A Diverse Menu Holds Its Own At 618 Restaurant

Chef Christopher Dutka's globe-spanning cuisine is well received in Freehold.

It’s been a while since I tasted a really good stuffed mushroom. The scourge of the passed hors d’oeuvre brigade and a staple bite at banquets, the stuffed mushroom often lacks the appeal of its appetizer brethren that taste fresher, look brighter and don’t suffer from soggy, sagging midriff syndrome.

At 618, a restaurant in Freehold owned by its chef, Christopher Dutka, formidably-sized mushrooms stuffed with both broccoli rabe and fennel sausage are lined up on a horizontal plate with wavy edges. They are topped with a sprinkling of sharp pecorino and given a backdrop of a simple, gently seasoned San Marzano sauce. The bitterness of the rabe mingles with both the earthy pork in the sausage and the refreshing spring-like ping of the fennel. The cheese doesn’t overwhelm; the sauce is brilliantly pure. The mushrooms remain firm, yet they yield to the bite.

Meaning, these are really good stuffed mushrooms. Which are all too hard to find.

Stuffed mushrooms

Chalk one up for 618, which has emerged as a reliably engaging place for lunch and dinner in the Freehold environs, a spot with a globe-spanning modern-American menu, service that’s friendly and helpful, and a half-price bottle-of-wine deal on Wednesday evenings that’s become quite the hump-day attraction for the commuter set.

You could score tuna poke as a starter, if you prefer your cubes of raw tuna to be spare of accents, without rice, but with thinly sliced cucumbers and triangles of fried tortilla. No matter; I want to eat my poke with a bit more than a glistening of sauce, a scant snip of chives and a fleck of sesame.

Tuna poke

Pork bellies in soft buns (was there life on Earth before David Chang brought us pork belly buns?) were on the dry side, in need of more careful cooking and a more forceful sauce.

Pork belly buns

But the Brussels sprouts salad, done Caesar-style, is a winner: Shaved and julienned Brussels are tossed with bacon in an egg-free Caesar dressing that’s bolstered by nutty-tasting cheese judiciously applied. There are nuggets of croutons, a few unnecessary cherry tomatoes and a cheerful crunch throughout. It’s a salad waiting for a chance to debut on your Thanksgiving table.

Brussels sprout salad

I was super impressed with 618’s take on shrimp-and-grits, thinking the only versions of the Southern classic I could love are Hominy’s (for its purity) in Charleston and Drew Araneo’s (for its inspired upgrades) at Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport. Dutka’s highly textured grits are amply studded with green chilies but given just a hint of aged Cheddar, and his gravy is infused with the zing of Beach Haus IPA. It’s an incarnation at once spirited and subtle.

Shrimp and grits

Skirt steak comes with a ramekin of rousing chimichurri, an herb-based sauce that’s the perfect foil for this silky, rich cut of beef, and a tin of hand-cut fries hunkier than those ascribed to steak-and-frites platters but far more elegant than the typical side show to a roadhouse burger. If you’re a steak-and-potatoes kind of gal or guy, go for this one.

Skirt steak

In the scheme of things, the chocolate bombe we chose for dessert was perfectly fine: Valrhona chocolate and a raspberry sabayon are sheltered by a shell of dark chocolate, then given a double burst of fruit purees, mango and raspberry in the presentation.

But I’ll take mine savory at 618, thank you. Just a stuffed mushroom for the road.

618, 618 Park Avenue in Freehold. Open daily for lunch and dinner, except Mondays. 732-577-0001; 618nj.com.

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