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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Black Trumpet
1505 Ocean Avenue
Spring Lake, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 449-4700

By The Artful Diner
February 14, 2005

Domiciled beneath the Sandpiper Inn, the Black Trumpet inhabits a clubby, romantic setting that has been home to numerous eateries over the years. Yet despite the irresistibly inviting ambiance -- three picturesque walls of windows, rich carpeting, equally rich dark woods and wainscoting, cozy faux fireplace, and the muted glow of shaded oil lamps -- the food at these various incarnations has been, in my view, less than memorable.

The current chef/proprietor, however, on the scene since November '04, has lost absolutely no time in significantly enhancing the establishment's heretofore lackluster image. Mark Mikolajczyk -- who cooked up a storm at Whispers just a few blocks away -- may have changed venues, but it is quite evident that his sumptuous American fare is as congenially creative as ever. And since he is joined in the kitchen by his long-time sous-chef and now partner, David McCleery, you may rest assured that your discriminating palate is in extremely capable hands.

In harmony with his successful sojourn at Whispers, Mr. Mikolajczyk's presentations are innovative without being overly complex or ostentatious. Ditto his menu, which is a study in simplicity: five first courses (appetizers); four second courses (salads and soup of the day); and eight main courses, with starters and entrées supplemented by a select number of daily specials.

The chef's signature starter, a "Panache of Appetizers" ($13.00), features an extraordinarily creamy jumbo lump crab cake sharing the spotlight with a duet of perfectly grilled shrimp. A diminutive wild mushroom salad offers a nice textural contrast, ribbons of red pepper remoulade, a flavorful zip and splash of color. In many ways, this presentation is archetypical of Mr. Mikolajczyk's understated creations: they remain artistic without degenerating into architectural atrocities.

And be sure to lend an attentive ear to the homemade pasta of the day ($8.00). Only nine orders are available each evening, so it is best to make your preference known as early as possible. Recently sampled was a tomato fettuccine surrounded by an exquisite pool of creamy basil pesto and topped with a tiara of black trumpet mushrooms (the restaurant's namesake) and sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. The portion size is just right, neither petite nor prodigious; as is the seasoning, especially when tweaked with an additional light dusting of cheese deftly administered by your server.

The curried carrot soup ($5.00) is yet another splendid opening move and guaranteed to warm the heart on a cold winter's night. Brilliant of both color and countenance, not only does it arrive at table at the proper temperature but also endowed with just enough spice to invigorate rather than incinerate. The unique take on Caesar salad ($5.00) -- a grilled sheaf of romaine replete with first-rate dressing, Parmesan cheese, and smattering of crunchy croutons -- is also quite good, although it does take a backseat to the chef's other superlative preludes.

Entrées, like all that has preceded them, are both subtle and substantive. And, once again, you would do well to begin your deliberations with the chef's signature dish: day-boat filet of fluke ($24.00). This is a striking composition; the entire fish is plated, hollowed out and filled with tender morsels of fingerling potatoes and carrots and then topped with sweet and succulent pan-seared filets and finished with an exquisite brown butter.

The presentation of diver scallops ($27.00) is equally dramatic. Five beautifully pan-seared bivalves are circularly positioned on a crispy potato/rock shrimp pancake, which, in turn, reclines on a sensuously soft pillow of puréed parsnips. The consummating touch is a delicate pool of carrot butter.

When it comes to meatier matters, a daily special of domestic rack of lamb ($36.00) is no less than extraordinary and certainly one of the best representatives of this classic that I've sampled in a long, long time. Brushed with Dijon mustard and coated with panko breadcrumbs, the rack arrives at table medium rare, precisely as specified, carved tableside by the chef into four diminutive chops, and served au jus in the company of homey puréed sweet potatoes and green beans.

But, by all means, don't overlook the fact that the chef grills a mean steak (in addition to his illustrious tenure at Whispers, Mr. Mikolajczyk also spent a brief stint as the power behind the stove at Brennen's Steakhouse in Neptune City). And the current menu features a prime New York strip ($29.00) that is enough to quicken the pulse of any uncompromising, dyed-in-the-wool, red-blooded American carnivore. Cooked to a flawless medium rare, it exhibits just the proper texture, explodes with flavor, and is propelled into orbit on the wings of a lusty port wine demi-glace. The sidekicks, of course, are appropriately homespun and consummately complementary: utterly addictive lumpy garlic mashed potatoes and creamed spinach that is impeccably fresh, selectively seasoned, and just creamy enough.

Other entrée possibilities include: Atlantic salmon au poivre with julienne snow peas and red beet couscous ($19.00); grilled chicken breast on a bed of soba noodles and oriental-style vegetables ($16.00); and an incredibly moist pesto-stuffed pork tenderloin in the company of whipped sweet potatoes and shaved Brussels sprouts ($19.00).

And it goes without saying that desserts, courtesy of Mr. Mikolajczyk's partner, chef David McCleery, are worth saving room for. Topping my list of recommendations is his trio of crème brûlée ($7.00) -- white chocolate, pear, dark chocolate -- all incomparably creamy and sporting beautifully caramelized tiaras. Mr. McCleery also does his own unique spin on the venerable peach melba ($8.00). A grilled white peach half is filled with crème brûlée, set on a bed of homemade peach ice cream, and garnished with raspberry sauce and whipped cream. Even in the bleak midwinter, it makes a fabulous finish. And for those who enjoy more straightforward denouements, his New York-style cheesecake ($7.00) is a superlative choice. Built on a scrumptious foundation of Oreo cookie crust, the cheesecake itself is appropriately dense but still manages to seduce the palate with its velvety texture.

The icy evenings I visited, the patrons were few and far between. I have no doubts, however, that once winter relinquishes it gelid grasp upon the Jersey Shore, Messrs. Mikolajczyk and McCleery will have all the business they can handle. In the meantime, if you want to avoid the tourists and gastronomic groupies who will inevitably descend like vultures once the word gets out, now is the time to enjoy this restaurant's excellent cuisine and appealing ambiance to the fullest.

Cuisine: Creative American
Hours: Lunch: Will begin first week of May; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: MC, V, Discover
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Ample street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.theblacktrumpet.com

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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