Chuck and Tylar Lesbirel, the young brothers who are the chef/owners of Semolina in Red Bank, have restless culinary minds. “Where all our dishes come from,” says Tylar, “is we see an item, local produce or local fish, and we think, What could we do with that? What’s the flavor going to be?”
Last spring, the brothers got their hands on that seasonal delicacy, fresh local shad roe. Instead of doing the traditional thing, sautéing it with bacon and capers, they decided to turn the glistening egg sacks into bottarga. Most chefs get their bottarga from Italy, where artisans painstakingly cure, press and dry tuna or mullet roe into shaveable blocks.
After trial and error, the Lesbirels found the right balance of funk and salinity. They grated their shad bottarga over grilled asparagus and dishes of ricotta ravioli, the tiny, umami-rich eggs adding ruby color and engaging tang. Chuck says they plan to make it again when the shad run this spring.
On Semolina’s menu, even year-round mainstays like the grilled Berkshire pork chop evolve with the seasons. In my visits, I’ve had the well-marbled, 14-ounce chop (always topped with terrific house-made bacon jam) over a vivid mash of sweet spring carrots with black beans from Evergreen Farms in Hamilton and with a creamy purée of celery root and sweet-and-sour braised red cabbage. Each version was visually striking and a joy to eat. It is, in fact, the most popular item on the menu.
“Oh God, if I took it off the menu,” jokes Chuck, “I’d probably have to close, because somebody would kill us.”
Chuck, 32, and Tylar, 28, have been joined at the hip for most of their careers. Born and raised in Union Beach, on Raritan Bay, the brothers first fell for the verve of kitchen work at Palate Pleasers, a small Italian-American bistro in neighboring Keyport. Both earned culinary degrees from Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. They worked together at Ama Ristorante in Sea Bright under chef/owner Pat Trama. Chuck, who eventually took over as head chef, credits Trama with putting “the focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, and care for ingredients, in the way I cook.”
Chuck left Ama in 2017, launching Semolina as a catering outfit. He soon hatched a plan with Tylar, then working in Manhattan, to open a restaurant whose kitchen would also handle the catering. Semolina opened in June 2018 and made NJM’s Hottest New Restaurants list in 2019. Semolina—a small, light-filled space that seats just 46—has been so busy that catering is on hold.
Chuck focuses on vegetables and fresh pastas, Tylar on proteins. But, says Chuck, “literally every dish is a collaboration.” Naturally, there is some sibling rivalry. “It’s a love-hate relationship sometimes,” Chuck laughs. “We’ve worked together a long time.”
One of my favorite appetizers was seemingly the simplest: a bowl of raw fava beans in olive oil, lemon and fresh mint, with a scattering of grassy sheep’s-milk pot cheese. The secret of the beans’ toothsomeness is that they are first frozen overnight, making the tough casings easy to remove without cooking.
Semolina’s stellar fresh pastas are all made by Chuck. Though he has never set foot in Italy, he says he mastered the art by hunting down old Italian cookbooks and constantly experimenting. I’ve had his spaghetti-like chitarra with bright basil pesto and Maryland blue crabmeat. The dish was delicious and would have been perfect had the crabmeat not fragmented into strings during cooking. I’ve had the chitarra in a remarkable carbonara of butter, vegetable stock, Parmigiano-Reggiano and heavy cream, topped with crumbled bacon and a jewel-like duck-egg yolk. A purist would chafe at the addition of cream, but this was one of the best carbonaras I’ve ever had.
Jersey skate wing was equally compelling. The pleated flesh is dusted with flour, panfried and served with braised artichokes, capers and fregola sarda, couscous’s Sardinian cousin. The braising liquid (vegetable stock, white wine and lemon) is reduced to form the basis for a buttery sauce. I also loved the braised short ribs, tender and succulent, with charred carrots as a subtly sweet counterpoint.
Desserts are not to be missed, especially the caramel budino. Served in a stemless wineglass over crunchy cocoa “soil” (pulverized chocolate-cake crumbs), the luscious pudding is capped with sea-salt caramel sauce, more “soil” and whipped cream. Order one for yourself if you don’t feel like battling your tablemates in a duel to sample each tasty layer. This is one race to the bottom worth pursuing.
- Cuisine Type:Modern Italian
- Price Range:Expensive
- Price Details:Appetizers, $13–$19; entrées, $23–$33; desserts, $9–$10
- Service:Knowledgeable, friendly, attentive
- Wine list:BYO