Downtown Red Bank, which flanks the Navesink River on the north side of town, is blessed with crisscrossing restaurant rows and shopping strolls. About a mile away, the West Side is primarily quiet and residential. For some six decades, West Siders flocked to Sal’s Tavern, a modest, family-owned pizzeria on the corner of Shrewsbury Avenue and Herbert Street. After the family hung up their aprons, other restaurants fitfully occupied the space. By the time a group of local investors acquired the building in 2014, it had been vacant about two years.
Since reopening in July 2015 as B2 Bistro & Bar, the space has become a neighborhood magnet worth the drive from well beyond the neighborhood. B2 is both a convivial watering hole and a locus for those who appreciate craft beer, rewarding cocktails, a small but interesting wine list and exceptionally satisfying food.
B2 (which simply stands for Bistro & Bar) fits itself to you, not the other way around. Pull in for a dry-aged burger with fries, seasonal vegetable dishes you won’t have to pretend to enjoy, or some of the best pizza around. Consort with pals in the comfortable bar, with its cork soundproofing and large flat-screens. Or reserve a table in the spare, high-ceilinged dining hall, brightened by afternoon light pouring through its wall of glass panels. The gustatory pleasures range from Italian tradition to New American eclectic. Order à la carte, or place the table in the experienced hands of partner and executive chef Cesare De Chellis and his $70-per-person, seven-course tasting menu that mixes menu favorites with personal riffs and specials.
Since Jersey is pizza paradise, let’s start there. The pies are baked in an Italian Forno Bravo oven, burning a mix of woods that De Chellis calls “our own secret recipe.” The flour is imported Caputo 00, the gold standard for trendy Neapolitan-style pies. But B2 doesn’t do Neapolitan (charry edged, but all too often limp and undercooked).
“Tweaking moisture content, yeast and how long to rise,” De Chellis says, produces “a little denser dough that can stretch and make a thinner crust that gets a little crispy, but has body as well.”
It comes in four regular varieties, the eye-rolling favorite here being bacon and egg, with chunks of meaty lardons, pecorino, three raw eggs cracked on top before baking, and a shower of lemon zest to brighten the sizzle when the pie emerges from the 900-degree oven.
De Chellis (who goes by Chez, pronounced “chezz”) uses the oven ecumenically, roasting whole chickens and fish as well as head-on prawns. On a gas grill, he turns out exceptionally tender octopus (recently with pickled jalapeños, mint and crumbled chorizo). The menu changes monthly, riding the waves of ripeness and market opportunity, to say nothing of De Chellis’s restless and even impish creativity—an example of which may catch your eye as you are led to your table.
It looks like a large, unbaked pizza, with soft, ruffly edges and a choppy-sea surface. This trompe l’oeil is the chef’s daily polenta preparation, and I’d be surprised if any table ever left a lick of it on the plate. It’s made from white and yellow Anson Mills polenta cooked with milk, cream and butter (rather than water or chicken broth). This sinful pudding was spackled, in my encounter, with gorgeous dabs of rich pork ragù and shaved pecorino. We scooped it up with a side of bright, flavorful succotash.
The beauty of B2, as mentioned, is that you can spot yourself anywhere on its gustatory ladder, from the plebeian pleasures just described to treats like a lobster roll with aioli on a buttered bun; roasted mussels (recently with fennel, white wine and saffron); or De Chellis’s memorable, expertly executed pastas (like the hand-rolled garganelli with corn milk, crab and asparagus served in August).
Or keep climbing. Have the hefty, grilled, bone-in ribeye; a ravishing block of crisp-surfaced pork, hand pulled from a whole pig, slow-roasted in house and served (August again) with sweet-and-sour raspberries, bitter greens and a Berliner Weisse beer glaze. Which is not to overlook the chef’s delicate touch with seafood, such as a meltingly tender sautéed skate wing with pickled ramps, hazelnuts and mounds of white butter foam that look like whipped cream.
If there’s slack in any part of the menu, it’s desserts, though a goat-cheese cheesecake with pickled blueberries and graham-cracker crust last summer could not have been better.
Though De Chellis, 32, and general manager Andrew Rasizer, 30, are both Jersey natives and CIA grads, they arrived at the corner of Shrewsbury and Herbert by different routes. Rasizer grew up in Woodbridge, where his father and uncle ran, and still run, Chicken Galore. (“Been in the family for 50 years,” he says.) Before and after the CIA, Rasizer cooked and served in restaurants, gradually gravitated to the front of the house, learned management and earned his sommelier certificate.
“I grew up around here,” he says, “and as I got older, I hated trying to find parking in Red Bank proper and going to the same places every night. At B2, we want to invite people to explore the West Side and build this community up as much as we can.”
De Chellis grew up in Clifton with his father, Mario, who was born in Pacentro, southeast of Rome. In Clifton, father and son cooked together. De Chellis later cooked in Italy. There, he learned, “it’s all about simplicity and respecting every ingredient, whether you cook it or leave it raw.” Back in Jersey, and later in Manhattan, De Chellis forged a solid résumé. Finally, though, “I was ready to do my own thing.”
B2’s silent partners recruited them individually. They bonded from day one, becoming a complementary team through the nine-month renovation and build out. “Our goals,” Rasizer says, “are to be the best we can all the time, constantly learn and educate, and add new and innovative items that other restaurants in the area do not have.”
Innovations? They have a doozy—a note in small type on the bottom of the menu that reads, “Round of beers for the kitchen, 6-pack, $18.”
Rasizer explains: “Servers earn tips and work in a fairly nice environment. The cooks do the brunt of the work and don’t see much in return. So guests can buy them a six-pack to share among each other at the end of the night.
“It’s catching on,” he adds. “Especially with the younger crowd. They tend to get it a little bit more.”
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Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$18; pizzas, $11-$13; pastas and entrées, $16-$26; sides, $7; desserts, $9-$11.
Ambience:Cheerful dining hall facing open kitchen; separate, sporty bar.
Wine list:Full bar, creative cocktails, 32 craft beers, 60-70 wines.
B2 Bistro + Bar141 Shrewsbury Ave
Red Bank, NJ 07701
Hours:Monday: 4 pm-10 pm
Tuesday-Wednesday: 11:30am -10 pm
Thursday-Friday: 11:30am -12 am
Saturday: 12 pm-12 am
Sunday: 10am - 9pm
Happy hour Monday-Friday 4-6 pm; Saturday 12-4 pm
Late night menu Thursday-Saturday nights until 12am