Restaurant Review: Semolina

July 25, 2018
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By Bob Sacks | 

Lots of folks believe bigger is better. They aspire to upgrade to a bigger house, more land, a more expensive car and just about more of everything!

Then there is Chuck Lesbirel, who was executive chef at the sizeable Ama Ristorante in Sea Bright for four and a half years, preparing food for their 45 or so tables. Fast forward to June 2018 and Chuck and his brother Tylar are now chef/co-owners of Semolina, a one-month-old, intimate restaurant, with only about 15 tables on White Street in Red Bank at the site of the former Dish Restaurant. Their concept is farm-to- table with the menu changing weekly, reflecting whatever is local and fresh. Yes, the noise level can be challenging on a busy night, but it seems to add to the party-like vibe of the room.

A true taste of summer, local peach panzanella, with its grape tomatoes, cucumber, rock shrimp and crunchy croutons was a refreshing starter for a warm night. Photo by Bob Sacks

We really liked the Local Peach Panzanella ($14); cubes of peach, halved grape tomatoes, slices of cucumber, scallions, meaty rock shrimp and crunchy croutons, was a true taste of summer with just enough acidity to make for a light but satisfying starter.

An artfully composed plate of Local Fluke Crudo ($14) was almost too pretty to eat, but that would have been a shame. Thin slices of impeccably fresh fluke were lightly dressed with a piquant cucumber “gazpacho” (finely diced cucumbers), Thai chilies and mint. This dish was easy to inhale in a few tasty mouthfuls, leaving us wishing for more.

From the selection of six pastas the night of our visit, the English Pea Agnolotti ($23) called out to us. A creamy ricotta/pea filling encased in small pillows of al dente pasta was sauced with lemon, mint, pea tendrils and butter. Generously portioned and visually appealing, it was a perfect middle course to share.

Grilled Faroe Island Salmon ($28) saw a nicely charred portion arrive medium rare, plated with a salad of red baby beets, local arugula, chunks of perfectly ripe black figs, and saba (an Italian syrup made from a reduction of grape must, resembling a thicker, sweeter version of balsamic vinegar). We really enjoyed the complex flavors of this dish but wished the salad had been served slightly warm instead of chilled.

One guest had nothing but rave reviews for the Grilled Berkshire Pork Chop ($32). A hefty 14-ounce chop charred on the outside and juicy and tender within; plated with a savory apricot mostarda (an Italian condiment composed of dried apricots and mustard oil), toasted farro (an ancient grain), and cashew hummus (yum). If this dish is offered on the night of your visit and you are a pork lover, it should not be missed.

Fluke crudo, as pretty as a picture, was beautifully plated. With its cucumber “gazpacho,” Thai chilies and fresh mint, it tasted even better than it looked. Photo by Bob Sacks

American Red Snapper ($32), the skin seared crispy, was cooked through but still moist, tender and flaky within. A novel plating of baby rainbow carrots, carrot top pesto and carrot puree accompanied the fish. The trifecta of three iterations of fresh carrots was definitely a winner.

Happily, Semolina is BYO. For starters, we opened a Sicilian white, 2011 Passopisciaro Guardiola Bianco; this Chardonnay-based wine had lots of citrusy notes and fresh acidity, with some underlying creaminess and is worth seeking out for a change of pace. A 1985 Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon from California had a very crumbly cork which refused to be extracted in one piece; I suspect the wine suffered because of this. The wine was not oxidized, but the fruit was no longer present. On to a 2010 G.D. Vajra Lange Freisa Kye. This Italian red from the Lange area of the Piedmont region is 100 percent freisa grape and showed black fruits, some tannin for structure, a touch of acidity, and yet was elegant and not at all heavy-handed.

The restaurant uses stemless wine glasses which lend a casual, if rustic touch, so if you favor traditional stemware, bring some from home. There were no decanters available the night of our visit, but I have it on good authority that one or two will be available shortly.

All the desserts are homemade. We had been told the Dark Chocolate Torta ($11) was a must, but they had run out that night, so we chose the Lemon Pound Cake with Jersey Blueberries and Basil Custard ($9); good but would have been better with the pound cake toasted and less custard to allow the cake’s lemony flavors to shine. Fresh Zeppoli ($10) dusted with powdered sugar, atop creamy lemon curd, were Feast of San Gennaro déjà vu good.

If true farm-to-table dining sounds appealing, then this restaurant merits a visit. The quality of the ingredients, attention to detail and the pleasant, knowledgeable service all come together for an enjoyable dining experience. Sometimes less is more, and bigger is not always better. Chuck and Tylar Lesbirel clearly know this.

Semolina Restaurant
13 White St.
Red Bank

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 July 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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