The mild May breezes may feel like spring, but dinner prospects are already heating up down the Jersey Shore for what is shaping up to be a potentially tasty summer of chef comebacks and ambitious new projects from familiar names.
No comeback is more intriguing than the reemergence of Tony Clark, one of the biggest stars of the '90s. (Remember Tony Clark's on what was then known as just "Broad Street"?) He recently debuted the Old Grange by Tony Clark in a building attached to the 1850s-themed Cold Spring Village in Cape May. It has been more than a decade since the former Four Seasons vet suddenly blipped off the public radar to work as a private chef for Radnor's soiree-throwing gourmand Norman Cohn. Clark is also inheriting a historic white-clapboard property that had racked up a notoriously bad reputation under previous operators.
But with his kids now mostly grown and a recent divorce behind him, Clark has thrown himself into rebuilding his restaurant life with extra bounce-back motivation, refurbishing the 80-seat dining room on a modest budget, but serving up the kind of sophisticated contemporary American fare that he has long been known for. Dishes like "shrimp pillow ravioli" with lemongrass tomato water, rack of pork with rutabaga mash, and his signature Cape May seafood pot pie crowned with puff pastry are some highlights from the early menu, with entrées expected to hover in the mid-$20s once the season hits.
"This is where I want to be," said Clark, 49, who got his start in 1974 at Layers Dutch Kitchen just outside Cape May. "I'm doing what I know how to do best."
Clark is hardly the only big Philly name who hopes to make a splash at the beach this year. Georges Perrier's partner, Chris Scarduzio, who already operates Mia at Caesars, has plans to bring a high-end steak house (creatively named Scarduzio's) to the Showboat Casino by mid-July. He'll be reprising the steak-centric theme that marked the first incarnation of Table 31, with huge cuts of broiled prime meats and his trademark Italian twist, with fresh pastas, a pizza oven, and - sushi? ("Hey, we have a big Asian clientele, too!" says Scarduzio.)
Not far away at Harrah's, meanwhile, Luke Palladino is making his own comeback of sorts, returning to the glitz of high-volume casino dining just across from the Borgata where he first made his mark on the A.C. scene, then burned out, before retreating to an inspired 30-seat Italian BYOB on the mainland (Luke Palladino's), which recently earned three bells. Palladino has pledged to maintain the signature boutique, but gets a chance to stretch his legs in the casino space (formerly Polistina's), where there will be 200 seats and an Italian-centric wine bar for tasting flights. "Luke Palladino Harrah's Resort" is slated to open Tuesday, but one can expect the same seasonally inspired takes on authentic flavors, built with an eye toward fresh local ingredients. Being a casino, of course, there will be more steaks, including a three-inch-thick, 48-ounce rib-eye that Palladino is promising to "terrorize with a great crust," which, I'm guessing, is a good thing with a chef who knows what to do. And Palladino is one.
There are non-Italian newcomers in the works, too, including a new location for the Latin-themed Mango's, which has moved from Pleasantville to the former Dune space in Margate, where owners Luz and Oscar Guzman have paired with chef-partner Sam Kaufman (a Savona and Harrah's alum) to update presentations and lower prices (into the low-$20s). Expect empanadas of the day, Colombian ceviche, yucca soup shooters, monfongo and banana-leaf-steamed grouper with coconut milk. Opening is expected June 1.
For the most part, though, the early entries for this year's summer dining stakes have largely been pasta-centric. By next weekend, the ever-growing La Fontana group - with branches in Strathmere (La Fontana del Mare) and Center City (La Fontana della Citta) - will have expanded to Sea Isle City into a 110-seat location with outdoor dining called La Fontana Coast, where the Albanian-born Kupa brothers will be serving up continental classics like Dover sole, veal chops, and house-made gnocchi.
Perhaps the year's grandest opening, though, comes courtesy of Sean Weinberg, chef-owner of the wood-fired (three bells) Italian gem in Malvern, Restaurant Alba, who has teamed with chef Ed Bonsignore to open the big Baia in Somers Point. These two are the latest to take on this bayside behemoth, a 500-plus-seat, multideck space formerly occupied by the Inlet (and Sails before that). Just opened last weekend, its early menu is featuring dishes like lobster and shellfish linguine in a black Sambuca tomato broth, and foccacia-crusted veal Milanese with crispy eggplant and a Chianti glaze, which the chefs refer to as "twisted Italian."
Considering the restaurant's live-music "Reggae Sundays," apparently a tradition in this bayside party space, I can see what they mean. Then again, the unpredictability of each year's Shore-dining scene is exactly what makes the summer something to look forward to. I'm already hungry.