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703 Belmar Plaza
Belmar, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 280-7501

By The Artful Diner
May 22, 2006

Step into Brandl. (yes, the period belongs there) and you somehow sense that you're at the Jersey Shore. There's a kind of casual, funky elegance about the place, an ambient interior that invigorates but doesn't intimidate. Here you find a classic pressed-tin ceiling done up in blue, one wall decked out in sprightly pomegranate, while its opposite number seems to reflect the beige/gray intimations of a Sandy Hook beach. Both are adorned with colorful works of art and are decoratively counterpoised by a profusion of crisp white tablecloths and napkins.

But it's chef/proprietor Chris Brandl's stunningly innovative American cuisine that sets off the bells and whistles here. Mr. Brandl, a 1991 graduate of Johnson and Wales, was the original power behind the stove at Manasquan's Mahogany Grill before opening his eponymous eatery on the site of the old Bella Luna in December 2002. He is a creatively restless culinary spirit, constantly tweaking the menu, developing new recipes, and working with local farmers to secure only the freshest possible ingredients.

Your evening will commence, interestingly enough, with the only item not made in-house: crusty and dense "David's Bread" imported from Brooklyn, NY. As oxymoronic as this may at first appear, however, its superior quality sets just the proper tone for the superlative offerings that will follow.

Mr. Brandl, who once spent seven months working on a two-man commercial deep-sea fishing boat as mate to the captain, has a way with seafood, so this would be an excellent place to begin. The crab cakes ($14.00), for example, are superb. The golden brown crust of two diminutive pan-seared patties gently yields to a marvelously moist and flaky interior that is perfectly counterbalanced with a delightful mango salad and zesty red pepper aîoli.

The tuna tartar ($15.00) is another fabulous starter. Spiked with a citrus soy sauce, it is arranged cylindrically on a base of avocado salad, crowned with a tiara of caviar, and surrounded by artistic squiggles of zippy wasabi crème fraîche.  The crispy calamari ($12.00) -- sprinkled with lemon-pepper aîoli and accompanied by a ramekin of spicy marinara -- is also quite good... ditto a special of garlic shrimp ($13.00) swimming in a flavorful brown butter broth garnished with snipped chives.

Among the other appetizers, I am particularly fond of the roasted baby golden beets ($13.00). This is really not a salad, as our waiter explained on one occasion, but an interesting amalgam of chilled vegetables. A foundation of fennel confit (a wedge that is generally tossed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and slowly baked for several hours) is surrounded by chunks of beets, overlaid with crunchy haricots verts, and surrounded by a stream of incredibly delicious goat cheese fondue. Highly recommended.

When it comes to entrées, the treasures of the sea are, once again, the recipients of Mr. Brandl's sure and subtle hand. The monkfish encrusted with a crown of sweet crabmeat ($32.00) is a wonderful combo of tastes and textures. It luxuriates on tender slices of perfectly roasted new potatoes and is surrounded by a sea of lobster saffron broth. But a special Atlantic fluke ($35.00) is, in my opinion, even better. The filet is embraced by an herb-batter and than pan sautéed to an ethereally crispy consistency. A pillow of purple passion sticky rice provides a marvelous splash of contrasting color, while a pool of provocative carrot/lime broth furnishes an absolutely sensational consummating touch.

Meatier matters don't demonstrate quite the finesse of their piscatorial predecessors, but they are still impeccably prepared and handsomely presented. The rack of lamb ($37.00), for example, is strappingly robust and prodigious of portion. The rack is divided into eight medium rare chops that are presented in four pairs surrounding a luscious square of spinach feta potato cake, while the coup de grâce is delivered by a sensual and savory rosemary demi-glace.

The grilled wild boar chops ($37.00) are exceedingly tender and beautifully textured, but also not for the faint of appetite. They are companioned by delectably crisp gnocchi, sautéed wild mushrooms, and an incomparable truffle jus. Buffalo tenderloin ($34.00) is also available, as is a top-notch filet mignon ($36.00) accompanied by an addictive potato purée, cipollini onions, and mushroom demi-glace.

Side dishes ($7.00) are all worth considering and will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of your meal. The sautéed spinach is pristinely prepared to preserve its vibrant verdant hue; slender spears of asparagus are firm yet tender and are attractively presented on a white rectangular serving dish; and the potato purée tinged with garlic is incredibly addictive.

Desserts maintain the same high standards as their predecessors. For chocoholics, the chilled Vairhona milk chocolate semifreddo molded with roasted cashews and toasted coconut ($9.00) is something of a must; and the "Citrus Burst" -- layers of sweet/tart custard interspersed with 3 tiers of praline/almond crust ($9.00) -- is absolutely irresistible. For a real treat, however, my advice is to cast your lot with the white chocolate fresh raspberry soufflé ($19.00, serves two; allow 45 minutes preparation time), which is utterly incomparable.

Prices, as you have undoubtedly noticed, are formidable. But the fact that you may tote along your own wine -- and an outstanding vintage is certainly called for -- surely helps to ameliorate the pecuniary pain.

My only minor gripe is that the check arrived unbidden and at the speed of light, while we were still enjoying dessert and contemplating a second jolt of espresso. Given the outstanding quality of the cuisine -- and the heady tariffs -- one doesn't like to feel they are being rushed out the door. Indeed, Brandl. is a dining experience worth savoring.

Cuisine: Innovataive American
Hours: Hours:  Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended; especially on weekends
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: brandlrestaurant.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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