not to be missed among the entrées is the Argentinean barbeque, a delectable amalgam of grilled hanger steak topped with chimichurri, hand-cut fries Provençal, Argentinean-style grilled sausage, and heirloom tomato & basil salad. And those who enjoy the pleasures of the sea should not hesitate to order the fresh fish of the day, perhaps a moist and flaky halibut filet teamed with an irresistible roasted avocado purée, tomatillo-grape salsa, and gathering of smoked Rhode Island mussels. Starters include gently fried hazelnut-crisped artichoke hearts and cold smoked tuna roll garnished with fresh horseradish, Napa cabbage, beet tartar, and celery root. This is a restaurant for serious foodies. BYOB - and an exceptional vintage is certainly called for.
720 Ashley Avenue
Nestled up against the Manasquan River at the Brielle Boat Basin, the Shipwreck Grill looks like just about every other typical shore eatery you're likely to encounter in your summer sojourns. And the interior - bustling bar, lacquered knotty pine, and nautical accoutrements - does little to belie that assumption. The food, however, is far from typical. Executive Chef Terry Eleftheriou, formerly of Jamie's in Bergen County, cooks up a variety of first-rate seafood offerings as well as other innovative American presentations. Begin with such creative starters as a warm goat cheese tart garnished with oven-roasted black olives and grape tomatoes, roasted corn clam chowder, or seasoned cornmeal fried calamari with anchovy aîoli and spicy Southwestern tomato dip. Entrées include a marvelous pistachio-dusted grouper served on a roasted beet and fennel compote, pan-roasted Chatham cod, and seared halibut with lump crabmeat roulle and curry-infused olive oil. Landlubbers may choose from such sumptuously grilled items as filet mignon, rack of lamb, and veal chop. There is also a raw bar and an interesting wine list with a number of very nice selections by the glass.
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