A romantic meal out should be a big deal no matter where or when it happens. But chef Terry White knows date night at the Shore can carry extra resonance.
"Maybe they've circled that day of that week on the calendar when the grandparents can watch the kids," he says. "They've saved up to splurge, and it's a meal they're going to remember for the rest of the year - one way or the other."
When things go right?
"That's when people remember you during the winter."
After what seemed like one of the cruelest, coldest off-seasons in memory, White, a longtime veteran of steak houses and the high-volume Princeton in Avalon, has reemerged in Cape May with an airy perch overlooking the sea and some inspired contemporary cooking that should be remembered quite fondly in December. His intricately constructed "mosaic" salad alone is enough to forgive the cringe-worthy pun of this new restaurant's name: M'Ocean.
And White's isn't the only Cape May crew to deliver. Dinner at the elegantly revived Blue Rose Inn offers more proof that fine dining is finally edging its way back in the quaint Victorian town, which has struggled to remain relevant since the recession of 2008.
Then again, great meals by the sea don't always have to be fancy. As we explored this year's offerings elsewhere at the Shore's southern end, from Neapolitan pizza in Wildwood to fresh hard-shell crabs by the bay and serious ribs in Avalon, some of our most memorable flavors happened in places casual enough to bring the whole hungry family.
One look at that "mosaic" - 104 carefully diced half-inch "tiles" of multicolored tomatoes, melons, avocado, and mozzarella laid into an exquisite edible checkerboard - and it's clear Terry White has come a long way from his wedge-salad days as a steak house chef at Sullivan's, the Palm, and the ill-fated Union Trust.
Let other restaurants be content with a common Caprese. This is the kind of showstopping starter that a panoramic view of the Atlantic from this glassed-in second-floor porch in historic Cape May deserves. Of course, it takes garde-manger chef Monica Perez 20 minutes to build each one. But it's hardly the only highlight.
There's an exceptional raw bar for the simple pleasures of East and West Coast oysters topped with fennel mignonette or Meyer lemon foam. There are artful ceviches like our red snapper special, layered like a parfait between sweet mango and tart grapefruit tingling with a hint of jalapeño heat.
White, 50, filled with "Diving Horse envy" after five years across Avalon's Dune Drive churning out 650 dinners a night at the Princeton, is digging deep into his gastro-soul (Striped Bass, Monte Carlo Living Room) and West Coast travels to find some real culinary mojo for M'Ocean's 78 seats.
Ancho-rubbed tuna steak is topped with zesty Moroccan charmoula next to creamy, fresh-corn polenta and crunchy chickpeas. A succulent grilled swordfish glazed in garlic oil is crowned with sweet lumps of "angry" crab tossed in Sriracha and togarashi-spiced miso butter. And lest we forget White's steak-house pedigree, he served one of the juiciest pork chops I've tasted in a while, the cider-brined meat paired with a bacon jam spiked with Scotch, beside cauliflower mashed with creamy blue cheese.
With often-sweltering temperatures in this old building's kitchen, dessert options are limited but still well-prepared, including a crunchy-creamy chocolate-peanut butter ganache bar and individual blueberry pies. And there's also a fine bar of excellent whiskies and a selection of 30 wines under $30 that offer both value and quality. It's worth a toast - to this view, to that mosaic, to an ambition revival for both White and Cape May.
M'Ocean: 429 Beach Ave., Cape May. Information: 609-884-1925 or www.moceancapemay.com
Cape May's unique brand of fine dining, where culinary ambitions are served in quaint Victorian settings, had begun to seem especially anachronistic in a postrecession world where "casual" has been the best bet for Shore restaurant success. The revival of the Blue Rose Inn, however, offers a fresh breath of life for the elegance of that classic Cape May vibe.
This is a family affair, with new owners Tom and Joan Keating refurbishing the old Alexander's to its previous Blue Rose B&B glory, and installing son Michael Keating as chef. The dining areas offer vintage Victorian grace, from the wide porch with breezy candlelit views of horse-drawn carriages clopping by along Washington Street, to the long dining room lined with a tufted leather banquette and silver ice buckets for BYO wines.
It's Michael's scratch cooking, though, that makes the Blue Rose worth noting - even if it's still frustratingly uneven. Seared local sea bream over asparagus quinoa and fennel with a saffron fumet captured the essence of the sea. The beef "tartare" was strangely cooked. Soft Parisienne-style gnocchi melted alongside sweet snap peas and creamy puffs of lemony house-made ricotta.
There were perfect sauteed scallops in citrusy brown butter atop risotto that snapped with summer-sweet white corn. A tender short rib, though, lacked sauce. Braised pork ragu, an appealingly hearty option seasoned with smoky ancho gravy, would have been ideal if the fresh pappardelle had been carefully cooked (some were almost crunchy).
By contrast, Keating's handmade ravioli were a memorable triumph. Stuffed with rich duck confit and sunchoke puree, then set over sweet beet puree with truffle oil, they were both earthy and delicate, comforting and inventive. More of that - with a sweet finale of the Blue Rose's freshly fried lemon-ricotta doughnuts - is just what the future of Cape May dining needs.
The Blue Rose Inn: 653 Washington St., Cape May. BYOB. Information: 609-435-5458 or www.blueroseinn.com
Shore pizza made news for the wrong reasons this spring when the owners of four Manco & Manco's locations were accused of nearly $1 million in tax evasion. They've pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, still pending. But I long ago came to my own verdict on M&M's sauce-from-a-garden-hose pies: way overrated. It's time to move on.
Thankfully, there's great pizza news to report, as well. Wildwood native Brendan Sciarra has brought his island up to 21st-century speed with some genuine Italian-style at Poppi's Pizza Napoletana. It's named in honor of his Italian grandpa, David. But the inspiration is drawn directly from the many Neapolitan concepts, like Stella, that have sprung up in Philly the last few years.
Much of the decor of this casual BYOB, even, was cobbled together from recycled Fishtown brick. And Sciarra, who also owns the neighboring Dogtooth Grill, is doing it right. With help from New York consultant Giulio Adriani, Sciarra's crew is making all its mozzarella in-house, as well as the dough from Caputo "00" flour. And chef Edgar Juarez has been turning out some very credible, puffy-crusted, heat-blistered, soft-centered rounds from the 850-degree oven. At $5 to $9 a 7-inch round (topping out at $16 for the 12-inchers), they're also a value.
Poppi's menu goes beyond 'za, and I loved the hearty Southern-style risotto with lentils and sausage. The gnocchi, though, were doughy. There was too much smoked mozz in the arancini. The meatballs were too soft.
Pizza remains the reason to come. The Margherita was spot-on, but our favorite Neapolitan was the white pie topped with figs and prosciutto di Parma, whose popularity here speaks to Wildwood's old Italian roots. The best item, though, was the Montanara, a Margherita look-alike whose dough gets deep-fried for an extra crackle beneath the marinara and mozz. In fact, it's a New York creation by Adriani. But for the resurgent pizza spirit of this town with a boardwalk heart, there's no denying that it tastes so right.
Poppi's Pizza Napoletana: 4709 New Jersey Ave., Wildwood. BYOB. Information: 609-600-3964 or www.poppisbrickoven.com.
Want a water view with briny history?
It was exactly seven years ago Monday that the Crab House adjoining Two Mile Landing restaurant partially collapsed over the bay just south of Wildwood Crest - an accident (with some injuries, but no deaths) that eventually closed the institution.
With new owners, a sturdy reconstruction, and a commitment to fresh seafood - much of it fished locally by the father-son co-owners, Blair and Jasen Hansen - the Crab House is once again worth revisiting for a meal of classic seashore cooking, especially a $28 all-you-can-eat hard-shell crab feast on the Crab House's wide deck overlooking the marina.
I've long found it odd that whole crabs, common in Maryland and Delaware, are rare at the Jersey Shore. But the Crab House has enough seats - 600-plus! - to let the shell-crackers linger. It's a big change for the Hansens, whose only previous restaurant experience was the 10 picnic tables outside their H&H Seafood just a little south down scenic Ocean Drive.
"If there was a mistake to be made, we made it," concedes co-owner Rachel Hansen, about their first two years of ownership.
With a little experience now in the dining room and Rachel's husband Ross Morell running the kitchen, we had a very pleasant lunch of well-cooked traditional flavors. The crab and corn chowder was made with fresh stock (and the broth was pink, but not too thickly creamed). A net bag of steamed littlenecks with drawn butter brought tender bursts of salty juice. The broiled crab cake was straightforward, but full of sweet meat.
The whole crabs, meanwhile, were a worthy main event. The kitchen will clean crabs (for $5 extra) for those averse to some dirty work - and it's required for those slathering their crustaceans in garlic butter. Next time, maybe. But as a traditionalist, I was more than content with the simple pleasure of a tray of half-a-dozen #1-sized crabs ($30), lightly dusted with Old Bay and so moist inside I could taste the bay right behind the restaurant where they were fished. This history-filled water view now has fresh perks.
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. Information: 609-522-1341 or www.twomilelanding.com/the-crab-house
There are more hunger-stoking smoke signals puffing into the Shore's blue skies than ever, from Downbeach BBQ at the Margate Farmer's Market (very nice ribs) to quirky Back Bay Barbecue, set beside a beached boat on a marshy lagoon between Somers Point and Longport (just so-so).
The best barbecue I've tasted by the ocean in a long while, though, is coming from a little pit farther south at the Avalon Barbecue Co. on Seven Mile Island. This is the new 'cue shack courtesy of the Philly Pigs, a pro competition team run by Jim Boggs and Chuck Schlager, who've paused their prize-winning travels on the Kansas City BBQ Society's event circuit to give their favorite Shore town a try.
Located in a former burger stand behind Circle Pizza, this is mostly a take-out operation with some alfresco seating. But this is serious barbecue done with the utmost attention to detail, from the amount of hardwood cherry and oak used to flavor the fire (just enough for a light blue smoke, not so much the meat turns bitter), to the secret 13-ingredient rub (both savory and sweet) and even presentation of the meticulously shredded pulled pork butt.
As always with genuine 'cue, some might not get it. "A little dry," said my friend, who'd sampled the pork just as I arrived. But with a spicy-tangy splash of Carolina-style vinegar sauce, I found the pork to be just right. The pulled chicken was the menu's blandest link. But the St. Louis-cut spareribs, to my taste, were almost as good as it gets - the pink meat moist and tender but still clinging to the bone - no floppy, fall-apart shreds here. When my teeth sank in, a pit-smoked happiness immediately radiated to my brain. Even better with a squirt of zingy Piedmont-style "Pig" sauce.
The sides here are worthy, too, but, if you don't mind mixing food, try them in a "parfait" - a clear cup layered with molasses-sweetened beans, crunchy red Lexington slaw, cheese, and the meat of your choice. In the land of soft-serve windows and pizza-by-the-slice, the Philly Pigs may have landed just the right kind of portable barbecue snack to keep their roving pit anchored in Avalon for summers to come.
Avalon Barbecue Co.: 212 21st St., Avalon. Primarily take-out, but with some picnic-table seating. BYOB. Information: 609-967-8222 or www.avalonbarbecueco.com