Craig LaBan reviews this summer's offerings at the Jersey Shore

Rosemary Deery with an order of seafood at Mikes Seafood and market in Sea Isle City. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

You may well have seen the giant crab flag fluttering high on a bay breeze beside the road and still passed it in a rush to the Wildwood boardwalk. After all, Hooked Up Seafood is essentially just a red-and-blue shack attached to a food truck beside some picnic tables and a docked fishing boat called Defiance. It’s set just off the causeway from Rio Grande and plastered with hand-painted signs – “Chowder” “Good Times” – like so many other pun-laced roadside attractions along the coast.

I suggest you stop. Because on the spectrum of Shore-dining experiences that either exceed expectations or sometimes fall short Up lands on the right side of that equation like a prize catch. Like the 55-pound yellowfin I saw owner, longline fisherman, and Defiance captain Bill Bright butchering into inch-thick tuna steaks just a few feet away from my dockside table. They were destined for a hot date with some blackening spice and a griddle worked masterfully by Bright’s wife, Michelle. And while $23.95 a platter might sound like a lot for a roadside fish shack, this luscious hunk of prime-grade tuna is actually a bargain. Along with sweet Jersey corn, pineapple salsa, fresh salad, and a sky-blue view of the picturesque marshlands that flank the Richardson Channel, it was one of the most memorable plates of fresh seafood I’ve eaten all summer.

A blackened tuna steak with accoutrements at Hooked Up Seafood in Wildwood. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

I didn’t always feel so enthusiastic these last few weeks, even at far fancier places. Too often, eating at a Shore restaurant feels like a compromise. They’re handicapped by a short season that goes from idle to full-throttle on Memorial Day, and challenged by staffing and high food costs inevitably passed on to diners. The newest restaurant kitchens are often works in progress, and not progressing fast enough for our family’s early-season vacation. Of course, I also found plenty of bright exceptions as I ate my way through a wide range of seafood halls, Italian restaurants, taco shops, breweries, and BYOBs along the coast.  So I’ve included the full spectrum of our Shore dining experiences, from the keepers to the inevitable bycatch of disappointments not quite ready yet for high season.

 

 

An order of littleneck clams in buttery wine sauce at Hooked Up Seafood in Wildwood. ED HILLE/Staff Photographer

Hooked Up Seafood

1044 W Rio Grande Ave., Wildwood, 08260, 609-522-2722, hookedupseafood.com

If your aim is to eat the freshest seafood on a picnic table closest to the waters where it was fished with minimal pretense, Hooked Up Seafood is as close as it gets to Jersey fish-shack perfection. Owner and commercial fisherman Bill Bright likely caught your dinner, or it came from a friend or relative, like the littlenecks grown by his uncle that come tender and briny in a garlicky bath of butter and wine. The food-truck kitchen run by Bright’s wife and children prepares each dish with care, hand-breading all the fried foods to order with a well-seasoned corn-flour crust, grilling those thick fish steaks to perfect medium-rare, and relying on stellar recipes for classics like the New England chowder (creamy and flavorful but not too thick) and crab cake (its lump meat sweetened with claw) that showcase the great ingredients. The spice-dusted whole crabs are a draw, and crispy fish tacos are also popular. But the daily grilled fish specials — tuna, swordfish or cold-water John Dory — are the real highlight not to be missed. Of course, one could easily miss this roadside stop without a hint, and I owe fellow critic Adam Erace of Billy Penn for the tip. I’m thrilled to pass it on.

Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon in Beach Haven. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/Staff Photographer

Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon

116 Northwest Ave, Beach Haven, 08008, 609-492-1066, parkersgaragelbi.com

Parker’s Garage & Oyster Saloon is the season’s most notable new opening on Long Beach Island. And this stylish revamp of the Boathouse in Beach Haven from the owners of Mud City Crabhouse and the Old Causeway in Manahawkin is a gorgeous new destination, a white-washed brick and wood-floored hall with a sunset patio perch for some whimsical modern updates to seafood classics. The lobster comes as corn dogs. The chowder is fried into crispy-creamy balls. The seared scallops get paired with chunks of house-cured pork belly and  foamed lemonade.  And local oysters are roasted Rockefeller-style with a 21st-century kale makeover, the bacony braised greens mixed tarragon-infused fennel cream. Too bad the kitchen also struggled mightily at our early-season visit. The hush puppies were raw inside. The $36  steak and short rib combo wasn’t hot. The “sweet summer corn pasta” was drowned in a strangely heavy sludge of pureed corn and blue cheese. And my $28 bouillabaisse was full of so much half-cooked seafood (rubbery monkfish and squid) that it needed to be returned. The team behind Parker’s has such a solid track record, I still have high hopes. “Just feeling like we have our act together!” co-owner Mel Magaziner told me just last week. And now I wish we’d waited to eat there last instead of first. Unfortunately, the hot new place already serving 500-plus diners a night doesn’t really have that luxury.

Devliled clams at Mikes Seafood and market in Sea Isle City. ED HILLE/Staff Photographer

Mike’s Seafood

4222 Park Rd, Sea Isle City, 08243, 609-263-3458, mikesseafood.com

The massive standby that is Mike’s Seafood, which traces its roots to 1911, when the Monichettis arrived from Ischia along with other Italian immigrants to the swampy Sea Isle City bay that would eventually become “Fish Alley,” defines the prototypical Shore seafood deck experience. With long lines, cheerful counter service, and seafood combos served efficiently in aluminum take-out pans, it has few of the upscale airs of some of its nearby competitors – a casual no-frills approach I appreciate. The quality of the seafood, much of it sourced from fishing boats docked nearby (Capt. Bob, Maryanne) is fresh and plentiful, if not always cooked with finesse. A small lobster steamed to oblivion beneath a fistful of dry crab was a lowlight. But the grilled swordfish over wild rice was meaty and moist. The old-school deviled clam, with a chowder-like creamy stuffing beneath its deep fried crust, is my new favorite. The shrimp and scallop linguine could have fed two. The plump shrimp “from hell” came in a punchy orange fresh chile sauce that, contrary to most dishes marked “spicy,” left our lips happily numb.  And the prices are undeniably fair, even for a mega-platter like the “Patio Paul,” a three-pound-plus feeding frenzy of lobster, crab legs, and shrimp for $38.99 named in honor of the mountain-size regular who used to polish it off solo every night during his weekend visits. Sadly, Paul is no longer around. “But Mike’s will never die!” vows third-generation owner Mike Monichetti. And I sure hope he’s right.

Chef/owner Ryan Allenbach’s pan seared local scallops with a seasonal risotto, Jersey asparagus, roasted lemon beurre blanc at his One Fish, Two Fish in Wildwood. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/Staff Photographer

One Fish, Two Fish

5209 Pacific Ave, Wildwood, 08260, 609-522-5223, onefishtwofishrestaurant.net

On the other end of the seafood spectrum, the cozy and quiet BYOB called One Fish, Two Fish seems like an upscale fish out of water amidst Wildwood’s carnival hub-bub, perched  across Pacific Avenue from Duffer’s “undersea” mini-golf and ice cream parlor. Of course, a sophisticated oasis can be a good thing. And chef-owner Ryan Allenbach’s small menu is built around fresh local catch put in simple but smart modern poses — grilled swordfish over navy beans ringed by a tart blood-orange vinaigrette, big seared scallops with sweet corn risotto, or a superbly tender anise-tinged short rib, or a gingery carrot soup topped with sweet crab. “This seems like real food to me,” commented my wife, and I agreed. But, oh…the prices! Hovering around $35 an entree, they seemed rather steep considering the basic plate compositions, utilitarian service, and minimalist dining room that reminded me of eating in a dollhouse. I enjoyed our meal, but I also wasn’t surprised when a young couple on a date night got up after viewing the menu and left, muttering something about “not feeling well” to the hostess. Savvy as always, we saved a little cash on dessert and headed across the street for a cone of butter brickle and 18 holes of nautical golf.

The pappardelle Bolognese (right) freshly made pasta in foreground and homemade ravioli in background at the Red Room Cafe in Ventnor City. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/Staff Photographer

Red Room Café

141 N Dorset Ave, Ventnor City, 08406, 609-822-1067, redroomcafeattheshore.com

I reviewed the Red Room Cafe favorably when it opened in 2008, and it was promptly sold at the end of that summer. So I’d forgotten all about this lively Italian BYOB, tucked away across the Dorset Avenue bridge in Ventnor Heights, until a visit to the Margate farmer’s market, where I came across an impressive array of fresh pastas for sale produced by the Red Room’s current owners, Jack and Maria Gatta. That was all the temptation I needed for a revisit, and I wasn’t disappointed with toothy nubs of ricotta cavatelli tossed with broccoli rabe, sausage, and bread crumbs, or the silky ribbons of pappardelle coiled around hearty beef Bolognese. The unexpected star of our meal, though, was the pork chop creation of the Gattas’ son and chef, Vincent, 26. This superb chop was lightly breaded, then served over a tangy provolone cream sauce topped with broccoli rabe and a crispy nest of frizzled onions, essentially a South Philly roast pork sandwich re-imagined juicy and tender on the bone. That alone was worth a visit to the Heights I hope to repeat before another nine years go by.

Exterior view of La Padella, a new Italian BYOB in Ventnor. CHARLES FOX/Staff Photographer

La Padella Ristorante

7309 Ventnor Ave, Ventnor City, 08406, 609-487-0600; lapadellaristorante.com

Another young chef is making waves in Ventnor with a cash-only Italian BYOB called La Padella, which, in a quiet season for new restaurants on Absecon Island, has generated some positive buzz and a festive sidewalk full of al fresco diners. Albanian-born chef-owner Tony Hoda is just 21, but has cooked at Philly’s La Veranda and A Modo Mio in Sea Isle City and has his own ideas for “modern” Italian cuisine, from colorful fresh lobster ravioli to daily-made focaccia. To my disappointment, there was neither fresh focaccia nor ravioli during our visit, and I found Hoda’s food to be a little heavy-handed, with more cream added to finish sauces (like the Bolognese) and too much flour dredge gumming up the veal cutlets. Even so, there were some good flavors, like the char-kissed artichokes over prosciutto, or the plump shrimp in lemony caper butter piled over the fillet of branzino (pricey at $28 considering the drab green overcooked asparagus in the mix). The tastiest plate was a tender braised veal short rib over creamy polenta – an unusual offering ideal for a European ski lodge in winter, but maybe best saved, along with La Padella, for a cold and rainy night at the Shore.

The dairy-soaked cuatro leches cake topped with dulce de leche at the Taco Shop in Rio Grande. ED HILLE/Staff Photographer

The Taco Shop

1288 Hornet Rd., Rio Grande, 08242, 609-600-2961; tacoshoptacos.com

If driving to an industrial park in Rio Grande beside the Cape May Airport seems like a trip to nowhere, it is. Almost. But the draw of craft beer — and the rapidly growing Cape May Brewing Co. there – has been luring long lines of hop heads for growlers of Coastal Evacuation IPA (or funky Brothel Madame sour ale) and a seat in the big rear beer garden. Now, you can pair the brews with fresh tacos, too, by heading first next door to the Taco Shop, an indie take on the Chipotle model from the team behind Cape May’s Red Store. (Alternatively bring your growler to the Taco Shop’s little dining room and back patio for a more family-friendly setting.) I had high hopes for these tacos from chef-owner Lucas Manteca, having last summer already savored Taco Shop 1.0, which still exists beside his Quahog’s in Stone Harbor. The tortillas are made fresh on site. The meats are slow-cooked with care and fresh chiles — the pork with an al pastor touch of pineapple and guajillos, the chicken simmered with mole, the cuminy lamb braised in banana leaves “borracha”-style with beer from next door. But…someone needs to turn up the flavor volume! Manteca may be overthinking his “non-foodie” audience here in keeping the intensity of sauces too mild. The integrity of the cooking is there, it’s just a little bland. One item that’s already worth the visit: the “cuatro leches” cake, a traditional tres leches soaked in three kinds of dairy plus an extra – an icing of dulce de leche caramel nodding to Manteca’s Argentine roots – had magnetic powers on my fork.

The seafood cioppino (sauteed lobster, shrimp, crab, mussels and clams, spicy tomato-crab broth, grilled bread) at the new location for Marie Nicole’s Grill in Avalon. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/Staff Photographer

Marie Nicole’s Grill

79th and Ocean Drive, Avalon, 609-368-1919, marienicoles.com

Marie Nicole’s Grill is the swanky newcomer to Avalon’s dining scene, but it’s not exactly new. Since 2000, the original in Wildwood Crest had been the fine-dining flagship of the Barnabei family’s restaurants (including Concord Cafe in Avalon and North End American Grill in North Wildwood). Its recent move made way for a more accessible Italian wine bar (De Ninno’s) owned by the family in the old location, and allowed Marie Nicole’s to settle into a larger modern space previously occupied by Fuze in Avalon, with a curvy cocktail bar, deep wine cellar, and filet mignon luxury that’s an easy fit for the posh demographic of Seven Mile Island. There’s a vaguely retro millennium vibe to the martini bar and conventional pleasures of the grill. But the veteran service staff didn’t miss a beat, the briskly chilled Dirty Bird martini came with blue cheese-stuffed olives, and chef August Zimmerman, a local steakhouse vet, did justice to his prime ingredients. Huge shrimp came wrapped with basil inside crispy sheath of prosciutto. Tuna tartare had a Mediterranean accent with capers, olives, and artichokes.  The filet was excellent. But the porterhouse lamb chops rubbed with minty rosemary pesto were my red meat darling. And the cioppino, brimming with sweet lobster, clams, colossal crab and huge shrimp was a Pernod-splashed stewed tomato bonanza of seafood pleasure.  There’s a worthy three-course value menu for $35 ($25 before 6 p.m.) to make the chicken-salmon-pasta regulars feel properly valued. But really, Marie Nicole’s is a dress-up special-occasion splurge that has managed the trick of moving addresses without a hitch.