I grew up along the Jersey shore, just 5 minutes over the bridge from Seaside Heights-where “THAT show” is taped. Now, if you know anything about the “reality” of this area, it’s that the people who live around here have nothing to do with the badly-behaved stars that represent the Bennies that we just can’t wait to vacate our beaches come September. We locals also have a few rules for surviving the summer: 1) Always take the back roads, 2)Never reveal the location of the quieter beaches to an out-of-towner, and 3) Never, ever, EVER, eat at a restaurant located on the water. Experience has shown that these tend to be the overpriced,crowded tourist-traps that practice the philosophy, “The prettier the view, the less you’ll notice the awful, frozen-and-reheated food.” And, unfortunately, this axiom has been true for me so many times no matter where I’ve gone, I tend to avoid “dining with a view” like the plague.
Then, out of nowhere, Chef Michael d’Ennery extended a personal invitation to us to come on out to the Atlantic Bar & Grill in nearby Seaside Park (down the road from Seaside Heights) and and try out his locally-sourced, seasonal menu. Now, I remember when this restaurant was “The Top O’ the Mast” and we had our high school choir’s spring banquet here: lobster traps and nautical maps on the walls, choice-of- fried-or-broiled-sprinkled-with-paprika-seafood-platter, live piano music, and-of course- a stunning view of the beach and ocean. I hadn’t heard much about the subsequent restaurants that had also made a go of it here, so needless to say, I was skeptical. John, however (maybe because he was raised in a land-locked area), urged me not to be so damn jaded and just say yes to the nice man.
The Atlantic Bar & Grill is actually attached to a motel, popular with the fishing crowd in the off-season; and it’s a little confusing and awkward to get to the restaurant itself-it’s almost like getting to a speakeasy through secret passageways. Of course, John and I like that sort of thing, it adds to the adventure. The trick is to just keep heading in the direction of the nearby ocean and let the signage guide you. Once inside, we were rewarded with a casual, but still elegant atmosphere that made the most of the view with almost all glass at the far wall. The entire dining room is arranged so that almost every table has some kind of a view of the rolling waves outside.
While looking over the menu, we munched on some exquisite breads made by Harvest House Brick Oven Bakery (located in-yes- in Brick,NJ), with a de rigeur, yet excellent herb/roasted garlic olive oil for dipping. I also got a kick out of seeing this printed on the bottom of the menu: “Cooking for you this evening will be Trevor, Brian, and Rob”-Chef Michael D’ Ennery”. I’ve never seen a chef sharing the spotlight with the other members of his kitchen like that. Very cool.
After nearly 15 minutes of hemming and hawing over what would give us the best lay of the land, we gave up and said “omakase” (“I put myself in your hands”). The server was happy to relay that to the chef, who seemed happy to start rolling out the things he most wanted us to try. We were started out with something from the “Raw” section: beautiful little plates arranged with an oyster, dressed with a pineapple yuzu mignonette (a sauce typically made with vinegar, pepper and herbs) and a clam, topped with a tomato-horseradish granita, both on the half-shell. Screamingly fresh, with only the slight aroma of the briny blue that they were pulled from. Both the gentle citrus of the minette and the cold/heat shock of the granita (a great play on the old cocktail sauce standby) added a nice touch, but allowed the natural flavors and umami of the shellfish to still be the main attraction (the whole purpose of eating them raw, after all).
Next came a crab cake appetizer with lemon aoli and cucumber fennel slaw, with a side of “Old Bay Air”. The crab cake was everything it should be: tons of crab meat, barely held together with gentle herbs and an invisible binder (maybe egg?), with a crisp exterior. The “air” was a fun flavor addition, as light as sea foam; the slaw was vinegary, which I like, but I wanted a bolder flavor to stand up to everything else on the plate. The aoli, however…well, there are no words. It was so rich, so simple,and so amazing, I might just request a bowl of it and a spoon next time. “You could serve that over a hot dog and it would be good,” John commented between mouthfuls.
And then came the pork.
It was a little plate of “Simply Grazin’ Crispy Pork Belly” (Simply Grazin’ is the organic farm located in Skillman, NJ that the belly was sourced from)- how could you go wrong? A little Napoleon of tender, juicy pork, with creamy, unctuous fat in the middle, topped with a peppery, crisp rind and served over a painted sweet soy sauce for accent. The side of Japanese pickles was a nice way to cut through the rich fat on the palate; and the crisp sesame cashew brittle added an earthiness that kept us from levitating off our chairs. It was a love letter to pork that even Tony Bourdain would be proud of. When it was announced that the next course would be salads, I couldn’t get too excited. I eat salad all the time at home, so I generally don’t bother when I go out to eat. The first was a nice local baby spinach mix with candied walnuts, a good quality goat cheese and champagne-raspberry vineagrette. Tasty…but it was the spring green salad that actually raised an eyebrow. Tossed with hearts of palm, crisp, smoky lardons, radishes, and a house-made blue cheese dressing, it blew me away: especially because I generally don’t like blue cheese. This was good.
It was time for the mains. We were given a few choices in this department, and I chose the Furikake Dusted Tuna. I had to go home and look up “furikake” (a dry Japanese condiment consisting of a mixture of dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar, salt, and MSG). The seared, rare tuna was served with stir fried tot soi (an Asian mustard green), smoked pork (ummm, I’m thinkin’ Chef Michael likes pork),yellow miso sauce, gingered carrot puree, and baby wasabi greens. Yet as delicious as this was, it was overshadowed by the dark and sinister force that was John’s entree. Though it was listed cheerfully on the menu as the” 100% Organic/Pastured Simply Grazin’ Burger”, make no mistake: this is no ordinary burger. And if you’ve eaten at Chef D’Ennery’s former haunt, Trinity (in Keyport), you’ll know this diabolical concoction well. It does qualify as a “fine dining” experimental burger, complete with big honkin’ chunks of Hudson Valley-raised foie gras on it, but this goes beyond the “how expensive can we make it” trend; this has got unhealthy, obsessive love written all over it. This perfectly cooked, black-pepper-rubbed, medium-rare burger (we cheered when we saw “Not responsible for well- done items” on the bottom of the menu) was topped with onion marmalade (caramelized) and a melted slice of truffled cheese, served on a buttered challah bun. Not enough? Okay then, how about a side of homemade ketchup and crispy, truffle-dusted fries? After John’s first bite, he said with a look of misty ecstasy in his eyes, “All you need is a Weybacher Quad [note: a really amazing craft beer], this burger, and a cigarette afterward. ” All this from a man that’s never smoked in his life.
But that wasn’t enough- it was time to be pummeled with dessert. A strawberry shortcake – made with local, fresh strawberries tossed with sugar, served with cannoli cream and 25 year-old balsamic vinegar (the real thing, not that supermarket stuff). A simple, delicious spin that doesn’t fuss too much with the strawberries, which can stand on their own. The milk chocolate torte (baked with caramel and accented with pistachios, chocolate “crunchies” and sea salt) was somehow as rich as if it had been made with dark chocolate; it was a cross between a pastry and a fine candy. The fried “Buttermilk Drops” were a homage to Chef Michael’s childhood in New Orleans; he has fond memories of going to a bakery with his parents and picking up these little nuggets of joy on a Sunday, and so decided to recreate them. Think of a cross between the world’s best zeppole and a beignet, fluffy and cinnamony on the inside, crisp and honey-coated on the outside (though he swore to us they weren’t honey-coated). They were served with chocolate ganache, raspberry, and caramel dipping sauces. While the sauces were delicious, I didn’t bother with them much. That would be gilding the lily.
Overall, our service was great. Although the hostess seemed a bit young, inexperienced, and uncertain (but pleasant), our server was excellent. She was knowledgeable and friendly, not too formal, and knew just when to zoom in and help us out and when to let us have our space. Were there any flaws that we could see? Well, maybe just a few. OK, so there’s an overdone offering on the menu like fried calamari with Thai chili sauce (but the tourist contingent does have to be satisfied, right?), and there weren’t any exciting craft brew offerings to go with that orgasmic burger (but Chef Michael did mention he was looking in to that…). I have to admit, however, these sins are so easily forgivable.
Chef Michael d’ Ennery’s amazing dining experience was on the house (disclosure); but I fear it’s more like a pusher crooning seductively, “The first one’s free, kid.” It’s apparent that his kitchen is top notch and he knows that we will be back. Frequently.
Atlantic Bar & Grill – 24th and Central Avenue, Seaside Park. 732.854.1588.