Posted: Tuesday December 27, 2011, 1:38 PM
Eat & Drink: The year in dining out
By Elisa Ung of The Record

It was the year of the non-fine-dining restaurant.

We were all looking for bang for our buck this year, and restaurants responded by cheerfully mixing the upscale with the casual, giving diners more options than ever.

Park West Tavern hit Ridgewood with chef-crafted bar snacks. Maritime Parc (run by a Ridgewood resident) made it OK to dine on oysters and black cod along the Hudson River in Liberty State Park in a gorgeous dining room that regularly includes shorts and strollers. Bibi'z in Westwood filled its menu with small plates and its bar list with dozens of wines by the glass; St. Eve's in Ho-Ho-Kus offered half portions, rustic pastas and house-made root beer floats.

Al Cavaliere, which opened up in the old Belvedere in Clifton, nearly killed us with friendliness amid the white tablecloths. Levant Grille gave Englewood an upscale-ethnic restaurant, and Khloe Bistrot transformed an old pizza place in Fort Lee into an experience that feels as if your most stylish friend threw a dinner party.

And let's hope this theme keeps going. In other 2011 highlights:

Steak: The red-meat palaces also opened in full force this year. I will never forget that Kona coffee-crusted sirloin at the Capital Grille at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus. Nor will I forget the din or the chaos of dining there on a Saturday night. At the Wayne Steakhouse, created by a former Peter Luger waiter, we appreciated being able to bring our own wine and still dine on a dry-aged steak, and boy, did we need that wine to put up with the wait on a busy evening.

But some of my favorite steaks came in unexpected spots. St. Eve's offers a heavenly filet mignon as an appetizer, paired with a poached organic egg, smothered in truffle-infused hollandaise. And Maritime Parc, which is technically a fish house, serves a grass-fed beauty, shown above.

And what about the posh new Sear, which opened this fall in Closter? Stay tuned.

Soup: There are many reasons I've returned repeatedly to Mekong Grill in Ridgewood since awarding it three stars in April. But as winter descends, here's a tip: when a cold hits, you want your head in one of Mekong's bowls of soup, especially the pho. Runner-up: The gorgeous bowl of tofu, mustard greens and tender pork at Duck King in Edgewater.

Other simple pleasures: Brisket chili at Blind Boar in Norwood. Sicilian eggplant salad at Il Cinghiale in Little Ferry. Zuppa di pesce (fra diavolo-style) at Amici in Bergenfield. Falafel at Levant Grille. And the entire dessert menu at Esty Street in Park Ridge, especially the "cocotufo."

Beyond the food: When it comes to atmosphere, it's hard to beat the smaller restaurants for charm and personal attention. The staff at BV Tuscany in Teaneck makes every guest feel important; the tiny Red Hen Bistro in Wood-Ridge transports you to the sweetest little French bistro, and spirited piano music accents the cozy dining room at the Ivy Inn in Hasbrouck Heights.

The dining experience I hope to never again repeat: Waiting more than an hour for the honor of dining on oversalted, overcooked, frozen seafood at Joe's Crab Shack in Clifton.le

Day trips: We learned in this year's "Gourmet Destinations" series of the riches that await just an hour or so down the highway. You can sip exceptional wine in a spectacular wine cellar at Latour in Hardyston, dine on braised suckling pig raised to the chef's specifications at Nicholas in Red Bank, or marvel at the 48-hour short ribs at Elements in Princeton.

Trends I'm cheering on: Craft beers on tap, upscale burgers, macarons.

My holiday wish: That restaurants would email me to let our readers know when they open, move, expand, change their menu focus, change ownership, and so forth. We regularly chronicle such things on our blog and in the "New & Noteworthy" column.

Questions, ideas or comments? Email feedback to me atung@northjersey.com. If you include your name, town and phone number, your thoughts may be included in future columns. Twitter: elisaung. Blog: northjersey.com/foodblog