Lucas Manteca has been striving to distill the essence of land and sea at his bucolic Red Store in Cape May Point. With talented new chef de cuisine now on board to help, has he finally created one of the best restaurants at the Shore?
At the newly burger-fied incarnation of the Margate Dairy Bar, owner Chris Clayton has gone Googie with his own obsession to reinvent a more casual Shore classic. His prime target audience? The 10-year-olds. If the elementary-school set can be convinced his bold remake of the classic custard stand is the equivalent of Shake Shack by the Sea, the parents will follow (and order by smartphone from the beach).
At Bella Luna in Sea Isle City and at Junior's Seafood Shack in Margate, the sweeping water views were all the inspiration needed to give menus built on simplicity - one Italian, one classic seashore fare - their undeniable appeal.
A love of craft beer and its growing presence in South Jersey, meanwhile, was just one of the many sparks that spurred former server, wakeboarder, and carpenter Trevor Lord to build the Watering Hull in downtown Stone Harbor.
The five restaurants couldn't be more different. But as we cruised from Margate to Cape May for worthy meals at each, a common thread emerged: one of personality, passion, and sense of place. Each one, in its way, offers a distinctive taste of 2015 at the Jersey Shore.
Savvy diners have long appreciated chef Lucas Manteca's talents, from his BYO days at Sea Salt to his stint at the elegant Ebbitt Room, his updated fish-shack fare at Quahog's, and the country-store cafe delight that is the Red Store, the garden-ringed market restaurant he opened with wife Deanna Ebner in 2012.
With a new bakery-cafe (the Little Store) to open soon near the entrance to Cape May, a new sea-salt business with partner Windy Acres Farm, and umpteen other projects swirling in this restless Argentine's creative brain (South American BBQ? A brewery? A farm?), what Manteca really needed was some help from a kindred cook. And that's exactly what he's found in Craig Russell, 28, a talented local just returned from Philadelphia, where he worked at Will BYOB.
Together, they've managed to elevate dinner service at the Red Store to the point where it was easily the best meal I ate at the Shore this summer, capturing the essence of seasons and local terroir with a sophisticated but casual ease.
Sweet Jersey corn is pureed into silky soup with coconut milk, then scattered with the petals of herb flowers and crispy tots of falafel. Mini-taquitos are ingenious delivery devices for guacamole and zippy pico de gallo. Empanadas stuffed with cuminy grass-fed beef and duck fat are irresistible nods to Manteca's homeland comforts.
The entrées, though, hit another level of refinement. Melt-away ricotta gnocchi tumbled with crab and green garbanzo beans over more herbed ricotta. Rustic grains (spelt, quinoa) and beets in raspberry gastrique laid a base of earthy sweetness for crisp but tender duck breast. The meaty freshness of grilled wahoo, still ideally rare, popped against a crunchy chayote slaw in dill cream.
Gorgeous scallops were both luxurious and light in a tangy barigoule broth steeped with artichokes and wine, studded with beans, fennel, and baby carrots. Memorably tender pork chop, topped with strawberry BBQ sauce and pickled red onion rings, went down-home over greens and cheddared Castle Valley grits amped with nubs of fresh sweet corn.
My sole complaint (aside from our tiny table) is that our waitress forgot to mention the specials - lamb shoulder sliders, tempura green beans - we longingly watched every other table devour. Then again, as we tilted our bowls and plates to scoop up every last bit of deliciousness, I realized our meal at the Red Store could not have been much better.
It's hard to imagine that a place with as many parts as the Watering Hull - a Stone Harbor mash-up that's equal parts craft beer haven, sports bar, live music venue, and also, by the way, a fairly ambitious Caribbean seafood kitchen - can add up to anything remotely coherent.
But co-owner Trevor Lord, 31, a onetime Quahog's server and wakeboard instructor, had a unique vision. He had carpenter skills to do much of the work himself. And he also had a second-floor space over the Harbor Square Mall that was as rambling as his concept - enough for two bars, a stage, and a pool table that converts into a big table for large parties, plus seating for 90. With a Jersey-brewed Carton Boat from one of the Hull's 16 taps in my glass, the Seabillys set to play, and the garage door windows rolled up at each end, there's a cross breeze here that just feels like vacation.
The surprising Caribbean-flavored seafood menu from chef Jay Otton, 38, a Cape May native who cooked six years in the Bahamas, only adds to the effect. He has a way with conch, whether stewed into a peppery red chowder filled with potatoes and ground meat, fried into fritter puffs, or pounded then crisped into a cracked conch platter. The addictively tropical and tart mango BBQ sauce that glazed chicken wings was also a hit.
The service was predictably scattered in the early weeks, and a couple of starters were off, too: The soy-splashed tuna poke was tiny for $15, an heirloom tomato "tower" still too pink and too sparsely scattered with crab for $16.
But a clear appreciation for quality ingredients ultimately proved this kitchen is on the right track. Five big scallops procured from the Wildwood docks were succulent over charred corn and arugula salad. Beautiful tuna was deftly blackened and sided with a refreshing mango salsa. And the "Hull Sha-Bang Bang," a tender duo of chicken and shrimp glazed in a coconut rum-peanut curry over rice-and-peas, delivered a convincingly delicious island vibe. Seven Mile Island does the Bahamas? Works better than I ever expected.
There are plenty of Italian options in Sea Isle City, but few have the airy ocean views that are the draw at Bella Luna.
Given the different character of the Continental-style Italian cooking here vs. Sea Isle's typically more Italian American fare, the inspiring seaside vista from the second- and third-floor windows should come in handy as local tastes adjust. Many first-timers at Bella Luna, for example, are surprised their chicken parm cutlets aren't breaded.
"Ours is grilled, European-style," says Agron "Goni" Hajdari, the English-trained Albanian chef (and Ristorante Panorama alum) who co-owns this new BYOB with his brother, Ermal.
Those who know their other restaurant, Bistro Albertino in Willow Grove, know what to expect. Their minimalist dining room at the Shore lets the window views take center stage, just as Goni's cooking is all about simplicity, to let good ingredients shine. And so the calamari is best served grilled, not fried, the squid cooked whole then sliced into rings that were still meaty but delicate. A simple goat cheese baked in red sauce topped with roasted walnuts was perfect with the crusty bread they "import" from Gino's Bakery in Mayfair. The beef meatballs made to Mamma Hajdari's recipe have a touch of mint that reveals the influence of Greece on Albania, which sits across the Adriatic from Italy.
A couple of dishes lacked spark - like the sparse and soggy panzanella salad, and homemade gnocchi that were fine, but slightly doughy. But there was a soulful touch to the oxtail ragu with pappardelle. And Hajdari, who's from the coastal town of Fieri, showed finesse with seafood such as the branzino fillets streaked with pesto. The risotto pescatore is both bountiful and delicate, with well-cooked shellfish tossed with fistfuls of rice infused with light fish stock and wine. I looked up from my rice-stuffed mussels, shrimp, and littleneck clams and gazed out at the breezy waves. The seafood tasted even better.
If there's a sense that Junior's Seafood Shack was sort of thrown together at the last moment - from the plastic cups to the nonexistent online info - that's because it was. One moment, Joanne Goldberg was peering out these windows at the stunning sunset over the bay, telling her husband, Roy, he should convert his office into a restaurant. A month later Junior's Seafood Shack was born.
The small rooms, still with their wall-to-wall office carpeting and set up with tall tables and plastic buckets for BYO wines, sit down the dock from Junior's Doughnuts & Dogs, which Goldberg also owns. A kitchen remained from its long-ago days as a restaurant. (Remember Bruce Lim's Red Chopstix?)
All that remained was to find a chef. And Goldberg lucked out when his ad was answered by Dennis Moesta, who spent two decades in Louisiana, where he cooked in Baton Rouge at the well-known Cajun seafoodery Ralph & Kacoo's. The Southern influence is unmistakable in the crispy cornmeal crust for the fresh local flounder. And there's a whiff of bayou zest, too, in the boil that poaches those peel-and-eat shrimp, as well as the steam (with a hint of hot sauce) that opens the net of steamers. Two generous crabcakes for $21.95 also have a Louisiana vibe, with sweet lumps on display with peppers and green onions, and a tangy streak of rémoulade.
Moesta's straightforward touch with East Coast classics is just as solid, from the creamy New England-style chowder to an excellent $20 lobster roll with a light mayo dressing sparked by celery and lime. All that's left is the bread pudding Moesta makes from Junior's leftover doughnuts - plus a prime sunset view from one of the 30 outdoor counter seats that ring the building. And you shouldn't miss it: Someone rings a bell when the sun goes down.
When I see Chris Clayton maniacally pacing the stylish concrete dining room of his reinvented Margate Dairy & Burger Bar, I understand what he really means when he says, "A 10-year-old is my bull's-eye market." He's taking about his son, Christopher. But he's also talking about the little 10-year-old that still resides inside me - and every other burger-crazed American who desires a better place to indulge in the timeless craving for patties, shakes, and fries.
Master that, and a potential new Shore legend is born. Of course, the Dairy Bar already has its own genuine allure - a Margate institution for soft serve and shakes since 1952 that's a rite of summer for generations and their pets. (Proof: I watched an African gray parrot named Willie demolish a kiddie cup of vanilla.)
Clayton took great pains to enhance that vintage doo-wop-era character with architect Richard Stokes, who designed a Googie-style swoop of a roof in yellow, teal, and pink that wraps an indoor-outdoor dining room that's open at each end but still protected from the elements.
But what matters most is refining the grill. And Clayton has clearly borrowed lessons from industry leaders like Shake Shack, from the custom-ground Pat LaFrieda beef pucks that get smashed on the hot chrome grill, to iron-branded buns (à la BurgerFi) and the drill-sergeant training to ensure logistics are smooth, with Clayton barking at the kitchen with a stopwatch: "Twelve minutes! I want every order out in 12 minutes or less!"
The systems were still uneven at our visit, as expected just a few days after opening. But the focus on quality ingredients was sure, from the Hebrew National dogs (dressed Chicago-style with sporty peppers) to LaFrieda beef patties that were as excellent as expected, dressed "MDB"-style with secret sauce and "nuclear orange" American cheese.
The somewhat generic fries and a dry turkey burger were disappointments. But Clayton goes the extra mile to make his own veggie burger, a flavorful quinoa-lentil patty that was better than most. My big surprise, though, was the juicy lamb burger (also from LaFrieda) with tangy tzatziki yogurt. It was not, I suspect, aimed at the 10-year-old crowd. But as the Margate Dairy & Burger Bar forays bravely into its next era - with beach delivery summoned by smartphone soon - a secret weapon can't hurt.
Here are five restaurants at the Jersey Shore from Margate south to Cape May recommended by Craig LaBan this summer:
The Red Store
500 Cape Ave., Cape May Point
This idyllic country store turned restaurant has evolved from charming breakfast-lunch cafe into one of the Shore's best dining destinations, pairing casual BYOB ambiance with inspired farm-fresh seasonal cooking. Cash only.
The Watering Hull
261 96th St., Stone Harbor
609-830-3106; on Facebook
A lot's going on in this breezy second-floor hybrid - live music, big TVs, 16 taps of craft beer, and an appealing menu of Caribbean-inspired seafood. Service and consistency have been predictably shaky early on, but this has potential to become a much-needed Stone Harbor hit.
25 John F Kennedy Blvd, Sea Isle City
The Hajdari brothers behind Willow Grove's Bistro Albertino have brought their minimalist fresh-forward Italian cuisine to a simple BYO perch in Sea Isle City, where the second-floor ocean views make the seafood risotto taste even better.
Junior's Seafood Shack
9315 Amherst Ave, Margate
609-823-0200; on Facebook
This no-frills seafood shack BYOB has two major appeals: suprisingly deft renditions of simple Shore fare (crab cakes, lobster rolls, steamers) and dockside counter seating to watch the sun set over the bay.
The Margate Dairy & Burger Bar
9510 Ventnor Ave., Margate
This iconic six-decade-old soft-serve stand has grown up with the major addition of a Shake Shack-style burger bar wrapped inside a Googie-style swoosh of open-air architecture.