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.
1070 Ocean Avenue
Sea Bright, NJ
Not a great deal has changed since I reviewed Anjelica's almost nine years ago. The simple yet stylish dining room still boasts the same exposed brick wall, the same dark green tablecloths, and the same knowledgeable and personable wait staff. And the food... After a long absence, I always wonder if it will be as on the mark as I remember. Well, it is, in my opinion, even better. The pastas are impeccable, the meat and chicken dishes melt in the mouth, and the daily seafood specials are positively transporting. The branzino (European sea bass), for example, is baked whole, presented for the diner's inspection, and then filleted in the kitchen. The snow white flesh is moist, flaky,,, sensuous. Carnivores, of course, will find it virtually impossible to resist the considerable gastronomic charms of the perfectly grilled double cut veal chop. When it comes to dessert, the ricotta cheesecake is the best I have sampled anywhere. Even in the off season, Anjelica's is extremely popular; but during the summer months, it is something of a mob scene. Therefore, reservations well in advance are imperative. BYOB.
870 Main Street
Tucked away in a Campbell's Junction strip mall, just a short hop from the beaches of Gateway National Park, the Belford Bistro is an undiscovered gem that is certainly worthy of discovery. The interior is homey and attractive, bright and airy by day, subdued and romantic by night. And the eclectic cuisine emanating from chefs/proprietors Kurt Bomberger and Crista Trovato's open kitchen is a treat for both the eye and the palate. To start things off, you can't go wrong with the "Market Salad," a delicious combo of warm herbed goat cheese, roasted beets, apple, toasted hazelnuts, and mixed greens all tossed with a marvelous Champagne vinaigrette; and, for hearty appetites, the thick slabs of BBQ butchers' bacon teamed with tangy red cabbage, cipollini onions, and crown of soft polenta are difficult to beat. Entrées are generously proportioned and immensely satisfying. The roasted New Zealand rack of lamb is just the proper shade of pink and consummated in a heady port wine sauce; and the New York strip steak is bursting with flavor, exceedingly tender, and one of the best representatives of the genre I've sampled anywhere. Desserts -- several made in house, the remainder courtesy of the Flaky Tart in nearby Atlantic Highlands -- will prove a perfect conclusion to your evening at table. BYOB.
BLACK DUCK ON SUNSET
1 Sunset Boulevard
West Cape May, NJ
There are many fine restaurants in and around this charming Victorian community, but chef/proprietor Christopher Hubert's Black Duck is certainly one of the most inviting. The ambiance is bright, breezy, tastefully unencumbered, and enchantingly reminiscent of an old Cape May porch. Black and white photographs adorn the walls, tropical palms provide a touch of the exotic, wicker-paddle ceiling fans stir silently overhead, and the kitchen causes a unique stir all its own. Indeed, the creative American fare comes replete with international nuances and strikes an appealingly casual chord. It entices, it intrigues... but it never overwhelms. The orange almond salad caressed by a honey lavender vinaigrette makes a delightful starter... ditto the panko-crusted goat cheese, and ethereal lobster dumplings backed by a citrus salad and soy-sesame dipping sauce..
7309 Ventnor Avenue
Chef Neil Elsohn, who wowed diners and critics alike at Waters Edge in Cape May for two decades, has made a welcome return to the restaurant scene. Gertrude's, which is named after Mr. Elsohn's mother, is a smaller (24-seat), more intimate, and a tad more casual than his former digs& but Mr. Elsohn's highly stylized culinary infusions have remained an incomparable constant. Many chefs have attempted these highly innovative infusions - often at their peril - Mr. Elsohn is one of the few who has succeeded. Mr. Elsohn's seafood offerings border upon the sublime - but beef is also exceedingly popular. So those who still dream of his cracked pepper-studded rib eye steak presented with roasted onion gravy accompanied by legendary mashed potatoes - a menu mainstay at Waters Edge - need dream no more. BYOB.
HARVEY CEDARS SHELLFISH CO.
7904 Long Beach Boulevard
Harvey Cedars, NJ
Thirty plus years and still going strong. When brothers John & Mike Garofalo opened the Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co. in 1974, they could hardly have foreseen the making of what has become a Jersey Shore dining legend -- or perhaps they did. When one utilizes only the freshest possible locally caught seafood and indigenous produce, all of which are prepped and prepared on a daily basis, people don't mind waiting in line. And wait they do... for the privilege of chowing down in the tiny dining room or on benches and picnic tables on the establishment's now famous screened "porch." The New England clam chowder is rich and marvelously creamy; but the Manhattan-style -- an assertive red broth tinctured with bell peppers and fresh basil -- is even better. The steamed lobster platter, a one-pounder teamed with fresh steamed mussels and Jersey corn on the cob, remains a house favorite... ditto fried entrées such as the seafood combo- - flounder, sea scallops, deviled crab cake, butterflied shrimp -- served up with fries and coleslaw (interesting enough, the only two items that aren't made in house). For a super casual yet immensely satisfying meal at the Jersey Shore, the Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co. is hard to beat. But be forewarned: The restaurant accepts neither reservations nor credit cards. So come prepared... and be sure to BYOB.
357 West 8th Street
Ship Bottom, NJ
Brothers Mark and Dan Stragapede's La Spiaggia represents a touch of elegance in the midst the Jersey Shore's gung ho casual dining scene. The recipient of the "Award of Excellence" from the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, this fine establishment boasts handsome dark wood wainscoting, soft, subdued lighting, and professional yet personable service. And Chef Dan's exquisite northern Italian cuisine is as lovingly prepared as it is artfully presented. To start things off, be sure to try the calamari fritti, tender rings locked in the subtle embrace of a crisp Arborio coating and enhanced with a provocative garlic-saffron aïoli and baby arugula. Also highly recommended are the local littleneck clams swimming in a white wine-clam broth with tomato concasse and fresh herbs. Entrées? The penne Bolognese supplemented by house-made ricotta cheese is a classic, as are the medallions of espresso-coasted pork tenderloin, veal scaloppini presented with portobello mushrooms and a heady cabernet wine sauce. If you're planning a visit to LBI, a visit to La Spiaggia should definitely be at the absolute top of your dining agenda. BYOB.
OPA BAR & GRILLE
1743 Boardwalk (at Indiana Avenue)
Atlantic City, NJ
There's a good reason why I list Opa in my top ten nearly every year: In AC, a land of high rollers, overrated superstar chefs, highly overrated superstar cuisine, and astronomical superstar prices, this restaurant provides a welcome alternative to the costly celebrity dining dens. The décor is colorful and breezy; the bar scene is lively, and the first-rate, moderately priced American bistro fare with Mediterranean flair is of excellent quality. So feel free to stop in for lunch, dinner, or an afternoon or late night snack. 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. Entrées include pan-seared Atlantic salmon, blackened red snapper, BBQ baby back ribs, and an outstanding presentation of baby lamb chops. An incredible find in a town populated by overpriced and overrated eateries.
8307 Third Avenue
Stone Harbor, NJ
Tucked away between a seafood emporium and a pizza joint, this tiny (43-seat) restaurant 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 tartare, and celery root. This is a restaurant for serious foodies. BYOB.
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 code, 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.
801 Belmar Plaza
Situated on the 8th Avenue side of Belmar Plaza, Vivas looks at bit iffy from the outside. Once across the threshold, however, you've stumbled into a joyous fiesta -- the warm, bright colors, the closely-spaced tables, the noise, the convivial clientele... and the food. Ah, yes, the food. Will Vivas's Latin fare with eclectic European flair is an unmitigated joy. The menu is large -- one is almost tempted to say too large -- but the kitchen acquits itself with aplomb and serves up everything with a delicious sense of style. A starter of polenta & shrimp, for example, features beautifully grilled crustaceans surrounding an island of the perfectly sautéed spinach and a tiara of grilled polenta. The consummating touch is a sensuous sea of garlic-poblano pepper sauce. Entrées headline such diverse offerings as pork tenderloin stuffed with Serrano ham and Manchego cheese, potato-crusted halibut finished with black bean and chipotle purées, mojo-marinated Cuban-style skirt steak, and pan-seared grouper adorned with capers served up in mushroomsauce. For dessert, be sure to sample the light but decadent chocolate flan or traditional tres leches. Reservations are not accepted, so your best plan is to arrive early. BYOB.
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