Thursday, December 8, 2011

Brandl's Revisited - Belmar, NJ

It’s tradition. The last night before I leave Jersey, my mom and I go to Brandl’s.

The two of us have been in a serious relationship, Brandl’s and me, for the last decade or so, with ups and downs like any couple. From countless run-ins with the icy maitre d'* to over-the-top elation at my wedding’s rehearsal dinner, we’ve been through it all. And even though it’s been almost 10 years, Brandl’s makes every meal taste like the first time.

*who's considerably thawed over the years

Maybe it's because I constantly find genius in concepts like their Caesar salad, whose whole leaves of Romaine are grilled for a charred depth that doesn’t leave them wilted, but instead, invigorated. Thick, homemade dressing kung-fu grips the greens, while shards of parmesan rest lightly as brides' veils beneath oven roasted tomatoes. The absence of croutons? Not even given a second thought and for this bread-loving braud, that spoke volumes.

Old McDonald met old money when it came to a deconstructed salad where goat cheese balanced foie gras (literally and figuratively) next to the grassy taste of mache sprouting from the center. But the cherry on top was a grape puree that arrived in a mini-Mason jar, ready to be studied like the precious specimen it was and poured as liberally as one wanted (...shots anyone?).

Eggplant fries just about blew my mind. Peeled like potatoes and deep-fried, these were worth talking about...even if my mouth was full when singing the praises of this veggie gone incognito. Kalamata-olive aioli only brightened this star’s shine and whether ordered as a side item or kicking it with Kobe sliders, this edgy eggplant was the new black.

Even simple pleasures like sautéed shrimp were done with rustic, yet elegant perfection and Brandl's was never selfish with their shellfish, especially when it came to lobster.

So many restaurants have lured me with the promise of lobster-laden dishes, only to find myself served some type of pink paste or fishy broth with no traces of my coveted crustacean. But at Brandl's, I knew this Maine delicacy would always remain the main ingredient and tonight it was featured in the evening’s pasta special. Orecchiette, meaning “little ears", had the curved nooks of its namesake and formed perfect cupholders for the white wine/ butter sauce. As expected, this was chockful of claws and tails with a bit of Jersey corn and tomatoes thrown in to accentuate the lobster's natural sweetness.

They must have taken this duck's temperature because its doneness couldn't have been more spot-on. The juices were flowing, but crisp skin broke off in salty snaps. Add that to the decadence of duck-fat, roasted potatoes cleansed by the refreshing crunch from Napa cabbage = one flawless fowl.

Sure, sometimes Brandl's tossed a “lil’ Manhattan” attitude around, but I think it was their way of coping with the fact they were in Belmar, a blue-collar town that didn’t always appreciate “fancy schmancy” schmorgeous boards. But that never stopped Brandl’s from bringing quality product and creativity to the table. More pricey than most in the area (entrees high $20s - low $30s) and catering to a select palate, I don’t know how Brandl’s survived this long in the game, but I love them, and with all of the history between us, I guess I always will.

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