By Bob Sacks |
What dishes did I eat over the last 12 months that were memorable, so tasty or unusual that I still recall them vividly? That’s not an easy task, because after dining at over two dozen different restaurants this past year, tasting far more dishes of food than one would try on a simple “dinner out” night, I needed to separate the merely good from the exceptional! That said, here are some of the things I ate – in no particular order – that were special enough to stand out.
Who would expect that a plate simply listed on the menu of Daniel’s Bistro by the Sea in Avon as an Array of Wild Mushrooms ($12), would be anything more than a pleasant side dish? However, slices of shitake, crimini and oyster mushrooms were elevated to leading role status by sautéing them in cognac, some cream, and a killer black truffle butter. It was sinfully delicious and I confess to using all of the toasted baguette slices to sop up all of that heady sauce. Daniel’s also served a tableside preparation of warm Zabaglione ($12) served over perfectly ripe blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries that was creamy, but light, which still lingers in my palate memory.
OK, we all know by now not to judge a book by its cover, but the humble surroundings of Bayroot in Shrewsbury did not prepare me for their Foul Bayroot Style ($6.95). Described as mix of cooked fava beans, chickpeas, garlic, lemon and olive oil, and served with warm pita bread, it sounded and looked unassuming, but the rich, complex flavors, and almost meaty mouthfeel, made this vegetarian dish truly remarkable and clearly worthy of a return visit! I would also like to revisit their Lentil Soup ($4.95); the thick broth of lentils, carrots, onions and potatoes came alive with the addition of some cumin and turmeric and was wonderfully satisfying.
I tried more pasta last year that I can recall; most passable, if unremarkable, but I fondly remember the Cavatelli and Broccoli ($18.95) from Il Lago in Highlands. The perfectly cooked little tubes were sauced with garlic, good olive oil, a splash of zesty tomato broth and fresh basil; the bite-sized florets of broccoli had just enough crunch to make them a perfect foil for the cavatelli. Another pasta I really liked, was served up at Via 45 in Red Bank. Penne Norma ($24), the classic Sicilian dish, with toothy hunks of perfect summer eggplant, a rich plum tomato sauce and fresh basil, was flat-out delicious.
Who knew that Indian snack food, usually served street-side in paper cones, could be so deliciously flavorsome and addictive? Haldi Chowk in Middletown offered an appetizer plate of Behl ($4.95), a deft mixture of crunchy puffed rice, Sev (small pieces of crispy chickpea flour noodles), chopped vegetables, potato cubes, peanuts and tamarind sauce. I experienced sweet, savory, crunch, and mild spice in each bite which made this a standout dish.
I admit to being more than a little fond of mixtures of fresh fish and shellfish cooked in broth (i.e. bouillabaisse or cioppino), so when I tasted the version served at Brando’s in Asbury Park, I knew I had found a special one. Their Brodetto ($35), a traditional “fish stew” from Central Italy, was based on a light tomato broth with a seared piece of juicy Bronzino, lobster claws, 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. A seafood lover’s dream!
Birravino, in Red Bank, impressed us with a side dish (Contorni) of Braised Escarole ($9); cooked with sweet-tasting Spanish onion and juicy currants, it had great texture and preserved the mild crunchiness, most restaurants fail to preserve. Try this!
A trip to the Hotel Tides in Asbury Park rewarded me with Pan Seared Sea Scallops ($32), accompanied by a heady smoked carrot puree, mushrooms, char-roasted purple dragon carrots and crispy peas. Perfectly cooked with a light brown sear on the outside and juicy on the inside, the sweetness of the scallops sang alongside that smoky carrot flavor.
Back in Red Bank, 26 West on the Navesink, served us Grilled Octopus ($17); memorable in regards to taste, and very artistically plated as well. Chunks of thick, but perfectly tender, tentacles, presented with purple Peruvian potato salad, crunchy garlic chips, and a ring of salsa verde, made for a dish worthy of a return visit.
There were even more plates of food I tasted this past year that were special enough to cite and yearn for again, but space does not permit me to fantasize about all of them here. Perhaps we can devote another column to “more faves” of 2017 again soon!
Happy and Healthy New Year!
This article was first published in the Jan. 4-11, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times. Read Bob Sacks’ restaurant reviews here.
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