When looking for a town with a nice selection of restaurants worth a trip, what comes to mind first? Red Bank? Asbury Park? However, there is a small town that warrants your consideration as well.
Although Highlands, New Jersey, is a mere 1.36 square miles in size, it boasts more than a dozen places to eat, and a growing number of them have ambitions to be considered “fine dining” destinations. One such restaurant on Bay Avenue is the aptly named Fresh, which pretty much says it all – fresh, local ingredients from nearby purveyors and respecting what is in season to create eye-catching plates of interesting food. Although billed as a “Bistro,” the room is indeed small and might be considered modest by some, but I found the food to be more ambitious than that designation would imply.
Chef and owner William Nassar, formerly the chef/owner of Piccolo Italia in Ocean Township, has assembled a strong team in the kitchen, and found a genuinely warm and friendly waitstaff for front of the house, making the entire experience very pleasurable.
The room is a few steps up from the street, and upon entering there is a nice feeling of leaving the outside world, outside. By using soft, indirect lighting and candles, the cozy room with a dormer-like ceiling, well-appointed tables, a large oriental rug in the middle, and pleasing artwork on the walls, creates a warm and intimate setting for a gracious meal.
A special appetizer of Blackened Tuna Tataki ($14) was beautifully presented, showcasing spicy, flash-seared slices of rosy
red tuna sharing the plate with a small salad of baby greens, dots of spicy soy mustard and sweet soy reduction, and pickled ginger.
One of our favorite dishes was a Classic Zuppa de Clams ($15); an ample serving of good-size, but still tender, sweet clams, steamed in white wine, garlic, with a trace of butter. This was flawless.
With the arrival of spring, tender young asparagus are always a welcome treat; here they were a fine addition to Lobster Fusilli ($29 entree/15 appetizer). Pieces of sautéed fresh lobster, asparagus tips, chopped tomato, tomato broth, and a touch of cream, combined with al dente fusilli made for a luxurious dish, which would have been even better with slightly more aggressive seasoning from the kitchen.
There was no lack of seasoning on the large serving of moist Atlantic Cod ($28), presented atop a delicious potato gratin, with a crackling crispy crust, and artfully ringed with an heirloom tomato coulis. The juicy fish was very good, the gratin excellent!
Pan-seared East Coast Halibut ($34), a special of the evening, sat over creamy mashed potatoes and sautéed baby spinach, was circled by a flavorful spicy lobster cream sauce, which lent a sumptuous mouth feel to the dish. One small nit: as good as it was, the fish would have been ideal had it seen a minute or two less cook time.
Fresh is BYO, and I was pleased to discover that they provide nice, large, “Riedel-esque” wine glasses, albeit somewhat sturdier. For the starters we opened a 2010 Pascal Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnes. Sauvignon blanc based, it did not show its usual rich, slightly off-dry nature, so it was on to 2010 William Fevre Le Preuses, a Grand Cru Chablis, which was the model of balance with its mineral frame, silkiness, and lemony fruit. A very good 2010 Knez Winery Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir, from Anderson Valley in Mendocino, with refreshing acidity and deep black cherry fruit, was less overblown than many California Pinots, and paired beautifully with the fish dishes.
New York style, House Made Cheesecake ($8) was rich, with good weight, but not too dense or overly sweet, making it far too easy to keep eating! The large-enough-for-two portion was smooth, creamy, and very satisfying.
Just when we thought we were done, the lure of a Warm Apple Tart ($9) became too powerful to ignore, and I’m glad we indulged. The buttery and flaky crust, still fragrant from the oven, and plated with caramel sauce, held firm apple slices and raisins, topped with oozing vanilla ice cream. Save room for this dessert.
Highlands is most closely identified with sport fishing, clamming, and fresh seafood in general, so it’s a pleasure to see more of these small, full menu restaurants making a “beachhead” here in an effort to expand the choices. Fresh aims to be a quality, farm to table, dining destination which is ‘worth the trip’, and it appears that they are doing everything right to further that goal.
144 Bay Ave.
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. You can read his reviews here.
This article was first published in the March 23-30, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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