By Bob Sacks
In January, I reflect back on the best dishes I had the pleasure of tasting during the previous 12 months, but it’s a challenge to narrow the list down to a manageable size because my mission in each restaurant is to try as many things on the menu as I can. Multiply that by the couple of dozen restaurants I visited, and the choices become numerous. Here are some of the things I ate, in no particular order, that were truly memorable and worthy of DOTN (dish of the night) status.
From the modest-looking Por do Sol “Sports Bar” in Long Branch, the Mariscada Shellfish Stew ($29), was flat-out delicious. Served with red or green sauce, I chose green, and was immediately drawn in by the rich aroma of the parsley and white wine broth, which contained a generous amount of clams, juicy mussels, tender lobster meat and tasty shrimp.
From their dessert menu, Arroz Doce ($5), classic Rice Pudding, was the best rice pudding I have ever had. Rich, creamy, and dusted with cinnamon, it was light and had an amazing texture. Who knew “good old” rice pudding could be so delicious!
Traditional Chinese food has to be out of the ordinary for me to take notice, but the Chinese Eggplant with Chicken ($11.50), from Little Szechuan in Little Silver, made me stop and do just that. A simple mix of thinly sliced boneless chicken breast, and halves of small purple Chinese eggplant in a brown, garlic flavored sauce, had a seductive, silky mouthfeel which I still remember.
Bombay River in Red Bank served an exceptional entrée of Chicken Saagwalla ($18). A creamy spinach purée seasoned with ginger, garlic, cumin seeds, cloves and turmeric, bathed tender cubes of chicken; at the time I likened it to baby food made irresistible for adults. The killer texture and the interplay of those complex seasonings made the dish a compelling reason for a return visit.
I have a vivid “palate memory” of a special of Ahi Tuna ($42) served at the recently opened Café Loret in Red Bank. Chunks of sushi-grade tuna seared on the outside and rare in the center, plated with fennel, confit of tomato, slices of orange, roasted garlic and olives, made for a deeply satisfying interplay of flavors. Yum!
From Teak in Red Bank, we enjoyed the Naruto Roll ($16); tuna, salmon, yellowtail, kani, avocado, red onion, cilantro, Ponzu sauce, and tobiko (flying fish roe), were all wrapped in thin discs of cucumber. Light and refreshing, it disappeared from the plate way too fast.
A sweet and sour preparation of Calamari ($12) from Woody’s in Tinton Falls was quite special. A large plate of lightly breaded tender rings and crunchy tentacles, drizzled with a savory sauce, tasted honey and chili. The balance of sweet with a bit of heat and tang was addictive and made me wish we had ordered two.
Can a simple dish like Shrimp Toasts ($9) be all that impressive? Yes, when served up by Modine in Asbury Park. This low country-themed restaurant does thick triangle-shaped puffs of toasted bread, which are then coated with chopped shrimp in lieu of the usual shrimp paste, some Szechuan spice, scallions and a topping of white sesame seeds, creating a remarkably light dish that I could not stop eating.
D’Jeet? in The Grove, Shrewsbury, offered Local New Jersey Button Clams ($15), in a flavorful Tomato-Saffron Broth, which were sweet and tender, and had an intriguing taste of smoked paprika. Happily, it was served with toasted sourdough bread, which was excellent when dipped in that memorable broth.
I was very impressed with Nettie’s Vinegar Chicken ($19) from the recently opened Nettie’s House of Spaghetti, in Tinton Falls. Half a free range chicken, served with the breast pan-roasted, and the leg and thigh breaded and fried, then finished with house-made roasted red peppers, poblano peppers, and a splash of vinegar, this was chicken taken to a whole new level.
I love creative vegetable dishes, and found a special one at Undici in Rumson. Cavolfiore ($16), presented roasted tri-colored heirloom cauliflower, with pomegranate seeds, endive, borage, Brillo cheese (Tuscan sheep’s milk pecorino), pumpkin seeds, with a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. This mix of textures and flavors elevated humble cauliflower to star status.
Anjelica’s in Sea Bright offered a special of Black Sea Bass ($36) that was indeed special. Juicy filets of meaty fish were served with large mussels and clams in the shell, Fregola, and a white clam sauce with lots of chopped clams. Delish.
There were other dishes that made my mouth water too, but these were the ones that come to mind immediately. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Follow him on Instagram @dinnerwithbob.
This article was first published in the Feb.7-14, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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