Keeping the Jersey Shore's seafood restaurant tradition alive

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The crab cakes at Crabby Paddy's in Ship Bottom, N.J.

Busch's seafood restaurant died a dozen near-deaths before the end actually came.

So when it was finally sold in 2014 and the Townsend's Inlet icon slipped beneath the waves of history - after 132 years and five generations of family ownership - no one was surprised. It was a 425-seat whale to maintain, decidedly frumpy in look, and seriously out of fashion on the plates.

Even so, I still miss it. From the rich she-crab soup to the deviled clams, perfectly broiled lobster, and juicy blueberry cobbler, Busch's produced the timeless flavors of a Shore seafood house with consistency and character that's hard to match.

But there is a surprisingly diverse host of contenders vying to carry on that fish-house tradition, including a big new branch of the Doc Magrogan's chain, which, coincidentally, occupies the condo complex that rose over the block where Busch's was demolished.

There is a supersize new revamp of Dock's Oyster House, Atlantic City's own seafood supercentenarian founded in 1897.

One of the Shore's star chefs, Lucas Manteca, has continued to refine his vision for a casual seafood shack with a Latin twist at Quahog's in Stone Harbor.

Seafood-centric bar food rules the colorful confines of yearling Fins in Cape May. And on Long Beach Island, the goofily named new Crabby Paddy's is channeling the serious seafood cred of its respected sibling, Allen's Clam Bar.

So, with seafood profit margins slimmer than ever, and the constant challenge of changing tastes, is the Shore's seafood tradition in trouble - or entering a golden new era?

I set sail for answers.

Doc Magrogan's Oyster House

8600 Landis Ave. (in the Dunes), Townsend's Inlet, Sea Isle City, 609-478-6082; docmagrogans.com.

Trouble was stirring almost from the moment we arrived at Doc Magrogan's.

This airy space in the new Dunes condo complex is the biggest restaurant yet in owner Dave Magrogan's budding empire of chains (also Harvest Seasonal Grill and Kildare's). It's an appealing update to the fish-house genre, at least in concept, with whitewashed wainscoting, gray wood accents, and seashell chandeliers, plus a wide-ranging menu that blends classics with modern ideas (tacos, flat breads) plus a healthy influence from Harvest.

"People are cutting back on carbs," a server replied when we asked whether bread was coming. It wasn't.

The problem: We were hungry! The restaurant, already swarmed three weeks after opening, with a deluge of customers in linen shorts and sundresses, left us to nibble stale oyster crackers and bad horseradish as service foundered to keep up.

It took nearly an hour and a half to get our entrées because, apparently, "the fish and chips take a while." In the meanwhile, the lobster bisque was lukewarm and gluey. The raw oysters were well-shucked, but not as cold and firm as I like (try the briny Point Judiths). The weakly seasoned crab cake was upstaged by its corn salsa garnish.

When entrées finally did come, things got worse. A blackened tuna would have been great if it hadn't been wildly oversalted. The big scallops arrived tepid and strangely chewy, perched over a risotto that had solidified while waiting to be picked up. Someone then brought me the wrong $29 steamer pot (I'd wanted the "Diablo"), and what unimpressive seafood was inside was dry and missing its broth.

The manager, to her credit acknowledging the issues, correctly offered to comp our meal - but I declined. I loved my pint of Cape May Brewing's Summer Catch, and after all that, the fish and chips were pretty good.

Quahog's Seafood Shack

206 97th St., Stone Harbor, 609-368-6300; quahogsshack.com.

When Lucas Manteca and his wife, Deanna Ebner, launched Quahog's in 2008 in Stone Harbor, the mission was smart: to update a chowder shack with sustainability-minded local fish and a menu occasionally inflected by the Argentine chef's South American point of view.

It was a solid success, though with room for improvement on consistency, and prices that drifted high. But eight years later, Manteca and his crew have polished their vision into a true success. The space remained a constant of casual beach cool - the main action at a covered back patio where diners drink BYO wines around gingham-covered tables.

But the prices have been deliberately reined back to less than $30 an entrée (save for lobster dishes). And with a new chef de cuisine in Matthew Rutter (an Ebbitt Room alum who has worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Tom Colicchio), the menu has more fully embraced distinctive Latino flair.

The "stuffies" blend the clam with sweet potatoes, bread, and chorizo. Flaky empanadas, always available with a traditional Argentine filling of tangy ground beef, also come stuffed with sweet crab, corn, and melty provolone.

The daily sashimi of hamachi brought pristine raw fish in a bright but earthy mushroom vinaigrette that highlighted the crunch of salt harvested nearby by Manteca's Cape May Sea Salt Co. A delicious fish cake paired smoked trout with a bright moist binder of green apples, fennel, and sour cream to magnetic effect.

The entrées were just as good. The "casado" paid homage to Costa Rica with a spice-crusted flounder beside black beans and rice, plantains, and fried cheese. The Barbacoa was a surf-and-turf platter with warm tortillas, scallops, and amazingly flavorful skirt steak marinated in salsa Criolla - the same that comes in tacos also served at the take-out taco-shop market up front. My favorite, though, was the Brazilian moqueca, a colorful tumble of seafood and chorizo delicately poached in a gingery, yellow-tinted coconut broth topped with rice greened with garlic and parsley.

There is blueberry cobbler and peanut butter pieto finish - satisfying to be sure. But it's those Latin flavors that linger in my mind and make Quahog's the Shore's best seafood restaurant right now.

Dock's Oyster House

2405 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City, 609-345-0092; docksoysterhouse.com.

If you'd rather eat in a bar than drink in a restaurant, the recently renovated Dock's Oyster House should make you happy. The entire former dining room of A.C.'s oldest restaurant has been replaced with a bar, its 40 seats quadrupling the old total with a mahogany counter that rides the length of the elegantly tiled room, turns left at the ice bank of oysters in the far corner, and then curls back up like a wave beside the piano bar.

That's just one of the changes that fourth-generation sibling co-owners Frank and Joseph Dougherty have made to keep their 119-year-old seafood house relevant, showcasing their raw bar and ambitious riffs on old cocktail classics (try the egg-white-foamed Boardwalk Fizz).

If you'd rather drink in a dining room, they've got you covered with those renovations, too. Although the two huge new rooms with soaring ceilings and 140 seats are terribly noisy and banquet-hall generic - aside from the giant wooden boat hull that has been dropped halfway through the ceiling to hold 40 private dining seats upstairs.

What has not changed is Dock's commitment to quality and scratch cooking, such as the Manhattan and New England clam chowders steamed to order with an open-shell chorus of littleneck clams, or well-broiled oysters Rockefellers, or a duo of simple crab cakes bursting with creamy Imperial stuffing.

Frank, who has seen the number of fryers in Dock's kitchen decline from 10 to two in its current era, says attention has been paid to desires for healthier cooking. A halibut over spinach in wine broth was a good example. The sad jumble of undercooked zucchini and squash dropped as a cookie-cutter side on every plate needs more love.

What Dock's still does best are the indulgences: a perfectly cooked big lobster (juicy even broiled), and a potato-crusted flounder that was essentially a fish wrapped in a latke, and thus irresistible.

My biggest disappointment, though, reflected some growing pains. My raw oysters had to be returned because their ice had melted into a puddle by the time they were finally delivered. When they returned, the oysters were great, but their juice had sloshed away in transit. It reminded me of another saying I just made up: No matter where you sit in a good raw bar, the oysters better hold their liquor.

Fins Bar & Grille

142 Decatur St., Cape May, 609-884-3449; finscapemay.com.

I know some Cape May curmudgeons who were sad to see the old Pilot House, long a local haven for cheap beer and burgers, morph into Fins Bar & Grille. I'm sure it was a shock last summer to watch the old standby off the Washington Street Mall shuck its gingerbread nautical motif for an electric-blue-and-orange look that feels like walking into a Pixar film. You might even find both Nemo and Dory if you look close enough at its aquariums.

But the new ownership team from Peter Shields Inn, which brought the inn's chef, Carl Messick, to oversee the menu, have discovered a few keys that go a long way toward forgiving most design sins: great local beers on draft, and excellent lobster salad.

The focus on beer is logical considering the light-shifting glass bar that hovers like a space ship near the entrance, and it's 20 taps are flowing with craft picks from Jersey stars like Cape May Brewing, Glasstown Brewing, River Horse, and Flying Fish.

The dinner menu offers a typical approach, from good chowder to fried local calamari, steamers, crab-stuffed flounder, and simple grilled fish and meats - though at less than $30 an entrée, far less pricey than Peter Shields while still featuring mostly local, never-frozen fish.

The lunch and bar menu, though, showcase some more creative casual fare that gives Fins a distinctive hook. Pizza with crab can be a dubious pursuit. But the Fins Pie flatbread stood out for its ample helping of sweet lumps scattered between not-too-heavy toppings of ricotta and creamy green avocado aioli. Nothing works as hard as the lobster salad, accented with celery and dill aioli, and generously portioned atop the Cobb salad, lobster roll (which would have been even better if the bun had been toasted), as well as the signature Fins burger.

Yes, $25 is a lot for a burger (the standard here is $10). But this was another seafood-deluxe mash-up gamble that paid off - a half-pound patty of perfectly medium-rare Angus beef beneath molten Vermont cheddar and a fistful of tender lobster. And when every element hits just right like this one did, the marine tang melding with juicy meat in every bite, the notion of a surf-and-turf reimagined for a new generation is one worthy benefit, at least, of change.

Crabby Paddy's

1415 Long Beach Blvd., Ship Bottom; 609-342-1506; crabbypaddys.com.

As a parent of teens now thankfully moved on from their SpongeBob phase, I nearly hit the accelerator when I saw a new BYOB called Crabby Paddy's. But the "Paddy" in question, it turns out, is LBI mega-developer Patrick Moeller, and his partner is Win Allen, the second-generation owner of Allen's Clam Bar in New Gretna, one of the Shore's great seafood shacks. So I hit the brakes.

By comparison to its no-frills older sibling, Crabby Paddy's is downright rustic-chic, with a sleekly fitted, distressed-pine dining room of deep booths lined up next to an impressive 2,200-gallon fish tank.

"Our clientele in LBI," Allen says, "wants a cleaner look."

They'll need patience, too, as the no-reservations line for its 60 seats can stretch an hour-plus. Under the right circumstances, it can be well worth the wait. Allen brought in a seasoned chef in Eric McCauley (a vet of Jimmy Buffet's high-volume restaurants) to add cheffy touches to the menu.

I can't help humming "He lives in a pineapple under the sea!" every time the Thai-curried, shrimp-stuffed pineapple is recommended. But the jerk chicken was an incinerated disaster (smartly, it's now removed from the menu).

The smarter bets are simple seafood standards, such as the plump U-peel shrimp crusted in Old Bay, the straight-ahead bucket of steamers (just added), and a Cajun seafood boil for one (or two) that's a zestily sauced bountiful pan of shellfish, chorizo, and a whole lobster tail.

Of course, Allen's is famous for its french-fried lobster tail, but the breaded items on our visit to Crabby Paddy's (both fried green tomatoes and flounder) were not a strength. Maybe next time. One thing I will definitely be reordering is the outstanding signature crab cakes. Made to Allen's recipe with five ounces of sweet lumps lightly bound in mayo and crushed Ritz crackers - then simply broiled - these were, indeed, the best crab cakes I've eaten all summer.

After several weeks on my mission to reconnect with the Jersey Shore's seafood soul, it was just one of the many bright and tasty glimmers of hope.

 

Here are some other old favorites specializing in seafood. still recommended from Craig LaBan's previous Jersey Shore visits:

"Smitty's" The Clam Bar

910 Bay Ave., Somers Point, 609-927-8783; on Facebook

The Shore's definitive no-frills seafood shack, with indoor-outdoor counters and a marina view of the bridge to Ocean City, this 33-year-old no-reservations standby is my favorite for littlenecks on the half-shell and fresh local seafood simply baked or fried. The tuna in wasabi sauce is my go-to.

Oyster Creek Inn

41 Oyster Creek Rd., Leeds Point, 609-652-8565; www.oystercreekinnnj.com.

This picturesque seafood house set back in the grassy marshlands of historic Leeds Point fishing village is good for oyster stew, crabs, flounder fried in cracker meal, and more modern dishes, too.

The Crab House at Two Mile Landing

Fish Dock Road (just off Ocean Drive at the foot of the Cape May toll bridge), Wildwood Crest, 609-522-1341; twomilelanding.com/the-crab-house.

The big casual deck overlooking the bay is ideal for crab feasts and other seashore classics.

Hula Restaurant and Sauce Co.

940 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-399-2400; hulasauces.com

This Hawaiian-themed grill may not always exhibit the most finesse, but its grilled ahi plates and evening scallop specials with Thai BBQ sauce have long remained a fresh alternative to the boardwalk's endless parade of junk food.

Harvey Cedars Shellfish Co.

7904 Long Beach Blvd., Harvey Cedars, 609-494-7112; harveycedarsshellfishco.com

For more than 40 years, Michael and John Garofalo's old beach house turned seafood haunt has served spot-on steamed seafood at picnic benches on a screened-in porch, especially "blistered" local clams, juicy lobster, seafood pastas and great chowders.

 


Next week, Craig LaBan visits additional new Jersey Shore restaurants, from Cape May to Long Beach Island.

claban@phillynews.com 215-854-2682 @CraigLaBan www.philly.com/craiglaban