Though it helps to make a dinner reservation at Europa South on Friday and Saturday, the nights for dancing here, it won't guarantee you'll be seated upon arrival. Guests are greeted by a woman whom we nickname the commando, after she orders our party with cool cordiality to wait at the bar. No problem; order a pitcher of the very good sangria and check out the crowd revving up to dance.
In the entertainment department, Europa South delivers. A one-man band works every gizmo on his electric keyboard to create the authentic sounds of a five-piece Latin band. The audience, though predominantly non-Latino, knows its Latin dances and responds with enthusiastic versions of salsa, the cha-cha, and the rumba.
The restaurant is cavernous and all the dining rooms have seen better days. One room is so dark we can hardly see the menus, another is uncomfortably bright. When our waiter, dressed casually in honor of the restaurant's annual seafood festival, shows up wearing a printed polo shirt that declares: NJM Best of 1998, I'm already feeling guilty. Yes, our readers voted this place one of their favorites in the 1999 Readers' Choice poll, and the waiters all seem versed to gush about it. Coincidence? Absolutely. Otherwise my service would be a heck of a lot better.
Start off with a house specialty: shrimp marinated in a hearty garlic sauce and olive oil. This delicious dish sets the tone for most of the food to come: rich in oil and garlic. Clams Casino, nothing to crow about here, taste mostly of bread and butter, but the Clams Portuguese are wonderful, cooked in a white-wine-and-olive-oil broth spiked with garlic and cilantro. I couldn't swear that the mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat aren't frozen, but they are indeed filled with sweet crabmeat. Spicy grilled Spanish sausage is served in a bowl with its own rendered fat, which is delicious when sopped up with bread (though it could slow your heart rate).
Among the soup selections are king crabmeat soup, lobster bisque--both of which are buttery, creamy, and rich--and a respectable gazpacho. The menu lists twenty entrées plus specials, so it helps to come here with a specific craving. Seafood and steaks are the biggest draws, and the portions are enormous. The stuffed lobster with king crabmeat is gargantuan, beautifully presented, and very good. The Paella Valenciana, which could easily feed two people, is a hearty rice dish packed with shrimp, lobster, clams, mussels, scallops, and calamari. Red snapper stuffed with crabmeat is fresh and firm.
House specialties include Shrimp Alfonso XIII, named for the beloved Spanish monarch. Although it's touted as shrimp flambéed in brandy with mushrooms, cream, and hollandaise sauce, the dish arrives without the slightest hint of a flame. When questioned, the waiter says that meat dishes are flambéed at the table while shrimp dishes are flambéed in the kitchen. In reality, the dish probably has been sitting in the kitchen awhile; before we finish our appetizers we see the waiter emerge with our entrées and quickly return them to the kitchen.
That routine, of course, causes most of the otherwise delicious meats to arrive overcooked. A well-done broiled sirloin--in temperature, not execution--reveals a tender middle with only a hint of juice, the remnants of a great steak gone dry. On another occasion, though, a Portuguese-style filet mignon with ham and olives in a garlic-and-wine sauce is cooked to perfection. If the place is crazy busy, beg your waiter to slow down--or try telling him you voted for the restaurant in the Readers' Choice poll.
Desserts, nothing to get carried away with, range from a rich chocolate fudge cake to profiteroles with chocolate sauce. But don't worry about the calories. You can work them off salsa dancing. --A. G.
521 Arnold Avenue, Point Pleasant Beach (732-295-1500). Lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 pm; Sunday, noon to 9 pm. Wheelchair access difficult. American Express, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two without wine averages $65.