I waded hip-deep into the chilly surf off Ocean City, N.J., and saw a big wave coming.
"Wait for it, wait for it," I told myself as the swell began to rise. Then, with a well-timed leap, I found myself riding its frothy crest for one euphoric moment, a human torpedo rocketing toward the beach — until the inevitable crash of salt water and tumbling sand, and the dazed recognition when I got back to my knees that, yep, another fresh wave was about to slam.
There's something so cleansing in the ocean's relentless force, a timeless rhythm of renewal in the constant hope for another perfect wave. And because I eat for a living, and everything is a food metaphor, I can't help but see the Jersey Shore's seasonal restaurant scene in very much the same terms. Each summer's new dining prospects rise over the crest of June with fresh surprises and a unique character, but always with the optimism of a fresh start.
Few summers, though, have I sensed a feeling of new beginnings quite as much as in the restaurants I've visited this year. An old fisherman's tavern in Cape May rebuilt for a new generation — but with the same ethereal scallops that made it famous. A Stone Harbor Italian that's mastered its handmade pasta groove after a total post-Sandy makeover. A retired fisherman who's found a new calling with a seafood market kitchen that's given the grain bowl trend an oceanic twist. A stunning beach-view dining room in Sea Isle City with a steady new operator. A veteran chef — two of them, actually — who've landed in promising new BYOB homes.
From LBI to Cape May, this wave of fresh Shore flavors is rising. And the time to leap is now.
It's unlikely there were kale salads, farro risotto, or seasonal rhubarb crisps during the rowdy old days of Mayer's Tavern. Before it closed years ago, this longtime fishermen's haunt tucked onto Schellenger Landing in Cape May's commercial marina was best known for bar fights and killer fried scallops, often provided at bargain-bartered prices by thirsty customers, then cooked by a chef with a smoldering cigarette in his mouth.
To say Mayer's has been reinvented with broader appeal for a new generation would be an understatement. It's not just the handsome cosmetic makeover of fresh cedar shake siding, a red metal roof, and a new kitchen courtesy of its new caretaker, Lobster House owner Keith Laudeman. The real spark plug for this institution's bright new chapter is Laudeman's daughter Alex, 33, a chef who's returned from a 15-year stint in New York City, where she cooked under David Pasternak at Esca. She's managed to give Mayer's an updated gastropub feel without making it overly precious. In fact, the scallops — handpicked daily by Keith from his own fleet of scallop boats, then fried beneath a perfect micro-crust that seals in sweetness — are all the more amazing because of their seemingly minimalist touch, and are absolutely not to be missed.
Much of the action still hums around the hook-shaped bar, where a boisterous, beer-fueled bachelor party of amateur shark fishermen chanting "E-A-G-L-E-S!" on our visit proved the old tavern's DNA may remain somewhat resistant to the subtle niceties of craft-cocktail culture.
Alex's menu for the little, no-reservations dining room, however, seamlessly updates the fish-house template with modern touches that don't feel fussy, with oh-so-lightly broiled oysters topped with a crackly orange glaze of tangy pimento cheese, juicy little necks baked in a bread crumb crust laced with pickled peppers and prosciutto, and creamy-centered crab croquettes with a sweet-pepper-and-almond Spanish romesco for dipping. There's a fried Ipswich clam roll and smoked bluefish spread. An outstanding Creekstone beef burger and a juicy half chicken, properly cooked to order and served with hand-mortared Italian salsa verde, are excellent options for the seafood-averse.
And, yes, there are also a seasonal fruit crisp, a great kale salad with yogurt tahini dressing, and some even simpler greens, lightly dressed but so delicious, from organic Enfin Farms, which is run by Alex's younger sister, Wesley, not far away in West Cape May. It's yet another familial tie that makes Mayer's story as much a homecoming as it is a revival. "Growing up, I never thought I'd live here again," Alex says, admitting she craved a dose of big-city life after a childhood of small-town charms. "But I'm ready to do this now."
Mayer's Tavern, 894 Third Ave., Cape May, 609-435-5078; mayerstavern.com
Anyone who's spent much time eating on the north end of Long Beach Island over the last two decades has probably tasted Greg Mann's food. He was the chef who helped put upscale Yellowfin in Harvey Cedars on the dining map, followed by Cafe Aletta, which was replaced by the now-closed 414 in Surf City. After a decisive split from Yellowfin this season, however, Mann has landed south of the Route 72 causeway in some sharp new digs at Gregory's in Ship Bottom.
It's technically owned by his sister, Pam Figuerado. But his name is scripted in white on the black sign that hangs over this stylish bungalow of a BYOB that he's been building by hand. Edison lights illuminate the crisp linen-draped dining room of the former Da Vinci's, and an herb garden fringes a 48-seat patio shaded by kite-shaped awnings. And the food is classic Mann, Italian in theme and pricey, but built on high-quality ingredients and a (usually) sure-handed touch.
Anything clam here is a must. Roasted local little necks come piled in a skillet with smoked chili peppers and cuminy rounds of chorizo sausage that infuse the wine broth with so much garlicky savor I practically drank it. Mann's rendition of a stuffy is creamier than its typical New England counterpart, the quahog meat blended with mozzarella, herbs and housemade focaccia crumbs, then gratinéed in the shell. Fresh salad with a hot meatball on the side might sound odd until you realize how good that meatball is, its veal, beef, and pork blend not too densely packed, and leavened with the house bread crumbs and a bit of mozzarella.
The entrees hover around $30, but are large and well-cooked. A thick cut of juicy swordfish steak is grilled simply, then shined with the lemon-caper zing of a simple piccata sauce. Two huge pieces of seared Icelandic cod came over brothy white beans and escarole. Even the chicken Milanese got a memorable upgrade, the big juicy cutlet still attached to its wing bone, then piled high with a fresh salad sparked by preserved lemons. The only misfire was a slightly over-grilled veal saltimbocca, which was perhaps the last plate of the night before an exhausted Mann headed early to bed in his residence behind the restaurant. By the time the peach cobbler arrived, he was already snoozing: "I was beat from planting my gardens all day," he said the next
morning. "But I'm 55 and starting from scratch, and I'm pretty happy I got another chance."
Gregory's Restaurant, 1916 Long Beach Blvd., Ship Bottom, N.J. 609-494-3354; gregorys-restaurant.business.site
Hurricane Sandy was the end for many restaurants. But for others, it was a rebirth. And that was exactly the case for brothers Joe and Luciano Iacovino at Ristorante Luciano, who took the several feet of stormwater in their Stone Harbor restaurant in 2013 and saw an opportunity to remake the place completely. Out with the classic old stone and tile that recalled their parents' now-closed Graziella's in Haddon Township; in with the distressed chic of reclaimed barn wood, subway tiles, and old Philly bricks that lend this popular 75-seat BYOB the "city look" that they say reflects their offseason tastes back home in New York (where Joe works at the Rainbow Room) and Philly, where Luciano recuperates from the summer kitchen. (In 16 years of business, he has missed four days of work.)
That continuity in the kitchen lends an exceptionally personal touch to the seemingly familiar menu of deftly updated Italian American comforts that has rightly earned them an avid following. The chicken piccata is chicken piccata, but the hormone-free meat is more tender than usual, and the sauce fortified with fresh stock is lighter, but still full of flavor, with a lemony, lingering savor. Ditto for the veal Valdostana, which tasted like a more intense, smokier rendition of saltimbocca.
That all the pastas are still made in house by their Italian-born mamma, Graziella Iacovino, also is a major draw, from the cavatelli recently paired with a special of fresh porcini, to those airy poufs of ricotta gnocchi that came glazed in a delicate tomato "meat sauce" that's not the expected Bolognese, but a smoothly pureed "sugo" steeped for hours with the restaurant's meatballs. The snappy, hand-cranked house spaghetti is tossed in a wine-infused marinara and fistfuls of jumbo lump crab that taste like sweet jewels of the sea warmed by a surprising afterburn of chili spice. For dessert, there are housemade cannoli and a throwback rarity in the baked-to-order chocolate mousse, an always-limited batch of 65 percent cocoa indulgences that regulars know to request when they make their reservations. As for that table? Good luck. Luciano's prime-time slots are already mostly booked for the season. But the consolation for early birds and off-nighters isn't bad: "If you come at 5 p.m.," says Joe, "you'll definitely get a souffle."
Ristorante Luciano, 9820 Third Ave., Stone Harbor, N.J. 609-967-9115; ristorantelucianostoneharbor.com
It's hard to beat a good seafood market with a kitchen for a fresh-catch meal at a fair price. And Matthews Seafood Market is just that — the retail dream of a young scalloper named Thomas Matthews, who woke up one February morning at 2 o'clock in the middle of the ocean and realized the 18-hour days and constant dangers of the commercial fishing life were no longer for him.
The tidy market and cafe he built in a house from the late 1700s sits on Mechanic Street in Cape May Court House, a charming little retail strip worth the mainland detour from the beach routine of island life. It happens to be close to one of the Shore's busy movie theaters in Rio Grande, not to mention several of its rising microbreweries, like the Brewvi-winning Slack Tide and newer Bucket Brigade Brewery, which are handy for getting growlers to take to this BYOB, where awning-shaded sidewalk seating complements its small dining room.
The main reason to go is because Matthews' ingredients are pristine, beginning with one of the best collections of expertly shucked local oysters — briny Cape May Salts and Elder Points, plump and meaty Dias Creek Venus Salts and Betsy's Cape Shore Salts. The scallops, sourced from personal friends, are as fresh as you'd expect, cooked simply with a buttery wine and garlic pan sauce taught to him by Claude Pottier, the French chef who once ran Claude's in North Wildwood and who mentored Matthews for a few years before retiring to France. (Pottier, I suspect, would chide this kitchen for not straining out the fibers from the otherwise delicious asparagus soup).
Matthews' Spanish wife, Cèlia Llaberia Vilalta, is the inspiration behind one of my favorite dishes there, a thick chunk of flaky baked cod splashed in a rustic Mediterranean tomato broth of onions and kalamata olives and served with garlic bread. She also was responsible for refining the concept for the menu's biggest hit, a unique seafood take on the customized grain bowl trend in which quinoa, farro, basmati, or lentils can be topped with your pick from the market's seafood case, two veggies, the sauce of your choice (the Asian soy-ginger glaze is popular) and a "crunch" garnish for just $18.99. Not only was my juicy 7-ounce steak of local swordfish a stellar deal, it was also satisfyingly delicious over a bowl of earthy beluga lentils paired with vivid orange Spanish romesco sauce, charred corn, scallions, and slow-roasted tomatoes. With virtually unlimited combinations possible, this unique market has already given me a reason to revisit.
Matthews Seafood Market, 206 W. Mechanic St., Cape May Court House, 609-465-3005; matthewsseafoodmarket.com
Some Shore restaurant spaces are like hermit crab shells. Each summer, it seems, they host a new occupant. But not all of them have La Finestra's view. From its second- and third-floor corner windows at the eastern end of John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Sea Isle City, you can gaze across your bowl of zuppa di pesce down upon the sand and sea that shimmers just beyond the Promenade, with the taffy lights of James' Fudge across the boulevard calling your name for a little post-meal treat. But I was tempted to pass it by. After all, I'd written just a few years ago about a fairly average Italian restaurant there called Bella Luna. How different could La Finestra be?
Well, the menus are strikingly similar, with the focus on fresh pastas and seafood. But the quality is one tick higher. And so are the service and decor. Two of the partners here, Albanian-born Erik Raka and Ecuadoran chef Tony Gonzalez, already have a proven hit on the island with A Modo Mio. With another partner in Lenny Alliu, the friendly Albanian who can often be seen here filleting fish tableside or toting post-meal offerings of limoncello to this grateful BYOB crowd, they've done some nice renovations to open up the space, now warmed with a black-accented blue hue that brings the ocean's glow inside.
Gonzalez's kitchen showed some finesse with that zuppa, a generous helping of shellfish and calamari cooked just right in a delicate seafood broth tinted with tomato and basil. A couple of dishes needed help — the whole Dover sole was returned to the kitchen (by Alliu himself) for more cooking; the risotto with a veal short rib special was delicious, but the short ribs needed more braising time. But there were some memorable dishes. The signature pasta brought homemade pappardelle in a hearty short rib-mushroom ragù. The chicken Lo Scorpielo is a misspelling of Scarpiello, but was spot-on, with the zingy flavors of its light natural gravy zapped with tang of cherry-pepper heat. The homemade spinach gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream, a dish that elsewhere is often too heavy, were irresistible melt-aways of blue cheese indulgence.
No, La Finestra wasn't as perfect as its view. But it was better than I expected. And with a cool citrus sip of limoncello hospitality to wash those gnocchi down, just as the orange glow of dusk settled over Sea Isle's sand, I was glad I'd come.
La Finestra, 25 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Sea Isle City, N.J. 609-486-5033; lafinestranj.com
Gus Zimmerman is a longtime veteran of Shore kitchens, having been executive chef at Marie Nicole's and having worked at Bobby Flay Steak, among others. So I know from experience that he's a pretty good cook, which is why I was eager to visit Kitchen 330, the slender, bi-level BYOB in Stone Harbor that he opened with his cousin Paul Gioquindo and his wine-blogger wife, Debbie Gioquindo, who writes as the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess. One could use some good advice for the right wine to bring for a menu that ranges from tart shrimp ceviche to classic terrines and meaty chops. But with ever-changing chalkboard menus to express the chef's daily whims and "fine dining at casual prices," what's not to like?
Well, I wouldn't call entrees that hover in the mid-$30s casual prices (even for tony Stone Harbor). And some of the culinary choices here are questionable. What the heck is a Jamaican meatball anyway — let alone paired with cold burrata and tomato jam? A fair bit of what I encountered at Kitchen 330 would fall under this curious category of random creative ad-libbing: a pinto bean-garbanzo "hummus" blushing with dehydrated tomato powder and tangy sherry vinegar; a secret splash of maraschino juice in the tuna poke (which was tasty but small); and those lamb-based Jamaican meatballs also seasoned with mango and Scotch bonnet peppers. (Truth: Creamy burrata can help sell pretty much any weird idea on the other side of the plate).
That most everything still tasted great is a definite plus — especially as we got into the big-ticket entrees. The N.Y. strip harkened back to Zimmerman's steak house days at Flay and Morton's, with a satisfying classic look, a pat of red wine shallot butter melting over good beef beside a round of gratin potatoes. A big hunk of halibut topped in a tomatoey Provencal lobster sauce was a solid plate of seafood luxury over leek-mashed potatoes, even if the creamy pesto enriched with Asiago cheese was a totally unnecessary flourish.
I also enjoyed the dorade "en papillote" stuffed with wild rice, vegetables, and herbed butter. But I would have loved it more had it been cooked in the elegance of actual parchment paper (i.e. "papillote") rather than a foil pouch that made it look like a $32 bag of leftovers. It was really so much better than that. But at Kitchen 330, the message, mission, menu identity, and delivery still need more clarity if it hopes to become the neighborhood BYOB it has promised to be.