Friday, January 6, 2012

Mike & Nellie's Steakhouse - Oakhurst, NJ

Mike & Nellie's Steakhouse
1801 Highway 35 North
Oakhurst, New Jersey

Steaks, Seafood, American

Appetizers $8 - $16
Entrees $17 - $39

Mon Mouth Says:
Expertly prepared steaks and seafood
To-Die-For Risotto
Impressive variety of steak sauces
"Older" atmosphere - great Sunday dinner spot for aging parents and grandparents
Cheesy decor
Uncomfortable IKEA chairs

Tonight we ate at Mike & Nellie's Steakhouse on Route 35 in Oakhurst.
We were curious because we heard it got a revamping by Chef Gordon Ramsay on his FOX TV show Kitchen Nightmares. Granted, we'd never been to Mike & Nellie's to witness the "before", so we can't fully appreciate how much it's changed in the "after".

However, we give Mike & Nellie's a huge thumbs-up in the food department, but a giant "meh" for atmosphere.

Great Steak and Drop-Dead Delicious Risotto

Food-wise, Mike & Nellie's did not disappoint.

Sometimes you eat at a steak and seafood joint and you get the expected basics slid onto the table with little fanfare and no extra effort.

But at Mike & Nellie's, every edible that came to the table was prepared with above-average skill, and seemingly thought about. Yes, somebody actually sat down and said, "How can we delight these people at every stage of the meal?" (Do we have Gordon Ramsay to thank?)

The bread basket was warm, crusty and inviting with twin loaves of sesame sourdough and a ramekin of garlic herb butter -- not the typical cold Italian loaf with a saucer of peel-back butter pods. So right out of the gate, we were glad we came.

Kim's filet mignon was superbly cooked and served with roasted sun-dried tomato, roasted sweet pepper, and confit shallot. The steak was brushed with a red wine balsamic butter. "Among the best-prepared filets I've ever had, anywhere in the world," Kim said.

Lori ordered Clams Casino and sliders (mini-burgers).

She loved the clams.  But she said of the sliders, "meh".  "I've had the best sliders in the world, at the Knife and Fork in Atlantic City," Lori commented.  "Anything else pales in comparison."

We shared a side of parmesan risotto that knocked our socks off. They should give it a special name and hang a sign out front, "World's Best Risotto -- Get It Here!"

Impressive Steak Sauce Varieties

Mike & Nellie's seems to take pride in its steak sauces. As you're seated, a bottle greets you from the center of the table, identified as "M&N Steak Sauce" by a simple computer-printed label. (It appears similar to A-1, but in fact it's much sweeter and gentler on the palate.)

On the menu, you're given a choice of seven additional sauces: Peppercorn (best we've tried anywhere); Chimichurri; Red Wine Sauce; Bearnaise; Horseradish Creme Fraiche; Bourbon Teriyaki (tastes exactly as you'd expect -- no surprises); and Gorgonzola Demi Glace.

We were able to order two different sauces without being charged extra. But we respectfully offer this suggestion to Mike & Nellie's: why not offer a "tasting plate" of all seven sauces? Or at least a choice of four? With so many wonderful options made available to your patrons, why not let them enjoy more of them with a single entree? It would be a novelty -- something we've never seen elsewhere. Steak lovers have many places to dine in Monmouth County. When they get a hankering for beef, and they begin to scroll through local options in their head, the unique offering of a multi-sauce sampler just might be the thing that sways them towards Mike & Nellie's more often than elsewhere.

Atmosphere: It's Old, and it Smells Like It.

The crowd at Mike & Nellie's isn't what we'd call "youthful". Not that being old is a bad thing (we're 41 and 49 ourselves) -- we just want you to know what to expect. The only people under 40 in the room appeared to be dining with extended older family. 

We've gotta be honest here, and this is no fault of Mike & Nellie's -- but we got a real sense of judgmental 'tude coming off of people at neighboring tables. There seemed to be a fair number of older women with tight, surgically pulled faces, glossy from too many skin peels, looking down their rhinoplasticized noses at us. Seriously, at one point we were like, "WTF? Is it because we're wearing sneakers? Or because we're both wide-hipped women daring to commit the most unfeminine and antisocial crimes of all: eating carbs? (Gasp!)

And speaking of sneakers, that was another weird thing about Mike & Nellie's, at least when we were there (8:00 PM Friday): most people seemed a tad "dressed up". Admittedly, Kim's been overheard saying, "You know what needs to come back in style? 'Dressing for dinner', with top hats, faux mink wraps, the whole thing." But as we looked around Mike & Nellie's, we weren't sure why the locals felt the need to gussy their butts up just to sit in IKEA chairs.

And about those chairs. Ah, yes. We believe we've identified them as IKEA's "Kaustby" chairs, and they're hard. as. hell.

We understand they may be a vast improvement over what was there before the makeover. And we also understand that at $39.99, IKEA chairs may have been the only thing making it financially feasible for Mike & Nellie's to replace their seating at all. We'd just like to suggest making the Kaustby chair a temporary solution, and encourage Mike & Nellie's to upgrade again as soon as possible. Or invest in easy-to-clean chair cushions. Especially if Grandma's going to be coming to this place often.

The decor at Mike & Nellie's is lackluster. They seem to be going for a western theme, and they've done the minimum to get that message across. Unfortunately, the ugly, 1970s office-style drop ceiling is a noticeable eyesore. It's not in great condition. If they can't afford to replace it, they might consider painting it a solid color that doesn't draw the eye upward, and minimizes that dated look.

Beware the Darkness.

Also, despite an upgrade to a more elegant-looking outdoor sign, Mike & Nellie's continues to look unforgettable on the outside. And the lighting needs work on the inside, too.

We drove past Mike & Nellie's several times a week for three years before we even noticed it for the first time and asked each other, "What is that place?" It's bleakly dark, both inside and out. The front of the building is lined with a long greenhouse-style curved window, but we think it might be shaded glass, because it seems to darken the general appearance of the place -- when that type of window typically does the opposite.

We'd like to see a row of warm pendant lamps over those window tables, which would not only brighten them inside (which is sorely needed) but might create an inviting affect from the road, too. Our table was more towards the center of the room, but the recessed lighting above was still insufficient.

Finally, about that smell.

We've noticed there's this particular musty smell that pops up in a lot of commercial buildings in the Oakhurst/Ocean Township/Neptune area, along Routes 35 and 66. You know what we're talking about? It must be something in the building materials used when many of these places were built (1960s? 70s?). 

We don't know how to get rid of it, but we think Mike & Nellie's should try what it can. (Maybe tearing out that drop ceiling will help?) 

It's not so bad when you're going to see an accountant or a chiropractor -- in those situations, you can almost laugh at that smell (and the fake wood-grain desks and the rubber plants and the orange macrame wall art), and in the privacy of your mind, you hum along to England Dan & John Ford Coley and briefly, you're entertained. In an ironic way. 

But it's just not the kind of smell you want dogging you while you're trying to eat.

It doesn't smell like dead bodies or anything, just...dated. Like the architecture itself. And if changing the air filters and pointing some Febreze into the air each day might help, I think it's worth the effort.

Our Bill

Two people, appetizers and entrees

Would we go back to Mike & Nellie's?

Well, we think prrrrrobably not.  Not unless we became aware of major improvements. And here's why.

If we're going to pay $79 for two, we'd like a more pleasant environment. We know we can get that elsewhere locally, where the food is comparably good. Better lighting, better air, comfier chairs, prettier decor, even an ocean view.

If Mike & Nellie's was less expensive -- say, if we left saying "I can't believe we only paid ___ for that gorgeous food!" -- then we might be willing to go back and deal with the stuffiness (of the air AND the patrons), the darkness, the overall cheese-factor. But when you're watching your budget, you want to maximize every dining experience -- not settle.

We wish Mike & Nellie's lots of luck. Obviously they care enough about their business to let Gordon Ramsay tear them apart on national television. We hope they make a quantum leap forward within the next year, in every way, and look forward to hearing about it.

Do let us know if you're privy to further refinements happening at Mike & Nellie's, so we can reconsider a return visit. You can e-mail us at