Looking back on 2016, I remember some of the dishes that were special enough to stand out in the mountain of food that was consumed in my search for review-worthy restaurants that I thought you, our readers, would enjoy. Some restaurants had a lone dish, which was still good reason to revisit them; others had a number of memorable offerings that made me want to go back and enjoy them again as well. The following selections are presented in no particular order:
Larimar, in Spring Lake, offered an excellent girasole, a sunflower- shaped, homemade pasta stuffed with handcrafted ricotta, and coated with a bright green Swiss chard pesto and crunchy toasted almond pieces; the texture and taste still lingers in my palate memory.
Thai food relies on fresh ingredients and aromatic spices, and Muang Thai in Red Bank, delivers this cuisine expertly. Their Gyow Tod, a perfectly crisp, greaseless, fried wonton skin filled with savory ground chicken and corn, with plum dipping sauce, was addictive and impossible to not wolf down. This dish merits a visit.
How could I not order an appetizer named Bacon, Eggs & Toast from the dinner menu at 2nd Flr in Long Branch? Chef Sam Nativo Jr.’s reinvention of breakfast took the form of well-seasoned, meaty pork belly, zippy barbecue sauce, and a layer of chunky deviled egg salad, sitting on a piece of grilled sourdough bread. This was flat out delicious!
Matata, in Middletown, a Pan Asian restaurant, served the improbably named Sushi Pizza, which replaces the usually seen crispy fried rice ‘’crust” with a light and flaky, thin disk of pastry supporting slices of yellowtail, salmon, tuna. With streaks of wonderfully spicy mayonnaise and wasabi, and garnished with bits of diced avocado and tomato, it was a somewhat messy to eat, but tasted oh so good!
Even if you are not a vegetarian, the Combination Platter for Two at Ada’s Latin Flavor in Long Branch is a wonderful introduction to Ethiopian cooking. A large, flat, pizza-sized disk of inerja, a homemade fermented-grain bread, was dotted with islands of shiro, a savory stew of chickpeas and a piquant berbere sauce (chili peppers, cumin, garlic, coriander, ginger and basil); fasolia ( a satisfying mix of sautéed string beans, carrots, onions, and potatoes); spicy split red lentils, cooked greens and cabbage. The custom is to tear off pieces of this bread, use them as a spoon, and scoop-up these unusual and delicious vegetable mixtures. This sampler offered a culinary adventure with a wide variety of flavors and textures.
My perennial gripe is overcooked fish, and wild salmon being far leaner than farm-raised, is easily dried-out; so any restaurant that has mastered cooking this, gets points from me. Christine’s, in Atlantic Highlands, served a perfectly moist, thick filet of Wild Atlantic Salmon, seared off to perfection, sitting beneath a layer of roasted leeks, atop a bed of crispy roasted rosemary potatoes, with a side of bitter-less broccoli rabe sautéed in garlic. This was a memorable dish, worthy of a repeat visit.
If you love sea scallops, Blu Grotto in Oceanport does an impressive preparation. Juicy and sweet, nicely browned Day Boat Scallops were served with an addictive farro and corn succotash, zucchini, cauliflower, mushroom caps and Romesco sauce (almonds/red pepper), and fresh corn puree. We really liked this summery dish.
For a modern take on Mexican food, Asbury Park’s Barrio Costero, serves a Lamb Huarache; well-seasoned strips of tender meat, corn masa (flour) “dumplings,” bean puree, and spiked with mint, it was a favorite dish from my visit there.
Muang Thai also offers a classic Thai dessert: Sweet Mango with Coconut Sticky Rice that is disarmingly simple, but very special. Slices of cool mango, served at the peak of ripeness, sat alongside a small mound of glutinous sweet rice, which had been drizzled with coconut milk and topped with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The acidity of the mango played off the luscious rice, making this a very pleasurable dish.
Another dessert that still calls out to me was the beignets at Pascal and Sabine in Asbury Park. Small, square, plump pillows of deep- fried choux dough, piping hot and dusted with a light layer of powdered sugar, they were served in a wax paper bag and accompanied by some homemade strawberry jam. Light, airy, and warm, they felt good in my mouth, and tasted even better.
There you have it. The locavore, farm-to-table movement of last year has happily gone from trendy and infrequent, to more commonplace, as area restaurants strive to stand out with fresh ingredients and innovative dishes. These are just a few memorable dishes I experienced in 2016. I look forward to an even longer list in 2017. If anyone else had a favorite dish of the year they wish to share, please email to email@example.com.
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy new year!
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
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