The Sunday Star-Ledger – Dining Out
November 26, 2006
By Cody Kendall

Service, food make Europa at Monroe an instant hit

FINE DINING
Europa at Monroe, Monroe Township, NJ

146 Applegarth Road, Monroe, NJ. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4-9:30p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 4-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 3-9:30 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Full bar. Major credit cards. Smart casual dress. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended (609) 490.9500.

Jose Martin-Serrano is originally from Madrid, so it's no surprise to find paella on the menu of Europa at Monroe, the restaurant he opened six months ago in Middlesex County, NJ.

But why, one wonders, is made-on-the-premises pasta also featured?

I'm married to an Italian from Naples. I need to have peace at home ” Martin-Serrano explained with a chuckle about the bow to his wife, Rosaria.

Martin-Serrano previously was a partner in La Terraza, a well-regarded restaurant in Princeton. Chef Claudio Patella, who worked there, also is running the kitchen at Europa. A native of Puglia, Italy, he has the pastas down pat, and got some pointers from his boss about such Spanish dishes as the paella Valenciana ($19.95). It is a legacy recipe from Martin-Serrano's father, who cooked it for the family every Sunday.

The traditional mélange of shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, chorizo and chicken, mingled with vegetables and served over saffron rice is well-made and abundant, but for my taste, there are more exciting things on the menu. One is the cordero asado ($26.95), which I remembered fondly from La Terraza. Pomegranate, honey, mint and sherry all work magic on rack of lamb, making the dish worth every penny for its artfully nuanced ripple of flavors. It comes with a gentle goat cheese flan that provides a lovely contrast in texture to both the lamb and the mashed potatoes beneath it.

Then there is a house specialty, rib eye Europa ($20.95 for 16 ounces, $28.95 for 20 ounces.) It comes with that Latin favorite of garlic and herbs, chimichurri, and a Bordeaux blue cheese sauce.

The pastas are another highlight, whether you choose the pappardelle Bolognese ($16.95), the four-cheese ravioli ($16.95) or as we did, a special of plump crabmeat ravioli ($19.95) in a light pesto cream sauce that is sparklingly fresh.

The special menu, printed out exactly the way it should be, also offered beer-battered fried sardines ($21.95) with a bruschetta sauce. The little pillows of fish were mist, the crust golden and the experience delightful. This is a dish you can't find just anywhere.

Another in the category of unusual choices is the side dish of tortilla Espanola ($5.95), which could be equally effective as an appetizer or accompanying the rib eye. It's made of layered potatoes, eggs and parsley, a fritatta conveniently cut into finger food-sized pieces for passing around the table. Also among the side dishes offered at Europa are the French Fries Jose ($5.95) double-fried potatoes for those whose diet can handle the calories.

For starters, go with the calamari ($8.95), another fried favorite that is greatly enhanced by a plum tomato vinaigrette and a garlic confit that hits just the right note, silky and not overpowering. If you're in the mood for more garlic, there's the eggplant relleno ($7.95), baked and stuffed with oven-roasted garlic and eggplant puree. Want a salad? The baby spinach selection ($7.95), big enough for two, is mixed with Valenciana oranges, pieces of pear and roasted almonds, with just enough Cabrales blue cheese to spike the orange vinaigrette. There are plenty of choices, but you could also order one of the pastas and split that as an appetizer.

The only down moment we experienced in an otherwise delightful evening at Europa was our discovery of slightly past-their-prime shrimp in the mariscada ($23.95), a compilation of seafood in which the lobster was overcooked and dry. And here's a minor quibble – foil wrapped butter doesn't belong on the table at a restaurant of this caliber.

But we were buoyed by the desserts, especially the little dark chocolate-coated pyramid of chocolate mousse ($6), which was delightful, and the chocolate soufflé ($8.95), a perfect rendition of that classic and preferable in its lightness to the molten chocolate cake seen everywhere these days. Another treat was a frothy mixture ($6) of champagne and lemon sorbet, which, like the ice cream, is made in house. It was Italian ice for grown-ups.

The wood-paneled dining room, with its oil paintings and wine display, is separate from the bar. It's quite cozy for a large place, and the fireplace at the entrance sets just the right mood on a chilly night.

The solicitous service was nothing less than I expect from a place run by Martin-Serrano, who makes an art of hospitality. He is gracious and warm, yet dignified; in short, a perfect host. No wonder his new venture became an instant success.


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