While much of the planet is searching for stuffing and turkey recipes for the Thanksgiving holiday, we chose the road less traveled and took a day trip to savor the cuisines of Portugal and Spain at Mar Belo in Long Branch. It was a trip worth making. You could almost drive right past it, but park in the rear and you will be shocked at how large and lovely it really is. There is a patio for outdoor dining, which leads into a beautiful sea-themed bar. To your left is a large party room with a bar and TVs, and straight ahead is the main dining room. Mar Belo’s minimalistic, yet very soothing, interior is a blend of wood, ash, and pewter tones. There is a faux fireplace on a stone wall and the lighting is among the best around. Even the dishes, silverware, and glassware have been well chosen. The interior is suitable for a celebration, a business meeting, or a date.
We settled in and met one of our servers, who arrived with a big basket of warm bread and a warm grin, as well. Over the course of the evening, we were visited by several members of the wait staff, who seemed proud as new parents of the place. It felt like they cooperatively owned the restaurant, and their sweet sincerity was truly refreshing. Mar Belo has a respectable wine list that features many Spanish wines, and we had them make us a pitcher of red sangria. With the sweet and not-too-strong concoction in our glasses, we were off to find appetizers.
We started with three. Shrimp Piri-Piri included four grilled tiger shrimp in a garlic, spicy piri piri sauce. The sauce had sweet undertones and was not overly hot. We also chose the fried calamari with homemade dipping sauce, which was really well done; fried to just a golden brown and very tender. Our last choice was steamed mussels in a special house sauce. The big bucket of mussels had enough for us all and we ordered a second basket of bread to dip the delicious and not overly garlicy sauce.
Now for the entrees. Diner one chose a special. We were there on a Wednesday, which happens to be Steak Night. Their pick was the eight-ounce filet mignon, which came with cheddar mashed potatoes, Vidalia onion rings, and broccoli. The steak was tender and cooked to the correct temperature and the sides were the right flavor complement to the dish. Nicely done. Diner two chose the traditional Paelha Marinera – a generous pot of shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels, and clams, topped with a lobster and served with saffron rice. It was packed with seafood and he found it well done and quite pleasing. Diner three also went with an authentic Portuguese dish called Alentejana. It is a mix of cubed pork and clams, with cilantro in a brown sauce served over cubed potatoes. Thank goodness this adventurous diner made the pick, as this dish is really one to try. Every bite was tender and the brown sauce pulled the unusual sounding pork and clam combination together with a magic touch. I had the rack of lamb, which came with sliced silver dollar potatoes, fried like double-thick chips. It was a very generous double portion of frenched lamb chops and they, too, were the perfect temperature, tender, and tasty. I was torn between the lamb and the shish kebab, which is chunks of filet mignon, shrimp, Spanish potatoes, and vegetables. Fortunately, a diner at another table ordered the dish, which is served in a showy standup presentation. It looked like one worth trying. In general, we were all very happy with our entrees, although they were not as aggressively flavored as you find in the more old-school North Jersey Portuguese restaurants. There were also not as many truly traditional Portuguese and Spanish offerings, but the menu is easy to navigate and has selections for everyone.
For dessert, we chose three, starting with the Portuguese traditional dessert called serradura, which is a creamy custardy dessert with a base and a filling of crumbled Maria cookies. It’s not too sweet and very creamy, kind of the consistency of crème brulee. We also had the Rice Pudium, which is a Portuguese version of rice pudding. Again, it is very smooth and the cream base has hints of what tasted like cardamom and cinnamon with a touch of lemon. Our third and perhaps favorite choice was the New York cheesecake (kind of ironic in a Portuguese restaurant). It is a big slice of a tall dense cheesecake on a buttery graham cracker crust. It melts in your mouth and is served simply. The desserts were all tenderly flavored and mildly sweet.
As we mentioned, it was Steak Night when we were there. Mar Belo also offers Tuesday night Wine Night, with half priced bottles of wine with dinner, and Thursday night is Twin Lobster Night. Mar Belo sets a lovely mood and the happy staff makes it a fine place to enjoy good conversation and a really satisfying meal.
The cost: Moderate
What we liked: The sweet and excited staff, the roomy tables and tableware, the simple and soothing décor, the lighting, the party room, expertly cooked meats and fish. The party room, big bar, and well-chosen wine list are other pluses.
What could be better: We think a little traditional Portuguese would really add distinction.
We give it 4and half J’s.
Mar Belo restaurant is located at 611 Broadway, at the intersection of Norwood Avenue in Long Branch. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., and closed Mondays. Call (732) 870-2222. Visit www.marbelorestaurant.com.