Marc Steiner for The New York Times
HOMEY The lounge of the Wine Bar has a comfortable décor.
FOR many beachgoers stalking the northern reaches of New Jersey's shoreline, Atlantic Highlands is a blip on a GPS device, an easily overlooked exit on the strip of Route 36 connecting the Garden State Parkway to the sandy pleasures of Sandy Hook.
For others, though, it's a sleepy marina town, its main road stretching down to the edge of Raritan Bay, where pleasure craft and fishing boats bob in the harbor and the Manhattan skyline hovers on the horizon. Not a bad place at all for a late afternoon stroll along the waterfront, followed by a cold drink and a meal up the street at the Wine Bar, a weekend dinner spot that brims with good cheer and ambitious cooking.
Opened a little more than a year ago by an area couple, Courtney and Michael Rosa, it is a flight of stairs up from the Harborside Grill, another Rosa establishment that is open all week, with a neighborhood-friendly menu of steaks, pastas and burgers. The chef, Brian Imbriale, 31, who began working with the Rosas about six months ago and juggles upstairs-downstairs duties, clearly sees the Wine Bar as his labor of love.
But hold that thought. First, it's worth a stop in the lounge at the top of the stairs, done up soothingly with sofas, armchairs and a long bar. The carpeted room fills with early evening sunlight streaming in through large French doors thrown open to the mild bustle of First Avenue. With a little Sinatra in the background, then a little Norah Jones, everyone seems to be smiling. There are about 20 wines served by the glass, as well as some intriguing house cocktails, a perfect opening gambit on a hot July evening.
Among the worthiest appetizers is a lobster risotto with snow peas and mascarpone in sherry cream sauce - a feather-light surprise. There are also duck confit spring rolls with a mascarpone and goat cheese mousse and a nicely turned out arugula salad.
Truth be told, the service, if well intentioned, is still a bit unpolished. But the staff is nothing if not enthusiastic. One evening, our waitress, when asked her favorite appetizer, suggested something off the menu - tuna tartare prepared with watermelon radish, scallions, spicy mayo and sweet soy, wrapped in cucumber and garnished with avocado slices. Even if the dish has become ubiquitous, when done well - as it is here - it's a refreshing burst of flavors, and we were grateful to hear of it.
Speaking of seafood, maybe it's churlish to expect more of it in a restaurant steps away from the water. But there's plenty here that is fine. The herb-crusted salmon had both the crunch and the moisture one hoped for, while the seared scallops coated with ground porcini mushrooms were suitably rich and tasty, and well paired with a wild mushroom risotto topped with crabmeat and edamame.
On the meat side, we enjoyed a tender mojito pork tenderloin, marinated in mint pesto, rolled in tri-color tortillas, pan seared and served with sugar cane skewers and black bean and corn salsa. We were also happy with the expertly grilled veal chop with herb and goat cheese polenta, though the accompanying asparagus never stood a chance, buried as it was in its wrapping of mozzarella and oversalted prosciutto.
The desserts included an excellent crème brûlée with a perfect crunch on top and Tahitian vanilla seeds dotting the bottom, and a German chocolate cake with a coconut-pecan topping. The only mild disappointment was the over-refrigerated cheese plate. But that was a rare off note; even if the Wine Bar ultimately feels like a work in progress, it is clearly a place dedicated to good vibes and good eating, and is worth a detour.
The Wine Bar
40 First Avenue
THE SPACE Open lounge with sofas, armchairs and bar stools, extending into a warmly elegant dining area with 61 seats and well-spaced tables. The noise level is blessedly conducive to conversation. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible.
THE CROWD Casual and on the younger side in the lounge; affluent-looking regulars and a few weekend boaters and visitors in the dining room.
THE STAFF Friendly and engaged. The waiters are still gaining polish but are sweetly attentive.
THE BAR Fully stocked, with a variety of intriguing house cocktails, and a diverse list of well over 100 wines, priced at $30 and up. Twenty wines by the glass, beginning at $16.
THE BILL Appetizers, $12 to $15. Dinner entrees, $22 to $32. Prix fixe for wine tastings available every month or so (check the Web site). Major credit cards accepted.
WHAT WE LIKELobster risotto, duck confit spring rolls, tuna tartare, herb-crusted salmon, seared scallops with porcini mushrooms, mojito pork tenderloin, grilled veal chop.
IF YOU GO Open Thursday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Reservations recommended. Plenty of parking outside and a block away at the marina.
RATINGS Don’t Miss, Worth It, O.K., Don’t Bother.