Greetings from Asbury Park Part 2: The Food
It says something about the quality of dining on the Asbury Park Boardwalk that we re-visited three different restaurants during our four day stay there, eschewing any number of other options for the sake of immediate regratification. The food was so good that I feel the need to give each of these three places – and a couple more quick visitations – their due props.
Description: “The sights, sounds and tastes of the newly renovated Asbury Park Boardwalk,” “great live entertainment paired with exquisite cuisine.”
Ambience: The former Howard Johnson’s has been converted into two different restaurants, ostensibly with separate menus. Both offer indoors and outdoors bars and dining, while the upstairs Supper Club, as its name suggests, is laid out for entertainment as well as performing.
Food: Monday night, upon arrival in Asbury Park, and keen to sit outside on the boardwalk, we found ourselves almost instantly settling on McLoone’s Asbury Grille, mainly because we could get an outdoor table and three of us saw items on the menu we were instantly attracted to. I opted for the security of a Grilled Portobello Mushroom topped with red peppers and sweet potato fries; Posie found herself loving the fresh California Salad, absent the bacon; Campbell showed his increased maturity by opting for a “Classic Mac’n’Cheese” that was actually misnamed, given that it included four, not necessarily familiar cheeses. Still, everything was so reassuringly filling and satisfying that we returned two nights later to watch the fireworks from the balcony of the Supper Club upstairs. Though we were handed different menus, Posie’s request for the Mango & Gorgonzola salad from the Grille downstairs was honored without fuss; I enjoyed a wonderfully refreshing gazpacho soup, a salad, and more than my fair share of Campbell’s fries alongside his spicy bean burger. The look of McLoone’s suggests that the food could be an after-thought. The reality is far from it. Everything here was absolutely on the money.
Alcohol: Like everywhere on the Boardwalk, McLoone’s is big on happy hour, though given that theirs finishes long before the average dinner kicks in, we went for wine with our meals. The list was reassuringly varied, with Albarinho and Grüner Veltliner joining Snoqualmie’s “Nearly Naked” organic Chardonnay on the list of available whites, for which bottles were a better financial bet than those by the $10-12 glass. My Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was served a little warm on Wednesday night but that’s a small complaint given the overall quality of the list and the range of other drinks, too.
Service: Our Monday waiter was inexperienced but beyond polite. Wednesday evening, the Maitre D pulled out all the stops, giving us the best table to view the fireworks, agreeing to honor a 15% discount voucher that was, officially, only for use indoors with the even posher menu, and reassuring Posie that she could order from the downstairs menu. The waitress that night was also cheerful and professional. There were no complaints either night about us serving 5-year old Noel his own wheat/dairy/soy/gluten free food (though there was a welcome announcement of gluten-free food items). If anything, the service made is what made McLoone’s so special.
Value: These were our big meals out for the week, but each time the bill, including service, sneaked in under $100. Given that three of us were eating, and two of us drinking on top of that, I’d call that exceptionally good value.
LANGOSTA LOUNGE, 1000 Ocean Avenue.
Description: “Vacation-inspired cuisine and creative libations.”
Ambience: Langosta Lounge’s location, mid-Boardwalk, and its constantly buzzing atmosphere makes it almost the lynchpin of this incredibly active stretch of prime dining real estate – and ensure that its handful of outdoor tables are in constant demand. The seating inside feels somewhat more formal, but the long, wide bar allows space to pull up a stool, watch the World Cup, order some food – and if your kids show up, simply move back across the aisle to a raised bar table. Live music frequently shows up on the corner stage, and sometimes for a fee; last year the great old bluesman Hubert Sumlin was in town on July 4.
Food: One reason to keep revisiting Langosta is the constantly changing specials. When I rolled in on Tuesday afternoon to watch the Spain-Portugal game, I found myself ordering a $10 salad of avocado, fresh spinach greens, tomatoes, onions and more, all loaded into a bowl-sized crunchy sun-dried tomato corn tortilla. It was, simply, stunning. When Posie and I returned for dinner the same evening – nabbing an outdoor table reservation with just 30 mins notice – the salad had disappeared, replaced by a Tapas AND Sushi menu. We liked the look of the veggie tapas, but they necessitated ordering meat too, so we split a giant Jersey Veggie Roll, made of Arugula, avocado, red & yellow pepper, seaweed salad & cucumber with brown rice; we added in a hefty house salad, Posie enjoyed a crab cake appetizer, and we split a vegan chocolate chipotle cake. Everything seemed creative, original, and above all, healthful. In fact, the food was so damn good that come Friday afternoon, when I was watching Uruguay-Ghana up at the bar, we ordered yet more – a $4 plate of fries that fed the whole family, and a Tres Palmas salad comprised of Field greens, hearts of palm, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and roasted peppers topped with white balsamic vinaigrette. We could probably have eaten at Langosta every day and night without exhausting the menu – and without breaking the bank, either.
Alcohol: The “Creative libations” are probably the least of Langosta’s attractions, given that the $10+ cocktails go down far too quickly. And wines by the glass – or bottle for that matter – are less exciting than McLoone’s, though perhaps slightly better value. The $12 tasting flight (red or white) served on Tuesday evening with the Tapas was certainly a good bet: four 3oz glasses of limited quality but impressive variety. But the best deal at Langosta’s is the beer: $4 bottled beers and $5 pints of Landshark or Long Trail IPA. And on Thursday nights, that price went down to $3 for bottles of Sol and $2 for pints of Landshark – all night long. That, surely, was the best deal on the boardwalk.
Service: That Langosta’s popularity can create back-ups was evident on Friday lunchtime, when I showed up for the football, and the lone bartender kept me waiting 15 minutes, eventually allowing the barback to serve me instead when I complained. (I wouldn’t have minded, but only 72 hours earlier the same bartender had called me “handsome.” How quickly they forget!) Even in that scenario though, and at all other times especially, everyone here was friendly and accommodating. “Vacation cuisine” implies a lack of stress, after all.
Value: Our Tuesday evening meal came to just $34 for the food. Friday I was there for almost three hours watching the football, and settled a tab that reached just $35 despite all the food and drink. Perhaps this is the place to mention that the restaurant’s founder and operator, Marilyn Schlossbach, now has five dining establishments to her name in the area, and yet has found time to organize local relief efforts for Haiti earthquake victims, and to instigate a weekly farmer’s market on the boardwalk as well. She and her husband are also about to open a restaurant inside the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel, which is excellent news given that the place currently can’t extend to a morning cup of coffee. There is such a thing as spreading yourself too thin, but Schlossbach is surely the Type A Buddhist surfer girl (as per this very recent New York Times profile) that the Asbury Park food and drink scene needed to ensure its rebirth.
DORIAN’S ON THE BEACH, 4 Boardwalk, Ocean Grove
Description: Family-friendly, all day dining.
Ambience: Geographically, Dorian’s is barely 50 yards outside Asbury Park, but you can tell you’re in a different place, namely Ocean Grove, a deeply religious town that is also – comically so, given that it borders Asbury Park – officially “dry.” Dorian’s is run by a hard-working married couple whose focus is all on family, food and friendliness. Located on the beach side of the boardwalk, every table offers some view of sea or sand.
Food: We rolled up late enough on Wednesday morning that it could have been lunch hour, but were still served breakfast eggs, with Noel discovering the delights of diner style French fries and myself being overwhelmed by a fruit salad platter that included almost half a pineapple. We were sufficiently impressed to return the following night with Posie’s ageing mother, knowing that she would be greeted warmly, treated gently, and fed well. Indeed she was, as happy with her shrimp as I was blown away by the quality of a salad that was overflowing with farm-fresh greens and juicy tomatoes. And the fries seemed to be extending from all directions, ensuring that once again, I left a restaurant more full than I had intended. A cut way above your average diner.
Alcohol: As mentioned above, Ocean Grove is dry, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring your own bottle – and open it yourself as well. This worked out nicely, as we had indeed brought one decent bottle of white with us from upstate in the hope that we could keep our budget down – and it turned out to be a perfect match for the food at hand.
Service: With a smile Wednesday lunchtime, but somewhat harried Thursday evening, when our waiter – admittedly one of only two on duty in the crowded restaurant – would have been better off relaxing rather than stressing us out and accidentally overcharging us. His mistake was quickly fixed by the owners, though, and when we left, it was with handshakes all round, and Noel’s crayon coloring plastered on the wall.
Value: We escaped the big family meal for under $100, though alcohol would certainly have pushed it over the edge. But even if it’s not a bargain on the scale of Langosta’s, it’s decent value for money all the same.
POP’S GARAGE, 1000 Ocean Avenue.
Description: “Bringing the soothing ocean breezes, warm summer sun and the nonstop neighborhood fiestas of Sayulita, Mexico to the Jersey Shore.”
Ambience: Part of Schlossbach’s growing empire, Pop’s (which shares its kitchen and bathrooms with the Langosta Lounge) is a not-too-cheap but totally cheerful Mexican style diner, with oven temperature counter space and plenty outdoor tables.
Food: Fast. When we stopped off the Boardwalk late one afternoon to feed Campbell, his rice and beans reached the table before my Dos Equis. Home-made chips and guacamole satisfied the adults that same afternoon, but the real treats were those we hadn’t been looking for. A fresh batch of vegan, gluten-free muffins were spotted late at night and snapped up for the following morning in our café-less (though not for much longer) hotel, and when I went in to watch the Holland-Brazil game, I couldn’t help but order the vegan parfait for a second breakfast. Words can barely describe how good this was, though perhaps “paste” would be a more accurate word than “cream” for the delectable combination of ground cashews, coconut oil and agave that joined the fresh fruit and granola. The coffee was damn good too.
Alcohol: Oddly enough, the limited choice of beers and sangria are pricier than at the flashier Langosta, though the $3 drafted Dos Equis as a Friday special was extraordinarily tempting. Somehow I got through the whole of Holland-Brazil without ordering one: perhaps because the coffee was so good?
Service: “Happy chaos” was how one of the counter staff described the Friday morning mood at Pop’s, and that seemed both accurate and appropriate. There’s a sense here that everyone’s on holiday, including the staff – and that would certainly apply to the Brazilian who emerged from the kitchen umpteen times to sit with me and watch the game and was only once scolded for doing so. By the time the entire kitchen staff were fed their early lunch and came out to watch the end of the game, the ‘lunch ladies’ had shown up, a couple of middle aged women who seemed as happy to be working the Friday afternoon shift as to be on the beach itself. You can’t help but love this kind of place.
Value: I was charged only a buck-fifty for my two cups of coffee, $8 for that vegan breakfast. Even if the evening food and drinks run a little on the pricy side for what’s involved, it’s hard to spend too much money here.
The above were the only places we sat down at, but bonus mentions go to:
The Sand Witch, a snack bar run out of a shipping container on the boardwalk, where Campbell enjoyed a decent (though pricey) grilled cheese sandwich and I was happy enough with an iced tea;
Pucker, another boardwalk container stand, which keeps it special by focusing on fresh lemonade and (again, pricey) French Fries; and
Manhattan Jack Confections, located inside the Convention Hall building, for its excellent coffee, decent bagels, and various cookies, pastries and other evidently delectable items that I’ve sworn off this past year.
And just to show the density of dining opportunities, here are some of the places we did not get to experience:
The brand new restaurant and bar Aqua in the Convention Hall, despite the attractive Tapas menu, mainly because it had yet to open its pier-side deck and we didn’t fancy eating indoors.
Shep Pettibone’s new Tabu restaurant at the gay-friendly hotel the Empress: though the thought of a great dance producer moving into a nightclub eaterie was definitely mouth-watering, it was closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
Stella Marina, on the boardwalk because the menu looked too old-worlde Italian for such a snazzy locale.
The Boards, also on the boardwalk, an all-day diner whose liquor license kicks in at 8am (and I saw one Baleiric type customer enjoying a Heineken at that time while I was on my morning run) and which we’ll surely have to try next time round.
And we were having so much fun there by the beach that we didn’t even get to “downtown” where, according to ads in the local Tri Citi News, Plan B and Basin Bar offer vegan options, and the Brickwall Tavern, the Harrison, and Schlossbach’s other brand new dining establishment, the Cajun-flavored Trinity and the Pope, all come highly recommended. What can we do but make plans to return?