Where I Was
The Wine Bar, Atlantic Highlands, NJ
Friday, March 9, 6:58 p.m.
Where I Sat
Corner of the bar—first (and only) two seats available on a bustling Friday night
Who Served Me
Katie, the bar master, with the Wine Bar for eight years this month
Bartender’s Favorite Bite
“Oh, that’s tough—our tuna tartare,” said Katie. “The tuna is so fresh: light, finely chopped red onion with avocado, fresh cucumber, wasabi aioli, sriracha, spicy mayo and teriyaki glaze with crispy wonton noodles on top. I would recommend trying it. It’s so good!” I was overwhelmed, yet her description appealed to me. She took not one breath while listing all the ingredients and didn’t pause in her delivery—suggesting some sort of crazy ingredient mashup. So, as would be expected, I had to order it.
The Vibe & My Vantage Point
Swanky luxe. Muted. Sexy, with blue light casting azure luminescence from behind the bottles which sat atop glass bar shelves. A large living room area featuring zebra-print chairs and plush sofas fill the lounge, which opens up beyond a very comfortable bar with ample space for elbows and bags alike. Our corner spot was where all the action took place, at least on this Friday night: cocktail shakers shaking, diners heading up the stairs, the hostess greeting guests, a young man and woman asking questions of the hostess (he was looking for a new bartending gig). My view covered the bar’s full length and reached straight into the far-more-intimate restaurant proper.
What Quenched My Thirst
Fig martini, $12
Fig-infused vodka with rosemary and lemon zest, simple syrup, and fresh lemon
While exotic, the fig was quite accessible to me as a child. And while today it’s used in cocktails, syrups, balsamic vinegars, and hand lotions, for me, it will always be reminiscent of my father’s childhood home and the fig tree my Pop Pop (now the name my children call my father) had in his yard. His pride and joy. The tree he wrapped up tight for winter and unfurled each spring to watch it bloom to its full glory during the warmer summer months. To this day, I peer down fruit aisles at Delicious Orchards, Sickles, Dean’s, and Whole Foods waiting for the moment I can scoop up a carton and bring them to my dad.
So my search for the perfect cocktail for this piece ended abruptly when I saw the word fig. Done. Katie was pleased with my choice, as she infuses her own fig vodka and prides herself in so doing! As I eyed this delightfully presented martini, complete with the perfect whimsy of a fresh rosemary sprig, I highly anticipated my first sip. It was so simple, delicious. A mouthful of goodness. Honeyed in a way that’s not over the top. Fresh, herby, and jammy—oh my. I must give Katie credit for the word jammy, as I could not find the proper descriptor. When I was machinating over it with her, she said “Jammy!” “YES!” I exclaimed, as I quickly slurped another luscious mouthful.
What Fed My Soul
Grilled octopus salad, $14
Artichoke, capers, and grape tomatoes with a red wine vinegar
I know what you’re thinking: Octopus? Again?! Jesus, give it a break lady. It’s like french fries at a diner—it’s on every menu. But, the raison d’être this time, was my hubs was my wingman and he L-O-V-E-S octopus, maybe even more than I do. So, like tequila in my cocktails you may need to get used to the regular appearance of octopus in this column. (I do promise to diversify menu choices when my hubs isn’t at my side!) My other inspiration to push the order forward? The accoutrements are some of my very favorite ingredients: artichoke hearts, chickpeas, toasted garlic, grape tomatoes, and arugula. Plus octopus. Ohhhhh, yeah! “Fresh” was the takeaway of this wonderful combo. Tart, popping with vinegar top notes, with a touch of the peppery bitterness that arugula promises but somehow faintly sweet—and with yummy soft fingerlings sprinkled about. Lots of lemon, too. Super yum!
Filet mignon with Gruyere cheese, caramelized onion jam and house ketchup
Duck with raspberry and butternut squash puree portobello
Roasted pepper and burrata with balsamic glaze
You can choose three, in any combination. Note: on this night the slider choices were different from what’s listed above, so they must rotate. Hooray for variety! The offering this time was the same as above, except the duck was instead a crab cake with what I think was a simple, tasty chipotle mayo.
We ordered two crab, shown at left and right, and one filet, at center. (I love a portobello, but please do not pretend it’s a burger.) Not a gorgeous plate, and while I love visual splendor, I did not let the starkness deter me from grabbing one of the crab cake sliders. A simple, delicious crab cake: fresh, moist, made with what tasted like a little Old Bay, some light mayo and spice, and just the right amount of egg to bind. The breading was so light, it was hard to decipher if it was a plain breadcrumb or some other dust-like floury substance, but panko it was not. I had no trouble finishing it off in about three bites—and enjoyed each one fully!
The filet was a bit more spectacular. (We wished we had ordered two of those instead.) It was cooked medium with two other tastes I love: ketchup and carmelized onions. The filet was ultra tender, easy to bite off from the petite bun, even if not homemade. A lovely combo of flavors and the three sliders made for a filling choice.
Tuna tartare, $12
With wonton crisps
This is not your ordinary tartare—and I’ve had a few (hundred) in my day. When Katie first mentioned all the sauces and such I thought, What?! Seems like a lot. But given her effusive description I ordered it. The first bite? Flavor explosion! It was at once sweet-spicy-creamy-soft-pungent. Like Fourth of July in my mouth! The tartare itself was fresh and well proportioned against the cucumber and red onion. The layer of ripe avocado was awesome for all you avocado lovers out there. It gave a nice heft to the airiness of the tartare dotted with sesame oil. The sauces—all of them—were layered underneath so you can enjoy as much or as little of them as you like. And while they were included, I didn’t quite get the Carr’s water crackers other than the idea that they bring a completely neutral flavor, allowing the tartare to take center stage. OK, maybe I do get it, but I would have made a different choice—perhaps a larger, homemade chinese noodle to scoop up the tartare with the same consistency as the wonton crisps. In fact I took them off the plate as they seemed that out of place for me. Crackers aside, I scooped up every delicious bite with my fork. We polished off almost the entire plate.
Bacon-wrapped dates, $9
With gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, drizzled with a balsamic reduction
Now, this was a risky order, both because Katie highly recommended it after I gave in and got the tartare, and also because this is a secret weapon of my own for entertaining and I feared it would not photograph well. As I mentioned, the wine bar has sensual lighting, not meant for food photography so I hope the photos can reflect the sumptuousness of this palate pleaser. Brilliant and strong, yet soft and warming: it was a perfect ending to a wonderful experience with the crunchy, raw walnuts adding a nice earthiness to the rich stickiness of the date and creamy gorgonzola. Try them! They are so worth it.
Beyond the Bar
Happy hour on Thursdays and Fridays 6 to 7 p.m., $6 martinis, select wines by the glass, and small plates.
The Wine Bar website notes that it “features over 120 labels and 24 wines by the glass designed to impress but not overwhelm, inviting both novices and aficionados alike to enjoy wines from the world’s greatest wine regions. The wines-by-the-glass list has a unique flight option offering two, four, and six ounce pours. Bottles are $26 and up. The Wine Bar is all about taste adventure, and the menu reflects this with wine-friendly selections that will satisfy the palate. The offerings have a fun, cosmopolitan tone with compelling Mediterranean influences that offer flavorful and healthy ingredients.”
When to Show
Thursday through Saturday, 6 p.m. (closing times vary)
Know Before You Go!
Prices, hours, and menu items are subject to change. Please check the Wine Bar’s website for the latest information available.
The Wine Bar
40 First Avenue
This article was not paid for, nor influenced by, the restaurant/bar featured in this column.