It was cold, windy and raining heavily; not an ideal night to venture out, but walking into Brando’s Citi Cucina on Main Street in Asbury Park recently, the cordial greeting, gentle tinkling of glasses, and enticing aromas of warm food, coupled with soft lighting and rustic Tuscan décor made us forget the weather outside almost at once. Every seat was filled at the bustling bar and at the tables along one wall; the noise level dropped considerably and the intimacy factor rose when we were seated in the adjacent room with a high ceiling, chandeliers, and brick walls. The good feelings were further enhanced by a highly professional waitstaff, who were eager to see to our needs and provide attentive service. The large and varied menu strives to cover many of the classic Italian dishes putting new spins on them, as well as some French-influenced items.
The Eggplant Tower ($14), thin slices of eggplant coated with homemade breadcrumbs, were fried crispy, and stacked with alternating layers of fresh mozzarella and tomato, and plated with arugula dressed with a balsamic reduction. Other than the presence of an anemic winter tomato, this was a nice contrast of creamy cheese and crunchy eggplant, offset by the sharpness of the greens.
A good-size bowl of Mussel Fra Diavolo ($16) arrived with a rich, spicy plum tomato sauce clinging to the plump grit-free bivalves, and seasoned with garlic and rosemary. This is a simple, but deeply satisfying dish.
A nightly special, Jumbo Lump Crabmeat with diced Avocado ($25) was plated with six large poached shrimp, and sat over greens drizzled with a lemon /mint dressing. The quality of the seafood was impeccable, as was the freshness of the other ingredients, but this was served far too chilled for the delicacy of the crabmeat to shine through, and inexplicably was under seasoned compared to most of the other dishes that night.
We got back on track with another special: Broiled Octopus ($19); two large tentacles poached in a red wine reduction, finished in the broiler and placed around a crispy-topped mound of mashed potatoes, and served with its own reduced cooking liquid. This was a variation on the usual grilled preparation and yielded a softer, more tender octopus, with no smokiness to distract. Very enjoyable, and highly recommended.
There were many pasta dishes of all stripes, but we opted for a basic Bucatini with Tomato and Basil ($22) The fresh tomato sauce, with the addition of a flavorsome basil oil, and finished with Parmigiano-Reggiano was excellent, but the pasta itself needed a minute or two more in the water, to take it from undercooked to properly al dente.
The dish of the night was the Brodetto ($35) a classic “fish stew” from Central Italy. The traditional, light tomato broth held a seared piece of branzino, lobster claw, two jumbo shrimp, mussels and clams, and was irresistible. The fish and shellfish were all perfectly cooked, the broth playing a savory supporting role without masking the flavors of the seafood. Bravo!
The Tomahawk Lamb Loin ($45), a special, was served with its long rib bone still attached; the bone adding flavor and moisture to the meat. The accompanying polenta “french fries” were a tasty and novel addition, even if softer than potato fries. Spheres of roasted chopped tomatoes broiled with breadcrumbs and oregano, completed the presentation.
Another special, a sizeable portion of Roasted Icelandic Cod ($32) served with a garlicky, creamy risotto, and more of that succulent jumbo lump crabmeat, in a light tomato sauce, was excellent.
Brando’s has a full bar and a varied, well-priced wine list, and also permits corkage for a fee of $25/bottle. We started with 2008 William Fevre Chablis Les Clos, which was spot on, with mineral and limestone notes and a richness not often seen in Chablis. Loved it. A 1994 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva did not show well. This legendary label is usually worth the steep price of admission, but here it was thin and lacked fruit. Not so with a stunning 2007 Sperino Lessona, a soul satisfying nebbiolo which was spicy and fruit driven, with a long finish. Delicious.
A traditional Wild Berry Zabaglione ($9) with strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and a dollop of whipped cream was made in the kitchen and not tableside; it was pleasant, but unremarkable.
Brando’s has staked out a path in order to distinguish itself from the multitude of Italian restaurants here in New Jersey. Impeccable service, upscale menu, classy décor, creative dishes made from scratch using fresh ingredients, and interesting nightly specials hit all the right notes. It was a warm and welcoming haven from the damp and dreary night, and the food was as comforting as the ambience. To borrow a line from “The Terminator”… “I will be back!”
Brando’s Citi Cucina
162 Main St.
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
This article was first published in the April 6-13, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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