Posing 9th Ave courtyard reflections in their expansive, display windows (engaging in the summer, but drafty in the winter), Brandl's converted storefront has earned its place as a staple of every one of my NJ visits. Surviving almost a decade in Belmar's seasonal, shore community, Chris Brandl's clairvoyant ability to dictate food trends has earned him a little Manhattan in downtown Belmar. The only catch - highfalutin cuisine includes a pompous attitude at a big price. Is it worth patronizing a place that patronizes you, solely for the food? My answer: a resounding "yes, yes, yes", for unparalleled magnificence of a meal sculpted in unconventional excellence.
The intimate layout could be drunk in with a quick gulp (deep scarlet walls spattered with artwork and plush drapes pushed aside) creating a certain straightforwardness that laid all cards on the table (dark wood dressed in ivory linens). Our welcome by the wooden maitre d', who's icy greeting extended from host to server in slow winter months, proved colder than any window draft.
The Iceman cometh to pop our cork (BYOB, now also offer wine) and curtly recite specials with warm bread wafting like silent apologies from the busboy's basket. Further reparations were made with the deconstructed Caesar salad, where whole Romaine leaves were grilled and rather than wilting, bloomed in rich, smoky contrast to roasted tomatoes lining the plate. Garlic-soaked dressing and large shards of parmesan finished this contemporary translation of a classic, now interpreted as my tongue's fluent favorite (#1 Caesar pick nationwide). A structurally sound tower of tuna tartar and avocado brought the house down with wasabi crme fraiche and citrus soy additions power-washing the palate. My crab-cakes runneth over with lump crabmeat and the mango chutney with cilantro oil (caramelized shallots with whole grain honey mustard in winter) gave complexity to these miniature morsels without masking the star.
Threads of the familiar wove through luxury laden entrees beginning with the Lazy Lobster, aptly named for incapacitating its victim, arriving de-shelled and ready for feasting. Succulent jewels of claw and tail meat plumped beneath a velvet carpet of asparagus risotto finished with cream and vanilla- so rich, it left me feeling like royalty (It's good to be the king). A few succulent bites were all that could be scavenged from two teeny lamb chops, but size didn't matter when it came to this positive portrayal that extracted the lamb's essence without an overpowering tang. Their petite nature was further forgiven with the billowy, tartness of a goat cheese/caramelized onion cake that rounded out the dish.
A walk on the "wild side" (literally) bore wild boar chops, whose distinct pungency was softened by wild mushrooms, crispy gnocchi and a touch of truffle honey- this game was fun. Kona crusted buffalo tenderloin reflected adventurous ambition, but the coffee coating surrounding the tender meat wasn't my cup of Joe.
Dessert time chimed with tiramisu and its delicate layers of cream followed by the subtle punch of espresso, soaked cake- a pleasure to the eye and palate. The dark chocolate souffl (ordered 45 min in advance for 2) arrived looking impressive accompanied by a small pitcher of melted chocolate, but even after being poured, the cake was extremely dry- not worth the money or the wait. The gelato, or should I say overpriced ice cream was disappointing for the obvious difference in taste. If you're advertising gelato, it needs to be gelato (especially at $4 a scoop)! It's best to stick with appetizers and entrees- the portions are small, but scrumptious.
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