Once you discover Whispers, I guarantee that you will not be tempted to blab the news all over town. It will remain a closely guarded secret to be shared with only a select number of your knowledgeable foodie friends. Proprietor Paul Bruno has fashioned this beguiling BYOB eatery into one of the Jersey Shore's finest (and most romantic) dining establishments... and it would positively break your heart to see its hallowed precincts desecrated by a host of indiscriminate omnivores who could not possibly appreciate its unique merits.
The setting is perfect: a diminutive jewel-box (the restaurant accommodates only 50 guests) sequestered in the Hewitt Wellington, a charming Victorian-style lakefront hotel. The decor is French, but it is not pretentiously ornate; the room exudes a casual elegance that immediately puts patrons at their ease. Indeed, the subtlety and refinement that characterize the ambiance will pervade your entire dining experience. The service is both polished and professional, and the food... the food is utterly exquisite.
Chef Mark Mikolajczyk, who majors in sumptuous American fare creatively fused with a variety of other culinary traditions, consistently demonstrates a savvy that belies his 28 years. He considers de rigueur for example, a simple fact that seems to have escaped countless chefs twice his age: "The proof of the pudding," as Cervantes noted, "is in the eating." In other words, when it comes to matters gastronomic, substance speaks louder than form. This is not to imply, however, that his offerings are less than attractive; they are a feast for the eye as well as the palate. But contrary to many of his contemporaries, whose outrageous, architectural creations come flying out of the kitchen like so many overdressed gargoyles, Mr. Mikolajczyk's presentations are tastefully understated.
Ditto his recipes; ingredients are innovative without being overly complex or numerically ostentatious. The menu is a study in simplicity. There are eight appetizers and four pastas; entrees are divided into "Main Course" (fish) and "Simply Grilled" (meats). These are augmented by two or three daily specials, generally of the thalassic variety.
An excellent way to begin your meal here is with the portobello mushroom. It is grilled, garnished with pencil asparagus and crowned with a creamy complement of Gorgonzola cheese. A starter of super callosal (colossal) shrimp wrapped in rice paper is another delicious possibility. These lovely crustaceans are escorted by mini rock shrimp egg rolls and finished with a lattice of zippy wasabi aoli. Should Blue Point oysters happen to put in a guest appearance, be sure to take advantage of your good fortune. The evening of our most recent visit, the spinach-wrapped morsels were baked in a sinfully rich crabmeat au gratin. Positvely decadent.
If chowing down to you means sinking your teeth into F-L-E-S-H, there are a number of opportunities to sooth your restless carnivorous nature--and all are worthy of consideration. But since Mr. Mikolajczyk is so clearly a master of matters piscatorial, I would suggest that you swim with the tide. Besides, a decent hunk of beef is readily available from any one of a number of first-rate steakhouses these days; perfectly prepared seafood, on the other hand, is infinitely more difficult to come by.
Take the grilled tuna, for example. A difficult customer this, especially if you prefer yours cooked up several stages beyond sushi. A bit too much heat and you're left with a burnt oblation that is off-puttingly dry and nearly inedible. Order it here medium-rare and it will arrive at table done to perfection, the interior texture both moist and luscious, embellished with petite portions of corn-on-the-cob, eggplant and beet couscous, and finished with a lively chive dressing.
The pan-seared mahi-mahi filet on a bed of carrot risotto is equally appealing. As are the sea scallops dredged in cornmeal and served with basmati fried rice and an intriguing cilantro lime vinaigrette. Several recent daily specials are also highly recommended. The grilled swordfish presented on a shrimp/snow pea stir-fry may be a relatively simple dish, yet it is incomparably delicious. But the horseradish encrusted pan-seared halibut with tomatillo/corn relish is even better.
Pastry chef Sean Keating takes his cue from Mr. Mikolajczyk; his desserts are artistic without being self-consciously artsy-fartsy. His creme brulee is classic... his sponge cake with sabayon, Bavarian cream and imported chocolate is so delicate that it threatens to defy the laws of gravity... and his special raspberry ravioli with fresh fruit compote is a delectable study in creative restraint.
The bottom line for two persons will run you between $85.00 and $100, depending upon the state of your appetite. A small price to pay for such a savory and civilized repast. If you and your spouse/significant other happen to be of an incurably romantic disposition, Whispers provides the perfect venue for close encounters of the quixotic kind. Give Mr. Bruno a call... He'll have a table waiting...
Hours: Mon - Thurs: 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat: 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun: 5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Smoking: No smoking permitted in the restaurant
Parking: Ample street parking
Special Note: No children under 12
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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