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1070 Ocean Avenue
Sea Bright, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 842-2800

By The Artful Diner
July 14, 2008

I first reviewed Anjelica's nearly nine years ago; and not a great deal has changed. The dining room remains as simple and stylish as ever, still boasting a rustic exposed brick wall, dark green tablecloths, and an equally stylish and knowledgeable clientele.

There is absolutely no question that this pleasant BYOB is the ideal venue for casual yet sophisticated dining at the Jersey Shore. In the dead of winter, both subdued and sedate, it is an unmitigated joy. But as the weather warms -- especially given its location just across the street from Sea Bright's public beach -- the invading hordes can be daunting and the noise level formidable.

The summertime crowds and noise level notwithstanding, executive chef/proprietor Ray Lena's excellent regional Italian cuisine is always worth a sojourn. His pastas are impeccable, his meat and chicken dishes beautifully prepared and presented, and his daily seafood specials positively transporting.

To start things off, the sautéed broccoli rape ($12.00) is a superlative effort. This may appear a relatively simple dish, but it is certainly indicative of the kitchen's prowess, as a number of things can (and often do) go wrong. If improperly prepared, this finicky greenery may be inordinately chewy, for example, or decidedly bitter -- or both. But the rape served up here is vibrant of color, tender of texture, and exhibits an assertive flavor -- enhanced with garlic, olive oil, and sprinkle of red pepper flakes -- that is marred by not a hint of astringency. And the rape did not spring from the bowels of the kitchen at the speed of light; rather, it took a reasonable length of time to make an appearance, a sure sign that it was prepared properly and to order.

The mozzarella fresca ($12.00) -- fresh mozzarella cheese accompanied by basil, roasted red peppers, and drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & balsamic vinegar -- is also an exemplary starter... ditto the vogole al forno ($10.00), baked plump littleneck clams oreganata, and the canestrelli in padella ($12.00), beautifully seared meaty scallops embellished with a tomato-basil pesto.

When it comes to your entrée selection, bear in mind that the daily seafood specials are always a solid bet. Typical is the branzino ($32.00), European sea bass, which is baked simply with artichoke hearts, potatoes, lemon wedges, sprinkling of fresh herbs, and splash of olive oil & white wine. It is then presented whole for the diner's inspection, expertly filleted in the kitchen, and eventually arrives at table, its pristinely white and delicately flaky flesh alive with flavor.

Sole ($23.00), which may be prepared broiled, francese, or meunière -- I opted for the latter -- is an excellent option. The flesh was firm, not at all mealy, and sided by roasted diced potatoes and green beans. It is often exceedingly difficult to get the accompaniments to turn out as competently as the center of attraction... at least one of the traveling companions always seems to be under or overdone. Anjelica's kitchen, however, obviously possesses, among other things, the gift of culinary coordination: The potatoes were tender yet firm to the bite, and the green beans were properly crunchy.

You might also consider the salmon, poached with lemon, butter, and capers ($22.00) or grilled with a zesty touch of Dijon ($23.00). And for true seafood aficionados, Mr. Lena serves up a dynamite zuppa di pesce ($30.00): lobster, shrimp, scallops, flounder, calamari, mussels, and clams swimming in a light clam & tomato broth on a sensuous seabed of al dente linguine.

Pastas, as noted above, are exceptional. The spaghetti alla puttanesca ($15.00) -- spaghetti combined with tomatoes, capers, olives, and anchovies -- is simplicity itself, as is the penne alla Norma ($16.00), penne adorned with grilled eggplant, plum tomatoes, and ricotta salata. For something with a bit more pizzazz, be sure to sample the pasta fra' diavolo ($26.00), shrimp, scallops, and clams in a zippy tomato broth.

Veal and chicken dishes are also noteworthy. Among the latter, the pollo alla Fiorentina ($21.00) -- a pounded and rolled chicken breast stuffed with spinach, prosciutto, and mozzarella -- is a house favorite, as is the scaloppini of veal prepared alla Milanese ($24.00; with chopped salad, $26.00), which is dipped in beaten egg, adorned with breadcrumbs & Parmesan, and then fried in butter to a golden brown.

While it is true that the entrées -- whether meat, fish, pasta, or fowl -- are uniformly excellent, the king of the hill still remains the costoletta di vitello ($30.00), the double-cut veal chop. This is a magnificent cut of meat, perfectly grilled, remarkably tender, and bursting with flavor... It may also be requested stuffed with Fontina cheese ($32.00).

Desserts ($6.00), all made in house, are also guaranteed not to let you down. The ricotta cheesecake, for example, is benchmark. It is simply the best representative of this particular genre that I have tasted anywhere... as is the light and flaky Napoleon filled with decadently rich cream... And be sure to wash them both down with a jolt of potent espresso ($2.00).

Who knows, these friendly folks may also offer a complimentary shot of sambuca... The perfect ending to a perfect evening at table.

Cuisine: Regional Italian
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 12 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner, Tues & Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 2:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Highly recommended; especially during the summer months
Parking: Street parking and nearby municipal lot
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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