The menu at the Black Swine, a BYO in Sea Bright, is touted as Italian, but there are a few geographical curveballs:
General Tso’s Cauliflower? Firecracker Tofu? Head East from Italy’s Boot, young ‘un, way east.
Cod with green curry? You get the idea.
Chef Lisa Stanko, who once ran Pastaio in Spring Lake, takes liberties with boundaries. You have to wonder, though, if she shouldn’t sharpen her focus so her food could be served without flaws that distract from some sound concepts.
Take the meatballs made from short ribs and brisket. They come with a creamy provolone fonduta and slices of ciabatta. They happened to come to our table cool, which didn’t show this appetizer at its best.
We asked our server if the meatballs were meant to be served on the low side of room temperature. “I haven’t tasted them,” he replied.
Concerned that he didn’t understand our query, we asked if the kitchen serves the dish this way on purpose. He did not seem pleased with us. But he returned and reported that a hotter replacement would arrive shortly. It did, though warm, not hot. Still, the beef was of excellent quality, the marinara good, the tucked-in pool of sharp cheese molten.
General Tso’s cauliflower took the hip vegetable of the moment and gave it the familiar Chinese take-out treatment. Sadly, the sauce tasted more of sugar than of ginger and soy.
Another dish influenced by Eastern flavors fell shy of its promise. Firecracker tofu was fried and plated with a tangle of sauteed spinach and a dollop of risotto pocked with mushrooms. The sauce had barely a pop of heat, however, and the dish ended up falling flat. Served with soft tofu, soft risotto and soft spinach, the fish needed a textural counterpoint, a potent spice, or both, to give it an edge.
Slow-braised pork belly on a cauliflower fritter and lentils, with large dots of plum coulis? Sounded divine. But the pork proved dry and oddly tough, and the lentils needed seasoning. Again, every element barely exceeded room temp.
The kitchen rebounded somewhat with wild Atlantic cod in a spirited green curry, with jasmine rice to mop up the good sauce. But the cod was overcooked.
A dense, rich chocolate marquis cake would have been better if the whipped topping had the taste and texture of freshly whipped cream.
While we were still eating dessert, our server set down the check. That was a faux pas. Nonetheless, I presented my credit card.
The server told me Black Swine is cash only. “Or you could write us a check,” he added.
I asked why I wasn’t told of the policy when I made our reservation.
“It’s on the website,” he said.
“I read the site and didn’t see it mentioned,” I replied.
“It’s there,” he insisted, and pointed me to an ATM across the street.
I went home and read the website again, but found nothing about payment policy at all. As of this writing, five days later, nothing has been added.
I hope folks calling for reservations are told about it. That’s just smart hospitality.
Most of all, I hope the kitchen takes more pains with its techniques so the dishes can achieve their potential.
Black Swine, 1132 Ocean Avenue, Sea Bright. BYO. Cash and check only. Open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner. 732-345-0700. theblackswine.com.
Photos by Andrea Clurfeld