By Bill Finley
OCEANPORT, NJ–The winning connections of this year’s GI Betfair.com Haskell Invitational S.–and, for that matter, all future Haskells–won’t have to go very far to celebrate after their victory. Blu Grotto is the latest addition to Monmouth Park; a luxurious restaurant just a few hundred yards from the quarter-pole that is open year-round.
Don’t think racetrack food. Don’t even think of some of the better on-track restaurants at racing facilities across the country. This is a stand-alone building and the intent is to offer patrons one of the best dining experiences in Monmouth County, New Jersey. Based on a recent night out at Blu Grotto, it looks like the Monmouth team is going to achieve its goal.
When the current management group, led by Bob Kulina and Dennis Drazin, took over a racetrack that wasn’t blessed with casino revenue they knew that had to find creative ways to bring in revenue. With so much unused land available, they built a miniature golf course, have plans to build an amphitheater for concerts and, earlier this month, opened Blu Grotto.
The restaurant is named after The Blue Grotto, a sea cave on the coast of the island of Capri in southern Italy. It is a sea cave that is flooded with a brilliant blue and emerald lights. The restaurant, with both its menu and its decor, borrows many of its themes from Italy’s Blue Grotto.
The head Chef James Corona is an award-winner, who previously worked at the highly regarded Doris & Ed’s in Highlands, New Jersey, and Bocca Restaurant in Manhattan. He’s put together a menu heavy on Italian dishes, Penna Papalina, Cresti Di Gallo, Pork Chop Scarpariello, Arancini Bolognese, et al. For those looking for something more along the lines of typical American food, there is plenty to choose from. I had a New York Strip steak and my companion (my lovely 15-year-old daughter, Sarah), ordered Skuna Bay Salmon.
I started with a Butter Bibb salad, which was made up of peaches, radicchio, pecorino and honey sherry. It was a perfect summer salad, fresh and refreshing and the peaches gave it a sweet taste that mixed nicely with the greens. My steak was good, not great. Ordered medium rare, it was a little overcooked for my tastes. But it was reasonably priced at $28 and came with a wonderful horseradish sauce. For those who nailed a good superfecta or two on the card they might want to try the 28-day dry-aged, 28 ounce tomahawk ribeye for $75. Young Miss Finley said her salmon was excellent. She ordered a molten lava cake with pistachio ice cream for desert and devoured it within minutes. As is often the case with teenagers, she thought it was the best part of the meal.
The service was outstanding as the food came quickly and the wait staff was friendly and attentive. As is the case with almost all Jersey Shore restaurants, the dress was casual. Wear a coat and tie are you’re fine. Wear shorts and a polo shirt and you’re fine.
But what truly separates Blu Grotto from so many other restaurants is the atmosphere and decor. As you enter, you’ll see an intimate bar on your right that is stocked with some of the finest selections available in wines and spirits and, yes, it includes SAM betting machines for those who want to play the races while they enjoy a cocktail. The roof of the entrance to the dining room includes three full screens showing an eclectic mix of scenes from racing, from Italy and just about anything else you can think of that might add to the atmosphere.
The main dining room more resembles an atrium than a typical restaurant. It is airy, designed in such a way that it never feels crowded and you don’t get that annoying noisy din so typical at so many restaurants today. The seats are ocean blue and the table tops might seem familiar to Jersey racetrack fans. Monmouth bought the marble that was part of the now closed Pegasus restaurant at the Meadowlands.
There is multi-tiered outdoor seating and a beer garden that will often include entertainment. It is accessible from the main grandstand.
“What we’re trying to do is create the same sort of atmosphere you get at Siro’s in Saratoga only instead of being outside the racetrack gates, our restaurant and beer garden is actually part of the racetrack,” said John Forbes.
Forbes, of course, is one of the top trainers in Monmouth history but has added a jack-of-all-trades role at Blu Grotto to his list of duties. A good-natured curmudgeon, he made it clear he doesn’t get to eat there for free and that if he paid for too many dinners, his lovely wife Vicki would kill him.
Blu Grotto figures to thrive during the summer, as do virtually all restaurants in the Shore region. How they do in February will better tell the story of whether or not it will be successful. One thing they have not done a good job of yet is getting the word out that Blu Grotto is open. It doesn’t even have a website and only one of the major New Jersey newspapers (the Star-Ledger) seems to even know it is open as they are the only ones to have written a review and it was largely borrowed from a track press release. On the marketing front, they need to do a much better job.
But Blu Grotto should make it. It offers very good food at fairly reasonable prices and an atmosphere that is so different and pleasant that it’s the true highlight of the restaurant. It’s hard to imagine it won’t become one of the top eating spots in Monmouth County.