With a deep breath of ocean air for optimism and some midday waves to stoke an appetite, I've enjoyed largely charmed experiences each year in Jersey Shore restaurants.
But each summer, there are inevitable exceptions. Seasonally staffed kitchens, hastily prepped spaces, and a sudden crush of customers can be a recipe for unpredictable dining. And my first few beach meals this summer, focused initially from Northfield north to Long Beach Island, brought unusually choppy seas. There were three meals I wish I could have back: Marty Grims' revamp of Tucker's Tavern in Beach Haven (an overpriced rush job that packed a bland multicourse meal into 45 unsatisfying minutes); the Cove in Brigantine (a strange hybrid liquor store-upscale pub with a kitchen that couldn't cook a burger, let alone a $28 salmon); and the Engleside Inn (a tired Beach Haven icon for mushy pasta, mushy sushi, and flounder française drowned in an artless lemon sauce).
But then I met the Lady Lord Baltimore - the queen of cakes - and my luck started to turn. I found an oyster bar with a dozen craft beers on draft, a Neapolitan chef cooking authentically for an appreciative mainland crowd, a casino restaurant that impressed despite the celeb-chef hype, and a classic fish house with an inspiring creekside view as timeless as its crab cakes. The Shore's dining charms - old and new - are indeed as fresh as ever.
401 Centre St., Beach Haven 609-492-4544; www.holidaysnackbar.com
This cheery little cinder-block shack of a beach grill has thrived on its Beach Haven corner since 1948. So it's little wonder this survivor shook off Hurricane Sandy's three feet of floodwaters and reopened on time last year for the Lady Lord Baltimore to receive her cake-loving fans - who arrive by skateboard, beach cruiser, and Red Flyer wagon.
The "Lady," as the Holiday's signature sweet is affectionately known, is a majestic four-layer throwback of chocolate and vanilla cake wrapped in a beehive of whipped icing, and she presides over a shrine of other homemade baked goods that sits on a shelf at the center of this grill's unique seven-sided horseshoe counter.
Current owners Glenn and Amy Warfield have meticulously maintained the extensive repertoire of recipes handed down from two generations of owners before them. But what's nearly just as impressive, in the rest of the limited savory menu, is how the Warfields' have preserved the increasingly elusive art of simple beach-grill fare done right with quality ingredients and care. The freshly ground burgers, house-formed each morning and served over a griddled bun, were a flat-patty dream - especially dressed with an onion ring, cheese, and house-made Russian for the Slam. The B.L.T. was warm-bacon perfect. The crab cake was full of fresh meat. Even the fried chicken sandwich, zipped-up with house pepper relish, was surprisingly good.
All the while, those desserts called to us from the shelf: fresh blueberry pie crisscrossed in crusty lattice; rich banana cream stuffed with rounds of fruit; moist chocolate cake glazed white with marshmallow icing; and, of course, the Lady's four layers of fork-plunging delight prove once again that tradition, when freshly baked, is forever special.
308 Centre St., Beach Haven 609-492-7308; on Facebook
Sometimes new ideas, though, are just what's needed. And that has proved to be exactly the case just a couple of blocks down Centre Street from the Holiday Snack Bar, where Mike Battista, 27, fresh off his Cornell degree, persuaded his father, Mike, to transform the deli next to their Marlin restaurant into something decisively simple and current: a raw bar and beer haven.
From the outside, the Triton has the old-time look of the wine store that is still its double purpose. But the long raw bar and high-top community tables that were installed in the rear last summer were so popular, the hard-liquor shelves are being removed in favor of more seating for the growing 3 p.m. buck-a-shuck crowds to get their mollusk-and-craft-ale fix.
The small initial selections last summer have been expanded this year in a big way. At least a half-dozen rotating varieties of oysters are available, from locally fished oysters and Barnegat clams to some especially briny oysters from Alaska's Glacier Bay. The food menu remains limited to raw bar fare - cold shrimp, seafood bisque, and buckets of steamers. The biggest surprise, though, was a generous lobster roll for $17.95, made to order warm from a fresh-steamed lobster doused in butter on a grilled roll.
The biggest draw is likely to be the chalkboard of a dozen craft brews to wash them down - from Great Divide saison to Weyerbacher wit to the Bruery Humulus imperial pils. Wine lovers uninterested in the less-inspired glass offerings, meanwhile, only need to turn around and raid Triton's bottle fridge. There are 50 or so whites, from white burgundy to Sonoma chardonnay at retail prices: "Triton's appeal," Battista says, "is that there are as few rules as possible."
200 Tilton Rd, Northfield 609-380-2466; www.valentinasnj.com
An old Neapolitan proverb says: If I wanted everyone to like me, I would have been an eggplant parmigiana. And the metaphor is apt at Valentina's, the new Italian BYOB in Northfield from Paula Giordano and chef Rosaria Conti. Everyone really does seem to love this noisy trattoria clad in rustic reclaimed wood with an oak-fired pizza oven in back. Despite its strip-mall locale (though especially convenient next to the Bootlegger's Liquor Outlet), Valentina's is now doubling its space after just six months in business.
The secret, no doubt, is Conti, the Neapolitan-born former chef at Girasole in Atlantic City, who brings an unmistakably authentic touch. And, yes, that includes the eggplant parmigiana, whose thin-sliced eggplant captures a layered delicacy. But there are many other hits. Conti, a butcher's daughter, specializes in braciola. But the meatballs are also great, the ground beef velvety soft with ricotta and dotted with raisins and pine nuts.
The bread is homemade for panini and bruschetta, but the Neapolitan-style pizzas here are a main event, heat-speckled from a quick turn in the 900-degree hearth. The crust may have been a hint too dense for perfection. But the bright sauce and tangy buffalo mozz on the Regina Margherita had just the right balance, and is easily among the best Italian-style pizzas at the Shore.
Our entrées were only slightly less exciting - the fresh tagliolini pasta with shrimp was clumpy and out of season in a "pumpkin" sauce of pureed butternut squash. Yet the zesty linguine with clams was another display of masterly Neapolitan simplicity. The big veal Milanese was tender and satisfying. And the whole branzino with capery salmorillo sauce would have been Aegean Sea perfection - if only so many guests hadn't stop to chat up the manager while he was deboning our rapidly cooling fish.
Popularity, it seems, does have its downside.
Caesars Atlantic City Hotel & Casino 2100 Pacific Ave., Atlantic City www.caesars.com/caesars-ac
Only on a show called Hell's Kitchen would the "ultimate prize" be a chef's job in Atlantic City. For most, the notion of landing at a bankrupt casino in a town that's seen four casinos recently close might sound a bit more like purgatory. But the food and beverage bosses behind Caesars say they've found a strategy to right their restaurant ship, shifting from A.C.'s previously high-end ambitions to mass-appeal concepts from TV celebs Guy Fieri and Gordon Ramsay.
I wasn't optimistic, even if this pub is doing 10 times the business of the Mia's it replaced. But I was pleasantly surprised.
Yes, the pub's decor is a kitschy mash-up of the lobby's Roman colonnade with the "Piccadilly Chic" of red phone booths, hostesses in mini-kilts, and booths flanked by Buckingham guard boxes. The prices are casino high. Peas come with seemingly every dish. And, really, who wants a $47 beef Wellington in summer? Well, about 1,400 were ordered in May alone. And I don't see that slowing because it happens to be really, really good, that tender hunk of rare filet wrapped in mushroom duxelles and puff pastry, but with Ramsay's signature touch of a salty prosciutto liner and mustard adding a tangy spark.
This wasn't Dandelion-level cooking, but it wasn't Elephant & Castle chain food, either. With Hell's Kitchen Season 13 winner LaTasha McCutchen running the line (and Season 14 winner Meghan Gill to join her soon), this menu's best moves were some admirable versions of pub classics. The fish and chips brought a big chunk of haddock, tanged with malt vinegar powder before crisping inside an ale-battered shell. Shepherd's pie came in a mashed potato-sealed crock of richly stewed morsels of full-flavored lamb - perfect with an oaky draft of ("Gordon's favorite!") Innis & Gunn Scotch ale.
Ramsay, of course, is a famously grouchy screamer on TV. But we can't blame his mum, whose recipe for sticky toffee pudding, rich with dates and a hot toffee drizzle, is an irresistible comfort. Can it save A.C.'s casino troubles? Maybe not. But it's plenty good enough to turn a curmudgeon sweet.
41 Oyster Creek Rd., Leeds Point 609-652-8565; www.oystercreekinnnj.com
Just around dusk at the bend of Otter Pond, which threads through the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge on its way to Great Bay, the view from the Oyster Creek Inn and its historic fishing village in Leeds Point hasn't changed much since 1938. The snowy egrets and blue herons stretch their wings over the grassy marshlands. Turtles slip into the dark waters. The soft splash of bluefish feeding on bunker can be heard from the dock.
The old inn itself hasn't changed much, either, in look or throwback spirit. It's true that chef Scott Kuppel, 42, whose family has owned Oyster Creek since 1946, followed a stint in the Marines with serious chef postings in Arizona and Colorado. And he's shepherded some modern ideas to the menu, from clams Mexicali spiced with chorizo to Copper River salmon when in season, crispy jumbo shrimp in spicy Jersey Devil sauce, and his signature salmon stuffed with Brie and crab. But I can't recommend the so-so sushi or over-spiced dumpling "bombs."
What Oyster Creek really still does best are the time-honored classics favored by the locals who gather at the antique boat bar christened "Rock & Rye." Among my favorites are the creamy oyster stew, the dark (not too thick) snapper soup redolent of sherry and marjoram, the dewy fresh flounder crisped in cracker meal. The throwback seafood pie, too dry beneath its puff pastry lid, was a miss.
Friends swear by the Maryland-style steamed crabs - fished daily right outside the restaurant and served exclusively on the screened porch. But there are enough specialties on the main menu worth a meal inside the knotty pine dining room, from some excellent broiled crab cakes (all sweet crab, no filler) to a mixed seafood grill that shows finesse and respect for great ingredients. Kuppel even serves a surprisingly excellent strip steak, a 14-ounce prime-grade deal at $24, to keep carnivores happy.
With a flaky-crusted banana cream pie to finish the meal, all that remains for a perfect night is to step outside, bask in the setting sun, listen to nature's dance, and soak it all in.
PART 2 (Sunday, July 5): The southern Jersey shore, from Margate to Cape May.
Holiday Snack Bar
401 Centre St., Beach Haven, 609-492-4544; www.holidaysnackbar.com
Classic beach grill, simple fresh foods, great burgers, amazing cakes and pies.
Triton Craft Beer & Oyster Bar
308 Centre St., Beach Haven, 609-492-7308; on Facebook
Raw bar with a dozen craft beers on draft, tucked in the back of a wine store.
Oyster Creek Inn
41 Oyster Creek Rd., Leeds Point, 609-652-8565; www.oystercreekinnnj.com
Timeless Jersey fish house, classic crab cakes, steamed crabs and oyster stew with a sunset view over the creek.
200 Tilton Rd, Northfield, 609-380-2466; www.valentinasnj.com
A popular new Italian BYOB from a Neapolitan chef, great seafood, eggplant parm and wood-fired pizzas.
Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill
Caesars Atlantic City Hotel & Casino, 2100 Pacific Ave., Atlantic City, 609-343-2600; www.caesars.com/caesars-ac