April 2005 • New Jersey Monthly

Twelve Restaurants We Love

by Anthony Giglio

3 Stars

While Twentyeight occupied this space for ten years – it closed in July 2003 – the dining room was a wide-open and airy post-modern space with teal and copper accents and a very low-key vibe. All of that is gone now save for the stylish number 28 – the address – tiled into the vestibule floor and, of course, the owners, Raymond Badach and Joanne Ricci.

The once vast room is now divided in two, the front room adorned with antique white subway tiles and retro diner furniture. The dark wood bar top has been replaced with soapstone, and behind it, vintage-inspired felt boards with white push-in letters post local theater, art, and music events. In back is the main dining room, a more tranquil, sensual space decorated with antique mirrors and distressed wood banquettes covered with ruby-red vinyl, which, although they were built two years ago, look as if they’ve been here since the Depression. Dividing the two spaces is an immense wall decorated with colored antique seltzer bottles on each side of a large portico. The effect is stunning.

If you enter this space and have a feeling of déjà vu, you’re probably recalling one of Keith McNally’s restaurants in Manhattan – Balthazar, Pastis or Schiller’s Liquor Bar – which is entirely understandable. The artists who designed McNally’s restaurants, Ian McPheely and Christian Garnett, dreamed up the 1930s diner/brasserie look for Raymond’s. Chef Matt Seeber, formerly of Gramercy Tavern and Tabla in Manhattan, developed a menu that’s part diner and part bistro, but don’t let its simplicity fool you. Seeber’s food is outstanding, and his presentations, like the décor, are painstakingly thought out down to the smallest detail.

Starters include a generous portion of warm, creamy cod brandade, scented with the sweet aroma of roasted garlic, and served with classic toast spears. Calamari rings are fried crisp and tender and served with a delicious lemon mayonnaise. The mussels marinara – glistening black bivalves steamed in a tomato-based broth with garlic, onion, and a hint of red pepper – are exceptionally good.

It’s worth noting that not one entrée costs more than $20. The cheeseburger with excellent shoestring fries is not to be missed: the Angus beef patty is seared on the grill, then finished off on a salamander, an open-face broiler, making for one juicy, wonderful burger. A gorgeous fan of crusted sautéed skate sits atop a bed of eggplant purée and is dressed with roasted peppers and a splash of grapefruit vinaigrette. Perfectly braised monkfish in a Romesco-based stew of potatoes, haricots verts, and shaved almonds is tender, savory and exquisite. A roasted loin of pork, perched on a bed of soft, cream-based polenta and adorned with braised red cabbage and caramelized apples is fork-tender and delicious. Chef Seeber’s pièce de résistance, though, is his classic steak frites, a perfectly grilled New York strip, charred outside and pink inside, topped with a medallion of butter flecked with thyme, and surrounded by a mountain of shoestring fries.

All the desserts are terrific and made in-house. The Valhrona chocolate torte, served with a raspberry sauce and paired with a scoop id Bailey’s-spiked ice cream, manages to be rich but not too sweet. The warm apple pie with streusel topping and caramel ice cream may leave you contemplating seconds.