We decided to kick off the summer with a long drive along the Bayshore towns, and we’re happy to report that the rebuilding efforts are paying off in many places. But all that driving works up an appetite, so we were thrilled when we got to Keyport and walked into Drew’s Bayshore Bistro. Now, let’s talk about Chef Drew Araneo, the owner of Drew’s Bayshore Bistro. He is one of the most respected and most humble chefs in the state. He is a James Beard finalist, he beat Bobby Flay in a throw-down, yet he is not just a Jersey boy – he’s a Keyport boy. He grew up there, made his name there, rebuilt his restaurant there when the first one was destroyed in the storm, and he is spinning New Orleans-inspired gris gris there every night, despite his Italian last name. Just as the Italian Louie Prima made a big impact on his native New Orleans jazz, Drew Araneo is innovating the Crescent City Cookbook with his own special magic. I have never met him in person, yet I feel like I have known him for years; that’s how much soul and spirit he puts on the plate. His reputation is well-deserved and each of his dishes has, as they say in New Orleans, lagniappe: that little something extra. So you’ve probably guessed we had a good time. Good guess – we did.
For appetizers, we had to have the Bobby Flay-beating Voodoo Shrimp, which come with a spicy Worcestershire cream and jalapeño cornbread. These are big, bold, juicy shrimp. The sauce is based in a dark ale, slow cooked for hours. They are revered by the regulars and they are worth the respect. The voodoo spell is that once you’ve had them, you have to have them again. Our second appetizer was the Jumbo Lump Crab cake with corn chow chow and chipotle tartar sauce. It’s a single baseball-sized cake that is practically all crab, sweet and satisfying. We also picked a special, the Stuffed Rice Balls, which are a nod to Drew’s Italian heritage. Boy, were they good; they should be on the menu every night. Finally, we tried Southwestern Caesar Salad. We were warned it had a kick, but the heat was pleasant, not overpowering. It was crunchy and delicious.
Now for the entrees. I’ll admit I was never a big Cajun food fan, but Drew changed that. His overall flavors are so well developed that they don’t need to be drowned with peppery sauces, as many Cajun places do. You would swear he grew up in the Bayou swamps, hookin’ redfish and duckin’ gators. Diner one picked the Shrimp & Grits. The Southern staple is a big catch of Gulf shrimp, with a savory stew of Benton’s bacon, mushrooms, tomato, and scallions poured over the creamiest cheese grits I can remember. It will make you smile. Diner two chose the soft shell crab special, which was perfectly sautéed to a light crunch with just the right spices and served over the smashed potatoes that accompany many of the dishes, and they are wonderful. What a start to the summer season. It makes you wish soft shell crabs were in season all year long. I struggled to make a pick, but opted for another southern staple, the Chicken Biscuits & Gravy. It’s a generous portion of perfectly fried Southern chicken breast, laid out on a plate-covering slab of buttermilk biscuit and smothered in traditional white sausage cream gravy, served with local asparagus. It was amazing. That country gravy is loaded with sausage and so delicious, I wish it was sold in jars. The chicken was moist and meaty, the buttermilk biscuit melted in your mouth, and the next day’s leftovers were even more incredible.
For desserts, we chose three: a homemade sorbet that was light, very refreshing, and had a just-picked pink-red color that you could not ignore. I wish I could find a nail polish in that shade. We also had the lemon raspberry crumble that came topped with an amazingly creamy scoop of vanilla ice cream. Finally, we had the Bananas Foster bread pudding, which was topped with another scoop of the sinful ice cream, served with a side of beaten sweet cream and drizzled in a luscious caramel sauce. Each had its own very distinct flavor, texture, and style, and all were winners!
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro is not a fancy place. It is welcoming, warm, and humble, much like the chef. It’s just a block from the waterfront, with its views of the Outerbridge and the Verrazano Bridge; an excellent place to take a stroll after a knock-out meal. The unisex bathroom is hidden behind black curtains, giving you that feeling that’s where the voodoo priestess resides. There’s always a crowd, so I would recommend reservations. BYOB.
The cost: Moderate
What we liked: The chef; you can taste his love in the food, the generous portions, the distinctive flavors, the friendly and well-informed staff, and the desserts.
What could be better: Maybe a touch more accents or art in the dining room.
We give it 5 J’s.
Drew’s Bayshore Bistro is located at 25 Church Street in Keyport. They’re open for dinner only on Sunday from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. They’re closed on Monday. Call (732) 739-9219 or visit www.drewsbayshorebistro.com.