The Jersey Shore doesn’t exactly leap to mind when you think of crawfish ètouffée, shrimp and grits, or other culinary emblems of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast and the Carolina Low Country. Yet superlative examples of those dishes are exactly what chef/owner Andrew “Drew” Araneo has been serving for the last six years at his casual restaurant a few blocks from Raritan Bay in his hometown of Keyport. Everything about the place, including the burly maestro himself, is generous, low key and eminently likeable.
Well, maybe the food isn’t so low key. Much of it is gently spiked with heat, whether it’s jalapeños in the corn bread, Frank’s RedHot sauce in the creamy topping for Buffalo-chicken flatbread, or spicy andouille sausage stuffed into sweet potato empanadas. But Araneo has a gift for dialing in just the right level of spice. The only truly hot dish, chicken and andouille jambalaya, boldly proclaims just that on the menu. Even then, the dish sets off a deep, smoldering heat rather than four alarms.
Just about every generously portioned, full-flavored dish on a menu of a dozen or so starters and an equal number of mains shows balance and finesse. It’s not surprising that, for the last two years, Araneo has been named a James Beard Award semifinalist.
A big, fat, panko-crusted crab cake, full of shredded lump meat, makes other crab cakes seem sad and soggy. It is beautifully presented on an oblong white platter, surrounded by ovals of pink chipotle tartar sauce. Such care in presentation is reflected not only in everything that arrives at the table, but also in touches like the servers including prices when they recite the daily specials.
Specials are worth checking out. Among the standouts on my visits were creamy tomato soup with roasted garlic and fennel; thick slabs of beautifully seared duck breast; and mako shark crowned with tiny, garlicky shrimp.
Many entrées are accompanied by seasonal veggies. “Loaded smashed potatoes” aren’t included, but order them anyway—the addition of cheddar and jack, scallions and bacon elevates them to the side dish hall of fame. (It’s telling that Araneo sources his bacon from Benton’s, a fine Tennessee artisan.) Another side not to be missed is japaleño cornbread with honey butter, an adaptation of a recipe by the chef’s longtime hero, Paul Prudhomme.
After earning a culinary degree from Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, Araneo trained at two of my personal favorite restaurants: the erstwhile Joe and Maggie’s (now morphed into Highland’s Bay Avenue Trattoria) and Whispers in Spring Lake.
Last summer, the bistro relocated one block east from its previous quarters, a vast improvement over the noisy, 50-seat space that was a jumble of three awkward storefront rooms painted a vivid shade of terra cotta. Now, about the same number of diners feast in one comfortable, spare, mostly black-and-white space designed by Araneo’s wife. Large windows up front keep it light and airy, and specially commissioned black-and-white photographs of the local waterfront, boats and nearby back-road bridges serve as the main decoration. Tile flooring is attractive but means the room reverberates with noise when full. Owing to the superlative fare, that’s almost always. Araneo hopes to add outdoor seating. “I’d love to set up a small patio resembling a typical New Orleans courtyard,” he muses.
Happily, the restaurant’s competent staff, which seems to be comprised mostly of locals, made the move with the boss. As a group, they exude the same appealing, easygoing attitude as the restaurant itself, while being real pros. One change I would like to see at this BYO, though, is wine glasses of slightly better quality.
What should never be tampered with is a big bowl of perfection called voodoo shrimp. Large, toothsome shrimp are lightly enveloped in a cream sauce perked up with Worcestershire. This is much better than it may sound. The shrimp sit on top of the wonderful corn bread, which soaks up the sauce to the benefit of both. Running a close second is perfectly executed shrimp and grits. Its attractions include smoky bacon bits, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, scallions and tingly spice notes. Yet another meal in a bowl wows with tender littleneck clams and coins of andouille sausage in garlic-tomato broth finished with dabs of garlic butter; it hits some magical bullseye. Even a relatively straightforward New York strip steak is memorable, first for the quality of the meat, then for a hit of spice, smoke and a touch of Drew’s own D1 steak sauce.
A few menu items fall short. A special salad of goat cheese, spiced nuts, fresh berries and baby spinach was indistinguishable from those in countless restaurants. At a place like Drew’s you expect the distinctive Araneo touch to some degree in every dish. An otherwise good jambalaya is taken down a few pegs by its optional topping of shrimp Creole, which overloads the dish with Cajun seasoning.
Desserts either thrilled—bananas Foster bread pudding one time, chocolate chip bread pudding another—or left us regretting the high caloric intake: wan coconut crème brûlée; rice pudding with mealy rice. Araneo’s food is so filling and satisfying, though, that I prefer to finish simply with his excellent house coffee from Jersey Shore Coffee Roasters.