Pat Tanner reviews Trinity And The Pope in Asbury Park, a restaurant where the trinity of Creole cooking (onions, celery, and bell peppers) plays a strong supporting role. The Pope? That's garlic, according to chef/owner Marilyn Schlossbach.
Do you like this story?
I would be hard pressed to name a more likeable restaurant than this New Orleans-inspired charmer inside a beautiful old bank building in downtown Asbury Park. It’s another feather in the caps of Shore restaurant dynamo Marilyn Schlossbach and team, who seem to be single-handedly attempting to revitalize the city. Her other properties here include Langosta Lounge and two (soon to be three) Pop’s Garage locations. In addition, Schlossbach has taken on executive-chef duties at Dauphin Grille in the city’s newly renovated Berkeley Hotel, where she and her brother, Richard Schlossbach, are the management team.
Her concept for Trinity and the Pope arose from a trip she took to New Orleans a couple of years ago. She found traditional jambalaya and gumbo—but in versions, she says, “infused with new creativity and energy by chefs like Susan Spicer of Bayona and John Besh [of August]. I was blown away and began imagining a Cajun-Creole restaurant that also combined elements of French and coastal New Jersey.” Fast forward “through at least two Murphy’s laws,” and the restaurant was born last May. Schlossbach and her brother’s other partners in this, her sixth restaurant, include employees from her other restaurants (including Labrador Lounge in Normandy Beach), and the building’s owner, Adam Levy.
The menu of small, medium, and large plates—meant to encourage sharing—includes those expected classics, plus, for example, New York sirloin au poivre with Cajun fries and bourbon-blanched collards, and an ever-changing Eastern Seaboard fish with red beans and rice, sometimes accompanied by olive tapenade and garlicky beans, other times by christophene (chayote) and tomato chutney. The kitchen rightly does not hold back on the heat when it comes to the Cajun dishes.
The ambience alone, which conjures the Big Easy without descending into kitsch, would be enough to carry this place. The restaurant is spread over three rooms on two floors in this well-preserved 1919 structure, with its sweeping staircase, second-floor gallery, fireplace, two vintage wood bars, and etched-glass entry. A row of lacey crystal chandeliers suspended over the main bar form the restaurant’s signature element, reproduced on the menu to denote light dishes and on the t-shirts of the fast-moving, savvy young servers.
The place exudes a relaxed, festive air that engenders camaraderie. On my visits it was noisy (but not fatally so) with the buzz of happy diners, including groups spanning three generations. The restaurant’s name alludes to the culinary trinity underpinning much Creole and Cajun cooking—onions, celery, and bell peppers—and to garlic, which Schlossbach discovered is nicknamed the Pope when she took a class from an Acadian cook. This explains why a lifelike painted-metal sculpture of an oversize garlic bulb is suspended from the building’s façade, making you smile even before you step inside.
With all this going for it, the food here doesn’t have to be as good as it actually is. One big reason it shines is the serendipitous hiring of chef de cuisine Chris Estelle—originally for Langosta Lounge—who had worked at Commander’s Palace. For the most part, the menu’s small plates are appetizers, while large denotes entrées. Medium can go either way. In that category, very respectable jambalaya with seafood, andouille sausage, chicken, and hushpuppies is easily a main-dish portion, while three diminutive oyster po’ boy sliders wouldn’t hack it as such.
Those sliders, unfortunately, proved disappointing. Two of three cornmeal-encrusted oysters were bone-dry. The creaminess of the third slider made me realize how good the dish could be. To make matters worse, only one of the buns had been slathered with very good chive rémoulade, while the others remained virtually naked. Other so-so dishes include a deeply flavorful but soupy seafood gumbo, and overcooked chicken in the all-white-meat chicken under brick.
A deconstructed muffuletta is a much better bet. Cubes of Genoa salami, capicola, mozzarella, and provolone—amped up with roasted-pepper aioli and olive-and-caper salsa—ricochet deliciously in the mouth. Specials are often worthwhile, although they are recited without price and invariably cost a few dollars more than menu items. One night it was short ribs with mango, the flavorful ribs having been marinated in Louisiana’s Abita beer. These were well paired with puréed sweet potatoes, bright green sautéed broccolini, and onion rings. Another night it was a wild boar chop that, although slightly overcooked, was rescued by a masterful spicy barbecue sauce.
Think you hate okra? If ever a dish could change your mind, the fried popcorn okra will. Bite-size nubs, crunchy with cornmeal, evince not a hint of goo, gumminess, or slime. Dip them into the accompanying creamy pink rémoulade and they just may be the perfect cocktail partner. (If okra is too far out, try the excellent jalapeño beignets—airy, warm, not greasy.)
Unctuous duck rillettes spread on toasted baguette with fig butter demonstrate that Chef Estelle’s output can be nuanced as well as bold. The dish comes with a crock of expertly house-pickled veggies (including okra). Speaking of pickling, the bar makes all its own purées, mixes, and picklings. These result in carefully constructed New Orleans-inspired cocktails such as the Sazerac, and a Cajun margarita in which float bits of fresh jalapeño. Then, too, Louisiana’s Abita beer makes a great quaff with the spicy fare, as do the wines on a short but well-suited list. One example: a fruity white Torrontes from Argentina.
Desserts are not a strong suit, but you likely won’t have room for them anyway. If you do, best bets are the light Bourbon bread pudding and the Abita root beer float. By this point in your meal, the good times will most assuredly have rolled.