The mood grabs you the moment you enter Blu Grotto Ristorante, which opened near Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport in July: This is going to be fun.
It helps if you like the color blue, especially the radiant shade that illuminates the famed Blue Grotto sea cave of Capri, because it’s everywhere: in the glass-walled conservatory that houses the main dining area, on the china, in the lighting, in the upholstery of the cosseting chairs and banquettes, even in the irises on each table.
Whatever your aesthetic, the innovative, expertly constructed cocktails of Amalio Rodriguez, the able bar manager (formerly of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown) will elevate you. When I asked my non-driving companion whether she liked her prosecco-based Aperitivo di Lusso, she replied, “I’d order this again in a heartbeat.”
James Corona, 51, the executive chef diners may recall from Sogno (the much-touted Italian restaurant he co-owned in Red Bank that closed in 2005), has created a modern Italian menu with other influences. I’m thinking of his stunning hamachi crudo appetizer: glistening yellowtail lit with a dash of Calabrian chili and a splash of yuzu, the Japanese cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange.
Being just within sight of the racetrack somehow brings steak to mind. A special—porterhouse for two—tops the list at $150, but grandstand types will do fine with the 28-day dry-aged New York strip steak, reasonable at $36, its marbling beautifully encased in a crisp, herby crust. Sliced fingerling potatoes blizzarded with Parmesan and a roasted cippolini onion complete this fine entrée.
The grandson of a talented Austrian cook, Corona spent childhood summers foraging in Austria with his aunts, and between high school and the CIA, from which he graduated in 1989, he worked food jobs across Europe. Among his earliest jobs here was making bread at a bakery in Little Silver. “I remember sleeping on flour bags, working around the clock before Christmas,” he says. “I loved it.”
The mystery, then, is why the execution is uneven. The subtlety of tuna tartare piled on perfectly poached asparagus was smothered by excessively harsh vinegar in the accompanying capers. Halibut wrapped in juicy speck would have been luscious had the snow-white fish not been overcooked. Too much garlic, pepper or pepperoncino may explain why few of us could manage more than a forkful or two of a spaghettini vongole featuring a generous cache of tiny Manila clams.
Veal limone was burdened by a sauce thick and floury rather than light and lemony. And while the curly-frilly cresti di gallo pasta was perfectly al dente, the hot cherry peppers masked the delectable, funky flavor of the other key ingredient, porcini mushrooms.
Still, the conservatory is airy and light filled, the drinks are splendid, and the happy clamor suggests that even the most finicky diners can find joy in being here. And why shouldn’t they? From any window, one can see a corner of the racetrack and endless sky.
End the night on a high note. The cornmeal budino, its eggy, golden cake crowned with dense mascarpone cream, is one obvious way. In the upbeat mood it inspires, you remember that Blu Grotto is only in its inaugural year, and that its ambition, to feed more than 300 diners in its biergarten (not yet open at the time of my visits), is huge. Given the talent on board, Blu Grotto has a decent chance of winding up in the winner’s circle.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Italian - Modern - Seafood
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$16; pastas, $16-$26; entrées, $22-$40; steaks, $36-$75; desserts, $7.
Ambience:Dressy casual, super comfy and fun.
Wine list:Six draft beers; excellent cocktails; 20 wines by the glass; extensive, global bottle list.