NJ restaurants: Better than ever?
I'm a restaurant reviewer for the NY Times New Jersey section. I've been asked to write an article for the annual "Best of New Jersey" section in November.
The premise -- subject to challenge, obviously, in which case I may not have a story -- is that these are the best of times, that restaurants in this state are a whole lot better than they were 10 or 15 years ago, when I was reviewing restaurants for the Bergen Record.
If this is true, why is it true? My guess is that the explosion of interest in food, the increase in disposable income, and the influx of immigrants are the most important factors. But I'd love to know what you think and would appreciate specific examples. And also contrary ones.
Restaurants in NJ are better than ever for several reasons. First of all, chefs are able to get much better ingredients. 10-15 years ago (when I was a pastry chef in NJ) we were pretty much stuck with Sysco. Meat and fish were frozen, the selection of dry goods like chocolate and olive oils was severely limited, and for the most part, the expectations of both the chefs and the dining public were fairly low, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Now, companies like D'Artagnan are delivering fresh foie gras, quail, pheasants and venison; specialty distributors are providing great olives, oils, cheeses and pastry items; fresh fish and vegetables are exactly that -- fresh. The majority of these companies were too small ten years ago to deliver to the outer reaches of NJ, and many farms, such as Hudson Valley Foie Gras, were in their infancy.
Secondly, many chefs in NJ now come from NYC, where they decided that enough was enough, and realized if they wanted to open their own place they needed to go to where it was affordable. We have several chefs who worked in places like Sign of the Dove, Le Bernadin, and The River Cafe. Some of them grow their own vegetables in the summer. All of them have access for several months a year to locally grown produce from farmers who have expanded their crops to include fancy vegetables and herbs.
Finally, the very things that have influenced restaurants in NYC have moved across the river -- careful employment of ingredients that were once considered "exotic," an appreciation for all things fresh and often natural or organic, and a proliferation of chefs who are school educated in cooking and other subjects.
New Jersey still has a huge share of mediocre restaurants, but now I can always find a good-to-great meal if I am willing to drive. As a reviewer, I assume you know which places I mean. Privately, I would be willing to tell you some places you may have overlooked. Good luck.
I believe that it has a lot to do with supply and demand. Not everyone has the time or is willing to go into NYC or Philly for a great meal. Tastes are becoming more discriminating. I, for one (a transplanted New Yorker) am happy to see the selection of "better" restaurants coming to NJ.
Examples? Check out New Brunswick, Bernardsville even Somerville is getting into the act!