Sometimes — very rarely — a meal exceeds all expectations and is elevated from “going out for dinner” to an experience you will never forget.

That’s exactly what happened at SAX, the upscale dining room inside The Reeds at Shelter Haven in Stone Harbor that is offering a nine-week pop-up restaurant aptly titled SAX Prix.

It was one of the best meals I ever had — and certainly the best meal this year. Nearly everything was perfect from the little things such as the warm sesame focaccia with slightly melted herb butter to the main course, service, wine pairings and overall ambiance.

Latest Video

With so much attention given to the boutique hotel’s guests, tourists and locals flocking to the waterfront Water Star Grille — an amazing experience in its own right — pushing diners inside on beautiful evenings posed a challenge.

But when word spreads about SAX Prix, a five-course meal priced at $79, it should become a place where it’s difficult to get reservations.

Executive Chef Tim Hamill, Executive Sous Chef Juan Hernandez and their talented culinary team dug deep, experimented for months and have created one of the most satisfying experiences that rivals four-star restaurants in major destinations.

Being greeted by a courteous hostess was just the beginning of the flawless service experienced all night thanks to the standards set by new SAX General Manager Genadi Vasilev.

The night began with a pair of exceptional cocktails: the Violet Beauregarde Lemonade is more than a tribute to Willy Wonka, it’s a perfectly balanced flavor bomb with Brockman gin, lavender syrup, blueberries and fresh-squeezed lemon juice; and the Gem Car puts a twist on the classic high ball with Bulleit bourbon, ginger liqueur and ginger ale.

We sipped those while devouring the aforementioned bread and amuse-bouche, a made-in-house beet macaron filled with goat cheese that not only served as a stellar beginning but one of the most memorable single bites of late.

Our polite and knowledgeable server helped us make some tough decisions. Seven starters include Shrimp Louie with avocado, egg and smoked trout roe; grilled Spanish octopus with artichokes braised in a white wine broth, chorizo, piquillo pepper and baby new potatoes; and Skuna Bay salmon “mi-cuit” (half cooked) with horseradish crème, pickled mustard seed, pumpernickel leaf and black salt, just to name a few.

But we made two great choices. The La Belle Farms Foie Gras was perhaps the best fois gras I ever tasted, perfectly pan-seared, smooth, delicate and placed on an equally scrumptious brioche “french toast” and accompanied by apple compote and sherry gastrique. Salty. Sweet. Amazing.

The Dungeness crab ranked on par with the fois gras. Chilled crab meat was pulled from the shell and beautifully placed in a bowl topped with Ikura caviar and citrus, and the server gently poured a chilled English pea and mint puree to the side of it for additional flavor. This is what summer at the shore is all about.

We smartly opted for the wine pairing for an additional $30 per person. The menu nicely displays each wine that was carefully selected for each entree, main and dessert course, so you know exactly what you will be getting with each course. The fois gras was paired with a 2013 Clean Slate Riesling, while the crab came with a 2013 Licia Albarino Rias Baixas from Spain. Both paired nicely, but the German riesling was the star.

A refreshing intermezzo was grapefruit granita, a semi-frozen, light palate cleanser that is related to sorbet but a bit coarser in its ice texture. It was accompanied by a Sczechuan button, or as some people call “electric buttons,” a bitter, yellow bud that pops to the bite and literally numbs a part of your tongue briefly for a memorable moment.

There are also seven dinner choices including Ellensburg lamb chops, sea scallops, pistachio pappardelle, Alaskan wild halibut and Heritage chicken with charred corn and tomato, but again, we were not disappointed with our selections.

The Double R Ranch beef tenderloin was split in half, perfectly seared on both sides and cooked to medium rare with maitake mushroom, baby new potatoes and a Bordelaise sauce that made you forget about any others you may have had. Paired with a 2013 Raymond Cabernet Sauvigon from California, it was one of the most eloquently prepared steak dishes I ever had the pleasure of eating. The only quibble was the carrot butterscotch puree — there wasn’t enough of it. But I am not sure there would ever be enough of it.

The yellowfin sesame tuna with edamame falafel, yogurt tahini, cucumber, tomato and mint was, like everything else for the evening, cooked precisely to mid-rare and really came to life thanks to the 2014 Les Vignobles Le Petit Gueissard Rose from France.

All desserts are also made in house, including the ricotta beignets with lemon curd, blueberry compote and Chantilly cream that were remarkably light for fried pastry; and the chocolate passion fruit tart, perhaps our only misstep of the night. The chocolate crust, roasted meringue and coconut ice cream all worked together, but the passion fruit curd was just too overpowering and clashed with the chocolate for our tastes.

If the prix-fixe menu is any indication, SAX is destined to become one of the area’s premier dining destinations. With its new room redesign complete with new furnishings, a new bar, new lighting that offers a warm glow and new place settings, it’s a stunning place to take a date, even in the offseason when its fireplace will be blazing.

Hamill has helped transform SAX from an acceptable hotel restaurant to a dining destination. If you are going to indulge yourself once this summer, this is the place to do so.

Get our Best Bets at the Jersey shore delivered to your inbox every Wednesday, just in time to plan your weekend!

Recommended for you

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.