9 great appetizers and where to find them

Sarah Griesemer

Are appetizers your favorite part of a meal?

After years of nibbling on starters that felt more like afterthoughts – chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks, onion rings and spinach artichoke dip – diners now enjoy creative dishes from chefs who are paying more attention to the small bites that begin our meals.

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Here is a look at nine interesting appetizers and the places you will find them.

Mike Dolan, executive chef at The Robinson Ale House, is shown with his pigs Wellington appetizer.

Pigs Wellington and deviled eggs at Robinson Ale House

Executive Chef Mike Dolan took two classic dishes – beef Wellington and deviled eggs – and gave them a twist at this Red Bank restaurant.

The first dish is Dolan’s take on the traditional English entree, which is filet of beef topped with pate and duxelles, a paste of mushrooms, wrapped in puff pastry and baked. “We use a whole Schickhaus hot dog, over a quarter pound, wrap it in puff pastry and stuff it with beer-braised sauerkraut, mimicking a duxelles. It goes in the deep fryer, then we finish it in the oven.”

The beer used to braise the sauerkraut is Robinson’s Red Ale, a brew made for the restaurant by Flying Fish Brewing Company.

The other inspiration behind Dolan’s appetizer, which is served in six slices, is the deep-fried hot dogs made famous by Rutt’s Hut, a nearly 90-year-old hot dog shop in Clifton.

As for the deviled eggs, Dolan follows the traditional preparation – eggs are hard-boiled and the yolks are removed, then mixed with a little mustard, sour cream and Dijon mustard. But he adds flavor with jalapeno, “a chiffonade of cilantro, and maybe a couple dashes of Tabasco and Worcestershire,” he said. “We serve that with a smoked paprika creme fraiche.”

HOW MUCH? Pigs Wellington, $9.95; deviled eggs, $7.95.

WHERE: 26 Broad St. in Red Bank; 732-383-8219 or www.robinsonsalehouse.com.

At The Robinson Ale House in Red Bank, Executive Chef Mike Dolan puts his own spin on traditional deviled eggs.

Cauliflower tempura at Beach Tavern

A little more than two years ago, food industry experts named cauliflower as the vegetable to watch. And they were right – the once humble, often-ignored veggie now is being sliced into hearty “steaks” and roasted with olive oil and spices, pulsed in a food processor to make cauliflower rice, and shaped into pizza “crusts.”

At Beach Tavern in Monmouth Beach, Executive Chef Paul Winberry Jr. created cauliflower tempura with tzatziki, an appetizer that has become one of his best-sellers. Each order comes with six or seven good-sized florets, which are blanched, dusted with salt, white pepper and cumin, then dipped in tempura batter,

“The tempura batter has beer (the chef uses Yuengling), vodka, flour and cornstarch,” Winberry said, adding that the vodka evaporates quickly when the cauliflower is fried, “which leaves you with a crispier, lighter batter.”

The fried florets are sprinkled with a little more salt and served with tzatziki, a dip made with full-fat Greek yogurt, cucumber water, lemon and lime zest, fresh chives and parsley, and lemon juice.

“You’ve got the hot, crunchiness and then the cool creaminess of the cucumber that makes it come together,” he said.

The cauliflower tempura appetizer at Beach Tavern in Monmouth Beach.


WHERE: 33 West St. in Monmouth Beach; 732-870-8999 or http://beachtavern.net.

Rellenitos at Escondido

Chile relleno, a fried poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, is a menu staple at most Mexican restaurants. But diners at Escondido in Freehold can kick off their meals with an appetizer-sized version of the dish that swaps poblanos for jalapenos and has a heartier filling.

An order of rellenitos comes with two jalapeno peppers that have been de-seeded to tame the heat and then roasted, which removes the bitterness the peppers sometimes have. They are filled with chorizo, a spicy pork sausage, spinach and cheeses – white cheddar, Monterey Jack and queso quesadilla, a soft and creamy cheese. The peppers are dipped in an egg batter and deep fried, then served with a house-made ranchero sauce of tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic and cumin; pico de gallo, crema and quesco fresco.

An order of rellenitos at Escondido in Freehold Township

HOW MUCH? $9, or $5 during happy hours and on Mondays during the restaurant’s all-day appetizer special.

WHERE: 402 West Main St. in Freehold Township; 732-577-0200 or www.escondidonj.com.

Monkey bread at Labrador Lounge

Monkey bread most often is served at breakfast or as a dessert; the sweet treat is a pull-apart bread coated with butter, cinnamon and sugar that usually is baked in a Bundt pan.

The monkey bread appetizer from Labrador Lounge.

But Shore restaurateur and chef Marilyn Schlossbach cooks up quite a different version. For this appetizer – the only bread she serves in her restaurants – she coats Hawaiian sweet rolls in a butter seasoned with black garlic and herbs, then tops the bread with chorizo that has been sauteed in white wine and garlic. It all goes into a cast iron skillet and is baked.

Schlossbach changes the recipe with the seasons: “In the summertime, we do one with roasted pineapple, local Merrick Farm (in Farmingdale) garlic, and cilantro.

“The interesting thing about it, the monkey bread is one of the items on our menu that we (use to) call attention to health care for our staff,” she said. Proceeds from the appetizer’s sales goes into a health care fund for employees. “It’s kind of a simple thing that anyone can order that’s going to help the staff.”


WHERE: Labrador Lounge is at 3581 Route 35 in Lavallette; 732-830-5770 or http://labradorlounge.com.

The General Tso's shrimp appetizer at Tucker's Tavern in Beach Haven.

Lacquered chicken wings and more at Tucker’s Tavern

You have had chicken wings, tacos and General Tso’s shrimp before, but not like the versions served at this Beach Haven restaurant.

Executive chef and restaurant partner Jeff Alberti’s lacquered chicken wings are fried and then tossed in a sticky sauce made from honey and soy sauce. They are served atop yogurt spiced with harissa, a spicy chili paste, and the dish is finished with a sprinkle of scallions and toasted sesame seeds.

The tacos are made with lamb, “domestic lamb shoulder that we slow braised and shred by hand,” Alberti said. The meat is folded into a soft corn tortilla – three to an order – and topped with small cubes of halloumi cheese, a Greek variety from Cyprus that is firm and similar to feta, the chef said. “It’s a nice, salty contrast to the coriander emulsion” he said, referring to the sauce that tops the meat alongside olive oil-poached tomatoes.

“It’s a really great dish, just in its simplicity,” he said. “Just great ingredients in the humble taco form.”

Roasted lamb tacos from Tucker's Tavern in Beach Haven.

For the General Tso’s appetizer, Alberti coats jumbo white Gulf shrimp with panko and fries them, then tosses them with a house-made mix of soy sauce, brown sugar, serrano chiles, ginger and garlic. “And there’s a Sriracha jam (a blend of red bell pepper, Sriracha and rice wine vinegar) on the plate that’s really good, and broccoli, so you get the General Tso’s components.”

HOW MUCH? Chicken wings, $12; tacos, $11; General Tso’s shrimp, $14.

WHERE: 101 Southwest Ave. in Beach Haven; 609-492-2300 or www.tuckerstavern-lbi.com.

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Goat cheese fritters at d’jeet

Goat cheese is delicious on its own – it is soft and creamy, with a little tang that isn’t overwhelming. At d’jeet? Seasonal and Local Cuisine in Shrewsbury, owner and chef Casey Pesce fries balls of goat cheese and serves them with preserves made with apricot, ginger and apples, plus truffle-infused honey.

His goat cheese fritters come five to an order, and “they are becoming a staple,” Pesce said.


WHERE: 637 Broad St. in Shrewsbury; 732-224-8887 or www.djeetcatering.com.