Summer at the Shore is a distant memory, but the beaches and ocean are still there even in the dead of winter.
Sure, there's something to be said for Cape May's Victorian holiday hoopla, but if you are a real contrarian you'll find the solitude of the quieter off-season places welcoming and a certain satisfaction in braving the elements.
Which is how I came to find myself in Wildwood Crest one blustery weekend, looking for good eats.
Part of the fun is finding the year-round dining spots that enjoy feeding the locals who are taking a well-deserved breather from summer season.
My tasting crew and I found Fitzpatrick's Crest Tavern, which advertises itself as being less than five minutes from anywhere on the Island - as long as you don't catch any red lights or get stopped for speeding. Off-season that seemed like a fairly likely scenario, and we were mad hungry.
Owners Tim and Lisa Fitzpatrick managed the restaurant for several years before buying it and adding their name to Crest Tavern five years ago. Lisa Fitzpatrick says that the off season allows them to focus on the community and do more specials. The population of the borough can swell 25 times its permanent residency of about 4,000 during the summer.
In the peak of the season at Crest Tavern you can expect a wait of an hour for a table, but we were able to grab one in less than 10 minutes. And any trepidation I had that this would be boring food was gone when I saw that the table sported a bottle of an offbeat jalapeño sauce and that the menu offered a Liverwurst and Onion Sandwich on rye bread ($4.99).
We began with Fresh Cherrystones on the Half ($8.99 for a dozen) because we are at the shore in a month with an "R" in it. As the adage goes, after all, shellfish are abundant and in-season then. These were fresh and plump and, given the stormy weather, probably as close to the ocean as I wanted to get.
Another appetizer that seemed like a Shore vacation must-have were the Fried Mac and Cheese Wedges with French Fries ($5.99). Both the wedges and the fries were the standard frozen variety.
Not much to say, other than that they came to the table hot, but most of the food here is prepared in-house so my recommendation is to forgo the fried prepared bar food and go for the better stuff.
A cold blustery day at the shore demands a hot bowl of soup. Our Soup of the Day choices ($2.50 cup; $2.95 bowl) were Manhattan Clam and Chicken Vegetable.
For our tastes, the consensus was that the chowder wasn't "clammy enough."
Hands-down the tasters' choice was the Chicken soup. There was a nice depth of flavor to the broth with a good ratio of chicken chunks to vegetables.
If you are looking for a way to get your vegetables in, try the Crab Portabella ($8.99). This salad entrée takes a sautéed portobella mushroom cap and tops it with a slice of tomato, Swiss cheese and a crab cake, then serves it on a large bed of mixed greens and roasted peppers. And, yes, the crab cake was "crabby enough."
I question whether the tomato is a Jersey, as noted on the menu, but the total flavor combination works. The house-made balsamic dressing perfectly complements the earthy portobello and the sweetness of the crab cake.
A good example of the hearty homestyle fare was the Grilled Apple Bacon Pork Chops ($11.99). A thick American-style pork chop with a mild spice rub is topped with a freshly made cinnamon applesauce and crisp bacon.
While I thought that the pork was slightly overcooked, I am of the new school that enjoys an internal temp shy of 160 degrees coming off the heat, as the residual heat will finish it off. Fellow tasters found it perfectly cooked and, no matter the doneness, the chop retained its moistness.
The hands-down favorite was the Mardi Gras Shrimp ($9.50). A dozen large shrimp were served swimming in a "secret spicy sauce." While the shrimp were also slightly overcooked, the sauce had a little New Orleans voodoo magic going on.
The guessing game of the evening became trying to figure out the secret to this rich, balanced broth. Definitely ask for extra bread to keep sopping the juices.
I was convinced that the undernote was a little sherry and red vermouth, but the secret is still a secret - although I did get Lisa Fitzpatrick to admit that there is beer and a little brown sugar mixed with the spices and mystery ingredient.
Whatever the missing flavor is that we couldn't identify, it apparently will remain as secret as the formula for Coke. (Could a splash of that be the hidden ingredient?)
One of the kitschy things I enjoyed were the oversize melamine faux-ceramic serving bowls that dishes such as the shrimp, mussels and pastas are served in. There's just something so real about phony at the Shore.
While the desserts are not made in-house, the choice of prepared Junior's Cheesecake ($5.75) is a good one and sure to be a hit with those Yankee fans. We enjoyed the Caramel Apple Dumpling ($4.95), but the pastry was less than stellar and it definitely needed a little vanilla ice cream to set it off.
But the best way to cap off a winter night at the shore was the Hot Cider with Apple Jack, with a touch of vanilla ($4). Consider it the winter equivalent of a Margarita.