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200 Monmouth Avenue
Spring Lake, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 974-9755

By The Artful Diner
October 23, 2006

Although it hardly seems possible, over eight years have passed since I last reviewed Whispers, Nicholas Bruno's charming little jewel-box tucked away in the Hewitt Wellington Hotel. On the surface, not much appears to have changed. The restaurant's casually elegant interior, which accommodates a scant 50 diners, is as beguilingly romantic as ever; and the service remains attentive without being obnoxiously obtrusive.

As many New Jersey diners are no doubt aware, however, there has been a changing of the guard in the kitchen. Mark Mikolajczyk and David McCleery have departed and are now the chefs/co-proprietors of the Black Trumpet just a few blocks away. Scott Giordano, an alumnus of the CIA in Hyde Park, NY, now holds forth as executive chef, and the cuisine is every bit as irresistible as it was under the previous administration.

In the heat of summer and early fall, salads make excellent preludes -- and Mr. Giordano's renderings are exceptional. The grilled romaine heart ($9.00), for example, one of the chef's signature dishes, is simple yet seductive. A pristinely fresh sheaf of romaine is gently touched by fire, slathered with just the proper amount of an enticing lemon-mustard dressing, and attractively presented on a large square plate. A sprinkling of pine nuts adds a nice textural contrast; dabs of sun-dried tomato purée at two corners, an attractive splash of color.

And the presentation of chilled asparagus ($10.00) is yet another winner. Jumbo spears are prepared to a perfect consistency, not at all stringy, and companioned by a combo of red & gold beets, sautéed fennel, and marinated portobello mushrooms. A luscious roasted tomato dressing adds a marvelous finishing touch.

For those who prefer starters of a more substantive nature, the grilled lamb tenderloin ($12.00) is something of a must. Tender, succulent strips of tenderloin cozy up to a corn & bell pepper polenta cake, are chaperoned by slices of grilled zucchini, and consummated with an assertive chipotle demi-glace.

More in the mood for seafood? An array of pristinely fresh sautéed shrimp and grilled pita triangles surround a black bean cake decked out in a tiara of mango salad -- and all constituents bask in the glow of a memorable honey red curry sauce ($13.00); a benchmark jumbo lump crab cake is crowned with a chipotle lime remoulade and attended by asparagus, mushrooms, and roasted peppers ($14.00); and meaty seared scallops luxuriate on a sumptuous seabed of soba noodles ($14.00).

When it comes time to choose your entrée of the evening, please bear in mind that the chef prepares fish to perfection. His wild king salmon ($32.00), for instance, is cooked through, precisely as ordered, yet remains incredibly moist. It arrives pillowed on kalamata olive/toasted pine nut Israeli couscous and asparagus spears and is finished with a superlative sun-dried tomato basil butter. The Chilean sea bass ($32.00), on the other hand, takes a delectable turn toward the East. It is marinated in sake, broiled, and accompanied to table by shiitake mushroom rice, tender baby bok choy, and an enticing sesame ginger sauce.

Two other piscatorial possibilities to consider are the oven-roasted, spice-rubbed halibut ($34.00) and panko-crusted swordfish stuffed with crabmeat ($32.00). The former, set on a bed of poblano chili mashed potatoes, is a superb effort. It is presented à la Provençal -- replete with capers, grape tomatoes, black olives, and brown butter -- and is surrounded by a sortie of tender julienne vegetables.

The latter is done to a beautiful golden brown, underpinned with sweet crabmeat, set on a foundation of smashed Yukon gold potatoes and sautéed spinach, and finished with a tantalizing teriyaki drizzle. This is a very rich dish; a trifle too rich for my palate, as it turned out. Actually, I think the presentation would have been just as effective without the crabmeat, although this is just a personal preference. But since most people go absolutely gaga over this delicacy, it is perfectly understandable why it would be included.

The kitchen excels in meaty matters as well. The barrel cut filet mignon ($33.00) is a carnivore's dream come true. And it is paired with an earthy Gorgonzola potato cake and topping of heady cabernet shallot butter. Superb! You might also opt for the tender sautéed medallions of veal in the company of luscious lobster mashed potatoes ($32.00) or the grilled white marble pork chop finished in a sherry shallot sauce ($29.00).

Portion sizes are ample but not prodigious. Whatever you do, however, be sure to leave room for one of the outstanding desserts. The banana bread pudding topped with hot chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream ($8.00) is a homey classic, as are the crème brûlée adorned with coconut shavings ($9.00) and the warm pecan tart ($9.00). On the other hand, the lemon Napoleon ($9.00) is more delicate of disposition. A light and creamy lemon mousse is layered between feathery tiers of puff pastry and gently anointed with a fresh blueberry and Mandarin orange sauce.

Even with changes in the kitchen administration, Whispers has remained remarkably consistent. The cuisine continues to dazzle, the service shines, and the ambiance is as irresistibly romantic as ever. Entertain absolutely no doubts, this charming restaurant is still at the very top of its game.

Cuisine: Contemporary American
Hours: Dinner: Serving daily from 5:30 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Smart Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Ample street parking
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.whispersrestaurant.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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