Those who haven’t discovered Local Seasonal Kitchen (“Local,” to its friends) can be forgiven for driving by its strip-mall location. You might not expect much from a storefront spot between a Chinese takeout place and a dry cleaner. But the key to Local’s location is its proximity to area farms. Here’s what to expect from chef Steven Santoro’s farm-to-table establishment, open since February: the freshest ingredients, plates that are a feast for the eyes and the palate and a leisurely dining experience that will have you planning a return trip even before you get to the pitch-perfect desserts (by pastry chef Jessica Marotta, a veteran of Food Network’s “Sweet Genius”). Fans of Stanley Tucci’s late great Finch Tavern in North Salem, where Santoro made his mark in Westchester, know that wherever Santoro hangs his toque is a culinary destination.
Why it’s worth the drive: You are in exceptional hands at Local, fast becoming one of Bergen County’s hottest restaurants. Santoro has parlayed stints at NYC’s La Côte Basque and Café des Artistes — and at the Culinary Institute of America, where he was a teacher and chef — into a culinary mindset that sees to every detail. Whether he’s assessing what the garden has to offer for that night’s menu or snipping herbs for service, Santoro is a painstaking artist. The service, in the cozy, convivial dining room, demonstrates a similar focus: Each course reaches the table in a synchronized ballet of hands, delivering artfully composed plates. The specials menu is a great place to find a dish inspired by the season. (And in a restaurant where entrees can range from $24 to $39, it’s a nice touch that servers tell you the price of each special.) Another sweet touch: Your bill arrives inside a copy of a food-related book. Ours was tucked inside a well-thumbed copy of Michael Ruhlman’s “The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection.”
What to order: The portions are ample, as are the flavors. Even standing menu items can vary from visit to visit. The phenomenal Berkshire Pork Belly appetizer ($16) — a foot-long, inch-thick slab of bacon, with a perfect char on the bottom — might be served with apple and a date purée one night or poached, sun-dried and pickled fresh cherries the next. Either way, it’s sublime. The Coastal Yellow Fin Tuna Sashimi ($19) arrived in steak-like cubes with whole milk mozzarella, tamari and wasabi cream. And the Parmesan and Ricotta Gnudi (like gnocchi, but lighter) were airy as a feather and served in a light tomato sauce ($15 appetizer, $24 entrée). The Herb-roasted Organic Amish Chicken Breast ($28) had intense flavor tucked beneath a crispy skin on a bed of earthy quinoa pilaf. The dish that had us vowing to return was the Painted Hills Farm Braised Short Ribs, which melted under the slightest pressure in rich, satisfying flavor. For dessert, we couldn’t resist Marotta’s playful plate of “homemade” cookies with a mini root beer float. Devoted chocolate fans should not miss the “Fallen” Chocolate Souffle.
Insider tip: Local Seasonal Kitchen is a B.Y.O.B. restaurant, but there is a liquor store two doors down.
Details: Open for dinner, Tuesdays through Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. 41 W. Main St., Ramsey, N.J. 201-962-9400. www.localsk.com. Reservations, a must, can be difficult.
— Peter D. Kramer