At the outset of most summers down the Jersey Shore, the prime mission has been to uncover the most exciting new places to eat. And this season, no doubt, has delivered plenty of intriguing novel flavors.
On the southern end of the coast (northern points will be discussed next Sunday), the crew behind Philly's Pub & Kitchen have created a chic seaside satellite in Avalon at the Diving Horse, where the stylish room and seasonal New American seafood have the makings of one of the summer's best new restaurants. There are stirrings in Cape May, after a recent lull, as some familiar places got makeovers, new addresses, and new chefs.
This summer, however, I also found myself drawn back to one of the Shore's oldest, most unfashionable institutions - venerable Busch's in Sea Isle City, founded in 1882 - for the purpose of a farewell meal. After five generations in the same family, Busch's 128th season will be the final call for this giant fish house. And while the famously decadent she-crab soup was as good as ever - luxuriously creamy and jeweled with crab - it was also laced with bittersweet.
It's like a bad Jersey Shore remix of the Joni Mitchell song where, instead of paving paradise to put up a parking lot, the old seafood palace is getting mowed down for condos and mixed-use retail. Owner Al Schettig, who's finally pulling the plug, says it was no longer feasible to maintain the aging, block-long behemoth on a few months of seasonal business. He has promised a new chapter for Busch's, with plans for a take-out market across the street.
But as the ebullient Schettig recently worked a packed dining room of silver-haired regulars in his chef whites, pumping hands and trading stories, one could feel a sense of melancholy growing as a century-and-a-quarter's worth of history closes in.
"I feel the ghosts move me when I walk around - I feel it in my stomach," concedes Schettig. "I tell [the guests] thank you, then have to walk away before I start to cry."
The saddest part is that Busch's has one of the few remaining kitchens that proves classic seashore cookery can still be relevant when done with pride and good ingredients. House-made stock lends the dark snapper soup, its sherried broth thick with turtle meat, egg and allspice, an addictive depth. Lightly crisped crab cakes burst with sweet meat over ripe slices of Jersey tomatoes. Two-pound lobsters get spliced open and deftly broiled to juicy perfection. Old-school platters brim with crisply fried local scallops and crab-shaped crocks deviled to a century-old (albeit somewhat pasty) recipe.
Pastry chef Grace Hollerbach's throwback blueberry cobbler is so good, it's almost a reason in itself to come. Busch's rightfully famous she-crab, meanwhile, its rich base seasoned with an antique spoon, studded with lumps and hand-stirred by Schettig himself, is worth a Sunday or Tuesday detour - the only days it's currently served.
The she-crab will be available more often when Busch's becomes a market next year, Schettig says. But without the irreplaceable patina of this historic building around it, of course, that soup will never quite taste the same.
With one Shore tradition soon to close, who will fill the void? One of this year's most exciting new prospects is the Diving Horse, whose owners have stepped up from the gastropub vibe of their popular Pub & Kitchen to something far more elegant on Avalon's polished Dune Drive.
The airy, doors-wide-open corner space has the beach-chic feel of something from the Hamptons, with a teaktabled terrace and a linen-pale dining room outfitted with salvaged wood (distressed antique classroom walls from Drexel, rustic farm tables, pine floors from a Society Hill church).
The prices aren't cheap, hovering in the upper-$20s. But given the exorbitant prices elsewhere in Avalon ($32 for a dried-out short rib at Fuze; $40-plus for steaks in the sports-bar ambience of the Princeton), the Diving Horse tastes like a fair deal. And it's a pleasure to see chef Jonathan Adams (formerly "Johnny Mac") return to his fine dining roots, focusing here on seafood with local, seasonal inspirations.
Jersey silver queen corn gets pureed into a silky broth poured tableside onto a bowl of maitake mushrooms and popcorn shoots. Beautifully crisped oysters balance beneath nasturtium leaves atop poufs of potato salad mixed with house-bacon rémoulade.
I would have loved the dewey fresh fluke with wild rice had it been served with more of a sauce to moisten the plate. But a light touch was exactly what made the succulent Barnegat scallops sing, with just a shine of buttery fish stock and preserved lemon to brighten the wilted arugula and Israeli couscous. A mustardy vinaigrette lent a similar summer touch to the beluga lentil salad that came beneath the arctic char.
For dessert, Adams goes basic in a good way - with a homey chocolate ganache layer cake and a lovely buttermilk panna cotta, whose tangy custard cream melted against fresh berries tossed in local honey. It was a sweet finish, indeed, for this most promising debut.
While Avalon and Stone Harbor's scene has been popping of late, Cape May - until this season - has been relatively quiet the last few years as patrons drift away from the fine-dining that's long been the city's trademark. The closure of the old Copper Fish along Rt. 109 was a victim of that upscale decline, says former owner and chef Geoff Johnson.
It seems counterintuitive, then, that Johnson would reemerge this summer with a menu of nearly $30 entrées at Copper Fish on Broadway, his new showcase across town. But he's in the right setting, at least, for a white-tablecloth meal - the gracious Victorian building that once housed Daniel's on Broadway. And Johnson (still chef, but no longer an owner) does a good enough job of putting prime ingredients at the focus of his eclectic menu.
The delicacy of seared local scallops is accentuated by the deep purple fruit of a blueberry-merlot reduction. Plump shrimp are encased in the frizzy crackle of a shredded phyllo crust. A fantastic tuna steak is glazed in a lobster-infused bearnaise that smells like lightened bisque. When things go awry on a $29 pork chop, though, as they did when the kitchen neglected to thin an inedibly salty demiglace painted on the plate, I found myself longing for a meal with more sensible recession bistro prices.
And we found it - in the sunny, colorful space overlooking Cape May's marina that Copper Fish once occupied. Now called Latitudes, this BYO is a return-from-retirement for Bryan Brodowski, who owned the upscale Acacia in Lawrenceville.
"I didn't want to be that [special occasion] birthday restaurant anymore," he said. "I wanted prices around $20."
And that is exactly where this wide-ranging menu sits, although entrées - grilled lamb chops with mint pesto, spice-rubbed mahi mahi with crab and mango salsa, and penne tossed with an unusual sausage and minced shrimp "Bolognese" - are the least intriguing flavors. My favorites were starters like the lightly fried salt-and-pepper shrimp tossed with Szechuan peppercorns and fried cilantro, and especially the oysters. Brodowski serves them two ways, dangling raw by skewers over cocktail shooters jazzed with pepper vodka, or perfectly roasted beneath a cheesy yet delicate crust emboldened with fennel and crumbled Italian sausage.
For casual seaside ambience, however, it will be hard to top the sandy fire pit kitsch of the Rusty Nail, the old Beach Drive lifeguard bar that Cape Resorts (owner of the Virginia Hotel and Chelsea) has revamped as part of its retro Beach Shack motel project.
Boasting the longest bar and coldest beer in Cape May (supposedly measured at a frosty 36.3-degrees), the Nail plays its island ambience to the hilt, with beach nostalgia photos inside and a breezy outdoor area with picnic tables, shuffle board, and a pavilion bar where roll-up walls and live bands keep the crowds bouncing.
Executive chef Lucas Manteca concedes the hastily concocted menu after last summer's late opening was weak (with brutal online reviews to prove it). This season's effort, though, is the result of six months of planning. And it pays off in straightforward beach fare that rises on the kind of fresh ingredients I've come to expect from Manteca. With chef Jeff Burton running the kitchen, creamy chowders are enriched with freshly steeped cherrystone juice and bacon. Local littlenecks and a made-to-order clam and wine sauce elevate the bountiful spaghetti à la vongole to surprising satisfaction.
Half-pound burgers are made from freshly ground prime meat. The lobster roll could have been built with more care (the bun was mangled), but it was tucked full of sweet, herb-scented meat. And there was nothing quite as satisfying as eating a platter of local shellfish just around the island from the waters where they were fished. With the reggae band playing and sea air tickling my nose, a half-dozen Cape May Salts on the half-shell never tasted so good.
Contact Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week: Shore Dining, Part II.
8700 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City
Lunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 4-10 p.m.
Reservations for parties of eight or more only.
Copper Fish on Broadway
416 South Broadway, Cape May
Dinner nightly, 5-10 p.m. BYOB
The Diving Horse
2109 Dune Drive, Avalon
Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m. BYOB
1246 Rt. 109, Cape May
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
BYOB. Reservations suggested.
Rusty Nail Bar & Grill
205 Beach Ave., Cape May
Breakfast daily, 8-11 a.m. Lunch daily,
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner nightly, 5-10 p.m.
Bar open until 2 a.m. No reservations.