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Matisse Restaurant
1400 Ocean Avenue
Belmar, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 681-7680

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online

Situated just across the street from the Atlantic, Matisse is an island of calm in an otherwise tumultuous sea of humanity that is Belmar's Ocean Avenue on a Saturday evening in the heat of summer. Dinner here will surely be a pleasurable experience. And it is also true that Executive Chef/Owner Anthony Wall's global cuisine is certainly worth a look-see. It is good. Quite good, in fact. My only hesitation is that it is not as good as it should be.

And let me warn you in advance... the building where the restaurant is located is no great shakes. It's a long, squat affair that also houses several fast-food eateries, an amusement arcade, and a miniature golf course on the roof. Matisse also offers alfresco dining on weekends during the summer months, but, trust me, the tranquil interior is infinitely preferable.

After passing through a rather tacky foyer, you enter a cool, soothing, subdued environment. Simple white walls are adored with large polished mirrors and appropriate Matisse prints; the low ceiling sports dark wood beams and Casablanca fans; and comfortable booths come replete with pillows. The napery is crisp white, and butcher-block paper adds a decidedly bistro-like note.

There is no liquor license, but you may BYOB, and rest assured that your vintage -- whether a modestly priced, frisky Californian or twenty-year-old Bordeaux in need of careful decanting -- will be properly handled. In point of fact, the service here is quite excellent. Waiters and waitresses know their appointed roles in the ultimate scheme of things (as do those in more menial positions) and, perhaps equally important, they are quite knowledgeable with regard to the cuisine.

You start things of with piping hot rolls and a marvelous sun-dried tomato/garlic olive oil and then move on to the appetizers, which will be, in my opinion, the very best part of your dining experience. The steamed Manila clams (or littlenecks, depending upon what is available at market on a particular day) in an intoxicating garlic and herb broth are utterly superb ($7.95). As are the braised green lip mussels with ginger and sweet chilies ($7.50).

My favorite appetizer? The nod would undoubtedly go the the crispy shrimp ($7.95). Four perfectly crunchy crustaceans are presented with an orange-radish dipping sauce and accompanied by jicama sticks. A completely delightful blend of tastes and textures. Coming in a close second is the special of Peruvian sea scallops ($8.95). Four buttery, succulent beauties arrive in their original half shell and are garnished a la Provencal. Pure ecstasy for the palate.

And should you have difficulty making up your mind, you may always opt for the selection of three appetizers ($18.95). These vary nightly, according to the chef's whim, and are showcased in three spectacular and delicious tiers.

Several other starters also deserve mention. The first is a Napoleon with interspersed layers of baked buffalo mozzarella and meaty red tomatoes ($8.95). This is surrounded by fresh assorted greens and drizzled with balsamic syrup. Highly recommended. Equally up to the mark is the grilled salad of summer veggies ($5.95). Slices of zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, baby carrots, asparagus, tomato and fennel are fired with a dusting of Reggiano Parmesan and finished with an excellent sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. And when your server offers you a sampling of imported white truffle oil to spruce things up, go for the gold. It is more than worth the $4.00 per pop.

After such breathtaking preludes, I must confess that the entrées were quite a letdown... They simply lacked the polish and subtlety of their illustrious predecessors. Take the "Portabella Wellington" ($16.95), puff pastry stuffed with goat cheese and spinach, for instance. I sampled something very similar at another establishment several weeks ago. The pastry there was positively ethereal, delicate & flaky, and the veggies crisp and pristine. Mr. Wall's version was entirely too heavy-handed; additionally, the pastry was charred on the bottom, bestowing an unpleasant acrid aftertaste. And the roasted red pepper sauce lacked the character and intensity to propel the dish out of its doldrums.

Finny creatures fared somewhat better... though not a great deal. The salmon ($18.95) was char-grilled and set atop a bed of yummy puréed garlic potatoes and garnished with crunchy garden vegetables. The filet was perfectly prepared, and the white truffle oil added a nice touch. But the balsamic syrup, so ingratiating in the company of the aforementioned mozzarella and tomatoes, was entirely too cloying for the salmon. On the other hand, the special lemon sole wrapped around chunky lobster mousse ($23.95) was amazingly bland; it needed infinitely more punch than a vapid lobster jus was able to deliver.

The rack of lamb was an intriguing proposition. The meat was removed from the bone, placed beside the rack, and the entire affair butressed with a veritable "Great Wall" of those same delectable puréed garlic potatoes. The roasted fennel and grain mustard jus completed the picture of robust rusticity. Unfortunately, what was ordered medium-rare arrived at table several shades pinker than called for... and quite chewy, to boot.

Desserts are something of a mixed bag. If "homemade" is important to you in the sweet endings department, make certain you query your server, as most are shipped in from off campus. The Key lime tart with sweet cream ($5.50) is made in house, but the crust is on the soggy side, and it bears the unmistakable marks of an extended stay in the frige. Conversely, the fresh blueberries with blueberry Italian ice garnished with fresh peach slices and sweet cream ($5.95) is outstanding, and the perfect denouement for a warm summer's evening. The fresh fruit tart with mango and reaspberry coulis ($5.50) is also quite good.

The fruit and cheese plate ($8.95 for two), always of interest to serious diners, was a major disappointment. Chunks of Gouda, Stilton and Gruyére were served up with slices of tasteless melon, red seedless grapes, strawberries, kiwi and Carr's water crackers. The portion was copious to a fault... but quality and subtlety of presentation were sadly lacking.

Both the regular coffee and the decaffeinated ($1.95) were on the weak side. And the establishment does not serve decaffeinated espresso (regular espresso, $2.50), a significant faux pas in my book.

Matisse is basically a good restaurant that could be and should be infinitely better. In the parlance of the chessboard, Chef Anthony Wall clearly demonstrates several spectacular opening moves... Unfortunately, at the present moment, his middle and end games lack the same clear culinary strategy and finesse.

Cuisine: International
Hours: Summer: Dinner: Mon & Weds - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED TUESDAY. Open all year, but be sure to call for hours in the off season.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends in the summer
Parking: Lot at the rear of the restaurant
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate
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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