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95 Morristown Road (Route 202)
Basking Ridge, Somerset County, New Jersey
(908) 221-0017

By The Artful Diner
April 23, 2007

I've noted an interesting "trend" among restaurants of late. I'm not sure this is the correct word, but it's close enough... An establishment will clorenovations, and then reopen with a new name and, perhaps, new culinary se its doors for several months, undergo extensive emphasis.

One of the most recent -- and also one of the most successful -- of these transformations has taken place at Vine (formerly Tre Vigne, "Three Vines") in Basking Ridge. The interior, always stylish and sophisticated, through previously Tuscanesque in tone, is now chic and modern, its reds, blacks, and oranges nicely counterbalanced by understated tones of gray, beige, and brown. A glass-enclosed wine cabinet graces the foyer, and a separate bar/lounge area is sleek and contemporary but still exceedingly comfortable.

Proprietorship, however, has remained the same. Afrim Berisha and members of his family are ever gracious and welcoming, and Executive Chef Eric Gomez is still the power behind the stove. The cuisine maintains its Mediterranean flavor with Italian subtitles, but it has a more global feel -- and it is as stunningly satisfying as ever.

As I noted in my review of Tre Vigne (5/24/04), and the same holds true for Vine, the menu is a reasonably compact affair supplemented by a limited number of daily specials that are printed on the bill of fare along with their prices. Chef Gomez gives diners just enough options to whet their appetites without inciting a calamitous case of choice overload. Even with a precise number of possibilities, however, I guarantee that decisions will be difficult.

The chilled "colossal" crabmeat cocktail ($15.00), for example, proves to be infinitely more than menu hyperbole. The generous morsels of crab are sweet and luscious and provocatively presented in an open-faced cylindrical serving dish. The accompanying benchmark cocktail sauce is to be expected and does not disappoint. The scallion-horseradish sauce, on the other hand, is completely UNexpected and provides a passionate jolt to the palate.

Continuing along in the seafood vein, the fried calamari ($10.00) is another highly recommended starter. The diminutive rings are inordinately tender yet not at all soggy or greasy. Once again, however, the chef has surprises in store. Not only does he tempt the taste buds with a first-rate spicy marinara -- the standard consort for squid -- but also with an incredibly smooth and tangy lime mousseline, the perfect foil for the zippy marinara.

You can't help but be impressed by the chef's judicious utilization and integration of ingredients. Mr. Gomez seems to know instinctively when he has just enough of a good thing... and I have yet to see him overplay his hand. His lobster ravioli ($12.00 as an appetizer), for instance, is simply a marvel of culinary restraint. The pasta pockets are firm yet tender, the lobster meat sweet and succulent... but it is the ethereal Champagne emulsion that truly propels the dish into orbit. It is awash with sautéed shallots and contains just the faintest tantalizing hint of wasabi. A tiny tiara of red caviar provides a splash of color and salty seduction for the palate.

Salads, often ho-hum in lesser establishments, are always worthy of serious consideration here. The baby arugula ($9.50) is embellished with shaved red onion and tossed with a perfectly balanced balsamic vinaigrette. A crown of warm pistachio-crusted goat cheese adds gratifying dimensions of taste and texture, while spokes of tomato confit provide eye-catching splashes of color. And the baby spinach salad ($9.50) is equally recommendable. Endowed with julienne apples, generous chunks of Gorgonzola, and a host of candied walnuts, the pristinely fresh greenery is gently coated with a honey-Dijon dressing that is imbued with just the proper interplay of sweetness and spice.

With so many exceptional preludes in the offing, you can't help but wonder if disappointment is destined to arrive with the entrées. This, of course, is true of many restaurants that have cultivated an infamous reputation for teasing you with gastronomic foreplay only to let you down at the moment of truth. But I can assure you that this is not the case at Vine. The main courses demonstrate the same loving care in preparation and presentation as do their predecessors.

Fish, for example, is treated with a gentle and discerning touch. The pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($27.00) is incredibly thick and dense, yet it is perfectly cooked through and remains moist and flaky to the very last bite. And it luxuriates on a saucy seabed of braised fennel and onion sautéed with chorizo sausage and olive tapenade. Seldom have I seen this denizen of the deep prepared with such palate-pleasing precision.

And the potato-crusted tilapia ($25.00) is yet another delicious demonstration of the kitchen's considerable prowess. The crust is a beautiful golden brown and topped with a dollop of sour cream. Asparagus spears provide a suitable pillow, and a heady red wine reduction adds a good deal of pizzazz to the presentation.

Meats, of course, are served up with equal aplomb. The braised lamb shank ($28.00) is unbelievably tender and is lovingly caressed by a rich Burgundy wine sauce. The truffle whipped potatoes are nothing short of extraordinary and an encircling armada of glazed carrots adds a nice dash of color. You also can't go wrong with the grilled Black Angus strip steak teamed with a homey root vegetable casserole ($28.00) or the benchmark Dijon-crusted rack of lamb finished with a fresh rosemary demi-glace ($35.00).

Desserts, in the capable hands of pastry chef Julie Casey, are as sumptuously stylish as their forebears. Chocoholics will undoubtedly suffer sleepless nights in remembrance of her decadent triple chocolate mousse: silky layers of white, milk, and dark chocolate reveling atop a cocoa blackout cake ($8.00); and the warm pecan gateau -- pound cake filled with cinnamon-pecan streusel and topped with vanilla ice cream ($8.00) -- is a soul-satisfying conclusion to any meal.

When it is offered as a special, be sure to avail yourself of the assorted cheese plate, which may be ordered as an appetizer or before or in lieu of dessert ($7.50 for one/$14.00 for two). Recently sampled was a lovely combo of semi-soft Fontina from Italy; Cambozola, a soft triple-cream Brie with an earthy bleu vein; and hard Iberico Manchego from Spain.

With a moniker like Vine, you may be assured that dedicated oenophiles will not be disappointed. Selections by the glass are somewhat limited and major in Californians -- although Bella Sera Pinot Grigio from Italy ($7.50) and the Ferrari-Carano Meritage, Sonoma County ($14.00), are eminently quaffable -- but offerings by the bottle are more far-reaching and reasonably priced. Recently enjoyed, for example, was an excellent 2004 Chablis "Montmains" from Joseph Drouhin ($50.00).

The closing paragraph of my review of Tre Vigne three years ago seems an entirely appropriate culmination once again: "Seldom have I been treated to such appealing and comfortable evenings at table. If you enjoy exceptional cuisine served in warm, romantic surroundings with impeccable service, I am certain that Vine will meet -- and exceed -- your lofty expectations. Once seduced by its considerable charms, this is one restaurant that will surely woo you back again and again."

Cuisine: Mediterranean with Global Accents
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, Noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9: 30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: Most major
Attire: Business Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; extensive wine list
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.vinerestaurant.net

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