Our annual trip to the Jersey Shore was in question until the last minute. And the pandemic that had kept us homebound in Philadelphia for months had certainly given us serious pause. How would these beach towns handle the crush of tourists who view crossing the bridge to a barrier island as some sort of magic portal that evaporates their real-world coronavirus concerns? Where — and how — would we eat?
The call of the ocean was ultimately too powerful to resist — and I’m glad we went, if anything, to feel the waves as one reassuring pulse of normalcy. But eating at the Shore in 2020 is anything but normal. Outdoor dining began in mid-June, and our early attempts showed a steep learning curve with safety protocols for restaurants to master, not to mention too many mask-resistant customers. It would take several days before I began to find outdoor venues we felt comfortable with. (See next week’s installment!)
Meanwhile, takeout remains a safe and satisfying approach. We began with several favorites near our rental in Ocean City, like Cinco de Mayo (1039 West Ave., Ocean City, 609-399-0199) and Smitty’s Clam Bar (910 Bay Ave., Somers Point, 609-927-8783), whose efficiency as a call-ahead, credit card-accepting to-go operation now is in some ways an improvement over the hour-plus parking lot waits that were a given at this seafood classic. Then we grew our takeout radius to restaurants on Seven Mile Island and the mainland, expanding our menu with a welcome infusion of international flavors. Afghan lamb shanks? Jerk-spiced whole branzino? Legit dim sum? A new pizza star? Indeed. Here are six restaurants that are worth the round-trip.
The plant-fringed corner of 701 Mosaic in Ocean City would appear to be a natural destination for outdoor dining. But co-owner Pamela Womble decided to keep the restaurant takeout-only this summer due to health concerns. It wasn’t an easy call for a restaurant that’s become known as one of the island’s best over the last 12 years in part because of its warm hospitality. But the shift has also put a fresh spotlight on the Caribbean cooking of Womble’s husband, Hilbert “Herbie” Allwood.
The Jamaican-born Allwood, who cooked for decades in New York before moving here with Womble under the guise of a “retirement plan,” has dialed back the Scotch bonnet heat since I first tasted his food in 2009. But his jerk chicken still resonates with enough chile heat, grill smoke, allspice, and molasses to conjure his St. Elizabeth roots. The pickled tang of chayote escoveitch perks a whole branzino whose head is perfumed with dry jerk spice. And ginger sings through almost every dish, even the Mediterranean-inspired chicken Byzantine and maple-glazed salmon. My favorite dish, though, was the shrimp in golden curry, a turmeric-tinted blend of Chinese and Middle Eastern spices whose cumin, allspice, and ginger bloom when Allwood toasts them first like a roux.
Mosaic’s longevity in a seasonal dining scene is a testament to consistency and the broad appeal of its distinctive menu. But the fact it’s one of the few Black-owned restaurants at the Shore is also timely, given the national social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd. Womble says young white customers have recently visited the restaurant specifically to support it as a Black-owned business: “It’s the first time in 12 years a white customer has mentioned that, so I do think the climate of early spring 2020 has made our allies more aware.”
I’ve appreciated Mosaic’s virtues for years. But this very different kind of summer is the perfect moment to be reminded this standby is as fresh as ever. 701 Mosaic, 701 E. 4th St., Ocean City, 609-398-2700; 701mosaic.com.
The last time I encountered Mike Fitzick in 2016, he’d become an Instagram sensation as the Pizza_Jew, posting hunger-inducing photos of the wood-fired Neapolitan pies he cooked at Valentina’s in Northfield. For this one-time sauce hose technician at Mack & Manco’s, achieving pizza notoriety with this revered Italian style realized a personal passion and was “good for my ego.” But as he wandered between seasons of “mercenary pizza work” with pop-ups and various line-cook jobs, he knew he wanted to tackle something different.
And the hefty Detroit-style pan pizzas he’s now making at his solo debut, Bakeria 1010, have turned out to be ideal to meet the takeout demands of the pandemic. Whereas delicate Neapolitan pies are best within their first few minutes, these deep-crusted beauties, ideally bordered with a crispy frico of caramelized cheese around the sides, are perfect to travel. The crusts may be thick, but Fitzick still gives them a deceptive lightness. He ferments his dough for 56 hours with a bit of sourdough for an airy crust full of stretchy holes, a recipe that also works well for panini and crusty sourdough loaves.
But as a canvas for pizza, that puffy crust acts like a springboard for bright tomato sauce, heat-blistered cheese, and array of quality toppings. Thick-cut pepperoni dusted with Pecorino. Mushrooms with brandy-caramelized onions and Gruyère. Esposito’s sausage with fried peppers. Smoked prosciutto with rosemaried potatoes. These 17-by-13-inch big boys are a commitment, so try the Pizzaiolo’s Surprise for a chef’s choice combo of four toppings because, really, you’ll want to taste them all. Bakeria 1010, 2110 New Rd., Linwood, 609-927-5812; bakeria1010.com.
Abdullah Panah and his aunt, chef Homa Bazyar, bill their Atlantic City restaurant Setaara as “the world’s first French Afghan fusion.” But for the time being, the escargots and pâté maison recipes that Bazyar brought from Denver, where she owned Cafe Monet, have been packed away to ride out the crisis. Bazyar has instead turned to the menu’s traditional Afghan dishes as those most likely to survive a takeout order intact. And I can attest they do.
The billow of aromatic steam that wafted above our table when I uncovered a tender lamb shank buried in fragrant rice jeweled with raisins, shredded carrots, and sweet onions was simply transporting. But so were the ashak scallion dumplings, the ghormeh lubia red beans simmered in the cinnamon-tomato sauce, the moist chicken kebabs, and pyramid-shaped mantu dumplings filled with oniony ground beef beneath drizzles of yogurt and peas.
The year-old Setaara is a unique architectural and culinary addition to the Ducktown landscape, and has given new life to a building across from the legendary White House Sub shop. Panah, a 22-year-old med student at Rowan College, added minarets to the facade and turned the interior into an evocative Middle Eastern montage of Moroccan alcoves for booths, a mirrored hall based on a palace in Tehran, a mini-replica of the historic Buddhas that were destroyed during the conflict in Afghanistan, and a double-floored rear courtyard still under construction. That elaborate ambiance will have to wait until New Jersey allows inside dining to return. Meanwhile, Bazyar’s takeout kebabs and sweet firni custard ably bring that magic to you. Setaara, 2322 Arctic Ave., Atlantic City, 609-246-7704; setaaraac.com.
Dim Sum and Then Some!
Great Chinese food isn’t easy to find at the Jersey Shore outside of the casinos, where noodle bars have been reliable best bets. But with casinos down for months, Ventnor lucked out with a project from Andrew Leung, who persuaded his brother, Michael Leung, the chef at Zhen Bang Noodle & Sushi in Oceans Casino Resort, to partner and consult on a Cantonese concept. The menu overseen on a daily basis by Ki Gaw Zhengze, another veteran casino chef, offers an impressive range of Cantonese standbys that could sate any homesick Philadelphian’s cravings for Chinatown.
As “Then Some!” implies, the menu roams wide into the Hong Kong-style canon of BBQ meats, soups, and stir-fries, plus Americanized classics I didn’t try. The Singapore noodles and wok-singed chow fun were good. But the dumplings are the reason to put this newcomer on speed dial. The pork dumplings come in several subtle variations, moist and tender with cabbage and ginger in the standard, with the oniony zing of Chinese chives for another version, or bolstered with earthy shiitakes and shrimp for the sui mei. A pale white dough of tapioca and rice starch is flaky on its pan-fried bottom when wrapped around sweet shrimp and bamboo shoots for the shrimp-chive buns. The same dough turns nearly translucent when steamed into pleated har gao dumplings, which come with shrimp, but also a delicious vegetarian variation touched with green and filled with mushrooms, bamboo, and broccoli. They’re so good, I’ll likely be craving those when I’m back in Philadelphia. Dim Sum and Then Some! 7317 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor, 609-271-9303; dimsumventnor.com.
Water Dog Smoke House
There’s a lot going at Water Dog, the orange-lidded black box of a former bank where the smoker now at its heart ranges from deli-style fish and sandwich meats to pit-style barbecue, and you can also order lobster rolls and poke. “We call ourselves a Millenial deli,” says co-owner Steve Marchel, who also owns Northfield’s Chido Burrito. “We make everything I like to eat.”
The catch-all concept has been popular, even if there’s too much going on with this menu for my taste. The poke bowl rice was cold and hard. The lobster roll was ample, but artlessly dressed. The brisket burnt ends were chewy. But what still makes Water Dog an essential new addition to the Shore is some of the best smoked fish anywhere, thanks to pit-master and partner Dan Greenberg. I could eat his pastrami-rubbed salmon and smoked whitefish spread with capers on a bagel every morning before the beach. His smoke only amplifies the natural Jersey sweetness of big Cape May scallops.
Water Dog also happens to roast a beautifully plain turkey breast, perfect for the O.J.M.V.P. with house-smoked bacon and melted cheddar on grilled brioche. But the Dr. Dan pastrami sandwich is what most exemplifies Water Dog’s progress status a worthy work-in-progress. The meat’s texture still needs tweaking — it’s too taught, whereas great pastrami should tenderly melt. But there’s already a depth of smoky savor that can’t be faked and is impossible to resist. As I polished mine off for lunch, I knew for certain this ambitious smoke house hybrid was at least headed in the right direction. Water Dog Smoke House, 7319 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor; 609-727-0603; 609-727-0603; waterdogsmokehouse.com
Here’s a food lover’s wish: Can all bland suburban chain restaurants eventually be replaced by the full-hearted flavors of an independent restaurant as tasty as the Nizam’s? Yes, I’m sure many people still miss the Egg Harbor Township location of Carrabba’s Italian Grill. But there are more of those. There’s only one Nizam’s, and New Delhi-born chef Syed Abbas, who moved his 12-year-old restaurant from the Black Horse Pike to this larger location last year, is cooking some of the most vibrant Indian food in the region, braced with the uncompromising heat and complexity of fresh-ground spices.
You can smell that spice story unfold when you stir the onion-laced rice of Abbas’ fragrant chicken biryani. I taste the deep smoke and fruitiness of roasted eggplant mashed into the cumin-scented bhurta. The tender lamb achari resonates with fennel and black onion seeds, while bright green kale patties, crisped for chaat salad striped with tamarind chutney, is one of my new favorites. Also, for a worthy alternative to the usual tandoori chicken, try one of Abbas’ signatures, the Tangri kebab of chicken-thigh lollipops that are marinated in turmeric, saffron, coriander, and yogurt before roasting in the clay oven. I’ll need to return at Thanksgiving, when Abbas cooks another original specialty — an Indian-ized turducken stuffed with cranberry rice, masala spice, and quail. You can’t get that at any other restaurant I know. So now I have a good excuse to return to the Shore for takeout in November.The Nizam’s, 6725 US-40, Egg Harbor Township, 609-677-8829; nizamsauthenticindian.com.