We’ve been on a hot streak lately finding really good restaurants, and this month, we kept the streak rolling. 618 Restaurant is a great find and full of surprises. The property has undergone several ownership changes in recent years, but chef/owner Chris Dutka has completely elevated the interior, chasing away the last sports bar remnants, for a warm and sophisticated dining area with a Sonoma Valley feel. It’s a huge space with cool putty colors and fireplaces. Turn the corner and there is a large bar with a dining area, drift to the opposite corner and there is a second dining area, and above is a catering hall that handles parties of up to 180. You certainly wouldn’t expect all that just by driving by. They have a large cocktail and wine list full of interesting wines, and the bartender makes a nice drink, which can be enjoyed with your meal or at their daily happy hour. Even the bathrooms carry the same color scheme and they are large and lovely. There is plenty of parking, too. The well-planned menu offers a kind of “rustic American” selection of dishes for every taste without being too large. The portions, on the other hand, are large and the service is very cheery and enthusiastic. The manager and the chef both paid our table a visit during dinner. Chef Dutka has been operating a catering business for years, and he designed this restaurant to offer Freehold area diners a more sophisticated, city feel. It has a calm, steady energy and really good food.
We started with three appetizers: a nightly special, the Shishito peppers; the flatbread with arugula, roasted tomatoes, and goat cheese; and the very popular shrimp and grits, which can also be ordered as an entrée. Both the Shishito peppers and the flatbread delivered that salty crunch we were looking for. The shrimp and grits were three large, perfectly grilled shrimp, served over full-bodied grits topped with not-too-spicy Cajun gravy. They are popular for a reason and after trying them, I can see why they have been added to the dinner menu. You will enjoy them.
Now for the entrees. Diner one chose a special, the tilefish. This is a rarely seen fish, as anglers know it is a tricky catch. The fish came served over fragrant coconut rice with a side of grilled and seasoned corn. The sweetness of the sides and the flavorful fish together conjured visions of a coastal barbecue on an exotic island. I could hear the waves with every bite. Diner two chose the very popular bronzino, though he was torn between that and the cabernet short ribs. I think either would have been spectacular. He loved the bronzino, which came served over cauliflower, commenting that the expert fileting eliminated most of the tricky bones that are often a part of the dish. He loved it and vowed to return soon for the short ribs. I had the pork chop special, which was served with a Jersey bourbon peach sauce, fingerling potatoes, and grilled asparagus. The very large pork chop arrived wearing showy grill marks and a thick bath of sauce. The chop was juicy and thick. In general, the kitchen has a real handle on grilling, and every grilled item we had was at its juicy peak. For my taste, the sauce was a little too strong and spicy for the perfect piece of pork, but I am sure the standard menu variation that comes with roasted Brussel sprouts, white beans, and Fuji apples is a knockout.
For dessert, we chose three. The first, a classic crème brulee, which comes in large oval ramekin, was just what a crème brulee should be. The crack of the topping, the cool creamy base, and the just-picked raspberries were just wonderful. Our second was a key lime cheesecake, though I do think they rotate the flavors seasonally. It was very creamy and a good pick for the more timid “limeys.” Our third choice was the warm, sticky toffee cake. Have mercy, this was amazing! We could have each easily eaten a couple more. The blend of Maldon sea salt, orange whipped mascarpone, and the gooey sticky sauce is something that must be on your menu. It delivered a full flavor experience: buttery, sweet, salty, and sticky – warm and soft with cool whipped cream on the side. I could eat it every day!
There is something very natural about this place. Though not a real “farm-to-table,” you feel a sense of harvest and a respect for the ingredients.
618 has a kids’ menu, a VIP dining program, monthly wine dinners, a busy bar, an extensive catering menu, and a quiet patience that makes you feel that they are headed for longstanding success.
The cost: Moderate
What we liked: The staff, the menu, the portions, and the openness of the dining room. We also loved dessert. The coffee, ladies’ room, and the mellow energy all ranked high. The fact it has party and banquet options is another plus.
What could be better: We think a little exterior work might portray a stronger image of what’s inside.
We give it 5 J’s.
618 Restaurant is located at 618 Park Avenue (Route 33) in Freehold. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., and Sundays from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. Call (732) 577-0001. Visit www.618nj.com.