This year's top ten features some old favorites and several excellent 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 restaurants to placate your palate.
BAY AVENUE TRATTORIA
122 Bay Avenue
When Joe & Maggie's Bistro on Broadway closed its doors, many of the Garden State's dedicated foodies - this writer included - went into a prolonged period of mourning. Fortunately for all concerned, however, Joe Romanowski and his wife, Maggie Lubcke, have returned to the culinary scene with the Bay Avenue Trattoria. Their current domicile is more modest than their former digs - just a diminutive storefront - but the ambience is warm, as is the welcome, and the Mr. Romanowski's innovative Italian-American cuisine continues to tantalize the taste buds. Dinner starters include crispy pan-fried oysters with a zippy smoked chili remoulade, grilled polenta cake with a wild mushroom & duck confit ragú, and Joe's "Hoagie Salad" splashed with oil and vinegar. When it comes to the main courses, seafood selections abound: crab-crusted tilapia, bacon-wrapped sea scallops, and linguine pescatore, for example. And dedicated carnivores may take advantage of such offerings as red wine braised short ribs and rosemary and garlic roasted pork chop. During lunch, possibilities include a plethoric variety of casual fare ranging from hoagies to paninis to hot subs and salads. Whenever you decide to stop by, however, just remember that Mr. Romanowski's homemade desserts are something of a must. BYOB.
4401 Long Beach Boulevard
Brant Beach, NJ
daddy O's vintage retro exterior belies the chic, contemporary motif that lies within. In point of fact, this hip addition to the Long Beach Island dining scene exhibits an extremely attractive multi-faceted personality. It is a restaurant with indoor/outdoor dining, a 22-room boutique hotel, and a take-out facility that also features a full-service liquor store. Award-winning designer Barbara Balongue is responsible for the restaurant's au courant interior décor; Executive Chef Zachary Grainda and Executive Chef/partner Al Vanesko are the driving forces behind its imaginative take on classic cuisine. Starters include "Buffalo Wingless," boneless tempura chicken with Vietnamese chili sauce; shrimp and chorizo accompanied by feta, roasted tomatoes, hummus, and chive oil; and duck confit wontons with mango salsa, wakame, and a sweet soy reduction. Entrées are as excitingly eclectic as they are delicious: Szechwan kobe beef meatloaf with wasabi mash and char sui (Chinese BBQ sauce) glaze; Mandarin pork tenderloin; wasabi-crusted salmon; and pan-seared mahi mahi with golden pineapple and coconut-lime rice. For a more casual culinary encounter, be sure to try the daddy "O" burger with applewood smoked bacon and Cabot cheddar. Whether dressing up or dressing down, daddy O is the perfect spot to dine on LBI.
ISLAND PALM GRILL
1321 3rd Avenue
Spring Lake, NJ
The Island Palm Grill is a relaxed and comfortable space, a delightful decorative combo of warm terra-cotta walls and winsome wainscoting. And the restaurant seems to pulsate to a laid-back Latin beat, which provides the perfect setting for chef/co-proprietor David Kruse's Nuevo Latino/Gulf Coast cuisine. Mr. Kruse, the former sous-chef at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, utilizes only the freshest possible American & Caribbean ingredients imbued with just enough culinary creativity to invigorate rather than intimidate even the most timid of palates. Signature dishes include his plantain-crusted grouper consummated with a mango-ginger sauce and exceeding popular paella. And be sure to start things off with such appetizing preludes as beef tenderloin arepa with ancho-maple glaze, grilled lobster tail salad, or seared scallops tostones. The made-in-house desserts are dependent upon the season, and all are worth saving room for. You may, for example, be treated to a mango or coconut crème brûlée or, perhaps, an ancho-infused chocolate lava cake. The Island Palm Grill is an exciting culinary happening and worthy of a visit during any season of the year. BYOB.
KAREN & REI'S
1882 Route 9 North
When I first reviewed Karen & Rei's (May 28, 2001) it was housed in a converted summer bungalow on Avalon's main drag. A cracker box affair, the interior squeezed in a scant thirty diners. Their new domicile - while light, airy, and more spacious - still maintains a marvelously "intimate" feel, as its eleven well-spaced tables accommodate only forty-five diners. The food here is sophisticated and decidedly diverse, a wondrous "melting pot" of culinary traditions. Karen Nelson holds forth in the kitchen and her husband, Rei Prabhakar, a CIA grad, does just about everything else - and that includes being a most gracious host and turning out a mouth-watering assortment of freshly baked breads. To start things off, be sure to sample the sake-cured salmon gravlox with Asian rubbed spices, wasabi mayonnaise, and sake-infused sour cream, or the wild mushroom wontons with raspberry dipping sauce. Salads also make excellent preludes and include a chilled spinach & English Stilton and baked hazelnut-encrusted Brie nestled in baby greens. Entrées headline such eclectic favorites as juniper rubbed ostrich, lime and tequila pork tenderloin, seared shrimp over risotto, and plum-roasted rack of lamb. Whatever you do, however, be sure to save room for one of the selections from the incredible "Encyclopedia of Desserts." BYOB.
KNIFE AND FORK INN
29 South Albany Avenue
Atlantic City, NJ
I feely confess that I have never been a fan of dining in Atlantic City casinos. And despite the invading hordes of celebrity chefs, I've always harbored the suspicion that, not only are patrons paying for the culinary superstar's name in lights, but also for the high-rent overhead of the gaudy glitz and glitter. So when I'm in search of an upscale dining experience in AC, I tend to avoid the gambling dens like the plague...which is why I recommend the Knife and Fork Inn. There's a touch of class here: hunter-green awnings; Tudor interior with Italian floor tiles; carved oak railings. As attractive as the surroundings may be, however, it is the exceptional cuisine - evenly divided between steaks & chops and seafood & shellfish - that sets the tone. Begin with such favorites as cornmeal-crusted calamari, lobster spring roll with Dijon drizzle, or lollipop lamb chops with minted demi-glace and crushed potatoes. And entrées are no less exciting: pan-seared King salmon in the company of black lentils, cider reduction & mascarpone cream; pan-roasted Hawaiian butterfish with tomato vinaigrette; filet Oscar caressed by béarnaise; and pan-roasted veal chop with radicchio & white bean stew. Oenophiles can revel in the 10,000 bottle inventory, as well as a number of excellent selections available by the glass.
142 Main Street
True to its namesake, rich, dark wood is very much in evidence, both in the stylish bar area and in the chic dining rooms accented with hanging Tiffany-style lamps and cushy patterned chairs. But a great deal has changed since this lovely establishment burst onto the NJ dining scene in the summer of 2001 and my initial review of November 2002. The restaurant has enjoyed a modest expansion, Michael Elmes, Frank Kropf, and Neil Glass, also proprietors of the Harvest Moon Brewery/Café in New Brunswick, are the new owners, and Jonathan King, the former sous-chef, is now the power behind the stove. The incomparable quality of the eclectic/fusion cuisine, however, has remained remarkably the same. Among the starters, the Asian spring rolls might well qualify as the chef's magnum opus, with jumbo lump crab cakes and crackling fried calamari running neck and neck for second place. Among the entrées, the prosciutto-wrapped monkfish is superb, as are the sweet chili-crusted Australian rack of lamb, and the dry aged NY strip steak consummated with a splendid sauce duxelles. A first-class wine list proves the perfect complement to your rewarding evening at table.
OPA BAR & GRILLE
1743 Boardwalk (at Indiana Avenue)
Atlantic City, NJ
In Atlantic City, home of high rollers, overrated superstar chefs, highly overrated superstar cuisine, and astronomical superstar prices, the chances of finding a good meal at less than wallet-busting tariffs are about the same as striking it rich in one of the casinos. The Opa Bar & Grille, however, continues to buck the odds; and its many loyal patrons still come away winners. And this is because its colorful, breezy décor, lively bar scene, bustling open kitchen, and first-rate moderately-priced American bistro fare with Mediterranean flair provide a welcome alternative to the costly celebrity dining dens. So feel free to stop in for a chic lunch, late afternoon martini, elegant dinner or late night snack. Start things off with saganaki - kasseri cheese fired with Ouzo - or, perhaps, plump and succulent Olympic baked clams. Delicious wraps and burgers abound, and "George's Greek Salad" - romaine and assorted lettuces, cucumbers, red onions, peppers, kalamata olives, and ripe juicy tomatoes tossed with a tangy oregano vinaigrette and topped with huge strips of feta cheese - is a winner among the greenery. Dinner entrées include blackened red snapper, meaty baked scallops, crab cakes santorini, BBQ baby back ribs, and luscious baby lamb chops. An incredible find in a town populated by overpriced and overrated eateries.
720 Ashley Avenue
Nestled up against the Manasquan River at the Brielle Boat Basin, the Shipwreck Grill is the quintessential Shore eatery. The interior boasts lacquered knotty pine, a plethoric variety of nautical accoutrements, and a bustling bar scene. Just how bustling? Even in the dead of winter, this place packs them in. The superior quality of the cuisine, however, is what sets the restaurant apart. Executive Chef Terry Eleftheriou cooks up an impressive array of seafood offerings as well as other innovative American presentations. Begin with such creative starters as warm goat cheese tart garnished with oven-roasted black olives and grape tomatoes, roasted corn clam chowder, or seasoned cornmeal fried calamari. Entrées include a marvelous pistachio-crusted grouper, pan-roasted Chatham cod, and seared halibut. Landlubbers may choose from such sumptuously grilled items as filet mignon, rack of lamb, and veal chop. There is also a pristinely fresh raw bar and an interesting wine list with some very nice selections available by the glass.
9314 Amherst Avenue
From the moment you catch sight of Sofia's strikingly attractive exterior - replete with archways and huge clay pots overflowing with flora and fauna - you sense that this is not your typical "grab 'n' growl" Jersey Shore eatery. No, there's a touch of class here, of sophistication. Inviting but not intimidating. Once across the threshold, the fascination continues as you take in the magnificent circular bar with a huge tree at its epicenter, the amalgam of flagstone and rustic dark woods, and the allure of a charming outdoor deck. Enchanting décor notwithstanding, however, the superb Greco-Mediterranean cuisine alone would be worth the price of admission. And like a number of other upscale NJ Hellenic enclaves, Sofia majors in whole grilled fish served simply with lemon, thyme, capers, and olive oil. Here you find such delightful denizens of the deep as royal dorado, branzini, red snapper, and black sea bass, as well scallops, shrimp, and whole Maine lobsters. There is also a beautiful raw bar for those who wish to indulge. Starters include such time-honored classics as grilled octopus, spanakopita (spinach, leek, and feta pie), traditional Greek salad, hummus, and roasted eggplant. Sofia is a treat for both the eye and the palate.
TISHA'S FINE DINING
Cape May, NJ
Sequestered away to the right rear of Cape May's Convention hall, Tisha's isn't terribly easy to find& but that is part of its charm. The bright and airy dining area affords a lovely view of the ocean and beachfront; it also boasts a wall of windows that is gently parted to allow tables to spill out onto the boardwalk for al fresco dining in warmer weather. Ambient attributes notwithstanding, it is chef/proprietor Paul Negro's exceptional cuisine that is the chief drawing card here. And in a community sated with New American victuals, the kitchen's Italian accents succeed in adding a good deal of pizzazz to the usual variety of over-visited gastronomic ports-of-call. To start things off, be sure to try his plump and succulent Prince Edward Island mussels, grilled Tuscan shrimp marinated in cilantro pesto, or pumpkin ravioli sautéed in brown butter and sage. Entrées include grilled Thai salmon, pan-seared halibut finished with a Champagne beurre blanc, or pepper-crusted veal tenderloin in a brandy cream sauce. An altogether wonderful dining experience. BYOB.
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