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Top Ten Jersey Shore Dining 2003
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BRANDL.
703 Belmar Plaza
Belmar, NJ
(732) 280-7501
Cuisine: Innovative American
http://www.brandlrestaurant.com

Chris Brandl, the original power behind the stove at Manasquan's Mahogany Grille, launched his eponymous restaurant this past December. Occupying the digs originally inhabited by Bella Luna, an excellent eatery in its own right, the bright, airy space is the perfect venue to showcase this talented chef's innovative American victuals. There are many exceptional appetizers and entrées from which to choose, but seafood, in my opinion, clearly takes center stage here. Mr. Brandl's crab cakes, for example, are truly exceptional. The golden brown crust of two diminutive pan-seared patties gently yields to a marvelously meaty interior, which is delightfully counterbalanced with a healthy dose of mango salsa and threads of lobster gastrique. Also not to be missed are plump littleneck clams and crunchy rock shrimp swimming in a sultry Pernod-scallion sea. For your main course, be sure to try the potato-wrapped sea bass invigorated with red pepper coulis or the fabulously crispy horseradish-encrusted grouper set on a feathery pillow of chive potato purée and finished with a savory scallion-miso broth. Desserts, courtesy of Mr. Brandl's cousin, Shannon Sagan, are every bit the equal of their illustrious predecessors. A delightful dining experience. BYOB.

DOMINIC'S PLACE
Restaurant now closed.
5209 Pacific Avenue
Wildwood, NJ
(609) 729-8500
Cuisine: Regional Italian
http://www.dominicsplace.com

Now entering its sophomore year (Family, unfortunately, decided to close the restaurant.), Dominic's Place is, in every sense of the word, a family affair. Proprietor and executive chef John Damico and son-in-law Robert Wright hold forth in the kitchen, while their spouses and other relatives handle the various chores at the front and back of the house. The storefront space may be small, but the welcome is large and gracious; indeed, patrons are treated as guests at a full and overflowing familial fête. And the food, rich and robust (sporting decidedly moderate tariffs, I might add), fits the celebratory mood perfectly. A sumptuously tender serving of broccoli rabe is bereft of bitterness and buttressed by chunks of sweet Italian sausage and roasted red peppers. Fresh asparagus spears are sautéed with white wine, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, and fresh & sun-dried tomatoes. Entrées include an excellent cioppino, a generous allocation of Chef John's old-fashioned Italian Sunday dinner of spaghetti gravy with meatballs and sausage, two top-notch veal dishes, and a select number of daily specials. But don't dash off... Chef Bob's desserts including a legendary crème brûlée, individual sour cream and apple cobbler, and decadent Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake -- are surely worthy of the calories consumed and the possible postponement of your next cholesterol test. BYOB.

JOE & MAGGIE'S BISTRO ON BROADWAY
Restaurant now closed.
591 Broadway
Long Branch, NJ
(732) 571-8848
Cuisine: International
http://www.joeandmaggiesbistro.com

Joe & Maggie's is a perennial favorite among year-round residents and summer visitors to the Jersey Shore. Chef/proprietor Joseph Romanowski has succeeded in taking humble international bistro fare one step beyond. His seasonally-changing culinary creations are decidedly cosmopolitan in scope, and he always manages to add ingenious little touches that spark the imagination as well as the palate. Begin with such delights as Maine lobster salad surrounded by a carpaccio of beef tenderloin, tian of roasted beets with a provocative apple cider-maple vinaigrette, or pan-roasted littleneck clams "Murphy," sporting a broth invigorated with pancetta and hot cherry peppers. Entrée-wise, you will encounter such standouts as herb-roasted black sea bass reclining on a sumptuous seabed of potato-leek purée, BBQ-spiced roast Hudson Valley duck breast, and Louisiana-style double-cut pork chop with sherry-mushroom sauce. For dessert, always be on the lookout for Joe's chocolate confection of the day.

LA SPIAGGIA
357 West 8th Street
Ship Bottom, NJ
(609) 494-4343
Cuisine: Northern Italian

There are a number of highly recommendable restaurants on Long Beach Island that I have reviewed in one form or another over the years. Blue, Green Gables, Roberto's Dolce Vita, and Yellowfin, for example, come immediately to mind. But La Spiaggia is particularly special, as it is an eatery to which I would gladly return during any season of the year. Valet parking is the first indication that this will not be acutely casual culinary business as usual...ditto the warm greeting and professional service. And wall sconces, wainscoting, and crisp white napery provide simple yet elegant touches to the restaurant's inviting interior. The cuisine, of course, is commensurate with the upscale décor and service. Chef Daniel Stragapede's northern Italian fare is understated but decidedly lusty. Starters include an antipasto freddo highlighted by meaty Jersey beefsteaks, fresh mozzarella, and splash of balsamic vinaigrette, jumbo shrimp sautéed in garlic and white wine, and stuffed artichoke with oreganato breadcrumbs. For your main course, you can't go wrong with the spicy seafood fra diavolo, grilled New Zealand rack of lamb, or one of the exceptional veal preparations. Buon Appetito! BYOB.

MAHOGANY GRILLE
Restaurant now closed.
142 Main Street
Manasquan, NJ
(732) 292-1300
Cuisine: Eclectic/Fusion

Fast approaching its second anniversary, this stylish shore eatery remains as popular as ever. But it's not just the attractive dining area and cozy bar that continue to pull in the crowds night after night. Indeed, no one would ever accuse the Mahogany Grille of being just another pretty face. Christopher Ross's exceptional eclectic cuisine is the chief drawing card here; and the chef shows absolutely no signs of resting on his significant laurels. Plate-wise, there's a good deal of excitement going on as myriad colors, tastes, and textures combine into a beautifully synchronized gastronomic gestalt. His sautéed jumbo lump crab cake journeys south-of-the-border in the company of a provocative pineapple & black bean salsa and heady jalapeño jelly, and his tuna carpaccio and salmon tartar make a most hospitable pairing& properly chaperoned by crème fraîche and osetra caviar. Among the entrées, choose from such delectable delicacies as napa cabbage-wrapped salmon, asparagus-stuffed snapper, or seared and sliced duck breast with caramelized onion/duck-filled crepes. An interesting, moderately-priced wine list -- with vintage recommendations following each entrée description -- makes an outstanding complement to the cuisine.

MARIE NICOLE'S
Restaurant now closed.
9510 Pacific Avenue
Wildwood Crest, NJ
(609) 522-5425
Cuisine: International
http://www.marienicoles.com

Those in search of an elegant evening at table need no longer cross the toll bridge to Cape May. From the moment you step inside, you will find Wildwood Crest's Marie Nicole's an Epicurean delight. Rich cherry wood is very much in evidence, both at the diminutive bar and in the dining areas. Well-spaced tables are accented with dark green and white napery. The atmosphere is luxurious yet decidedly unstuffy. Ditto the exceptional cuisine. The former sous chef now exec, Steve Cozzi, has fashioned a menu that succeeds in beguiling the palate with its marvelous interplay of colors, flavors and textures. Begin with Mr. Cozzi's remarkable shrimp tempura -- plump, crunchy crustaceans embraced in an ethereal tempura batter and kissed by a seductive black bean beurre blanc -- or, perhaps, his grilled marinated summer vegetables complemented by crispy, pan-fried buffalo mozzarella. When it comes to entrées, you may choose from such delights as braised halibut Provençal, pan-seared red snapper with Japanese rice and orange soy glaze, or dry-aged New York strip steak with a tarragon butter sauce and spicy fries. Dessert? Pastry chef Michael Schultz turns out a truly tempting array; and topping my list of recommendations is a delightfully decadent frozen peanut butter passion. There is a very nice wine list, including some excellent selections by the glass, to complement your meal. An exceptional dining experience!

RED SKY CAFÉ
3054 Route 9
Seaville, NJ
(609) 624-2550
Cuisine: Southwestern, Cajun/Creole

This eatery looks like a semi-dilapidated shack perched along the side of the road. And the interior, a diminutive space awash with bare wooden booths & tables adorned with paper napkins & placemats, isn't much to look at either. Throw in a somewhat less than spiffy restroom that requires a road trip through the tiny kitchen, and you have a scenario that would give any serious diner pause. . . But don't be dissuaded; you will find the welcome warm, the atmosphere convivial, the prices downright inflation busters, and the food -- which majors in Southwestern and minors in Cajun/Creole -- absolutely fresh, plenteous of portion, and exceedingly well-prepared. Begin with a real crowd-pleaser, the "Red Sky" nachos or, perhaps, the smooth but sprightly house-made guacamole or grilled portobello mushroom crowned with roasted poblano peppers and sweet crabmeat. For your main course, try one of the gargantuan chimichangas, shrimp and scallop fajita, or spicy catfish stuffed with herbed cornbread. Just be advised. . . Red Sky accepts reservations for ten or more only, is wildly popular, and fills up at the speed of light. So come early or be prepared to cool your heels outside. BYOB.

TISHA'S
Washington Mall
Cape May, NJ
(609) 884-9119
Cuisine: New American Fare with Italian Flair

Even after nine years, hidden away to the right rear of Cape May's Convention Hall, Tisha's remains one of this Victorian hamlet's most closely guarded secrets. But it is well worth seeking out, as there are charms aplenty to be discovered. The room itself is light and airy, boasting a beautiful view of the ocean and wall of windows that is gently parted to allow tables to spill out onto the boardwalk for al fresco dining in warmer weather. Despite its considerable ambient attributes, however, it is chef/proprietor Paul Negros exquisite cuisine that is the chief drawing card here. And in a community inundated with innovative American eateries, Mr. Negro's Italian accents succeed in adding a good deal of pizzazz to the usual culinary ports-of-call. His pasta e fagioli, for example, sports a marvelously rich tomato broth, and his fork-tender veal saltimbocca and Italian pork tenderloin are positively benchmark. Having said that, however, nothing beats his PEI mussels awash in a wonderful white sauce redolent of fresh basil and his incredible striped bass sautéed in a lemon-caper sauce set on a seabed of couscous and asparagus. Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Brooke Catanosa, are also not to be missed. BYOB.

TOMATOES
9300 Amherst Avenue
Margate, NJ
((609) 822-7535
Cuisine: Pacific Rim/California
http://www.tomatoesmargate.com

Now in its ninth year, Tomatoes continues its impressive run as one of the Jersey Shore's most popular dining destinations. Awash with natural woods & metals and the light emanating from the large picture windows fronting the bay, chef/owner Carmen Rone and co-proprietor Karen Sherman have fashioned a restaurant experience that is a feast for both the eye and the palate. Many of the stylish decorative touches are Oriental in nature and prove the perfect complement to the breezy, innovative Pacific Rim/California cuisine. Revel in such delicious dishes as lobster tail and jumbo shrimp over corn salsa with lime beurre blanc, red snapper in an ancho chili crust, grilled New Zealand lamb chops with ratatouille, and black pepper-encrusted sirloin finished with red wine demi-glace. Tomatoes also features an extremely popular sushi bar and an impressive glass-enclosed, climate-controlled wine cellar that is home to some two thousand reasonably priced vintages. This beguiling eatery remains incredibly popular, so be sure to make your reservations well in advance.

TRE FIGLIO
500 West White Horse Pike
Egg Harbor City, NJ
(609) 965-3303
Cuisine: Regional Italian
http://www.trefiglio.com

Sequestered along a quiet stretch of Route 30 just a few short miles from the casinos of AC and the beaches of Brigantine, Margate, and Ventnor, Jack & Toni Cordivari's Tre Figlio is a charming little gem that is superlatively suited for those who desire a touch of sophisticated serenity at the Jersey Shore. The restaurant is a beautifully appointed, intimate space replete with a comfortable bar, award-winning wine list, and first-rate service& And the cuisine, like the ambiance, is truly transporting; this is casually elegant dining at its finest. There are numerous antipasti to tempt your palate, but I prefer to start things off with an appetizer portion of one of Tre Figlio's homemade pastas. The gnocchi, ethereal potato and ricotta dumplings embellished with classic marinara and fresh basil, are especially recommended. Entrée-wise, make it a point to sample the double-cut veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and mozzarella cheese or the grilled swordfish alla puttanesca. Conclude your evening at table with the house-made almond biscotti or luscious ricotta cheesecake.

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The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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