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56 Shrewsbury Avenue
Highlands, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 872-2266

By The Artful Diner

The restaurant had come highly recommended... but I was skeptical, I admit it. Having grown up in Monmouth County -- just a few miles from the location of this particular eatery, in point of fact -- I knew first hand that a luxurious view could very easily spell gastronomic insolvency...

And, unquestionably, Windansea has the view -- and a great deal more. The second-floor dining room/bar (which also boasts an open air porch in summer) affords a picturesque panorama of Sandy Hook and entertainment to boot. You may also dock and dine al fresco or just enjoy a cold one at the outdoor bar. While quintessentially Jersey Shore, the establishment also showcases an ambiance (including an array of space-age aluminum tables and chairs) that has New York chic written all over it... with a touch of the South Pacific thrown in for good measure.

Given these intriguingly festive surroundings, you expect the food and service to be run-of-the-mill at best... but this is assuredly not the case. The young black-clad servers and busboys are incredibly competent; and the most memorable aspect of a sojourn here is neither the view, nor the decorative oddities, nor the bustling bar scene... it is chef /proprietor Rob Higgins' first-rate contemporary American cuisine.

Before making a decision as to your meal, however, you might want to take a moment to peruse the wine list. There's nothing here that breaks any new oenological ground, but the options are all solid and reasonably priced. In the chardonnay department, there's always the reliable J. Lohr "Riverstone" ($7.00 glass/$25.00 bottle) or a very nice Simi ($8.00/$30.00). And Santa Margherita's Pinot Grigio ($10.00/$38.00) offers a refreshing alternative to California's often oaky excesses. Red wines include a gutsy Rosemount Cabernet/Merlot ($5.50/$20.00), more delicate Estancia Pinot Noir ($7.00/$27.00), and a personal favorite, Antinori's Santa Cristina "Sangiovese" ($5.50/$20.00).

Another bit of prolegomenon: A house salad is included with your entrée, which may very well leave you on the horns of a dilemma. Do you ignore the impressive roster of preludes and fill up on the freebie in order to assuage your hunger pangs and save a few bucks... or, assuming your finances are reasonably in order, do you invest in several of the starters? In my opinion, the greenery is strictly standard issue -- although the blue cheese and lemon-herb dressings are both quite good -- and not worth losing your appetite over. The appetizers, on the other hand, a delightful array of gifts from the sea, are infinitely more deserving of your palate's attention, as well as an additional bite of your long green.

The mini crab balls ($9.95), for example, are fried to a golden brown, beautifully seasoned, and just bursting with chunks of sweet jumbo crabmeat. And the special Canadian mussels ($7.95) are equally tempting. Plump and succulent, they swim to table in a heady lemon/white wine broth awash with garlic, tomatoes, and fresh herbs.

You might also consider starting things off with the wonderful steamed littlenecks ($12.95) or crunchy beer-battered coconut shrimp accompanied by an exotic sweet/sour mango sauce ($9.95). And for those who can't make up their minds, there's always the chilled sampler ($32.95) -- half-lobster, jumbo shrimp, clams and oysters on the half shell, and jumbo lump crabmeat adorned with lemon and a zippy cocktail sauce -- that is most suitable for group sharing.

The Manhattan clam chowder ($2.95 cup/$5.95 bowl) is also highly recommended. The tomato-based broth is just slightly thickened, the potatoes are fork tender, and the morsels of clam are so tender they melt away on the tongue. And if you happen to be in search of a curtain-raiser for landlubbers, you can't go wrong with the deep-fried zucchini spears served up with an incredibly addictive horseradish cream dipping sauce ($5.95).

Entrées run the gastronomic gamut. If you're a confirmed carnivore, for instance, you may avail yourself of an 8-ounce grilled filet mignon, 16-ounce boneless New York strip, or 16-ounce Cajun rib-eye (all $28.95). Then, of course, there's always the Kentucky bourbon pork tenderloin with a lusty andouille sausage gravy ($17.95) or "Veal Windansea" topped with arugula, diced tomatoes, capers, lemon, and olive oil ($24.95).

But, hey, this is the Jersey Shore, seafood is the name of the game, and piscatorial presentations are clearly this kitchen's strong suit. I am also of the opinion that gifts from the sea -- especially finny creatures -- are best served by sauces and other accoutrements that intrude the least. When contemplating your entrée selection from Windansea's printed menu or recitation of daily specials, therefore, I would urge you to give preference to those possibilities that are the least convoluted, those that allow the delicate denizens of the deep to speak with their own uniquely flavorful voices...

The swordfish ($20.95), for example, is simply grilled and finished with a touch of lemon and exquisitely light herb butter; the tilapia ($17.95) is gently sautéed in white wine, lemon & butter, and dressed with diced tomatoes and sprinkling of parsley; and the flounder swims to table francaise-style ($16.95) -- egg-battered and sautéed -- or stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat and broiled with lemon and butter ($19.95).

Several daily specials, specifically the red grouper ($21.95) and red snapper ($21.95), also deserve mention... The former is grilled, adorned with sliced tomatoes and a tiara of baby spinach; and the latter is sautéed in a white wine/lemon/butter sauce awash with capers. The kitchen triumphs when it emphasizes simple, straightforward presentations. The less gussied up, the better.

While all seafood items -- whether crustaceous, molluscan, or piscatorial -- are pristine of countenance and, for the most part, carefully prepared and presented, desserts ($2.95-$5.95) appear to be something of an afterthought and clearly represent the restaurant's weakest culinary constituent. If you must indulge your sweet tooth, stick with either the Key lime pie or creamy, homespun rice pudding.

One final note -- and an extremely important one. Despite the Jersey Shore/Big Apple chic meets South Pacific cool décor, Windansea is a family-oriented eatery. And when the joint is jumpin' -- which is most of the time, early or late -- rambunctious progeny of every age, shape, and description are very much in evidence. The surroundings, needless to say, are far from sedate. This is an upbeat, slightly frenetic kind of culinary happening. Go with that in mind, join in the fun, and all will be well.

Cuisine: Contemporary American/Seafood
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; Dinner, Mon - Sat, 4:30 p.m. - Close; Sun, 12:00 noon - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: Ax, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Separate nonsmoking section
Reservations: Recommended; not accepted on weekends
Parking: Valet
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: www.windanseanj.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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