Gas prices may be high, restaurant fare may cost more and another new strain of COVID-19 may be lurking about. The good news? When times are tough, the tough know that moping won’t do any good. A nice, delicious meal that someone else prepares, serves and cleans up afterwards very well might. Scientists will tell you that good eats is a natural antidepressant; it releases endorphins, our body’s feel-good hormones.
I’m here to tell you where you can get a scrumptious, innovative, enchanting meal − if you’re willing to do a little driving. And what food enthusiast isn’t willing to spend a bit of time behind a wheel when he or she knows that a thrilling, delectable meal awaits on the other end?
There are many restaurants in New Jersey worth a drive. The following are six of them.
The Circle, Newton
No matter where you live in New Jersey, if you love food, do your palate a solid and find a way to get to The Circle in Newton. It may just be the best restaurant to open in the past year in North Jersey, if not the entire Garden State.
Set in a sprawling 1770s farmhouse on a two-lane country road surrounded by cornfields and farmland, this 15-month-old fine-dine restaurant is easy to miss, especially after sunset. As co-chef and co-owner Brendan Ullmann put it, The Circle is “in the middle of nowhere.” So be on the lookout as you meander your way through rural Sussex County– and bring along a bottle or two of wine. The Circle is a BYOB.
A terrific BYOB. Ullman and his kitchen buddy, Tyler O’Toole, honed their considerable skills at venerated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s eponymous two-Michelin star restaurant in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle (hence their restaurant’s name).
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I ate there last winter and left feeling lighter, if not weighing any less. The sophisticated menu has changed since: the Duxbury Gem oyster currently is served with passion fruit mignonette instead of lychee and lime; the mushroom bisque has been replaced by a roasted asparagus soup; the scallops sport cherry tomatoes in place of rainbow carrots; and the Long Island duck wears a honey garlic glaze and is accessorized by house-made kimchi as opposed to braised Swiss chard.
The boys, seriously talented, are serious about cooking with ingredients primarily of the season. There wasn’t one clunker in the fixed-price ($100) meal I enjoyed. Considering the skills and creativity housed in the kitchen, odds are good there won’t be one in your meal either.
The Circle is open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner. Reservations highly recommended.
Go: 310 Route 94, Newton; 973-862-6410, thecirclerestaurant.com/
What a win-win choice: reserve a table at elegant, haute-cuisine restaurant Elements or reserve your spot at more casual sister restaurant Mistral. Both are housed in the same building — Elements above Mistral — and both are stupendous: Elements, which opened in 2008, may just be New Jersey’s No. 1 restaurant. Full stop. And Mistral? Delicious too — and a whole lot more relaxed. You don’t have to commit to a fixed-price menu as you do at Elements ($125 for 5-course; $185 for chef’s tasting), though make that commitment at some point in your food-loving lifetime.
The plates at Mistral, at least the so-called “small plates,” are designed to be shared, though that may be difficult when you take your first bite into a whipped marrow biscuit or a lamb belly tostados. You may not be eager to part with even one forkful.
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As for entrees, share if you’d like; at least there are more forkfuls to go around. Your choices include seared diver scallops with fava bean hummus, grilled bavette steak with chimichurri and pork schnitzel with a fried egg.
If you want to watch the chefs cook, get yourself a ringside seat at the open-kitchen counter and watch the magic happen. Or sit in the Zen-like dining room with blond wood tables and preserved wind-swept tree barks (Mistral is the name of a strong wind that blows in Southern France) and enjoy the lively bar scene nearby. And, do right by your taste buds and don’t skip dessert, not when such treats as matcha bubble tea cake and dark chocolate bomb are on the menu.
Mistral is open every day for dinner; brunch served on Saturday and Sunday as well.
Go: 66 Whiterspoon St., Princeton; 609-688-8808, mistralprinceton.com/
Corto, Jersey City
Italian restaurant Corto bills itself as a casual neighborhood spot in Jersey City, New Jersey’s second largest city and a city that Food & Wine magazine recently named one of America’s “Next Great Food Cities.” Consider yourself one lucky food fan if you live in or near Corto’s hood, known as The Heights, a quiet residential area in the north part of the city that sits atop the Palisades.
Otherwise, hop into your car and make your way to this charming restaurant, a former deli that its three owners — Marc Magliozzi who is also its chef, Drew Buzzio and Peter Fontana — transformed into a 30-seat vintage-y space with pearly white walls, a tin ceiling, wood floors and made-to-order wood chairs and tables.
Start your meal with the heady ricotta and honey toast. It’s a must. Then get a pasta, any pasta. They’re all made fresh daily and no matter which you order — rigatoni, bucatini, cappelletti — you’re guaranteed deliciousness. And, please, I implore you, get an order of the slips-off-the-bone, tell-all-your-friends, devour-every-morsel Angry Chicken. It’s divine.
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What makes it so darn good?
Moschella’s answer should not surprise. He uses the “best, high-quality” chicken, one sourced from an Amish country farm in Pennsylvania, which he cooks in a big pot on low heat for three hours to get “that melting, unctuous moist texture,” he said; dark meat only — thigh and bone — because breast meat will dry, he said. He adds dried Calabrian chili, some tomatoes, garlic and thyme for more flavor.
Corto is open every day except Sunday. It has a lovely green oasis in its backyard for alfresco dining. And, oh yes, it is a BYOB: do not forget to bring a good bottle of wine with you.
Go: 507 Palisade Ave., Jersey City; 201-420-6290, cortojc.com/
Razza, Jersey City
Yes, it’s worth a drive, even a long drive, to get to this pizza joint. No doubt I’m not the first pizza lover to tell you that this is probably the best pizza in New Jersey. I can even tell you why: chef and owner Dan Richer is an unabashed fanatic about pizza. He got that way after visiting Italy and wondering why in the world does its food taste so much better than ours. He did a lot of testing and tasting. And nearly two decades ago opened up his stylish spot that has become a veritable magnet for pizza fans. There are a bunch of pies to choose from, but Richer will tell you that the best way to judge a pizza joint is by its Margherita pie. It can’t hide underneath a mountain of toppings. Richer’s doesn’t need to hide; it shines.
And, though pizza may be enough carbs for you, order the bread too. There are many who say Richer’s bread is even better than his pizza. I’m not naming names, but know that they know of what they say.
Razza is closed Monday.
Go: 275-277 Grove St.., Jersey City; 201-356-9348; razzanj.com/
Antonio De Iseo was born and raised in Florence. So it should come as no surprise that he would name his first restaurant after his beloved city, actually for the people who live in it.
Fiorentini is Italian for Florentines. His wife, Brenda, a co-owner, lived in Florence as well, though she was born in Peru.
Brenda is responsible for the look of the space: a small open kitchen that allows you to watch her husband do his magic; comfy light brown banquettes that face recycled wood tables atop recycled wood floors; simple votive lights and fresh-cut flowers on each table; and a stunning array of dried eucalyptus branches and leaves suspended from the ceiling. The entrance is jaw-dropping; an upside-down U-shaped canopy of pastel flowers that cascade onto the sidewalk. Talk of a nice welcome.
Nice, too, is that the couple can be seen greeting guests, chatting at tables, serving food and even opening doors to let out satisfied diners. This is a mom-and-pop restaurant where mom has good taste and pop makes food taste good.
Antonio learned how at culinary school in Florence, cooking in restaurants in Europe and then coming to New York and working for the Maccionifamily who had owned the now shuttered Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo. His last gig was as executive chef at the Metropolitan Opera House.
The couple takes the health of the environment seriously. Its website declares: “Dedicated to the triple bottom line —planet, people, and profit — our team aspires to make our eatery as environmentally conscious as possible… We’re always trying to lessen our impact on the earth by taking action on ingredients, operational productivity, and carbon offsets.
Good for them. And for you too, especially if you’re into eating a mostly fresh from-the-farm meal.
The pastas are made in-house, the meat organic, the fish wild caught. Antonio is not afraid of flavors; he invigorates his dishes with bold tastes, whether its sweetness from an apricot compote that accompanies a New York State duck breast or a spicy lime jus that partners with New Jersey scallops.
Closed Monday and Tuesday. Dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. Brunch on Sunday.
Go: 98 Park Ave., Rutherford; 973-721-3404, fiorentinirest.com/
Al Basha, Paterson
Paterson may not make it onto the cover of Travel & Leisure — it’s not your high-end lush travel destination (though the Great Falls of the Passaic River is pretty neat). But its food? Food & Wine, where are you?
Paterson, thanks to its huge influx of immigrants (some 100 languages are spoken there), has turned into a veritable culinary destination. Nearly every cuisine, the kinds that don’t feature fancy foams or employ pigs to find exorbitant priced mushrooms — can be found in what is New Jersey’s third largest city. Traditional cuisines. The foods once cooked back home — home being Central America, South America, Italy, the Caribbean and so many other parts of the globe.
Its biggest foreign-born contingency hail from the Middle East — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories.
You’ll find many of them in South Paterson, the area below Interstate Highway 80. And perhaps the best known Middle East restaurant in town is Al Basha, a near quarter-century old Middle Eastern restaurant that many Patersonians say has the best hummus in the region. It is super creamy and lemony and is accompanied by pitas that are home-made.
Get it in a mezza — cause, honestly, it’s too difficult to choose any one small plate when they’re all so darn good. Among the mezza eats: mettbal, better known as baba ganoush, a creamy eggplant purée that’s divine; mhamarha. a wonderfully sweet roasted tomato dip heady with the taste of fresh ground cumin and flecked with walnuts; and tabbouleh loaded with fresh parsley, snippets of juicy tomatoes, and hints of lemon and garlic with just a smidgen of grain to bind it;
And if you can’t decide among the meat dishes, here’s my advice: get the meat platter, and you’ll be blown away by, among other delicious meats, the chicken kebab. “Best I’ve ever had,” declared a dedicated food lover and friend. I agree.
Al Basha is open every day from noon; 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Go: 387 Crooks Ave., Paterson; 973- 345-8558; albashausa.com/