Sep 07, 2018

Christine’s

By Lori Draz

Christine's Atlantic Highlands NJ Food

Personality plus!!! That’s the only way to describe a delicious dinner at Christine’s in Atlantic Highlands. Chef owner Ron Marino gregariously greeted us with a “where-have-you-been” vibe that made you feel like you were going to dinner at your Italian cousin’s house… the one who can really cook.

Marino sets the mood which is big and warm, and he is a constant presence on the floor, visiting with each table, making sure you have everything you want. He is a New Yorker through and through, though he is now just as proud of his New Jersey roots. He learned to cook watching his Italian mom and grandma make the sauce and the Sunday dinners.

Marino spent the early part of his career in the high-power world of Wall Street, which allowed him to regularly dine at the nation’s best restaurants. Thankfully for us, he made one final trade, leaving behind stocks and moving into cooking. Christine’s is a cozy, red brick-walled space with low lighting and comfortable seats. We chose to sit outside in the enclosed and weatherized garden room – which is open year-round – and enjoyed listening to rain tap on the ceilings as we prepared for a memorable night.

Christine's Atlantic Highlands NJ Food 1

We reviewed the menu over a complimentary plate of toasted bread and red peppers in olive oil. We really didn’t need the menu because our servers were so knowledgeable. They carefully describe each dish with such specificity and glowing pride that we thought their moms were in the kitchen. It was a real delight to watch these servers do their thing. So easy to talk with and so concerned over everything we ordered – they should conduct a master class.

Our group began with two appetizers, followed by a pasta course. Stuffed artichoke bottoms were so tender, and the panko and pecorino Romano filling was light and fluffy. The sauce was just wonderful too. If you like artichokes, please try this.

We also ordered the highly recommended Italian eggrolls which are packed with sausage, broccoli rabe and a four-cheese blend. Delicious! There is an underlying sweetness from the sausage and the balsamic drizzle that is just wonderful. I think even kids would enjoy this one.

We were cautioned that ordering a full pasta course might be going overboard, so they made us a half portion of cavatelli with broccoli rabe, which we split three ways – and there were still leftovers. This is a real hearty dish with big chunks of sausage. I’m having this as an entrée on the first cool day of fall.

Now for the entrees. Diner one selected Veal Milanese, which is served over a salad of arugula and red onion. While the preparation was a little less traditional, he remarked that the veal was very juicy and flavorful. It had been a long time since this diner had veal, and this dish hit the spot for him.

Diner two chose a special that I almost ordered: halibut with asparagus and roasted baby potatoes. Yummy! It is a perfect time to talk about the portions, which are quite large. The moist, meaty halibut was perfectly cooked, the asparagus was tender but not mushy, and the potatoes were nice and soft. She loved it and said she was looking forward to enjoying the rest of this generous sized dish for lunch the next day.

I had the Kansas Cut Pork Chop, a big 14-ounce grilled chop served with your choice of hot or sweet vinegar peppers in a white wine sauce, drizzled with a balsamic and plum reduction and a very generous side of broccoli. I chose sweet peppers which still had a strong tang. I think I would have liked some mashed potatoes or polenta with this dish, but even without, it delivered a very homey taste. That’s the thing about Christine’s: Everything has that real homemade taste, like family.

For dessert, we chose a melt-in-your-mouth slice of authentic Junior’s cheesecake – a creamy homage to the New York roots of the restaurateur. If you’ve never had Junior’s, you don’t know what you’re missing. They serve it simply, with a dab of whipped cream. It is heavenly. We also had pistachio tartuffo, a softball-sized pistachio ice cream bomb with cherries in the center, enrobed in a chocolate shell. They cut it in four quarters and with three diners, we were all eyeing the fourth slice. Really nice.

Other desserts sounded equally enticing, like a coconut macaroon ice cream dish and a tiramisu cake. The coffee was on point and our espresso drinker said it was among the best in the area. Good coffee and “don’t play around” desserts made me feel like I was in Brooklyn.

Christine’s does a big off-premise catering business and they manage to turn out many parties in their garden room, which is a great spot for birthdays, showers and smaller gatherings. I can only imagine how much fun this rollicking staff would make your party. There is free street parking after 6 pm. BYOB.

Cost: Moderate

What we liked: The incredible staff and those big, wonderful personalities. The well-informed and enthusiastic servers, the cozy décor, the attention to every detail, and their sincerity about your satisfaction.

What could be better: A little hard to navigate for those with mobility issues, but we liked it all.

We give it 4 and three quarter J’s.

Christine’s is located at 42 1st Ave. in Atlantic Highlands. 732-872-4790. Open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays 5 to 9 pm; Fridays and Saturdays 5 to 10 pm; Sundays 4 to 9 pm; closed Mondays.