It can be hard to sustain from year to year, as even some of my favorite Shore spots can attest. Ocean City's charmingly funky Fourth Street Cafe, for example, plans to pack up its butterscotch scones and Hawaiian short ribs for good at the end of this, its 12th vibrant summer. The lease is up. The owners' California roots are calling.
Still, valuable lessons have obviously been learned from the hermit crab for some survivors who still want to cook down the Shore, even if their big, splashy castles from last season are no more. There's always another shell to make their happy home. And sometimes smaller is better.
Just look at this year's most lively restaurant zone, from Somers Point north to Ventnor, where I found a whole range of seaside dining ambitions: from elaborate new palaces of varying success, to the humble but satisfying new venues for two veteran chefs, and one simple little bistro that served up my best Shore meal this year so far.
If restaurants were judged on size and speed of creation alone, the barely one-month-old Inlet would already be vying for Best on Beach. The massive marina restaurant space in Somers Point, previously occupied by Sails, fell into restaurateur Marty Grims' lap in April (thanks to a hot tip at his wife's hair salon!). But Grims, who owns the Moshulu, the Plantation and Daddy O (the latter two on Long Beach Island), within weeks had totally revamped the rooms, menu and staff, and had executive chef Adam DeLosso cranking out high-concept meals - for 5,300 guests on Memorial Day weekend alone.
The restaurant has obvious mass appeal, with 685 seats (including 120 on a double-tiered deck) facing the Great Egg Harbor Bay, and Grims has toned down Sails' upscale mood, warming the previously stark white decor with richer burgundy and gold-striped fabrics. The Inlet is also a less-expensive, more versatile dining proposition, with a menu of stylish small plates and some big-ticket entrees, as well as a genuine welcome to kids.
It's a handsome space full of year-round potential, but it still felt like a raw new restaurant in June. The servers were friendly, but confused; the menu had some high-point flavors (drawn from other Grims restaurants), but was lacking some crispness of execution.
We liked the trio of mini-crabcakes, each posed over lemon aioli, caper remoulade, or chipotle-smoked cocktail sauce. A nice slice of mahimahi came over a gingery Thai curry and jasmine rice with coconut and macadamias. Seared scallops posed for a smart "surf-and-turf" over a bed of tender, braised short ribs - the same sweet shreds of meat that were mounded (with a little goat cheese) over brioche toasts as appetizer "sliders." It all could have been hotter, but it was tasty.
We had less luck with the skimpy lobster rolls, as well as lobster bisque that tasted of too much raw tomato paste and whiskey. The misleadingly named oysters Rockefeller were also overfried.
The kitchen at Margate's Dune, meanwhile, is already in the groove. After three years in this simple BYOB space beside the Dairy Bar, owner Nick Weinstein and chef Jason Hanin are serving what is easily some of the most sophisticated food down the Shore, with the inventive touch and quality of ingredients I'd expect at some of Center City's best BYOBs.
The narrow, 70-seat room is clad in casual beach chic: distressed wainscoting, old-time Shore photos, votives flickering from sand-filled mason jars. But it's the sharp contemporary cooking that caught my eye. Dune bills itself as a seafood restaurant, and has rightfully earned a following for solid bistro efforts like mussels steamed with Champagne-chervil butter. A grilled bluefin tuna steak, over white bean salad beneath a crisped blade of lavender-braised pork belly, was as good as tuna gets.
But Hanin's nonfish efforts were equally impressive. The cracked wheat salad was an exquisite composition of textures - with candied pecans, juicy black grapes, and the various snaps of asparagus and cucumber. Duck breast streaked with currant sauce was given earthy depth with white polenta and sauteed wild mushrooms. And a rack of lamb was spectacular, the miso- and chile-marinated meat playing off the sweet corn sauce essence, hearty braised kale, and an adorable little Japanese fingerling sweet potato.
Dune may now be one of my ideal Shore-side BYOBs. But there are a couple of other new bistros nearby from veteran chefs that someday could join that list.
And one of them, Manna, has the arrival of the Inlet to thank. It wasn't until mid-January that Sails' former executive chef, John Merlino, learned that he would be looking for work. The 20-seat Ventnor space (the original Cafe LoBiondo) that he and wife Victoria chose is like a tiny rowboat compared to the mega-dining-room cruise ship he helmed at Sails, even with 12 more seats on the sidewalk. But Merlino, 30, relishes the opportunity to own his own place, focus on a handful of customers, and concentrate on a menu tailored to his own tastes.
The tidy black-and-white space is tight, and the folksy service still needs polish. But the food is satisfyingly personal and straightforward, with good ingredients spun into flavorful dishes. Some are updated Euro-classics, like the silky lobster bisque filled with jewels of crustacean, or the hearty signature paella, which cooks in a shallow pan that Merlino brings still lidded to the table, then unveils, releasing plumes of steam from saffron rice laden with seafood, chorizo and chicken. It's slightly soupy, but delicious nonetheless. I also loved the flavors of his crab risotto, even if the rice was still crunchy.
Other dishes broadened the menu's range, like the big, wasabi pea-crusted shrimp seared hot over cold chopped salad, or a surprisingly legitimate rack of ribs, which exuded their three hours of mesquite smoke. And when you taste a dessert like the tender mini-pecan pie baked by Merlino's mom, Chris Philippou, it's clear these flavors are coming from a genuine place, that this little cafe is cooking with big heart.
Lisa Savage is another chef who can relate to the virtues of downsizing. She built a devoted clientele for her Savaradio in cozy Ventnor storefronts for 13 years before taking the leap last year to a gargantuan, high-end space on the mainland. It was shaped like a circus tent and seated 250. The expensive run-on menu rambled from pizza to sushi with inconsistent results, and the restaurant was closed within a year. (It's soon to become a Bookbinder's.)
But Savage has returned to her Ventnor roots at Sage, a 75-seater done up in earth-toned chic that replaced last year's Joe Pesce. Many of the signature items that anchored her Savaradio menus are here, from the addictive fried artichoke hearts to the spring roll-wrappered giant shrimp, and those succulent seared scallops over bacony corn with basil aioli. It still isn't cheap, with entrees drifting into the high $20s and above. But the menu is now more focused, and the Italo-centric cooking considerably more crisp.
We loved the appetizer of thinly sliced, pan-fried eggplant that came rolled like a sturdy crepe around a center of oozing mozzarella beneath a saute of sweet marsala mushrooms. A thick steak of seared butterfish (escolar) came atop an Iberian stew of chorizo, clams and chickpeas, the lemony rich fish dabbed with a vibrant green almond-parsley pesto. The orecchiette were overcooked, but that didn't spoil the simple red sauce filled with broccoli rabe and springy crumbles of homemade Italian sausage.
That sausage bodes well for the Italian prepared-foods market Savage is working to open directly next door to Sage, where she'll sell homemade pastas, bread and imported cheese. (Avoid the doughy toasted gnocchi.) But hopefully, she'll also offer some of the restaurant's desserts, which were the highlight of our meal - a classic but decadent flourless chocolate torte, and a tall wedge of banana whipped-cream pie that was like eating a cool slice of summer.
"I'm thrilled to be back," Savage said of her return to Ventnor, where a dining room full of old regulars during our visit was already fawning over her with praise.
Sometimes, it would seem, it is better to be the humble but happy hermit crab than queen of an empty castle.
If You Go
The Inlet, 998 Bay Ave., Somers Point, 609-926-9611; www.inletrestaurantnj.com.
Dune, 9510 Ventnor Ave., Margate, 609-487-7450; www.dunerestaurant.com, BYOB.
Manna, 7309 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor, 609-822-7722. www.mannaventnor.com, BYOB.
Sage, 5206 Atlantic Ave., Ventnor, 609-823-2110, Cash only, BYOB.
Join Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan for a live online chat Tuesdays at 4 p.m. at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.
Next week: Shore Dining, Part 2. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.