Usually, we can only begrudge the über-rich their private chefs. But not this summer at the Jersey Shore, where you can eat like a big shot, too.
It just so happens that the two best meals I savored near the beach this season were cooked by chefs who have recently emerged from their clients' luxury cocoons - be they mountain chalets at Lake Tahoe or a penthouse soaring above Washington Square - to grace the suntanned paying public with their talents.
For one chef, Tony Clark, his revamp of the Old Grange in Cape May tastes like the beginning of a major comeback for a chef who was, before going private a decade ago, one of Philly's hottest talents.
Chefs Christopher Sanchez and Ashley Pellagrino may be less familiar. But that should change soon: Their Black Eyed Susans in Harvey Cedars, a breezy BYOB that spins vivid farm-to-table flavors with effortless style, is serving the most satisfying food I've tasted on LBI in years.
They were tasty bookends to my dining adventures on the coast, but hardly the only memorable bites. There was mofongo in Margate, an ever-steady red-gravy gush of new Italian options from Somers Point to Sea Isle City, and a cheery retro breakfast cafe in Ocean City that served up enough cannoli-pancake power (and "Beach Party" nostalgia) to master the waves.
Black Eyed Susans
Some chefs make seasonal cooking look so easy - and a meal in the rustic-chic dining room at Black Eyed Susans in Harvey Cedars captured summer's natural vibrance with a seemingly effortless touch.
Perfectly seared grouper is framed by a plate of vivid pink broth steeped from rhubarb and stewed tomatoes. Brick-orange sockeye salmon soaks in the smoky savor of grilled baby artichokes and the electric-green zip of chive oil with snappy favas. Multicolored beets practically glowed against the creamy contrast of homemade ricotta cheese and tangy-sweet streaks of white balsamic emulsion.
Sanchez and Pellagrino, the married Culinary Institute of America grads who own this year-old cafe, know that good cooking in vacation spots is, in fact, rarely "easy." They routinely hiked their ingredients one last snowy mile to the mountain abodes of their private winter clients. And for these longtime veterans of LBI's summer scene, finding great local ingredients at the surprisingly isolated Jersey Shore has been nearly as hard - until the recent emergence of small farm purveyors such as Zone 7, which has finally connected the coast's more ambitious cooks to artisanal local produce and meats that Philly's best chefs have had for years.
The well-traveled Sanchez makes the most of this bounty with simple but sharply rendered combinations. Flavorful grass-fed beef is grilled Argentine-style with tangy chimichurri beside crispy yuca frites. Juicy chicken tinged with exotic Moroccan chermoula spice sits beside a striking mound of black and white quinoa. The "farmer's bouillabaisse" - a cornucopia of zucchini, new potatoes, fennel fronds, sweet peas, and seared tofu bobbing in a saffron-orange broth - is a flavorful vegan dream.
The best dish, though, may be Sanchez's revamp on a classic: Are his the best crab cakes at the Shore? Bursting with sweet lumps over house-made caper remoulade tinted with fines herbes, they have my vote. But Sanchez isn't revealing the secret that seems to magically hold these lumps together: "The binder is 18 years of experience."
So much for "easy."
The Old Grange by Tony Clark
"I'm driving my mother's car now - I'm a real catch," quips Tony Clark, who at 49 has mastered the gallows humor that comes from a roller-coaster career that, with a recent divorce, finally took its toll on his family life.
Clark was once the toast of Broad Street, with his own name in restaurant lights in the mid-1990s and a long list of admiring acolytes. After virtually disappearing for a decade to be the private chef for local gastronome Norman Cohn, however, Clark found reentry into public life bumpy, to say the least.
His unlikely choice of the Old Grange as a launching pad, though, just might work despite its many challenges. Set far from the bustle of Cape May's downtown in Historic Cold Spring Village, this 19th-century clapboard dining hall has a track record of brutal online reviews under previous operators. It's allegedly haunted - and still sort of feels that way, with just a bit of wall stenciling, white table linens, and pink fabric on the chairs to soften ye olde fusty room.
But while Clark is up-front about the humble means with which this space was refurbished, it was more than apparent from our fantastic meal here that the man has not forgotten one bit how to cook. Delicate dumpling "pillows" filled with silky shrimp mousse and crunchy jicama floated in a light tomato water scented with lemongrass. A free-form "lasagna" wrapped tender littlenecks and sliced razor clams with peppery broccoli rabe inside the ribboned folds of a fresh pasta sheet. Jack Daniel's lent its sweet whiskey kiss to the rich gravy that glossed tender medallions of teres major steak. Clark's take on potpie, meanwhile, was simply spectacular, a brandied bisque crowned with puff pastry that hid half a lobster and a trove of other seafood, from sweet scallops to a moussey shrimp quenelle dumpling.
Virtually every morsel we ate was a delight - from the mustardy deviled egg to the elegant peach tart and chocolate desserts prepared by Clark's niece, Jamie Hankins. There was one big exception - a crab cake with so much raw gin spiking the mix that it needed to be sent back. The dining room staff's reaction - over-the-top apologies, bill adjustment, etc. - was just what I'd hoped. Clark obviously didn't forget to pack some class for his comeback act.
It was a sad day for hungry Margatians - and all lovers of great Shore BYOBs - when Dune decided not to renew its lease. It would not be long, though, before a ray of sunshine by the name of Mangos began beaming tropical rays of Latin cheer from the now colorful and cozy little space beside the Dairy Bar.
Chicharrones for Margate? It seems like a random concept for this Italian-centric town. But the nearby casino industry has attracted a large Latin American community. And owner-chef Sam Kaufman has teamed up with Colombian-born Oscar and Luz Guzman, his former colleagues at Caesars, to recast some authentic flavors for a mainstream audience.
The house-made empanadas wrap adobo-braised pulled chicken inside crispy shells of arepalike corn dough. Atlantic City-made Colombian chorizo anchored a churrasco skewer threaded with tender chunks of flank steak, chicken, and pork marinated in garlicky sofrito. A crispy strip of deep-fried chicharrones bacon (also cured in A.C.) was an addictively salty nibble.
There were some mild moments of disorganization at our meal (the arepas were MIA, as was the squid for the churrasco skewer). The cubed pork with hand-mashed mofongo salad could have been more tender. But there was an underlying savor of soulful home cooking here that I had to admire. And with entree prices around $15, few new restaurants this summer offer such value-for-flavor per dish.
The soup trio is one of the best, its tall glasses brimming with cool gazpacho, warm yuca egg drop, and an earthily curried broth with chicken and rice. There were other hits: flaky tilapia steamed inside a banana leaf over coconut-scented rice; tangy seafood ceviche; even a side of stewed habichuela red beans we spooned over yellow rice that lingers in my mind.
There is flan, and sweet milk-soaked tres leches, here for a classic Latin finish. But it's hard to compete for dessert with the Dairy Bar next door. Some Margate icons, thankfully, don't change.
The Italian crew
If there's one cuisine Shore birds can never get too much of, it is Italian. That's lucky, because this season has produced at least three new pasta contenders of widely varying personalities. None of them blew me away, but depending on your style, one just might be a perfect fit.
My favorite name of the summer is Vincent's Seven/Seven Thirty, the Ventnor newcomer coined by owners Maria and Jack Gatta (of the nearby Red Room) as a wink to everyone's favorite reservation time. I suggest coming at 6:30, because this young kitchen manned by the Gattas' 20-year-old son, Vincent (among other more senior cooks), needs all the focus it can muster to keep its South Philly-style pile-it-high instincts in check. The gnocchi would have been great if they hadn't been as big as hacky sacks. I was especially wary of high-priced specials like those softshells gorged with so many ingredients (squid, shrimp, spinach) I expected them to arrive with a top hat.
Keep it simple with littlenecks in spicy white sauce, the garlicky shrimp Sinatra appetizer, or a big breaded pork chop pounded out Milanese style beneath arugula greens for maximum success. As for that oddball combo of warm meatballs and cold romaine salad? Close your eyes and crunch away. It's Papa Gatta's homestyle ode to his Packer Park roots.
Not far away in Sea Isle City, another Philly phenomenon gets a nod at La Fontana Coast, the Albanian-run Italian BYOB. You know this popular subgenre perhaps without even knowing it (La Viola, Branzino, Bellini Grill), and this rendition is a sibling of bustling La Fontana della Città (at 17th and Spruce) as well as La Fontana del Mare in nearby Strathmere. True to style, the Euro-style trattoria menu is as predictable as the long lines that now wait for a seat in the Daku brothers' crisply decorated space. And you won't find much attention to details here (crunchy pink tomatoes for the Caprese salad?), let alone any finesse. (Avoid the burgerlike Bolognese.)
But value? La Fontana heaps it on, with eggplant sheets rolled around plump ricotta stuffings scented with nutmeg, with huge nests of capellini pasta twirled "Positano"-style in marinara with fistfuls of mid-grade crabmeat, or with two large veal cutlets in porcini gravy with prosciutto and melted cheese that tasted better than the messy brown splotch it appeared to be. It's a pleasant surprise I'd travel the island for, but I wouldn't cross a bridge.
The big Italian destination this year, at least by design, is Baia, the 500-seat mega-space on the bay in Somers Point that is part martini bar/part cover-band party deck/part fine-dining factory. Some colors have changed in the room since its days as the Inlet (and Sails before that), but the crowds are as formidable as ever. The volume is so intensely unmanageable, I'm not surprised that opening consultant Sean Weinberg of Alba scampered back to his cozy 55-seater in Malvern before the summer hordes really hit.
Left to steer the ship is Weinberg's original collaborator, Edward Bonsignore Jr., a New York-born chef who has temporarily closed his Florida restaurant, Samantha's, to serve a rambling menu of "twisted Italian" fare, a bit too often involving oreganata bread stuffing and/or garlic cream, whether it's the baked stuffed clams (not bad), or lobster ravioli with a noticeably small medallion of tuna. All in all, the dishes were pricey but the flavors adequate, not unlike what I'd expect from an Italian-themed country-club dining room by the sea. My favorite, by far, was a surprisingly juicy pork chop that rang with the sweet-and-spicy zest of port wine reduced with banana peppers.
Really, though, all that actually matters here to locals like my real estate guy, Clay, is this: "As long as they keep live reggae night Sundays on the deck, we're happy."
Bongo Cafe & Grille
Annette Funicello is frolicking with Frankie Avalon on a continuous loop of '60s beach flicks on the TV. A gator statue signals some of the Cajun flair jazzing the menu, and a strong dose of surf memorabilia stokes your craving for the waves - and a hearty breakfast to fuel the day.
The Bongo Cafe & Grille, the whimsical new breakfast-luncher on Ocean City's bayside, delivers on that promise with home-cooked fare that has plenty of appealing flair, if not always finesse. Judging from the kitchen's sweet tooth - rolling pancakes around decadent cannoli filling, crowning waffles with various sundaes of Ben & Jerry's ice cream - you'd never suspect that co-owner Patty Davis has a master's degree in holistic nutrition. Yes, there's a vegan-friendly menu with a popular tofu scramble.
But Patty's husband and chef, Walter "Buddy" Hungerford, is at his best when serving up fresh renditions of the classics, from huevos rancheros with cuminy black refried beans and a side of roast pork dabbed in chipotle hollandaise, to an "Irish Surfer Breakfast" with bangers, eggs, and house-made soda bread. Yes, I tasted a couple of letdowns: a bready crab cake and a stick of cream cheese inside an omelet does not equal "crab imperial"; an otherwise excellent burger with smoked mozzarella and mushrooms that was overcooked to death. But it's impossible not to love Bongo's spirit and zesty flavors (Fried shrimp po'boys? Excellent mahi tacos? I'm there!).
"I grew up watching those '60s movies and I just couldn't wait to be a teenager so I could dance on the beach," said Patty, Blue Hawaii playing behind her. "I'm doing it now! I'm living it!"
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dinner Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, until 10. Cafe open for coffee and pastries daily, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Cash only. BYOB.
Old Grange by Tony Clark
Cold Spring Village, 735 Seashore Rd., Cape May, 609-884-0114; on Facebook, (Old-Grange-by-Tony-Clark)
Lunch Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Early Menu” dinner Tuesday to Saturday, 4 to 5:45 p.m. Dinner; Tuesday to Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11. Closed Monday. All major cards. BYOB; Hawk Haven wine is also sold.
9510 Ventnor Ave., Margate, 609-487-7450
Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m.; Monday to Thursday until 9; Friday and Saturday, until 10. All major cards. BYOB.
998 Bay Ave., Somers Point, 609-926-9611; www.baiarestaurant.com
Lunch daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Early Menu” nightly 4:30 to 5:30. Dinner Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10:30. All major cards. Reservations suggested. Free valet parking on weekends.
La Fontana Coast
5000 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City; 609-486-6088; www.lafontanacoast.com
Lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday to Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 10. All major cards. BYOB.
Vincent’s Seven/Seven Thirty
7303 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor, 609-350-7635
Breakfast daily, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Lunch daily, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Sunday to Thursday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11. Cash only.
Bongo Cafe & Grille
1050 Bay Ave., Ocean City, 609-938-0680; www.bongocafeoc.com
Breakfast Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sunday, beginning at 8. Lunch daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 4 to 8 p.m. All major cards.