In a state best known for its pizza, diners, and sliders, it’s great to be reminded of the destination dining and truly artful culinary work happening on this side of the Hudson. The 3rd Annual New Jersey Food & Wine Festival that spanned three days at the Crystal Springs Resort was the perfect place to sample and celebrate the local talent we can so proudly call our own.
The event itself was beautifully run, offering special events like the Top Chefs & Top Wines Dinner, featuring recent Top Chef winner Kevin Sbraga (the former chef at Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton); wine seminars; a Scotch and cigar sampling; a Champagne brunch; and more. The Spotlight Event on Saturday night was the Grand Tasting, and it was equal parts overwhelming and awesome.
The tastings offered by more than 20 restaurants comprised a perfect mix of savory, sweet, and surprising bites, while generous pours from more than 30 wineries (not to mention Scotch, tequila, beer, and vodka vendors) were more than most samplers could handle in one night. Towering fresh flower arrangements, live music in three different rooms, a pair of dazzling Cirque du Soleil-style acrobats overhead in the grand ballroom, and a jovial crowd that flowed easily through the packed event showcased the professional handling going on behind the scenes.
If the restaurants and chefs didn’t fully represent the state’s talent pool – the majority of them hailing from North Jersey, with virtually no showing from Jersey Shore destinations or anything south of Bedminster – they did demonstrate what outstanding things they’re doing with the dining trends du jour: local, organic, sustainable, and seasonal.
Some memorable highlights:
Restaurant Serenade (Chatham): James Laird’s name is usually mentioned in any discussion of top New Jersey chefs, and with good reason. In a room filled with tables offering a gorgeous array of temptations, his was a standout: a wide swath of vibrant raw asparagus, a bamboo tray heaped with paper-thin sliced veal, a bright enamel bowl heaped with freshly sautéed vegetables waiting to be added to the small plates at hand. His combination of potato gnocchi, asparagus, morels, and peppery meat was one of the best dishes I sampled and instantly achieved its goal of making me want to visit the restaurant as soon as possible.
CulinAriane (Montclair): Ariane Duarte garnered a devoted following after competing on Bravo’s Top Chef in 2009, and her Montclair eatery, CulinAriane, continues to be a hot ticket in a foodie town. Ariane herself is half the reason – she’s expansive, welcoming, funny, and talented. She stood out at the tasting in her pink chef coat, and her succulent crab cake, resting in a pool of chipotle cream sauce, demanded a return visit (or two) to the CulinAriane table.
Pluckemin Inn (Bedminster): I admit I was pre-disposed to like chef Juan Jose Cuevas before I even approached the Pluckemin display. He’s from Puerto Rico (like my father), he recently lived in Nutley (my hometown), and he spent some time cooking at Jardiniere in San Francisco (one of my all-time favorite restaurants). But meeting the man himself, and tasting his unbelievably delicious dish, was one of the brightest spots of the night. Soft-spoken, warm, and charming, Chef Cuevas was happy to chat while keeping a watchful eye over his simmering saucepans and lovingly plating a warm hunk of olive-oil-poached salmon over a mound of delicate, creamy cauliflower sprinkled with a salty dash of caviar. Sublime!
Bona Vita Osteria (Summit): On the sweet side, Adele DiBiase showed off the skill that got her dubbed “Queen of Desserts” at her popular Italian restaurant in Summit. The “chocolate soup” she was ladling into espresso cups featured a cube of fresh pound cake and sweet strawberry slices. It was a bit of a trick to knock it back without slopping onto your chin, but any mess incurred was certainly worth it. The chocolate bubbling in DiBiase’s gleaming tureen, infused with brandy and who knows what other sweet secrets, was irresistible.
Also notable were Maritime Parc, a recently opened waterfront restaurant in Liberty State Park – Chef Chris Siverson’s braised short ribs promised good things; Boulevard Five 72, in Kenilworth, served Scott Snyder’s fresh and nicely spiced shrimp and black bean dish; and Roberto Bellissimo, the new chef at Hoboken’s Zylo Tuscan Steak House, handed out scrumptious Sicilian meatballs rolled with pine nuts, raisins, and fontina cheese.
Wine flowed freely at tables representing labels from New Jersey, California, and Oregon, as well as South America, New Zealand, France, Italy, Spain, and Israel. Two Jersey-based vendors worth noting for the adventuresome wine lover:
Cava Winery & Vineyard: Located in Hamburg, nor far from the Crystal Springs Resort, Cava is introducing a winemaking school that includes four hands-on sessions covering crush/destemming, pressing, racking, and bottling/labeling. Options include purchasing a full barrel, making 240 bottles, or a half-barrel, making 120 bottles. Average cost, according to Cava, will vary between $10 and $14 per bottle. Sounds like a good deal and pretty good fun. Visit cavawinery.com for more info.
Last Call Wines is a South Jersey-based internet company that sells closeout wines at wholesale prices. The enthusiastic owners promise they taste every wine to ensure quality (tough job!) and offer only selections that receive high industry ratings. They sell one wine at a time, until it is sold out, and guarantee every bottle. Free shipping is always offered when the designated minimum number of bottles is ordered. Check out lastcallwines.com.
With the Jersey Shore Restaurant Week kicking off at the end of the month, more of the state’s stars will have a chance to shine and, even though it will mean crossing state lines to reach it, I will be among Kevin Sbraga’s fans at the ready to visit his new restaurant in Philadelphia, when it (hopefully) opens this summer. If it promises even half the quality and inventiveness he demonstrated at Rat’s, it’ll be worth the hike. In the meantime, there are plenty of Jersey dining destinations to seek out. For a full list of the chefs showcased at the festival, click here to visit the event site.
Deanna Quinones is the Jersey Bites Regional Editor for Morris County. A freelance writer, blogger, and unrepentant chocolate addict, Deanna spent 20 years in San Francisco where life was good and the burritos even better. She recently returned to the Garden State and now resides in Morristown. She can be reached at email@example.com.