New Jersey doesn’t suffer the precious notion of fools.
So yes, we’ve had some buy-in to the era of Brooklyn artisanal hipster cuisine, when tablecloths were banished and foraging became trendy. We welcome some of the recession-backlash highbrow-lowbrow mix, a gathering of everyone under the tent, a certain street chic. And sure, we applaud any aesthetic that celebrates nose-to-tail sustainability and wholesome, unprocessed ingredients.
But we don’t marry foie gras to potato chips and we don’t favor Oreos as a dessert ingredient and we don’t discuss the provenance of coffee more than the taste of coffee itself. Brooklyn artisanal hipster cuisine carries with it an anti-hype reverse-precious snobbery. Thankfully, there’s a cure for that. It’s called New Jersey. Our best new restaurants celebrate the future of food. Period. They’re good. They’re fun. They’re real.
Chef Josh Thomsen, who grew up in New Jersey but mostly missed the culinary revolution here thanks to a career out West, offers a pithy overview of our former culinary options. You had your one fine dining restaurant — in his case, the Saddle River Inn. You had your neighborhood Italian place, and you had Chinese takeout. Today, Thomsen, as chef at one of our most ambitious new restaurants, is impressed by our strides. We’re no California (and no one dare accuse us so), but our Garden State designation is no longer late-night talk-show irony. At Agricola, Thomsen brings his French Laundry purism to Princeton. He’s thrilled to have access to local scallops, shows a sophisticated approach to quinoa and kale, and he serves, family-style, a rustic, lush roasted lamb shoulder. Agricola, which opened earlier this year, is an expensive renovation of the former address of Lahiere’s, which boasted a 91-year run. And while other restaurants may claim to be community centerpieces, this one actually seems to have become one, with a crowd more engaging and diverse than we’ve seen in any restaurant outside the city. Don’t miss the moist, earthy cake made of teff, a small African grain.
Agricola • 11 Witherspoon St., Princeton • (609) 921-2798 • agricolaeatery.com
Dennis Foy will boast that he’s an Ivy League chef who has the same cardiologist as Bill Clinton. He’ll tell you amazing food stories, such as the Thanksgiving dinner he prepared for soldiers in Afghanistan (using breakfast sausage for stuffing) or the two weeks he spent trailing a French woman in the kitchen just to perfect her recipe for cassoulet. And Foy, despite his revered status as the father of fine dining in New Jersey, seems to have opened and closed more restaurants than anyone can count. But every great chef seems to shutter an entire list of restaurants; it’s a business hazard. At D’Floret, Foy seems more relaxed than ever, having stripped down his menu to a list of all-time favorites. That cassoulet, obviously, is a don’t-miss option, plus the tian of crab and the seductive (and now classic) molten chocolate cake. Even the artwork on the walls — Foy decorates his restaurants with his own paintings — is bold and exuberant, not the formal landscapes of previous restaurants. Maybe reinventing yourself in a recession means stripping down to the basics, focusing on what you do best, and having fun while you’re at it.
D’Floret • 18 South Main St., Lambertville • (609) 397-7400 •dfloretrestaurant.com
If Charleston, South Carolina, is to food what Austin, Texas, is to music, then Escape in Montclair is the first in New Jersey to catch on. Chef Bryan Gregg will say he’s inspired by the award-winning McCrady’s Restaurant, which defines itself, somewhat pretentiously, as representing the best of the amalgam that is new Southern fine dining. Gregg, on the other hand, is not pretentious at all, yet his rogue cornmeal madeleine, made with coarsely ground South Jersey corn and local honey, is the most genius morsel you’ve had in forever, and you’ll beg your waiter for more. Gregg, most recently from the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn, plays with other Southern interpretations — witness the side of kohlrabi gratin and the bourbon pudding that accompanies his key lime dessert. But he understands, first, the importance of the main event. Pork tenderloin is exceptional, and his sea scallops so remarkably sweet you’ll think they’re from the bay. You’ll love the selection of cheeses and cured meats, from quintessential artisans (Bobolink, Mosefund). Escape is in a railroad-car space on one of the most competitive restaurant streets in the state. Maybe it’s Montclair that is to food what Austin is to music.
Escape • 345 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair • (973) 744-0712 • escapemontclair.com
Sick of the whole Brooklyn artisanal hipster thing? Try retro mid-century modern, made even better than the original thanks to spectacular ingredients and classic culinary training. Chef Christine Nunn, who astonished you at her (now-closed) Picnic in Fair Lawn with her high-brow interpretation of pigs in a blanket, is now executive chef at Grange. Here, she’ll surprise you with foie gras, served whimsically on a miniature short-stack of homemade pancakes, and she’ll woo you with her clever trio of deviled eggs (Caesar, chipotle, truffled). The world has changed to the detriment of gracious living, writes Nunn in “The Preppy Cookbook,” released in late August. (The book is a playful collection of American cuisine, from lobster rolls to pot roast to tomato Jell-O mold.) You’ll be reminded of that mid-century graciousness, in all its Hollandaise, blue cheese and crab-dip glory, at Grange. The restaurant is newly opened, and Nunn is still finding her groove, but expect a whimsical menu that changes with the seasons. You’ll love, too, the gracious, professional service. In fact, Westwood itself is entirely mid-century retro — the town, remarkably, has an actual record store. The only thing missing, and wistfully so, is Walter Cronkite.
Grange • 31 Westwood Ave., Westwood • (201) 497-3788 • grangewestwood.com
Everything about Mistral may seem to scream Brooklyn artisanal chic, from its humble garage space and retro salvage décor to its rowdy, casual atmosphere and its fast-paced metropolitan service. Plus the bar, which is not at all for drinkers (Mistral is a BYO), is instead simply a collection of box seats for foodie gawkers who prefer the watch the mysteries unravel. (And, perhaps, secretly hope for a little crunch-time sparring among chefs.) But Mistral, the newly opened sister restaurant to Scott Anderson’s elements, thankfully, does not fall prey to the common culinary gimmicks of Brooklyn, the just-add-bacon trick, the roof-top garden locavore trick, the aren’t-I-clever foraging trick. The food at Mistral is sophisticated and global, enlightened food in a casual space. The common complaint about fashion designers who create a secondary collection is that quality suffers; for Anderson, who’s already proven himself New Jersey’s chef king, it’s the size of the dish that takes the hit. Which means? Small plates. We the consumers get the same intense food, just less of it. And at entirely approachable prices. Glory! Under the direction of Ben Nerenhausen, the Mistral menu changes almost daily, but we gushed over the smoked garganelli, the blue crab salad, the clam chowder custard, the grilled lamb, the lemon cosset and the brown butter cake. (See our review this month, on Page 82.)
Mistral • 66 Witherspoon St., Princeton • (609) 688-8808 • mistralprinceton.com
Yesterday’s conventional restaurant wisdom: If you have a captive audience, you needn’t offer exceptional food. Today, not so wise. When Ryan DePersio signed on to create a new concept for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, he was charged with creating an exceptional dining experience, both casual and upscale, one that would appeal to the traditional theater client as well as the younger, edgy one the theater hoped soon to attract. A challenging directive, especially if you throw in the whole idea of pre-show deadlines, with a dinner crowd that spills in and empties in near unison. DePersio, though, is as deft with calamari (crisp, light and addictive, with homemade marinara) as he is with squid ink cavatellli with octopus (silky, unctuous, with the oomph of pepperdew peppers). What DePersio has learned about restaurant success in the past 10 years is that you have to say yes more often. Thus, the evolution of his Italian-without-borders concept, a world where polenta fries share menu space with duck confit. At Nico, named for his 9-year-old, the customer wins. Don’t skip dessert — the chocolate sour cream cake and the outrageous Sicilian sundae are worth a post-performance stop.
Nico Kitchen + Bar • New Jersey Performing Arts Center • 1 Center St., Newark • (973) 642-1226 • nicokitchenbar.com
PIG & PRINCE
Part of the spectacle that is Pig & Prince is its location, the gloriously restored train station at Lackawanna Plaza. Another part is the butchering of pigs, which the chef does himself, in a remarkable nose-to-tail sustainability effort. Yet another part is the curing of meats, which the chef also does himself, and a window from the dining room allows a peek into that process. Yet when you peel back all the novelty of all that hoo-rah, you have, underneath, the refined skills of a fine dining chef. Opening this space has been a breathless dream ride for Michael Carrino, who traded the gentle pace and elegance of Restaurant Passionne for the energy of a lively gastro-pub. You’ll appreciate the clean, gentle tastes of his cured meats, the ancient delicacy of his spaetzle, the silky comfort of his risottos. Desserts are cheeky and modern, riffing on breakfast cereal or candy bars. Plus Carrino also likes to show off with his eclectic tasting menu (elk heart tartare, anyone?). Occasionally, one of Carrino’s spinning plates crashes to the floor, but Pig & Prince is a modern culinary spectacle worth attending. Knowing the discipline of this chef, the show will only get better.
Pig & Prince • 1 Lackawanna Plaza, Montclair • (973) 233-1006 • pigandprince.com
Despite our emphatic protests otherwise, New Jerseyans are not as sophisticated as New Yorkers. Which means most of us just don’t quite appreciate Manhattan’s idolization of Thirty Acres chef Kevin Pemoulie, who was once the chef de cuisine at Momofuku Noodle Bar. Perhaps this shout-out will offer some perspective. Shane Lyons, the child TV star turned chef, has opened Distilled, the of-the-moment Tribeca hangout, home to an incredibly coveted lacquered chicken wing. Lyons, every chance he gets, credits Pemoulie as his mentor. And Pemoulie is what? 30-something? No wonder actual New Yorkers take the train to Jersey City for his food. At Thirty Acres, feel lucky if pouisson is one of the three or four entrées of the night — the crisp gauze of skin on this dish will be your own aha moment. (The menu also includes a section labeled “Things,” small amusements such as peach salad or squid with garlic confit.) Thirty Acres offers smart food that’s also alarmingly sensual, thanks to its detailed refinements, such as shishitos, a mild Japanese pepper, or fennel pollen. The restaurant, named after an amphitheater built for a Jack Dempsey fight, is often too small for demand, so be prepared to wait. It’s worth it.
Thirty Acres • 500 Jersey Ave., Jersey City • (201) 435-3100 •thirtyacres.tumblr.com
Béchamel sauce is knowledge not required for today’s pizzeria chef. Indeed, you could likely win a Food Network competition without knowing any mother sauce, a fact that must grate the souls of Auguste Escoffier and Antonin Careme. Yet chef Michael Colletti has managed both, having mastered béchamel and battled on “Iron Chef.” You don’t expect wizardry when you enter his new space, which seems more about flat-screens and fun, but Colletti slyly surprises. The plump puff of gnudi, which seems both real and ethereal, is the only clue you need, but you’ll also love the thin outsized circles of Biellese pepperoni on your pizza and the sass of caponata on your cod. Colletti is focused, driven, with pinpoint culinary acumen. But his food (try the caponata, try the cheesecake) is less about intellectual finesse than about honest joy, a celebration, a reason to gather and laugh. In fact, Colletti’s good will during Hurricane Sandy — restaurant generators allowed for pizza-and-beer gatherings — ironically helped introduce him to the neighborhood. Colletti has important friends (Spike Mendelsohn) and important accolades (from the Obamas), but family matters most. Hear him speak reverently of his grandmother and you’ll wish you were his best friend. Watch for an upcoming reality television show, featuring Colletti hunting and fishing in the wild.
VB3 • 475 Washington Blvd., Jersey City • (201) 420-4823 • vb3restaurant.com
The wild fennel that dances across the Sicilian countryside. Saffron. Sicilian honey, pulled directly from the beehive. Bottarga, the roe that’s been cured in sea salt. These are the ancient flavors that inspire chef Joseph Baldino. His mentors, too, suggest a certain aesthetic — Marc Vetri of the esteemed Philadelphia restaurant empire. The late Anna Tasca Lanza of the famed Sicilian cooking school. And Marc and Maria Farnese of Mr. Martino’s Trattoria on Philly’s East Passyunk Avenue. Baldino may have been surprised that Zeppoli received a near-immediate nomination for a James Beard award, but one look at his eclectic collection of muses tells you he’s no ordinary chef. The food at this small trattoria in Collingswood is ancient and approachable — the Sicilian fisherman’s stew, for example, with its generous medley of seafood, saffron and couscous, is a popular standout. Baldino prepares everything in-house — from the fennel sausage to the tagliatelle, from the almond-pistachio pesto to the lemon and cipollini agrodolce, from the bread to the gelato. And, of course, the zeppoli, drizzled in honey. One hopes Baldino is dreaming of a cooking school of his own.
Zeppoli • 618 Collings Ave., Collingswood • (856) 854-2670 • zeppolirestaurant.com