So we had a dinner reservation at this establishment Saturday evening. I guess if I had to sum up the experience in one sentence it would be "You get what you pay for."
We arrived five minutes early for our 7pm reservation to find no hostess, heck, not even a hostess podium. After awkwardly standing in the 5'x5' area that passes for a foyer for 3-4 minutes we were finally approached by a man wearing jeans and holding a clipboard. I told him the reservation name, he then simply turned around and started to walk away, finally saying "follow me" over his shoulder after a few steps. This was not exactly the first impression I was hoping for. This coupled with the fact that the restaurant was half empty at 7pm on a Saturday... Not good.
We were seated at a banquette table for four that was less than 1' from the tables on either side. In fact, there was a woman sitting at the end of the banquette next to us and her chair back was almost touching our table. This isn't Manhattan folks, and people aren't waiting three weeks to get a reservation at your restaurant. You can space things out a little bit. Especially considering the fact that at no point was the restaurant full from when we arrived until 9:10 when we left, so removing a table or two wouldn't really effect your finances and would help boost your customer satisfaction.
We waited at the table for roughly 5 minutes before our server came over. Not really that big of a deal, but when the restaurant is at half capacity you expect a touch more attentiveness. Its a fine line that servers need to walk. If they come over the moment you get sat it seems rushed and obnoxious, but too long without attention, water, menus or your wine opened and a party will start to get antsy. I find 5 minutes to be just on the verge of the latter scenario.
So once she came our server was very friendly, although rough around the edges in terms of service abilities. She first gave us menus and then asked which bottle of wine we wanted opened (we had a few). While she was opening the wine she mentioned that they did have specials for the evening, but that we'd have to wait a few minutes because she can't open wine and tell specials at the same time... I found this to be odd, but it made sense afterwards when she pulled out her pad and read the specials to us. This is a huge pet-peeve of mine... This is what you do for a living, this is how you pay your bills, at least make an effort to know your job and know your product and take a modicum of pride in what you do. The specials were not complex and there was no reason they could not have been memorized at the beginning of the shift. Apparently this is the norm for service at Monticello though, because I observed every server do the same throughout the night.
A few minutes later we placed our order, had some wine in us and were in high spirits (more thanks to the fact that we were dying to see Jim Gaffigan at the Basie at 9:30). First course came after about 10 minutes which I found to be perfect timing. My wife had fresh mozzarella with tomato and grilled eggplant, her sister had the eggplant rollatine with grilled crostini, and both myself and my sister-in-law's fiance had seared scallops with a pancetta risotto (I know, a very filling appetizer but I simply had to check it out). My wife loved the mozzarella caprese, but that's pretty hard to do poorly. The eggplant rollatine looked quite good and I liked the fact that the eggplant was not breaded, giving it a lighter, fresher quality. The scallops and risotto, well they weren't quite up to snuff. The scallops were nicely seared, though lacking seasoning. The risotto was a bad imitation of what risotto is supposed to be. The rice was under cooked and clumpy, and the pancetta obviously hadn't been cooked before being added to the dish, it must have just been thrown in raw while the risotto was cooking because it was soggy and tasteless. The entire concoction was disappointing to say the least.
After the appetizers were cleared it took about 15 minutes for the entrees to come to the table, again, perfect timing... or it would have been if all four entrees arrived. Let's say it was perfect timing for three of the dishes, but it took an additional 5 minutes for my wife's entree to arrive. And to add insult to injury it took 10 minutes for anyone to bring a knife to the table so my wife could cut her chop. I gave her my butter knife to use while she waited.
So here were the dinners... My wife had the 12oz Veal Chop Marsala, served with grilled veg and pancetta risotto (the risotto was utilized in no less than four dishes between the menu and specials... very creative). Her sister had Sesame Crusted "A1 Sushi grade ahi tuna" (notice the quotes) over sauteed baby spinach and finished with an Asian sauce (apparently there is only one sauce in Asia, because no other specifics were given). Her fiance had a Seafood Arrabbiata over spaghettini. I had seared duck breast over pappardella with a rosemary merlot reduction. My wife's veal chop appeared to be cooked appropriately (she requested medium) but she said the meat was dry and completely lacking flavor, plus the risotto was still sub par. The tuna dish was a mess, even the food runner apologized for its appearance. There was sauce all over the place and the plate was drizzled with some unknown beige thin crème fraîche looking liquid (maybe it was supposed to be a wasabi creme?). In addition, there is simply no way that the tuna was "A1 Sushi Grade". Sushi grade tuna is a deep red/purple color. This was neon pink, which tells me that its inferior quality tuna that's been injected with dye by the distributor to give it color... Completely unacceptable. Her fiance enjoyed his seafood pasta although he did mention that it was spicy to the point that his nose started to run, which was not surprising considering there were multiple pieces of sliced jalapeno in the sauce. Jalapeno? That's the first time I've ever seen that in an Arrabbiata, which is supposed to be plum tomato, basil and red pepper flakes. My duck with pappardella... where to start? The duck was overcooked, I had asked for medium rare and it was medium. The skin and fat were not properly rendered and were soggy. The "rosemary merlot reduction" just tasted like an obligatory brown sauce with salt. It reminded me of the sauce you get with your beef and broccoli when you order Chinese take-out. And, to top it all off, there was jalapeno in the sauce... Huh? At least the pasta was cooked a proper al dente.
We weren't exactly clamoring to order dessert after the debacle that was our entree course, but we still had time to spare before we needed to head over to the theater... Dessert menus were brought over and we took a quick look. Unfortunately the one item that appeared interesting (a coconut creme caramel) was 86'd, so we settled for other items that were significantly less appealing. My wife chose the crème brûlée and the remaining three of us chose the warm chocolate cake with chocolate gelato. The crème brûlée was far too firm and eggy, and the flamed sugar on top was more burned then browned. The warm chocolate cake was the worst frozen chocolate lava cake I've ever encountered. The molten cake at TGI Fridays that my daughter orders is better than this one. All of the desserts were finished with canned whipped cream... If I wanted crappy chocolate cake topped with Reddi-Wip, I'd go to a diner or chain restaurant. I understand that many restaurants can't afford to employ a Pastry Chef and thus rely on vendors for pre-made desserts (still, there was no excuse for how bad that lava cake was), but you can't at least make a fresh whipped cream?
This was one of the worst dining experiences that I've had in quite some time. I was beyond embarrassed that I actually brought people here. Frankly, the only reason I did so was because the other couple was on a budget and I tried to find someplace reasonably priced yet decent. Dinner for four, including tax and gratuity, came to $240.
I gave the experience two stars, mainly because even though the service was moderately inept, at least they were pleasant. Also, in retrospect I have to alter my initial comment from above of "You get what you pay for." I recently dined with a party of four at Bonefish Grill, a chain, and not only was the food 5x better than Monticello (let me repeat, AT A CHAIN RESTAURANT!), the total was $220 including tax and tip AND alcohol.
Monticello At Red Bank | Italian Restaurant
69 Broad St, Red Bank, NJ 07701