This is a love story, complete with love in every bite and a happy ending! We LOVED this restaurant. We loved the food. We loved the soft lighting and the soothing décor. We loved the staff, including the bubbly Gayle, known as Mama Gayle; the supremely talented chef Chris Atamian, and our server Alexandria, who had her own tale to share.
Chef Chris has a real pedigree, despite having just turned 30. He worked at Joe and Maggie’s for the late Joe Romanowski, whom he considers a great mentor and inspiration. He was the sous chef at Bay Avenue Trattoria in Highlands. He also worked at Nicholas in Red Bank and Fresh in Highlands, and all the while, Alexandria worked with him in the front of house. So, less than a year ago, Chris and Alexandria opened their own place, Porcini.
Porcini gets its name because the chef loves mushrooms and there are several dishes that put the mushroom center stage, like the mushroom tart, which we chose as one of our appetizers. Be sure to try this; the tart shell base is topped with a blend of earthy sautéed mushrooms, caramelized shallots, tangy goat cheese, topped with arugula and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. It is over-the-top good.
We also started our meal with the eggplant rollatini, which is stuffed with a three-cheese blend. It was perfectly prepared and very tasty. We rounded out our first course with the BLT salad, which is a refined uptown version of a wedge salad. The bibb lettuce, soft as a silk, cradled the bacon, tomato, red onion, and cornbread croutons. The yummy buttermilk-chipotle dressing didn’t overpower the salad.
Since we were all mushroom lovers, we decided to split the mushroom fettuccini as a mid-course, though you can order it as an entrée. A luscious marsala cream sauce enrobed the ribbons of the gently cooked homemade fettuccini, which was topped with crumbled bacon and a blend of mushrooms. Oh my!
Now for the entrees. In addition to mushrooms, the chef’s other favorite ingredient is fish and Porcini always features at least one fish special. This night, it was blackened swordfish and it was a humdinger! The thick cut of swordfish was served over Jambalaya rice that featured andouille and alligator sausage. Served with sautéed zucchini and garlic butter and topped with fried popcorn shrimp, it has color, texture, and plenty of taste.
Our second guest chose another one of the specials, the porcini mushroom dusted veal tenderloin. In this dish, the veal is rolled in crushed porcini, roasted, and sliced thin, and served over mascarpone polenta, with asparagus and a white wine veal jus. It was light and lovely and joyful as a cloud. Really good!
I chose the Pork Oso Bucco, which I learned was the signature dish and the fastest seller. The large pork shank is braised overnight and served with a maple-whisky sauce, sweet potato hash, and garlic broccoli rabe. After just one bite of this fall-off-the-bone sensation, it was easy to see why this dish is so popular. In fact, it is best to order this dish ahead of time if you go on a Friday or Saturday night, as it often sells out.
The multi-talented chef also makes all his desserts, which are every bit as good as the rest of the selections. We picked two. The first was an amazing chocolate hazelnut French macaroon, sandwiched with salted caramel gelato and served with chocolate sauce and fresh berries. Our second choice was the cheesecake du jour. The chef changes the flavor every week and on our night, we got the raspberry white chocolate swirl. It was two layers of the most melt-in-your-mouth cheesecake ever, on a graham cracker almond crust. Not a bite was left behind.
Over the delicious coffee, we heard the rest of the love story. Alexandria told us that her partnership with Chris was not limited to owning the restaurant. In fact, the young couple is busy planning their marriage. The two met when she was just 15 and it was love at first sight. They followed each other professionally, and all the while, the romance grew. They are ecstatically happy and humbled by being able to live out their dreams at such a young age. Good as the desserts were, this sweet story topped them all and I am sure they have a lifetime of great accomplishments ahead. You can taste the love at Porcini. BYOB.
The cost: Moderate
What we liked: The cozy atmosphere and the relaxing décor, the well-planned and well-delivered menu, the cheerful wait staff, the clever specials, and the happiness.
What could be better: Not much.
We give it 5 and a half J’s (We’re giving it an extra half J as a wedding gift.)
Porcini is located at 168 Bay Avenue, Highlands. Call (732) 291-3080 or visit www.restaurantporcini.com.