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Nov 8, 2009 06:47 PM

Bay Avenue Trattoria - Highlands

I must admit to being a bit apprehensive about trying Bay Avenue Trattoria. My prior experience with Chef Romanowski's previous restaurant, Joe and Maggie's, was not very good. However, with several of my favorite chef's (Drew Araneo and Erik Witherspool) having trained under Chef Romanowski coupled with excellent reviews on this board, I had to give this place a try. To be quite honest, it was getting embarrassing going to the same restaurant (Belford Bistro) week after week. On the other hand, Belford has never disappointed and I was reluctant to try something new and be disappointed. Well, let's get to the good stuff.

I'm happy to report that the food was generally very good. My wife and I were joined by another couple and we ordered as follows: starters – bucatini carbonara with poached egg - special (very creamy and delicious), pan roast of clams with garlic and white wine (fabulous – I could of swimmed in that bowl), garganelli with prosciutto and peas (good but took the silver medal to the bucatini), and beef carpaccio topped with warm sauteed mushrooms (the odd man out of the bunch – the starter wasn't bad but the warm mushrooms seemed to clash with the room temperature beef); entrees – red wine braised beef short ribs with mashed yukon gold potatoes (a single luscious off the bone short rib which melted in my mouth – I wish I could make mine that way), pork osso bucco with fennel sauasge, borcolli rabe and white beans (another fantastic dish – the pork was fork tender and was like butta' while the sausage and beans along with the bitter rabe added a nice flavor and textutal counterpoint to the shank), seared day boat sea scallops with brown butter (very ample portion consisting of 7 scallops – good flavor but disappointed that they didn't have a nice sear – also confused as to why only one side of scallops were seared), and charbroiled cajun spiced tuna with orzo and green beans – special (the tuna was excellent however the orzo was an odd compliment as it lacked flavor – would have choosen a different starch); dessert – chocolate bread pudding with vanilla gelato ( a wonderful and decadent dessert – warm gooey chocolate with cool vanilla ice cream – a winner), Joe's famous tiramisu (an interesting twist as it contained devil's food cake – good but it didn't do anything for me), and affogato – shot of espresso with heath bar gelatto and biscotti crumbs (very nice however it melts pretty quickly and becomes more of a soup).

All in all we were very happy with the food. Now for the negatives. I knew going in that the restaurant's décor was very casual however I was surprised with what I found. As one of our guests had put it, “if your serving $29 entrees, you should have cloth napkins if not a table cloth.” I was also a little surprised at the restaurant's condition. The walls looked a bit worn and needed some repairing/repainting. I was also a little disappointed with the service, while well intentioned, it lacked polish and was a tad rough. I would categorize it as being “diner-esque”. The décor and service aside, I would not hesitate returning to BAT or recommending the restaurant. BAT is restaurant you must accept for its quirks. I will however continue to implore Chef Romanowski to spring for cloth napkins and request that he ditch those paper place mats.

Bay Ave Trattoria
122 Bay Ave, Highlands, NJ 07732

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  1. BAT remains a favorite of mine. Has been for yerars. The food is on par with that of the Belford Bistro, and it's a much shorter drive for me when we do decide to visit (which is often).

    As for the decor, it has never bothered me. Joe 'downsized' after slaving the Joe & Maggie's thing for 12-15 years working 6 days a week. The walls done in an faux are hardly peeling or in need of a redo. The place is 'spartan' and minimal when it comes into view. As for the waitresses, to me, it's an after thought. As long as they promptly open my grape and set us up,, fill the water glasses and deliver the bread (all done very expediently), I don't have a problem. These are more than likely OLD friends of his, and while not being straight out of 'Vogue' or the CIA, they are a bit better than most, though they may be a bit complacent when it comes to "trying a bit harder' because the restaurant is always packed. That aside, I've never had any issues with them. Most of us 'regulars' are there for the food. And I rarely see anyone 'wanting' because a waitress disappears in that shoebox.

    Judging by your reviews, you were not disappointed ---not even close to having a pedestrian dish, with your observations seeming to be fairly objective etc for someone who for the most part was visiting for the first time..

    Joe's Short Ribs, his crabcakes (been doing these dishes for years and doing it so so well), his veal medallions, his beef carpaccio or his fried oysters, as well as his salads (specials) AND soup specials are amongst the best that you'll find anywhere down here.

    IMO, there's very little difference food wise between BB and BAT. For someone like yourself who also happens to live in OT, it's a far easier ride for a nice dinner that is just as comparable, though lacking somewhat in 'visuals'.

    Good objective review nevertheless.

    Belford Bistro
    870 Main Street, Belford, NJ 07718

    4 Replies
    1. re: JustJake

      I must have eaten at Bay Ave. Trattoria seven or eight times and the meals have ranged between good and very good. In my view the food trumps the decor. Sure, I'd like it if the place looked better but then I think about local places with wonderful interiors and sub mediocre food and I cut BAT some slack, especially since the BYO policy holds the final tab down.

      As for the servers, he's hiring local people; they're unpolished but well meaning and attentive. I'm fine with that.

      I guess my only quibble with BAT is that the menu is somewhat limited and seems geared to hearty dishes best suited to winter. While this pleases me in January it doesn't appeal nearly as much in July.

      1. re: Bob Martinez

        Bob - I don't disagree with you or JustJake. I just think you need to go into BAT knowing what to expect.
        JustJake - While I did notice the faux finsh, in the place we were sitting, the walls were a bit scratched and chipped. Nothing a little touch up couldn't fix. And yes, I did find the food at BAT to be comparable to Belford (although to me I give Belford the slight nod).

        1. re: bgut1

          Fair enough - I think knowing the restaurants strengths and weakness would properly set expectations. The interior could use a bit of spiffing up.

          While I'm at it I'll pass on a tip. We found a use for nearby Windandsea, a "view" restaurant with forgettable food. It makes a great venue for drinks before moving on to the Trattoria.

          1. re: Bob Martinez

            Thanks for the tip Bob. I'll give it a try next time I go to BAT.

    2. Bgut, great detailed review. Its been over a year since we have been to Bay Avenue. Think we need to get back there. That Pork Osso Bucco sounds fantastic.

      7 Replies
      1. re: tom246

        Tom - The Osso Bucco was fabulous. I enjoyed it even more for lunch the next day.

        1. re: bgut1

          The DW and I decided to give Belford Bistro a rest and returned to BAT last night. We entered the restaurant to find a few surprising changes. First, Chef Joe had chosen to spruce up the place by adding some wood wainscoting and chair rail on the walls. The design change was welcome and added much needed warmth to the space. Next, I was delighted to discover that Chef Joe decided to heed my earlier request and abandon the paper placemats and napkins and replace them with tablecloths and cloth napkins. Both of these changes resolved my only two prior criticisms of the restaurant and kicked it up a notch in my book.

          With regard to the food, the DW and I decided for the most part to stick with prior choices (chili rubbed tuna, pork osso bucco, pan roast of clams – all excellent). We did however try a few new items. My DW ordered the garlic shrimp for an appetizer while we both agreed to split the grilled hearts of romaine salad as a middle course. The shrimp was perfectly prepared and bathed in a tasty garlic oil. The grilled romaine however was my favorite item of the evening. I couldn’t get over the smokiness of the bacon, combined with the cool crispness of the romaine and the creamy heat of the chipotle ranch dressing. The dish is a pure winner that I intend to order on all future visits.

          As we usually dine later in the evening, we are used to hearing that specials have run out. Last night was no different. I had been eyeing a particular dessert being ordered by many tables in the restaurant and was disappointed to learn that it was no longer available. I had come to find out that the dessert was a peanut butter mousse pie with heath bar crunch ice cream. Instead, we decided to order the carrot cake with coconut cream cheese frosting and the replacement special, an espresso chocolate tart with the same heath bar crunch ice cream. The carrot cake was stellar. The cake was moist while the frosting was creamy and delicious. The DW is not a fan of coconut but she couldn’t stop stealing away bites of the frosting. The chocolate tart on the other hand was somewhat of a dud. The dessert wasn’t a tart. Instead it was a small round of chocolate cake covered in a chocolate ganache and topped with what seemed to be mini malt balls. In theory, the dessert would have worked, but the flavor and texture of the cake wasn’t there. I would have rather tried the peanut butter mousse pie instead and hope it's available in the future.

          All in all, it was another great meal at BAT and I hope to return very soon. Again, I would like to thank Chef Joe for the cloth napkins and tablecloths as they added to my enjoyment of the meal. I will continue to recommend BAT without any hesitation. Good Luck.

          1. re: bgut1

            We've never been to BAT, but now that it's so much more luxurious, I may put it on my "go to" list. Seriously, b., so many restaurants these days are going the "nude" table route. I agree with you that tablecloths and, especially, cloth napkins add a lot to the dining experience. Of course, it helps if the food is first-rate. :)

            1. re: bgut1

              Sounds like a great night bgut, the extra touches you mention does make the dining experience more enjoyable.
              We went to a friends house and had an awesome rack of lamb dinner.
              Give your Valentine our very best.

              1. re: tom246

                Thanks tom. Same here to your Mrs.

              2. re: bgut1

                BAT is an all around good place, nice to hear about the sprucing up, I found it a bit hectic and clunky on my last visit as well. Congrats to chef Joe on his James Beard nomination! When he first opened, it was sandwiches and pizza... When J&M was sold, the new owners did a horrendous job, it was really bad. Anyhow, Joe's former cliental flocked to BAT and begged and pleaded for their old favorites. True hospitality is giving the people exactly what they want, so out with the sammy's and in with his awesome regional cuisine. I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed it, bgut, I follow your reviews and you are always right on the money! I can't wait to go back and see the new changes that they made!

                1. re: fletchphil

                  Thanks for the compliment fletchphil. I really appreciate it.

          2. I always used to describe BAT as "upscale food in a diner/dive setting" so I'm glad to hear that the decor has been updated a little. Regardless of the decor, though, we were always there for the food which was well worth it, and the BYOB aspect helped to keep the cost down.

            1. Taking a cue from the recent reports from my friend bgut1, we ventured cross county to BAT last night. We have previously enjoyed and recommended BAT but looking back had not been there in the past two years.

              We liked everything we ordered including that roast clam starter and a special Manhattan clam chowder that was smoky and satisfying.
              We shared a special salad of candy stripe beets, apples, craisins, mixed winter greens, topped with a goat cheese strudel and dressed in a cider vinaigrette. Salad had a nice mix of flavor.

              Entrees were the pork osso buco, fork tender and enough for two people and the crabcakes, two plump cakes that had a good amount of crab. A small nit, the crabcakes had more "stringy" crab rather than lump crab meat. Came with sugar snap peas, zucchini, carots and a spicy, smoky remoulade sauce.

              We felt like something different for a wine last night, had a 2004 Kaesler Old Vine shiraz which was very tasty.
              We enjoyed coming back to Bay Avenue Trattoria, its a bit of a shlep for us but the food was worth the trip.


              3 Replies
              1. re: tom246

                Love this place and glad to be close enough for take out., winter inf ront of the fireplace and summer on the deck.

                1. re: tom246

                  Coincidentally, we were there last night, too. Sorry, I should have waved. But I'm not especially observant anyway, didn't even notice any sprucing up that may have happened.

                  The menu remains the same, solid and dependable. I'm sorry that I didn't branch out, mac and cheese for a starter (I like my mother's better) and rigatoni with meatballs and Sunday gravy. I like the clams with chorizo better and will go back to that another time. My guy had the hoagie salad, big dish of stuff, and the pork osso buco, just vast. And very good. Everything we had was a LOT and we took half of everything except the salad away.

                  The service was as ever capable and sweet. There is generally a small wait while they pull tables together, even with our reservation, and the cramped little space by the door isn't a real comfortable place to stand and wait. It was my only quibble with an otherwise satisfactory experience.

                  1. re: Deb Van D

                    I was waving, you didn't see me :) We may have been waiting together if the time was a bit before 7:00, the time of our reservation.
                    I agree, the waiting area is very awkward and for diners close to that door, they get a blast of cold air each time the door is opened.

                2. We have reservations for tonight. I've been anxious to try BAT for some time now. But look at this weather. It's so windy and rainy! Hope they have a parking lot.
                  Update...canceled! Made it for next week.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Pink Pepper

                    Pink - For future reference, I don't believe they have a parking lot but I've never had any problem finding street parking adjacent to the restaurant. Good Luck.

                    1. re: bgut1

                      Thanks, Bgut. What a difference a week makes! Lovely weather...doesn't matter where we park tonight.

                      1. re: Pink Pepper

                        I can see why this little place is such a favorite. We were already fans of Joe and Maggie's. We knew we were going to have a great meal.
                        The four of us picked 4 appetizers and split them up. Crispy oysters, the famous crab cake, mac & cheese, and a crock of eggplant parm. Each and every one was delicious! So glad we did it this way. Could have made a meal out of every single one.
                        By the time my salmon came I was almost full. Cut it in half and today I have lunch.
                        For dessert we shared Maggie's sorbet. Think of a sorbet mixed with vanilla gelato.
                        Loved it! Wish it wasn't so out of the way for me. I'd eat there every week.

                        1. re: Pink Pepper

                          Pink - Thanks for the review. I feel the same way about BAT. I'm happy you had an enjoyable meal.

                          1. re: bgut1

                            Stopped in for lunch at BAT yesterday (our first time there) and had a great meal. We both chose sandwiches, my GF had the Toscano panini, which had chicken, bacon, mushrooms, peppers and cheese, and was delicious. I went with the Sloppy Guiseppe which was basically a short rib sandwich with caramelized onions and smoked provolone. Another winner.

                            Both were served with french fries that were good (and thankfully no hint of sogginess) and cole slaw. Overall, both sandwiches had great flavor and I believed offered a great value for about $8 apiece. We were a little too full for dessert but I must join others on the board with the sentiments that this is a great restaurant. I will definitely return for dinner to try some of the entrees.