ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ
One of the many interesting customers we had at A La Carte was a very flamboyant and opinionated character who had been a waiter in almost every fine restaurant in town.
Among his many areas of expertise were food and wine. He really knew his stuff and often came in with criticisms or praise for the local eating establishments.
One afternoon, he came in raving about a delicious meal he had eaten in a very unlikely spot. The new Ocean Avenue Restaurant and Brewery, he said, had fabulous Italian food, cooked by the owner, a genuine Italian momma.
We tried it and had to agree; but for some reason, perhaps the noisy young crowd and pub atmosphere, neither of us had eaten there in quite some time. So the other night we were curious to see if the place lived up to our memories.
The crowd is still noisy and young, the music continues to be loud and the food is still terrific.
The ambience — if you can use that word to describe a brewery — with its billowy draped ceiling and beaded curtains over the bar, is quasi-casbah meets contemporary cantina, with its exposed beams, carved, rustic wooden banquette and Mexican paver tiles.
One entire side of the room is devoted to the bar and the huge copper brewing tanks. The room opens out to a patio area separated by long black drapes. The overall effect can best be described as casual funky hip.
Now about the food: The current Neapolitan chef really cares about ingredients and clearly knows Italian food, although there are other choices on the menu.
For instance, the appetizers include a chicken quesadilla and Belgian endive with herbed cream cheese and smoked salmon.
On the Italian side, you can get a caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella and fresh tomatoes; bruschetta, calamari or an antipasto.
We had the non-Italian crab cakes, served with a very Italian, spicy marinara sauce and aioli. The crab cakes were the softer, even-textured kind, no chunks of crab but still crabby. They had a thin, crispy exterior.
The cakes were good, but the marinara sauce was fabulous: fresh, chunky and spicy. Skip the aioli; it was boring. Also skip the foccacia bread; it’s the cotton wool kind.
From the salads, we selected the cast-iron ahi, although we were intrigued by the sound of the Dover sole salad with sunflower seeds and raspberry walnut vinaigrette.
The ahi was sashimi grade, blackened rare, with spinach, avocado and crumbled walnuts in a raspberry champagne vinaigrette. The flavors and textures were pleasant, but the dressing, both tart and sweet, was the real palate-pleaser.
Sandwiches are available at dinnertime and are served with a choice of soup, salad or shoestring potatoes. The sandwiches are all distinguished by interesting ingredients.
There is a prawn BLT with cilantro aioli; the grilled chicken breast has Emmenthal, roasted pepper and arugula, and the excellent Kobe beef burger has a creamy gorgonzola dressing.
Most authentically Italian are the pizza and pasta. The pizza has a very tasty thin crust that could be eaten on its own — it has so much flavor and a wonderful chewy texture. We had the vegetarian, with an abundance of chunky mushrooms and good imported black olives, salty but not bitter.
The cheese was tasty, with just the right amount used, and the tomato sauce, again, was superior. Next time we will try the spicy prawn with oven-dried tomatoes and basil pesto or maybe the wild mushroom with fontina and thyme.
Most exotic of the pastas is fettucine with lamb, raisins, green onions, pine nuts and fresh tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette. More familiar is the tagliatelle with smoked salmon, mascarpone, vodka and chives.
We ordered the pasta of the day, black spaghetti (squid ink) with seafood served in a brandy cream sauce. However, we were so enamored with their spicy marinara sauce that we requested it instead.
The excellent pasta was perfectly cooked and perfectly sauced, (not drenched) with a generous portion of shrimp, scallops and calamari. This really was like pasta in Italy.
Once again, the entrées in Italian restaurants always seem less interesting than what comes before. Here, there are just five. Most intriguing is a wild boar stew, served over polenta, although our very nice waiter steered us away with a less-than-enthusiastic reply when we asked about it.
There is also swordfish wrapped in pancetta and baked with tomatoes and eggplant. They have grilled wild salmon, a flatiron steak and a stuffed chicken breast filled with spinach and mozzarella.
All these entrées come with a vegetable side dish of your choice, some of which sound really interesting; in particular, baked Portobello and potatoes with arugula, herbes de province and truffle oil or sautéed asparagus with radishes, lemon zest and thyme.
Three house-made desserts are offered: cheesecake, crème brulée and yes, tiramisu. If you didn’t know better, you would think this is the only dessert in Italy. So naturally we had to try their version, and it was pretty good. It wasn’t soggy and had good coffee flavor, but once more it was overwhelmed by an overdose of whipped cream.
In the middle of dinner, the musical part of the evening commenced and our ability to converse terminated, except between sets: just a bit too loud for our taste.
It was at this time that the young woman sitting next to us took off her shoes and put her feet up on the bench next to Elle: just a bit too casual for our taste. However, the food was very much to our taste, so we will be going back.
The quality of the food is worthy of an upscale Italian restaurant, but the prices are what you’d expect at a brewery.
ELLE HARROW AND TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at email@example.com.