The unofficial start of summer - Memorial Day - is not a secret date. And any restaurateur with common sense and a measure of luck will do all they can to open a new restaurant before the gates bust open at the end of May. After that, the beach crowds come fast and hungry, and with none of the patience for early errors they'd afford at a new restaurant back home.
Yet, there are the slowpokes who tease us well into early July with luscious social-media pics of dishes "in the works" and promises of "opening soon" while the sight of active work crews stoke a more skeptical view. Bank delays. Slow construction. City-variance holdups for kitchens hoods. Good excuses, all. But inevitably, these are also the places I often miss during my late June scouting forays.
Well, not this year!
I was determined to visit those stragglers, even if it meant I'd have to eat at two restaurants in one week on their very first day in business.
Mistakes were to be expected. But it was worth it. The Cardinal Bistro in Ventnor is a promising new BYOB from a young talent that Shoregoers are going to love.
On Long Beach Island, I wasn't about to let the Sabarese brothers slowpoke me again after waiting an entire year to review the Arlington, the hit gastropub they opened in midsummer 2013. And I wasn't alone. A crowd of 50 was waiting at the door of their new place, Daymark in Barnegat Light, when it opened two Sundays ago.
Add in the charbroiled delights of a new LBI chophouse that actually did open by June; the quirky curries from one of last year's late arrivals in Cape May; then the unexpected ambition of a hot-sauce company turned taco shop and burger bar in Sea Isle City. This summer's restaurant roster was suddenly both timely and full of spice.
6525 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor, 609-541-4633; cardinalbistro.com
Tom Brennan did his best to dissuade his son from a restaurant career, taking him into the many casino kitchens where he ran food and beverage and asking those chefs: "When was the last time you saw your family?"
Son Michael, 24, didn't heed most of that warning. He went to the Culinary Institute of America, helped open a restaurant in Charleston (Union Provisions), and returned north to work at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse.
Now that he's launched his own place in the Cardinal Bistro, at least he'll get to see his family - because Tom is a partner in this 38-seat BYOB at the corner of New Haven and Ventnor Avenues, brightly rehabbed with comfy chairs and yellow walls from its former life as a bakery.
The room and service still need polish, naturally. But just a couple days into its life, it was already clear from the artfully plated modern dishes why his dad had the confidence to embrace his son's culinary ambition.
Three big scallops posed over two vividly colored sauces, one a pureed carrot scented with dashi, almonds, and brown butter, the other a tangy herb-infused buttermilk crunchy with matchstick threads of sugar snap peas. Deep crimson wheels of blood orange channeled a Mediterranean mood over a cuminy tabbouleh salad with sunflower-seed brittle. Even an avocado was suddenly new and interesting, tossed in a lightly spiced honey-lime dressing, its creamy softness set off by Asian pears and grains of puffed wild rice.
I didn't love the stringy texture of the big sirloin, considering it cost $34; the finely shaved cucumber salad beside the shrimp was soggy. The desserts - beignets and a salt-caramel mousse - were also unremarkable.
But mostly, chef Brennan made a strong case to be one of the young chefs to watch this year at the Shore - especially when it came to poultry. His pan-roasted Lancaster chicken was just perfect, its skin crispy yet still juicy inside, beside a tagliatelle in sundried tomato sauce with artichokes. The dry-aged duck was also exceptional, the leg flavorfully stewed confit-style and roasted to a crackly crunch, the breast perfectly tender and pink beneath the sweet rosemaried shine of a maple-bourbon glaze.
This young cardinal already seems ready to fly.
405 Broadway, Barnegat Light; 609-494-2100; daymarklbi.com
The old Rick's American Cafe was a Barnegat Light standby for live music. But its best days were far behind it.
So when brothers Brian and Paul Sabarese took over this landmark near Barnegat's famous lighthouse, their goal was to lighten the space with a modern style, much as they'd done with their Arlington in Ship Bottom. Three months of renovations and $2 million later, they've achieved that goal, with beachy whites and blues, a lively central bar serving tiki drinks, and picture windows that fill the room with a golden light at sunset.
With tile floors and distressed white plank walls, it's also terribly noisy, an issue to be fixed. But the crowds will come, no matter, because chef Happy Hatab, a Philly vet of the White Dog, Rae, and Le Bec, is turning out inventive modern twists on the seafood house tradition.
The "tuna chop chop" is a nod to Hatab's Egyptian heritage, with both raw and cured fish minced into a tartare with smoked olive oil, house-fermented harissa, and rice crackers dusted with za'atar. (I only wish it were colder).
A deft Asian touch showed in the yuzu-miso dressing that brightened a crudo of scallops, tuna, and salmon. A highly unusual seafood roll - with chopped raw conch instead of lobster - was stunning, the unexpectedly tender meat tossed in creamy yogurt sauce with juicy bursts of lime and grapefruit segments tucked into a butter-toasted Hawaiian sweet roll.
Daymark offers plainly grilled blackboard specials with mixed success - a whole branzino the picture of simple freshness; a flat-iron steak disappointingly dull - served with a random side of Carolina-style slaw and the four house dipping sauces.
Some of the signature entrées may be too edgy for traditional Shore diners, but I was intrigued by the chef's inventive swordfish "Bolognese," a rigatoni in smokey tomato sauce stocked with ground cured swordfish; the only wrong note was the unnecessary dairy addition of ricotta.
The most memorable plate? That unusual surf-'n'-turf, which literally looked like a giant, bone-in hunk of short rib fell onto a lobster. In fact, the lobster cooks with the tender braised beef sandwiched between its split shell, and the effect is both disorienting and stunning, blurring the pleasures of land and sea into one rustic, messy, juicy ode to meaty luxury.
Exit Zero Cookhouse
109 Sunset Blvd., Cape May, 609-305-5203; ezcookhouse.com
If any place could use a year to get its act together, it would be Exit Zero Cookhouse.
The owner, Scotsman Jack Wright, is no seasoned restaurateur, but a magazine editor who left New York for Cape May and suddenly bemoaned the long distance he had to travel for real curry. As proof of his novice status, his first prototype menu for the Exit Zero Cookhouse connected to his regional magazine Exit Zero featured five casseroles made with tater tots: "I'm obsessed with them," he said, defending his early instinct before switching course.
As the printed menu fully admits, "chef" Michael DeMusz is actually one of the magazine's artists who last summer got roped into helping Wright in the kitchen. And their brazenly improvised curries, a mash-up of both Indian and Thai influences, make zero claims at authenticity. The "American" curry even uses Frank's RedHot.
Yet, I found Exit Zero Cookhouse to be a charming, quirky, and, yes, even delicious dining experience. The 48-seat BYOB, set into a lofty room attached to Exit Zero's merchandise store, is wrapped in a black-and-white word wall covered with 70-plus descriptors for food.
"Exotic" works for the Thai shrimp soup, whose coconut milk brew is tangy, sweet and spicy. The Bombay crab chowder brings aromatic cardamom and lime, plus chickpeas smartly subbing for typical chowder potatoes.
There are some noncurried items for the spice-averse, and the pastry-puffed lobster and crab pot pie is a hearty winner. But the mango-sauced flounder was just strange and, sorry, Jack, I refuse to pay $24 for any dish made with prefrozen tater tots.
Mostly, though, these were fair values, and the best bets were the curries, from the yogurt-creamed korma to the mild "Mumbai" softened with mango and orange. True chile heads, though, should sail bravely for the Kraken, a truly odd but defyingly great shrimp curry that's jet black from squid ink, boozy with Kraken rum, and blazing with a habanero-cayenne heat rounded out by a fruity dose of pineapple. If you survive it all, you even get a T-shirt.
I can only imagine the possibilities next year when Exit Zero moves across the street to a renovated gas station where it will have a tandoori oven to go with its functioning service station. Fill 'er up, please, sir . . . extra spicey.
8605 Landis Ave, Sea Isle City, 609-486-5132; hanksauce.com
The counterintuitive beauty of Hank Sauce, especially in the competitive hot sauce market, is that it's not actually that hot. It's zingy and herbaceous (all that garlic and basil steeped in) and impressively versatile, which explains why this product launched in Sea Isle City by three childhood friends inspired by a college assignment is suddenly appearing in retail markets across the region. A big new packing plant breaks ground on the mainland this month, promising more growth.
At their original commissary kitchen in Townsend's Inlet, meanwhile, owners Brian "Hank" Ruxton, Matt Pittaluga, and Josh Jastan have created a fun taco shop and burger bar during the summer months that is the best advertisement for their product's versatility. Almost the entire menu uses one of their five sauces one way or the other, and it's a convincing display - in an appealingly casual and affordable venue - to showcase just what Hank can do.
The most obvious are the addictive wings, which get double baked here in Hank's rub (this kitchen has no fryer or walk-in - so everything is super fresh) then slathered in the sauce of your choice. We loved the Camouflage, which brings more vinegar swagger. The popular tacos have obvious street appeal, and I thought the mahi version, which sizzles first with the cilantro sauce on the griddle, was satisfying beneath greens and pineapple salsa.
But my favorite items were the minimalist pinchos skewers, which showcased how great ingredients interact with that sauce, like local scallops or sushi-grade ahi tuna - rub-dusted and drizzled with sauce beside a buttery hunk of baguette.
Then again, I'm a sucker for a good burger, too, and Hank delivers some excellent 8-ounce patties cooked properly to order, such as the Black and Blue crusted with Hank's rub, topped with blue cheese, sweet caramelized shallots and, of course, a splash of Camo to amp up the lovable Hank factor even further.
414 Long Beach Blvd., Surf City,; 609-467-7436; lbi414.com
LBI restaurant vet Greg Mann, co-owner of Yellowfin, makes no bones about the reality of the restaurant business at the Shore: "You have 70 days down here to make your money for the entire year."
So after a fine nine-year run with his other restaurant, Cafe Aletta, he decided its pasta-centric menu was no longer pulling its weight. The decision to transform this Italian BYOB's $25-check average into the $50-per-seat promise of a seafood and chop house was a no-brainer. (He didn't think much about the new name, either, calling it simply 414 after the address.)
The remade space has a crisp formality with linens and airy earth tones, and reclaimed wood along the kitchen wall. But what matters most on this well-to-do stretch of the island is that Mann delivers quality to match the prices. And, mostly, that's exactly what he's done, with prime ingredients cooked well and simply presented.
There are some worthy favorites held over from previous concepts - an irresistible stuffed clam filled with more cheese than usual (stretchy mozzarella) and oniony bread crumbs. A stack of breaded eggplant slices layered with mozzarella and tomatoes is an appealing riff on the Caprese. And the "bone-in" chicken parm, a huge 10-ounce breast that's butterflied and fried in focaccia crumbs then just dotted with mozz and sauce, is one of the best I've had.
A few details missed big considering the prices: the underroasted garlic-head garnish for the steaks; disappointing shoestring fries passed off as "truffle pommes frites"; and some underwhelming brought-in desserts.
The real star at 414, though, is the new steakhouse-style broiler that has been installed to blast big chops like the 28-ounce Cowboy steak for two ($65) and 12-ounce filet ($40) to tamarind butter-basted goodness. Some seafood specialties were also worth noting - a simple crab cake bursting with sweet lump meat, a grilled swordfish steak topped Greek-style with kalamata olives and feta, and some big grilled local scallops with beet vinaigrette that is a resurrected old Yellowfin favorite.
Next week Craig LaBan reviews Wm. Mulherin's Sons in Fishtown. firstname.lastname@example.org