Holiday Road Trip: Red Bank, New Jersey

by artfuldiner on December 5, 2014

in Breaking News, New Jersey, Special Celebrations

With the holiday season now upon us, if even the thought of arduous rounds of shopping already has you “mall weary,” perhaps a change of venue, a “Road Trip” or “Weekend Getaway” – combining business and pleasure, so to speak – might be just the ticket to lift your spirits.

Red Bank, NJ 4Well, if you’ve got the wanderlust, allow me to suggest the destination – and less than two hours away. Perched on the picturesque banks of the Navesink River, Red Bank, New Jersey, was named the third best small town in America by Smithsonian magazine. On a list of 20 small communities (with populations of 25,000 or fewer residents) that are rich in culture and other charming attributes, Red Bank came in behind only Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Taos, New Mexico, finishing ahead of such notable communities as Naples, FL (9), and Princeton, NJ (12).

When I was growing up, and living just a few miles away in Middletown, Red Bank was the shopping hub of Monmouth County. I remember numerous trips with my parents, along with outings to the old Carlton Theater, as well as visits to the barber, doctor, and dentist. Whatever families needed – entertainment, food, clothing, shoes, or a Cub Scout uniform – Red Bank was the place to go.

Red Bank, NJ - Count Basie TheatreBut then came the malls… and Red Bank – along with a host of other towns – fell on hard times; so hard, in fact, that it was derogatorily dubbed “Dead Bank.” Some communities never bounced back… but Red Bank managed to stage a remarkable cultural and economic rebirth. It began with the refurbishment of the 1926 Carlton Theatre that subsequently became the Count Basie Theatre (named after the town’s native son), which was, in turn, followed by an influx of upscale restaurants, cafes, galleries, clubs, and boutiques. The former “Dead Bank,” now the “Hippest Town in New Jersey,” according to New Jersey Monthly, has become a mecca for shopping, fine dining, and a variety of cultural pursuits.

So if you’d like to escape from the malls this holiday season, but still do a bit of shopping – and, perhaps, a little antiquing (Buildings II & III of the highly regarded Antique Center are likely to yield the most positive results) – Red Bank on the Navesink is definitely worth a road trip.

Red Bank - Riverside Gardens ParkBut not only can you “Shop ‘til You Drop,” if that is your kinky inclination; there are a number of other intriguing options as well. You may, for example, pop into one of the art galleries, check out the beautifully restored Victorian train depot, take a pleasant stroll in Riverside Gardens Park, or settle in for an afternoon or evening performance at the Two River Theater. And, of course, the dining possibilities are legion… But rather than run the risk of inflicting “overchoice” paralysis, let me simply point you to a couple of personal favorites

Restaurant Nicholas, 160 Highway 35 South, Red Bank, NJ, (732) 345-5225: At the age of 17, Nicholas Harary was enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and was its youngest graduate. At 23, after immersing himself in the study of wine while working at a restaurant in Sand Diego, he became the youngest head sommelier at the renowned restaurant Jean-George in Manhattan. In the meantime, he had met and married Melissa, who was also starting out in the restaurant business. Fourteen years ago, they pooled their savings and went into debt to convert a run-down Mexican eatery into Restaurant Nicholas. And the rest, as they say, is history…

Nicholas - Exterior 3I first reviewed Nicholas in May 2001, followed by a second review in September 2007, and a third on my blog in 2012. That first review was penned a scant five months after the restaurant had opened its doors; and it was apparent, even then, that Nicholas represented the most superlative dining experience the Garden State had to offer… So it was absolutely no surprise that it subsequently received a coveted four star rating from the New York Times. Since its inception, it has been one of the premier restaurant destinations in America; in 2008, AOL named it one of the top 11 restaurants in the country; and from 2011 – 2013 it was included in Gayot’s list of the Top 40 Restaurants in the United States.

Nicholas7The serene dining room is dramatically enhanced by the subtly diffused lighting of Robert Kuster’s fiery tubular chandelier (a smaller version is to be found in the restaurant’s foyer). Ever inviting – but decidedly unstuffy – the casually sophisticated space is the perfect match for the personable service and exquisitely prepared and presented New American cuisine.

The food is fresh and vibrant, alive with the symphonic interplay of exceptional tastes and tantalizing textures. And yet there is simplicity… a clarity, if you will. You find no egoistic enumeration of superfluous ingredients, no contrived architectural oddities assaulting the eye while leaving the palate wanting. The culinary artistry is readily apparent. But it is the artistry of subtle restraint… of purity of form and of substance… of intensity of flavor.

As the menu changes seasonally, let me just mention a few of the memorable highlights sampled over the years… Among the appetizer reminiscences, for example, are presentations of green asparagus, Parisienne gnocchi, and beef carpaccio. The thick asparagus spears were firm, yet tender and finished with an incomparable morel mushroom ragoût; and the beef carpaccio was wafer thin and perfectly paired with pickled ramps, arugula, and fiddlehead ferns. The Parisienne gnocchi, however, was without peer. Made from pâte à choux – versatile dough comprised of flour, water, and eggs – the diminutive dumplings were golden brown, yielding to an ethereal epicenter, with sugar snap peas and braised artichokes adding their own unique complementary flavors.

Nicholas - Atlantic HalibutThe Atlantic halibut also stands out as a uniquely conceived and executed appetizer. The filet was poached, cooled, and companioned by smoked blackberry purée and figs, with fromage blanc adding just a hint of creaminess. The flesh was pristinely white and beautifully textured, and the infusion of contrasting accoutrements beguilingly delicious.

Nicholas-Skuna-Bay-Salmon-300x191As a main course, the Skuna Bay salmon was nothing short of extraordinary. Skuna Bay salmon are raised in Nootka Sound, British Columbia, Canada, using farm-raised non-industrial techniques. The fish are craft-raised without hormones, growth promoters, or antifoulants. The difference in taste and texture from ordinary Atlantic salmon is palpable; and the eye-catching presentation equally impeccable. Two filets were arranged on a pillow of sliced baby summer squash, enhanced with petite pools of pickled blueberry, and adorned with a quinoa tuile.

Nicholas-Roasted-Rohan-Duck-Breast-300x205Another winning entrée, proffered on a previous early fall menu, was the Rohan duck breast. The Rohan duck is a unique crossbreed that is raised naturally, without antibiotics or hormones, and boasts rosy-red tender meat with a mild flavor. In this particular instance, the breast was roasted, cut into three segments, adorned with slices of baked honey-crisp apple and acorn squash purée, and finished with an assertively addictive port wine reduction. Outstanding in every respect.

Desserts, of course, courtesy of Pastry Chef Kelly Kennedy West – whether the incomparable pumpkin soufflé, dark & white chocolate ganache, Bartlett pear mousse, or chocolate & crimson beet cake with cream cheese ice cream and sweet beet purée – demonstrate the same flair and finesse as their predecessors.

However, if you’re a cheese fan, this is most assuredly the place to indulge your whims. Recently sampled were four in lieu of dessert: Barber’s 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar (aged 24 months with a creamy texture and savory and sweet notes); Brillat Savarin (a cow’s milk, triple-crème brie-style cheese… rich and decadently creamy); Epoisses (this strong cheese is a native of Burgundy and a personal favorite); Rouge River Blue Cheese (well-aged with a creamy/crunchy/smooth texture)… And nothing goes with cheese like several classes of Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Tawny Port!

Restaurant Nicholas is open for dinner only, Tuesday – Sunday, beginning at 5:30 p.m.; closed Mondays. The restaurant offers a three-course menu priced at $70.00 per person; a four-course garden menu priced at $70.00 per person; and a six-course chef’s tasting menu priced at $90.00 per person; $140.00 per person with wine pairings. Reservations are essential.

Nicholas - Exterior 2On the other hand, Bar N, located just off the restaurant proper is first come, first served, and the ideal stopover for a relaxed, spur-of-the-moment meal. The bar menu consists of small & large plates and desserts served à la carte, and a daily three-course menu priced at $35.00; $55.00 with wine tasting flight.

Dish, 13 White Street, Red Bank, NJ, (732) 345-7070: If you’re in the mood for a more casual chow-down, Dish, which serves up eclectic American fare and is also a BYOB eatery, should fill the bill nicely. Owned by Chef Anthony Ferrando and front-of-the-house coordinator Judy Matthew, Dish has been a fixture on the Jersey Shore dining scene since 2004.

Dish Red Bank - InteriorThis is one eatery that is exceedingly well named, as its lemon-yellow walls are adorned with vertical and horizontal arrangements of, well, yes… dishes. The diminutive interior is tastefully appointed… and also quite noisy when filled to capacity, which seemed to be most of the time. But as I overheard Ms. Matthew confiding to a patron: “Once you taste the food, you’ll forget about the noise.” And, for the most part, this is true. On the other hand, the atmosphere is clearly bustling bistro; and the spirited commotion is all part of the fun.

But be advised… the restaurant is so popular that reservations are essential during the week and are not accepted on free-for-all Saturday evenings. The restaurant, which is closed on Monday, begins serving at 5:30 p.m.; 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. My advice: Be sure to reserve and come early.

Birravino - InteriorBirravino, 183 Riverside Avenue, Red Bank, NJ, (732) 842-5990: This past summer, after 27 years in business, the exceedingly popular Basil T’s brewpub closed its doors, underwent a complete makeover, and, on September 1, was reincarnated as Birravino. Everyone – including this writer – thought that owner Victor Rallo, Jr., also proprietor of the upscale Undici Taverna Rustica in nearby Rumson, had taken leave of his senses.

But Mr. Rallo insists that both American dining styles and the economy have changed in recent years, as more diners seek out a healthier approach to eating. And the menu offers a variety of Mediterranean offerings served up in portion sizes that enable diners to sample three or more courses without putting a major dent in the wallet – no entrée is priced above $24.00, he noted.

In additional, while Basil T’s boasted an extensive wine list of bottles priced from $30.00 – $500.00, Birravino will carry 125 wines, none priced higher than $50.00. And instead of featuring just three of its in-house beers, the new concept will add two “guest taps” and 50 craft brews.

Despite the repurposing and name change, however, the menu holds many old favorites, and the food certainly appears to be up to the former Basil T’s high standards. Especially recommended are the salads, first-rate pizzas, and pasta dishes.

Open every day at 12:00 noon, Birravino is a great spot for lunch or a mid-afternoon snack. By the way, Birravino is a portmanteau of the Italian words for beer and wine.

If you plan to extend your “Road Trip” into a “Weekend Getaway” and spend a night or two, there are three very good lodging options – accommodations I can personally vouch for. The venerable Molly Pitcher Inn, 88 Riverside Avenue, Red Bank, NJ, (732) 747-2500, just across the street from the aforementioned Birravino, was built in 1928 and completely updated several years ago. It boasts an elegant, highly-regarded dining room and beautiful river view. The Oyster Point Hotel, 146 Bodman Place, Red Bank, NJ, (732) 530-8200, is a modern boutique hotel that also features a fabulous view of the Navesink. The Courtyard Marriott, 245 Half Mile Road, Red Bank, NJ, (732) 530-5552, is just off the Red Bank/Lincroft exit of the Garden State Parkway, and a little over a mile from the center of Red Bank proper.

Happy Holidays!


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