Spending a day at the beach under blue skies, in the warm sun, and enjoying the ocean, is one of the great pleasures of the Jersey Shore. As the day wanes, our thoughts often turn to having drinks and a good dinner in order to continue our pleasure. Happily, virtually all the shore towns have accommodating oceanfront restaurants, and Spring Lake is no exception.
Open just nine weeks at the time of our visit, Bareli’s By the Sea sits on Ocean Avenue in the aptly named Grand Victorian Hotel, facing the beach just across the street. Named for a sister restaurant, also called Bareli’s, in Secaucus, this iteration continues the tradition of Italian cuisine in a warm, relaxing atmosphere. Weather permitting, there is a large wraparound porch for outside dining, as well as a spacious indoor dining area. Diners were attired in everything from shorts to dressy casual, so feel free to “come as you are.”
Seafood Salad ($14) was refreshing, but more of a salad with seafood, than the traditional Italian Insalata Frutta di Mare. There was a lone butterflied shrimp on top, some calamari rings, thin slices of canned scungilli, hunks of tomato, slivers of red onion, diced celery, and greens, in a light olive oil dressing. It would have benefitted from more aggressive seasoning and the addition of octopus and mussels.
The satisfying flavors of the Tomato and Fennel Clam Chowder ($8) made this a recommended starter. The tasty broth showcased the sweetness of the fennel and acidity of the tomatoes; cubed potatoes and crispy croutons on top lent textural interest.
The addition of more chopped clams, would have elevated this soup from very good to excellent.
Pastas are made in house and there is a Ravioli of the Day ($22). The night of our visit, six large squares of slightly thick pasta were cooked nicely al dente, stuffed with ground chicken and sun-dried tomatoes, sauced with tomato, sage and butter, and topped with cubes of mozzarella. This is a good dish to split as a middle course for two diners.
Our proximity to the sea prompted a desire for fish as an entrée, so the John Dory Special ($34) was an obvious choice. The meaty coastal fish, also known as St. Peter’s Fish, was perfectly moist and tender; mildly seasoned with oregano, and served over “stewed” red, green, and yellow peppers, and onions. The quality of the fish was undeniable, as was the rich flavor of the peppers; we were just puzzled by the juxtaposition of these two elements. The peppers tended to overpower the delicate whitefish, and seemed a better companion for sautéed chicken or sausage rather than with this preparation.
I was dazzled by the two large, thick slabs of rare-as-requested, Seared Tuna Puttanesca ($32). Crusty brown on the outside, bright red and just warm on the inside, it was excellent. Many restaurants claim to serve sushi grade tuna, but do not; Bareli’s dishes up the real deal. The Puttanesca sauce, was a soupier variation of the classic version with canned plum tomatoes, Kalamata olives, anchovies, garlic, capers and oregano. However, the tuna was clearly the star of the dish, rendering the consistency of the sauce mostly irrelevant.
There are some modest wines offered by the glass with no vintages specified, and a sizeable list of full bottles; the reasonably priced usual suspects interspersed with a goodly number of prestigious labels priced well north of $100. Bareli’s also allows BYO with a $25/bottle corkage fee. This was meant to be a “go easy night” for me, so we simply ordered a split of Domaine Chandon Sparkling Rose ($13), and one glass of Moet Imperial Champagne ($18). Fair warning: the bar likes to “dress up” the sparkling wines by putting half a strawberry into each glass, so if you prefer your bubbly sans fruit, advise your server ahead of time. The Chandon-strawberry creation was rather soft and unremarkable, clearly outclassed by the Moet, even with the floating berry in it! A pleasant surprise was a glass of Joel Gott Cabernet Sauvignon ($12). Not complex, and lacking secondary characteristics, it was nevertheless well made, easy drinking, softly fruit driven, and showed no overbearing tannins.
With thoughts of returning to the beach the next day and having to don bathing suits once again, we voted to skip dessert, as if that would matter!
Service was prompt and professional, but there are still some freshman kinks regarding seasoning and recipes to be smoothed-out. That said, the opportunity to spend a day at the beach and then walk across the street to enjoy a pleasant meal while continuing to gaze at the ocean, makes Bareli’s By the Sea a good dining choice.
Bareli’s By the Sea
1505 Ocean Ave.
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
This article was first published in the Aug. 17-24, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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