Monmouth Park is one of the few places in New Jersey (or anywhere for that matter) where you can watch and bet on live horse racing, and also take part in fine dining, live music, and miniature golf. Maybe it’s the only place.
Blu Grotto is the main pillar of this growing, resort-style destination at the racetrack. Situated in Oceanport, NJ, and a short drive from beautiful beaches, Blu Grotto is an Italian-style, fine-dining establishment with a unique brick-and-mortar location.
The Father-and-Son Management Team
For the first time in five years, Elvin Kehres and his son Casey are working in the same establishment. Together, they provide quality food, like the acclaimed short rib meatballs, and an excellent customer experience akin to a best friend’s dazzling dinner party.
“It’s like being with the old family you haven’t seen in year,” said Casey Kehres, assistant general manager at Blu Grotto. “It’s never boring,” he added, laughing. Casey got his start working alongside his dad when he was 16. They first worked together at Landmark Hospitality’s Ryland Inn and again at Blu Grotto when the restaurant first opened six years ago.
“Casey knows what I expect and what I want,” said Elvin Kehres, the general manager at Blu Grotto. “He’s come a long way between working for me and [for David Burke at the Drift House]. I’ve actually learned a few things that he’s done in other places that we apply to Blu Grotto now.”
The Food, by Chef James Corona
While the father-and-son management team sometimes have different ideas about how to grow the Blu Grotto establishment, they agree on one thing, above all: quality cuisine.
“For the most part, we deal in the classics of old-Italian-style cooking,” Kehres said. “It is minimalistic cooking—not 15 different ingredients in a dish, but getting the freshest ingredients we can and presenting them on the plate. A lot of our dishes only have three or four ingredients, and we believe that’s the secret of Italian-style cooking.”
In order to execute such fine Italian food, ownership employed Chef James Corona. Customers who know of Chef James may have heard of him from his time working with Mario Batali or David Bouley.
With emphasis on these ingredients, Chef James Corona and his kitchen staff make a concerted effort to buy as much produce as possible from local purveyors. For example, the mushrooms in dishes like strip steak pizzaiola come from Two River Mushroom Co., in Sea Bright, NJ.
In other dishes, the kitchen and management staff work together to source proper ingredients to make meals from scratch.
“Our pastas are made in house for dishes like the fettuccine Bolognese,” said Elvin. “Customers seek out Chef Corona for his style of cooking, which involves using the freshest ingredients he can find and making everything from scratch. People always rate our Bolognese as the best they’ve ever had.”
Casey chimed in. “Our calamari is never frozen,” he said. “They get the fresh squid in, break it down, and prepare it themselves. We hand cut our french fries daily.”
Customer perception of Blu Grotto is another interesting topic of conversation for the Kehres clan. “We are fine dining,” said Casey. “So, one of the biggest stigmas we’re fighting is that we’re an expensive restaurant, but we want to break that. Within the past six years since we opened, the restaurant scene has definitely changed—not even including the pandemic.”
“Fine dining was very hoity-toity, white glove. Blu Grotto has found a nice balance between casual and fine dining. You still get the quality, the local ingredients, and the chef’s passion. But you can also come in shorts and not have to worry about putting on a jacket.”
Blu Grotto is an upscale establishment with a beautiful dining room. The space features comfortable blue lounge chairs and custom barstools manufactured by Lamborghini. Yes, you read that right, Lamborghini.
During the warmer months, guests enjoy the spacious outdoor deck area, which seats up to 125 people. The management team does everything in its power to provide multiple options for customers while enjoying the fine food, whether individuals are sitting in the luxury sports car of barstool chairs or out on the sunny balcony.
“The concept is casual, fine dining,” said Elvin. “We don’t want people to think we’re a stuffy place, we want people to come in and enjoy themselves like they’re at a friend’s house.”
What’s New at The Blu Grotto?
Blu Grotto management aims to bring the same quality, “scratch-made” approach to every aspect of its business, including the bar’s cocktails. Guests can enjoy food and drink happy hour specials on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
Be on the lookout for new, recurring events currently on the horizon for Blu Grotto customers. These include specialty events like wine dinners and beef-and-bourbon feasts.
“We also want to do more promotional nights like burger night in our atmosphere, and hopefully some live music,” said Casey. “I remember when we first opened, we had a phenomenal burger on our lunch menu—with bacon, onion jam, brioche bun, and Pat LaFrieda meat.”
The Beer Garden Says ‘Bye’ Until Next Year
The fine dining dinner establishment sits upstairs, while the location’s lower level opened as the Beer Garden about three years ago. Today, the Beer Garden at Blu Grotto is a seasonal, outdoor pub with live music, casual fare, and—you guessed it—cold beer. Walking through the space, it’s easy to imagine people wandering over after their time at the racetrack for some outdoor suds and sun, all to the tune of a live band. (It is currently closed for the season, other than special occasions, like Sunday football.)
“In the summer, we have bands that come in—local bands like Brian Kirk and the Jerks, The Nerds, West End Dogs, Moroccan Sheepherders,” said Elvin. “And The Beer Garden is a totally different menu, too—we treat it as a totally separate business, but with the same emphasis on quality. We have a Neapolitan-style pizza oven with blue mosaic tiles that we imported from Italy, so we bake pizzas out there. We do hamburgers, hot dogs, lobster rolls, burrata—things like that.”
The NJ Horsemen’s Association,which owns the racetrack, “wanted to make the Monmouth Park more of a destination,” explained Casey. “You have some that come from the racetrack who come upstairs to enjoy a nice meal. Or people who just want to have a nice, casual day with the family at the racetrack can go to the Beer Garden afterward. It’s all-encompassing, gives two different ends of the spectrum, and having both on one property is unique.”
Moving forward, interested—and hungry—individuals can follow the Blu Grotto on social media to see what’s on tap as the management and kitchen team plan fall and winter events. Stay tuned!