I recently went to dinner with my parents in my hometown of Toms River. As a destination that has some great eateries, it, unfortunately, truly lacks an innovative, take risk, let’s surprise diners kind of place. Enter, Serenity Café, a small, nestled in a strip mall, BYO restaurant that will please your beyond bored palate.
Chef Manning, who use to own Downtown on Irons in Toms River and the Olde Corner Deli in Island Heights, has done it yet again- create an inviting and unique atmosphere that highlights fresh ingredients with his vast culinary skills. Menus change once every 3 weeks or so and reservations are a must on the weekends at his newest endeavor.
We started our feast with two appetizers. The Shrimp Crustini ($9) and the Salad Special ($6). The shrimp starter, although small, met my expectations. High expectations, that is. The shrimp were incredibly smoky and had the char marks to prove it. Soft chunks of tomatoes contrasted the crispy toast very nicely, while the balsamic glaze added just a touch of spunk to awaken our taste buds. The tails on the shrimp looked beautiful on the plate, however made for some rearranging when eating. The salad, as the shrimp dish did, pleased all. Sautéed apples were a new and welcomed addition to this perfectly dressed mound of mixed greens. The walnuts, advertised as caramelized, were abundant and added a lovely crunch when forked with the soft lettuce and fruit. Not sure where the caramelization went, but this appetizer was larger in size and fed 3 very well. Fresh ground pepper was offered by wait staff but luckily this dish was seasoned before arrival.
Dinner came as did the warmed bread with an olive oil dipping bowl. The timing of this was off; the bread would have accompanied the shrimp and salad dishes much better than the entrees to come. Nevertheless though, I can’t say too many bad things about crusty, hot bread and olive oil. As for the dinner, we settled on getting the Pork Osso Bucco ($17), Pork Tenderloin ($16), and the Lobster & Shrimp Pot Pie ($24). The Osso Bucco was greatly executed. The pork, as it should, completely fell off the bone upon touching the fork. The cranberry reduction added a new and light dimension of flavor to this hearty and deep-flavored dish. Sweet potato fries and grilled zucchini made their way onto the plate, however their quality went semi-unnoticed amidst the succulent meat. The pork tenderloin was a hit as well. Pink in the center and covered in a sweet bourbon glaze made for one happy family. Not only was the meat something to admire but the sweet potato au gratin hidden beneath was an amazing side. The pork tenderloin, a leaner cut of meat, contrasted just about perfectly with the decadent and rich square of gratin. A sauté of spinach rounded out the dish, while adding nice color appeal it didn’t elevate. The lobster and shrimp pot pie was immediately wowed at. It seriously looked as if it was an apple pie ready to slice up with some ice cream. Thankfully, it continued to wow us as we dug in, and in, and in….. The flaky crust was quite noteworthy but what stood out here was the seafood. It tasted like the sea. Large lobster chunks and shrimp pieces were generously scattered about. The creaminess of the lobster sauce allowed each bite to be slowly savored. Although we didn’t expect to be finishing this massive pie, it quickly disappeared between us.
Our dinner was quite enjoyable due to exceptional food and company. The atmosphere was just right for a casual dinner that wowed us from start to finish. The wait staff was pleasant and, when called upon, helped with all inquiries. Desserts were not ordered but upon leaving, we eyed some sweet creations that made us rethink eating the entire pot pie. Well, what can be said? One pie, in any form, is always better than no pie. Serenity Café can be found at 2008 Route 37 East, Toms River, NJ 08753.
Total score 22/25
Final Grade: A
A: 21-25 B: 16-20 C: 11-15 D: 6-10 F: 0-5
Bland, boring, overcooked, underdone
Very little flavor, not much aroma
Flavors apparent, basic ability to please palates
Flavor worth discussing, chef’s use of ingredients impressive
Great flavor, taste lingers and leaves diner wanting more
Inattentive staff, no regard for wait time
Staff average in helpfulness, timing alright, either more/less needed
Staff knowledgeable and attentive to needs without asking, timing very well executed
Remarkable and noteworthy, service so good you forget it is ever an issue elsewhere
Cover it up please
Sloppy and the eater can tell little thought went into it
Descent presentation: looks alright, not worth a picture but enough to make you hungry
Admirable, it is apparent the chef plated with a consideration for presentation
Presentational talents are here. Looks beautiful and too good to dig in
Prices match quality
Prices are too high for quality
Prices are still too high but not outrageously
Some items are priced accordingly but not all
Most items are priced accordingly
All items are matched accordingly
Would I go back?
Not a chance ever
Looking forward to it
What time should I arrive?!?