Apr 01, 2017

Blu Grotto Ristorante

By Lori Draz

We got the blues, and we couldn’t be happier.

Blu Grotto Ristorante is a sensory explosion. It excites all your senses, like a bolt out of the blue (and that, I promise, is officially the last bad blue reference of this column). This place is unlike any other in the area. It’s stylish and elegant, accessible and exotic; a combination that is not easy to pull off. Everything about Blu Grotto is unique, right down to its location, which overlooks the grandstand of Monmouth Park racetrack. It has three outdoor dining areas that wrap around the gorgeous interior, plus a beirgarten on the lower level, and the main floor dining room is a conservatory (picture the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens or the Carousel House in Asbury Park). Look up and the ceiling is alive with an endlessly changing canopy of images, from geometrics to clouds to fireworks that dazzle in a steadily changing show. The chairs and banquettes, even the menus, are butter soft robin’s egg blue leather. There are touches of blue everywhere, which lent an icy winter wonderland feel on the snowy night we visited, though I’m sure it will look equally tropically refreshing in the summer.

And this restaurant is not just all show. It delivers on the dining experience, as well. The creatively assembled, well-priced wine list is full-size binder of choices, with some vintages and dessert wines that are quite hard to find. The cocktails are well prepared, as is the wait staff. Our server, Chris, excitedly and thoroughly walked us through the menu and specials, gave us just the right amount of attention, and even took us on a tour of the property when we were done.

We began our meal with four appetizers: Mozzarella in Carroza, two crispy triangles of toast stuffed with buffalo mozzarella and mortadella with a tomato conserva; Shishito Peppers, with smoked sea salt and sherry vinegar; General Taos Calamari, tossed with toasted sesame, scallion, and calabrian chili; and an order of Short Rib Meatballs, with tomato sauce and whipped ricotta served over creamy polenta. Each was fantastic, and each of the very large choices delivered a distinctly different flavor and texture profile. The meatballs were very homey, the carroza was comforting, the shishito peppers were not hot, and we crunched our way through the big bowl of the bite-size delights like popcorn at the movies. I was very surprised by the authentic Asian fusion pow of the calamari, which represented a drift off the mainly Italian menu. All great choices!

Though we were getting full, our foursome moved on to the entrees and we were equally and decidedly pleased with all our choices. Diner one had the halibut special that came over polenta with broccoli rabe. The portion of fish was quite large and perfectly cooked, very fresh, and so good. Diner two picked Organic Chicken Breast, which is served over a rich mascarpone polenta, topped with a marsala mushroom sauce. It is a simple dish, but very flavorful. The chicken was very juicy, and the marsala was laden with chunky mushrooms that paired well with the creamy polenta. Diner three choose the Grilled Swordfish, which sits atop whipped lemon potatoes, accompanied by salsa verde and charred lemon. It was a hit. Again, the fish was done perfectly and all the flavors came together just so. He was quite pleased. I selected the house-made Pappardelle with a wild boar ragu. The soft pappardelle welcomed the aromatic sauce, giving the dish an amber hue. The wild boar is not the least bit gamey, tasting more like a slow-cooked short rib. It’s very rich and robust and tastes like it has been given plenty of cooking time. I liked the presentation of all the dishes. Each was lovely and approachable, with none of that overly artsy stuff you see in some places.

We selected three desserts: the warm chocolate molten lava cake with ice cream, the lemon ricotta cheesecake with berry compote, and the olive oil pound cake with basil ice cream. All the desserts were good and none were overly sweet. It was hard to pick a favorite. They paired nicely with my coffee and also with one of diner’s choice of a dessert wine.

Blu Grotto seems to transport you and make you feel special. There is a quiet energy and you get the sense that everyone is not only paying close attention to their individual roles, but that they know they have (now forgive the Monmouth Park reference) a restaurant that is destined for the winner’s circle.

The cost: Moderate

What we liked: We liked it all! The very stylish setting, the enthusiastic staff, the huge wine list, the creative menu, the  freshness, the overhead light show, the open air views of the green space and the grandstand, the pacing of our meal, even the bathrooms and the huge parking lot.

What could be better: I don’t know what the summer will bring, but I expect this will be packed, so reserve early. There are a lot of steps, though there is a long ramp-way for those who need it.

We give it 5 J’s. (Though one diner was lobbying hard for a seven)

Blu Grotto Ristorante is located at 200 Port Au Peck Avenue in Oceanport. They’re open Tuesday through Thursday from 12:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday from 12:00 to 11:00 p.m., Saturday from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. and Sunday from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m. Call (732) 571-7900. Visit www.blugrottonj.com.