As a boy growing up in Cape May, Bill Fischer was steeped in saltwater.
During the long summer days, he could be found rock diving in the Cove with his brothers, leaping off wooden pillars into the surf like Shore birds at high tide. When high school ended, young Bill, like many of his friends, found himself on a boat steaming 18 hours out to sea in search of porgies, scallops, and fishing glory along the continental shelf. It was in his blood, and he was good, earning $46,000 on a scallop boat in a period of nine months.
Not bad for a 17-year-old in 1977. But would the seas be so kind to a 49-year-old chef who'd spent the previous 25 years searing Chilean sea bass steaks and threading crab cakes with zucchini?
Looking back now from his dining room at the Pelican Restaurant in Sewell, which he bought a year ago following a brief return to fishing, Fischer concedes: "It was brutal. I lost nine pounds in three weeks. And my shoulder's still sore."
Fischer abandoned commercial fishing a quarter century earlier for the kitchen - a more stable career, he says, for raising a family. But after exiting Caffe Aldo Lamberti, where he spent 16 years as executive chef, it was no surprise that he returned to the waves.
Fischer was raising money the best way he knew to start his own restaurant, after decades of working for others. Just four days out of the kitchen, he was on a clamming boat out of New Bedford, heading 100 miles out with his old mate, "Capt. Billy," for 18-hour days of big-ticket swordfish and bigeye tuna fishing.
It might seem odd that Fischer's dream landed him here, as the latest tenant of an existing BYO called Pelican, in an off-the-grid strip across from Washington Township High School. A rowdy pack of well-juiced students, leaping on car hoods and swooping perilously through the parking lot out front, didn't exactly stoke high expectations as we headed in.
But Pelican is full of pleasant surprises. Inside, it's decidedly upscale, with dark wood floors and white linens warmed by Dijon-colored walls, fabric-billowed ceilings, branches of twinkling lights, and maritime sepia photos.
And while the young servers could use a little polish (especially with menu prices drifting a bit high for this corner of South Jersey - mid- to high $20s), the integrity of Fischer's cooking merits serious appreciation. Not for any inventive culinary ideas. The focus on familiar Italian seafood dishes won't surprise anyone who's eaten at Caffe Aldo Lamberti in recent years.
But Fischer's approach to well-crafted flavors, and his fisherman's sensibility for respecting ingredients, lend most every dish a solid chance of satisfaction: Broiled whole clams casino, snug in their shells beneath a crisp pancetta chip, practically explode with the liqueur of topneck juice and maitre d' butter. Perfectly shucked Virginia salt oysters are chilled and briny beneath a splash of rice wine mignonette.
Wonderfully sweet and fresh Venezuelan lump crab finds its way into many of the menu's highlights. Tossed by the fistful into a bright tomato-basil sauce (with a little clam stock), it makes a hearty plate of capellini sing. Sauteed with lemony beurre blanc, it adds another shine of luxury to an already decadent lobster tail francese. Into a creamy pedestal of crab imperial, Fischer folds his signature zucchini, capping the top and bottom with crispy panfried cakes of the squash, whose sweet and lacy vegetal snap is a natural match for the crustacean.
There are a number of moments when Pelican's menu seems too broad, especially in a room often sparse with customers. The grilled filet mignon was perfectly fine with its collar of crispy bacon, but overwhelmed by the unnecessary piquancy of Gorgonzola. The buffalo mozzarella caprese shouldn't exist here until the tomatoes are ripe. And the veal Milanese was too much breadcrumb crisp without enough meat to bite into, or, as my guest griped, "flattened to a fare-thee-well and pounded with malice."
Actually, I mostly tasted a lot of love in Pelican's fare, but Fischer's talents are clearly seafood-centric. It's little wonder that I saw an old friend of Fischer's wobble in, still bandaged and wounded from a serious accident, craving a good meal on his way home from the hospital. A feast ensued, including an intriguing scallop with sweet-potato gnocchi special that, unfortunately, wasn't available on my subsequent visit.
But we were more than well fed. For starters, there was a miso-seared tuna with Asian slaw that was tasty, even if it was off Pelican's usual Italian theme. There was tenderly fried calamari streaked with chipotle aioli. And though the oysters Rockefeller were unconventional (with Irish Mist instead of anise Pernod in the spinach Florentine topping), they were beautifully roasted and tender beneath a frothy cloud of rich hollandaise.
Some long hots stuffed with prosciutto and Gorgonzola were addictively good - although they were so hot, they woke me up at night. And Fischer's appetizer pastas are so huge, I can't imagine ordering an entree. I loved his pancetta-laced paccheri Amatriciana, as well as penne René lavished in a blush cream filled with crab, peas and smoked salmon.
The main-course seafood entrees were worth saving room for. A brick of house-butchered Chilean sea bass came perfectly browned with frizzled leeks, citrus butter and escarole sauteed with pine nuts and raisins. Crisply seared fillets of silvery orata came over a perfect seafood medley tossed with orzo, standing in for the usual risotto.
One of Fischer's actual risottos, filled with mushrooms and truffle oil beneath seared scallops, was one of my mild disappointments, if only because the rice was a shade dry and some of the scallops were lightly overcooked. It was an unexpected misstep for a veteran scalloper.
But Fischer more than compensated with the whole branzino, which he brought himself for a tableside fillet. It wasn't the most artful knife work, but the flaky mound of flesh he removed from the charcoal-crisped skin was downy soft and memorably moist. Fischer's eyes especially lit up, though, when we asked for the nuggets of cheek meat before he departed. Sensing an appreciative audience, he launched into an enthusiastic account of the bass' other hidden morsels. He eagerly removed a tiny jewel of meat from behind the eyes for us to taste - and it was more intensely branzino-y than any other part of the fish I've eaten, a revelation.
In thanks, I shook his hand, and it swallowed mine with a firm and calloused grip that bespoke his years of long line labor aboard a boat. And with that he smiled, and Fischer the fisherman happily returned to his kitchen.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews MidAtlantic in University City. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.