With its high-ceilinged dining room, sweeping ocean views, and crackling fireplace, Avenue makes a theatrical statement. Just beyond the dining room, rooftop spotlights trained on the beach add to the evening glamour in Long Branch’s expanding Pier Village.
The building’s top floor houses Le Club, the nightspot that boasts a South Beach-like scene in summer. The two venues being under the same ownership may explain the identity crisis in the restaurant’s background music—kittenish French ballads alternating with pulsing electronica. But what Avenue lacks in musical consistency, it more than makes up in the setting and on the plate.
With dishcloth napkins and tap water served in big glass bottles, the French references are unmistakable. The menu and its typography are a not-so-subtle salute to Balthazar in Manhattan, a glorious fantasy of a prewar Parisian bistro. Excellent baguette and multigrain batard from Englewood’s superb Balthazar Bakery (which also supplies the New York restaurant) is served in a metal bucket. What could be an imitation of an imitation adds up to more than the sum of its parts. For that, credit executive chef Antonio Mora.
Mora, a native New Yorker who now lives in Cranford, broke into the restaurant business at the storied (and still shuttered) Ryland Inn, where he started out cracking lobsters for chef Craig Shelton’s sumptuous lobster tart. “I volunteered Thursday through Sunday,” he says. “I’d crack 150 lobsters in a weekend, clean spinach, pick herbs, help in the garden. I worked for free because I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
Pulling down a paycheck, he stayed five years, becoming junior sous chef. He then helped Daniel Boulud open Daniel, his Manhattan temple of haute cuisine. Next, Mora swam back to our side of the river, spending five years as sous chef at James Laird’s Restaurant Serenade in Chatham. While he was there, a friend from Daniel told him about an upscale restaurant opening in Long Branch that needed an executive chef. Mora was shown the space, designed by famed London architect David Collins, and was offered the job. “It was a no-brainer,” he says.
There is legerdemain here. Corn soup sprinkled with chives was immensely rich and delicious, though it contains no cream or meat stock and, according to the chef, “only a touch of butter.” The richness comes from sweating, or softening, the corn at a low temperature, breaking down the starches before it’s puréed and blended with a corn, leek, and onion stock. Filet mignon tartare was swooningly tender. The best (and at $21, priciest) appetizer was lobster tartine—sweet, tender chunks of lobster on lightly dressed lettuce, sprinkled with crisp pancetta on fresh brioche, with Jersey heirloom tomato on the side. A bravura B.L.T.
Local seasonal produce showed that French fare can speak eloquently with a New Jersey accent. Salads were terrific: heirloom beets with goat cheese and walnuts; the Avenue salad of frisée, smoky bacon nuggets, and buttermilk dressing, topped with a poached egg; a Mediterranean salad, dressed in oil and oregano, with a slab of excellent imported Greek feta that crumbled at the touch of a fork.
Avenue’s steak frites was beyond reproach, from the rich, dry-aged, perfectly grilled strip steak to the crisp, Belgian-style fries. While the sauce on a filet mignon au poivre was slightly under-peppered, the 8-ounce filet was executed perfectly medium rare, as requested. Lamb chops were astonishingly flavorful, and even the rosemary roasted potatoes were revelatory—crumbly soft inside, crisp outside, with the faintly piney tang of fresh rosemary.
Scallops were as flavorful as you’d expect at a Shore restaurant, but potato-crusted halibut was dry, a fault unrelieved by the watery clam chowder in which it was served.
Servers, unfailingly polite, were know-
ledgeable about the menu and the extensive wine list, which has many intriguing choices at the $30 to $50 level. A glass of sparkling Italian Col di Luna rosé (mislabeled as rosé prosecco) made a bright and effervescent aperitif.
Dessert is one of the few areas where the food doesn’t quite transcend the generic. A blueberry tart contained fresh wild blueberries, but the crust was heavy and bland.
Avenue’s theatrical setting may not be to everyone’s taste, but the kitchen puts on a consistently good show.Click here to leave a comment