The Octopus's Garden - Mayetta's Fish House

Posted: June 17, 2007

The Octopus's Garden - Mayetta's Fish House may seem like a paradox from the moment you lay eyes on the place.

The cuisine is healthy without tasting the least bit like you're in a health-food restaurant - which it emphatically is not, according to the owner.

And the design of the 4,400-square-foot restaurant is environmentally state-of-the-art with its huge solar panels on the roof and its geothermal heating and cooling systems. But the painted clapboard and stone exterior lend a very welcoming, old seashore kind of feel to this Ocean County establishment.

Inside, a variety of traditional and modern works of art and photographs grace the comfortable, classically appointed dining rooms, which include a large, high ceilinged center room, a smaller side room, and then an intimately sized alcove dining room with only four or five tables.

That mix of styles is exactly what chef/owner Peter Russo and his wife, Christine, who runs the front of the house, had in mind. Their 30 years in the restaurant business evolved into the opening in January 2006 of the mainland outpost of their original Surf City, Long Beach Island, version of Octopus's Garden.

After operating both properties last summer, the couple decided this summer to concentrate all their efforts on the Mayetta location, just south of Manahawkin. The old restaurant in Surf City has been leased to another restaurant owner.

And what the Russos might have lost by not being on the barrier island, they've gained in being able to present their unique cuisine in an environmentally sound location.

Solar panels help generate electricity, while geothermal units powered by 55-degree water from underground wells comfortably cool the dining rooms - and the kitchen, which can reach 110 degrees in summertime.

But that's not a problem here, where we recently dined several times.

Those wanting a typical Jersey Shore seafood dinner will enjoy steamed clams ($7.95) as an appetizer. In a small crock, a baker's dozen of succulent littlenecks arrive drenched in an Italian seasoned broth that features fresh herbs such as rosemary and basil. It will make you ask for more of their on-the-premises baked bread. Some diners have even been known to spoon the broth straight from the crock.

A perhaps more civilized appetizer is the Beggar's Purse ($8.95), a delicious eggroll-like lobster and vegetable dish. Rich bites of lobster and sauce have been twisted inside a melt-in-your-mouth pastry bag.

A tempting non-seafood offering is the Vegetable Tempura ($7.95), a beer-batter glazed medley of seasonal vegetables that are flash crisped in Canola oil.

All main courses are served with either a mixed green salad with a light balsamic dressing or a delicious Caesar salad.

An old favorite main course, imported to the mainland from the old Surf City location, are the sauteed scallops with artichoke hearts and mushrooms ($20.50). Russo shuns the heavy use of butter and wine and opts to rely on the freshness of the seafood and pull the flavors into the dish from the use of fresh herbs and long-simmered vegetable-based broths.

The sauteed seafood combo ($24.95) served over pasta offers the same flavors, but adds shrimp and lobster to the mix.

Most fish dishes, which can include the Australian barramundi, New Zealand blue-nose bass, or a Hawaiian wahoo, range in price from $19 to $22 and are featured with light sauces and accompaniments that flatter the fish.

Despite its nod to under-the-sea foods, Octopus' Garden also offers a delicious sampling of steaks, including filet mignon and steak Diane, a lovely rack of lamb, and ostrich steak. These dishes are priced around $24.

Despite Russo's healthy mission, his wife makes killer desserts that are priced at what seems like a bargain - except to your waistline - at $5.50.

Christine Russo is best known for her from-scratch chocolate-chocolate layer cake, her Black & White layer cake, and her pecan pie and Toll House cookie pie. Also offered is a stellar brownie sundae, creamy rice pudding, and ice cream - all laced with the whipped cream and chocolate sauce decadence one would expect with a fine dessert.

Octopus's Garden - Mayetta's Fish House

Route 9, Mayetta, N.J.

Phone: 609-597-8828

Hours: Open for dinner at 4:30 p.m. daily; open seven days in July and August. Closed Mondays the rest of the year.

Reservations: Suggested

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Parking: Lot

Children's menu: No

Cocktails: BYOB

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