Artwork at THE GOAT by David Burke

Maybe you’re headed to PNC Bank Arts Center to catch a concert. It’s even more possible you’re shooting down the Parkway for a day at the beach sometime this summer. Either way, you’re probably not exploring the bayshore for your next must-try restaurant.

Dining options in the Union Beach-Keansburg area have been historically bleak, so any additions to the foodie scene will attract immediate attention. When celebrity chef David Burke snatched up former Piero’s on Route 36 North, adding a seventh brick-and-mortar to his New Jersey restaurant roster (third in Monmouth county alone), he wanted to make sure the locale’s change to upscale yet playful (bordering on campy) Italian-American cuisine — chicken parm served with “spaghetti O’s,” a pasta dish called “breaking my balls rigatoni” and the like — wouldn’t go unnoticed.

“I live in the area. I’ve seen an influx of interest and I have confidence Route 36 is finally coming of age,” said Burke, a Hazlet native, to NJ Advance Media earlier this week. “Keyport to The Highlands is an underserved area, and let’s not forget Piero’s lasted 30 years at that location. People tell us they really appreciate our being there and at Dixie Lee Bakery in Keansburg,” referencing an existing nearby bakery he recently purchased.

Pulling up to The GOAT, you’ll notice that, aside from a paint job, the facade remains the same. But the baby pool-sized, wooden clown face propped up near the driveway might make you think you’re pulling into a fun-house. Or the set of a horror film. Either way, Burke has grabbed your attention.

“It’s our balloon, it identifies an open house. I’ve owned it for some time now. The clown face has been at several of my restaurants and it’ll be at Dixie Lee next,” Burke explained.

My curiosity burned over how The GOAT, which opened in April, got its name. Given the bold caps, I couldn’t help but think it may in some way play on the acronym Greatest Of All Time.

“It’s a strong, simple name and we like names that have characters in them, like my Red Horse by David Burke restaurant (in Rumson). I like the sound of it, “‘Hey, meet me at THE GOAT.’ It seemed to fit.” It seemed pretty straightforward — and couldn’t have been farther from the novelty that is dining at one of Burke’s restaurants. Let’s dig in.

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The good

Burke’s standard of quality is obvious here. The brunch menu was basically a core Italian American-focused dinner menu with a few additions, so it was fortunate I visited during their Sunday-only brunch service. I went with a hybrid of breakfast and lunch items, starting with one of his signature dishes, the clothesline bacon ($18). Theatrics aside, the $9 per slice thick-cut bacon was a worthwhile choice, coated in a sticky, maple pepper glaze; the perfect compliment to the savory meat. Each fatty bite was addictively tender and quickly made me realize why the dish has made it onto most of Burke’s restaurant menus. It’s flashy, sure, but the flavor delivers.

Another hit were the lemon ricotta pancakes ($17). Delightfully dense and crispy along the edges, a stack of two cakes was adorned with a variety of berries, chopped mango, maple whipped cream and powdered sugar. Maple syrup was served alongside, but I found the addition of it too overpowering against the delicately-scented lemon cakes (my only qualm).

Moving along to the lunch items, the DB cheese burger ($18) called to me. A thick, char-grilled, dry-aged patty was simply topped with cheddar, tomato, iceberg lettuce and thinly sliced red onion. Everything was supported by a well-toasted English muffin and skewered with a pickle spear and cherry tomato. The flavors of everything in this burger sang. The patty’s char was prominent while still maintaining a very juicy interior. A singular sigh occurred when I went to add ketchup and discovered the unmentioned B1 sauce, Burke’s hybrid condiment of homemade A1 sauce and mayonnaise. The sauce itself was unoffensive, but contributed a somewhat bland creaminess that didn’t enhance the burger-eating experience. I ended up cutting up the pickle for a little tang, and adding ketchup anyway.

I was tempted to order Burke’s famous cotton candy-topped, DB’s cheesecake lollipop tree ($19), but decided to go for something more on brand, instead ordering “The GOAT” chocolate mousse cake ($12). This was one complex cake, which did not take me by surprise given the intricacies of much of what I had previously sampled. A thick layer of moist, dark chocolate cake was topped with a decadently fork-resistant layer of chocolate mousse. Draped with drinkable goat’s milk caramel and almonds, the slice was served alongside espresso whipped cream and a few dots of much appreciated, tart raspberry puree. The whole thing was finished with wisps of Turkish cotton candy and a thin, goat-shaped biscuit. By the time it arrived, I could only muster a few enjoyable bites, lest I explode.

The bad

A few items notched the unfortunate combination of underwhelming, funky presentation, and indistinguishable flavors. The thick-cut, deeply golden fries served with the burger were limp and soggy, but made up for their lack in texture with the nostalgic boardwalk fry flavor they possessed. The “Donny Brasco” chicken wings ($18) sounded too interesting to pass on, so I went for them, but quickly questioned my decision once they arrived to the table. I let out an audible “oh,” as I analyzed the vertically skewered wings that were stacked with a slice of watermelon radish, ball of fresh mozzarella, fried long-hot pepper, and a cap of crispy capicola. Too many things. Too many competing flavors. The wings themselves suffered from rubbery skin and a seemingly exotic seasoning that stumped me. I enjoyed each piece of the skewer independently except the wings, determining that the playful presentation didn’t make up for the miss in the mismatched components of the dish.

I didn’t venture to the pizza menu, and regretted it when I saw a beautifully charred, wood-fired pie arrive to a neighboring table. What caused me pizza pause was the inclusion of a crispy cricket, jalapeño and Frito “pie” ($17). I asked the server how many of those have been ordered since opening and he somewhat confidently shared, two. My curiosity wasn’t enough for me to be the third, but was entertained by yet another eclectic element of The GOAT experience.

The vibe

If you’re not into dining among several stuffed, life-sized goats, The GOAT might not be for you. But if you dig a theme that’s taken to an extreme, you’ll be charmed by what Burke has done with the place. The walls are covered in goat wallpaper and the artwork adorning said walls feature, you guessed it, goats. The dining room is colorful, wrapping around to a bar area and ends with open kitchen views of Burke’s rainbow paint-splattered pizza oven. Acoustics are an obvious pain point thanks a doorless kitchen entry point that spilled sounds of clanking pots and pans into the dining room. There were only a few tables sat while I dined, so we were able to enjoy the easy listening soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac and the like.

The bottom line

The GOAT is a quirky but solid option if you’re passing through Union Beach. A much more casual option than his fancier Red Horse in Rumson and waterfront Drifthouse in Sea Bright. I Not ordering the bacon would be a grave mistake. Sometimes too much is too much. The event space upstairs is large and neutral (no goat decor). It’s a fun place for families but might make for an awkward early phase date spot. Check out their monthly comedy supper club, trivia on Tuesday nights and stay tuned for more goat-themed features that are in the works.

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