At the stove, at the table, family flavor

Posted: July 15, 2007

The beach is a family place. It's true when you plant that umbrella in the sand and send the little ones off on a tear, all lathered up to plunge into the surf. And it's also true when it comes to restaurants - both for those seeking the perfect seaside meal, and for those doing the cooking.

So I'm glad to report that restaurants owned and inspired by families are alive and well at the Jersey Shore.

Yes, the big money these last few years has been pouring into the new casino restaurants in Atlantic City, as well as Moshulu owner Marty Grims' growing stable of snazzy grown-up eateries. But my most memorable experiences this summer happened to be at places that are the legacies of family traditions.

I've long been a fan of the fresh doughnuts and bacon cheeseburgers at Brown's Restaurant, the 31-year-old boardwalk institution in Ocean City. So it was no surprise that the blueberry pancakes were stupendous, too. These were literally blueberry bombs, so filled with warm fruit that sweet blue juice exploded with every bite my daughter Alice took, splattering her white shirt, painting her lips indigo, turning her tongue purple.

Even with those berry pyrotechnics, though, Alice conceded that the finest berry hotcakes of the week had been eaten the day before at charmingly down-home Gilchrist Offshore on the White Horse Pike in Galloway Township.

Run by Mike Barham, 25, and his mom, Denise Stamat, this fourth-generation breakfast-and-lunchery opened a mainland branch in May when its Atlantic City location was demolished after it had begun crumbling into the bay. The original is being rebuilt. But this location already feels at home in the tidy, bright dining room it has carved from a former filling station.

The veteran servers are cheery as they deliver hearty breakfasts to a largely local crowd (despite the sign warning "Beware Attack Waitress"). But Barham's hotcakes are the main attraction. Not only are they filled with fruit, the batter is tender and fluffy, not rubbery, almost like inflated crepes.

Barham also makes a simple but notably airy omelet. And Gilchrist's is also one of the last bastions of good pie, with crumble-topped apple, silky dark chocolate cream, and banana cream slices that are worth stopping back for lunch. (In particular, for Thursday's meat loaf special.)

Breakfast is king by the ocean, and Dixie Picnic pays the meal proper respect from its perky orange creamsicle of a gingerbread cottage, just a half-block up Eighth Street off Ocean City's boardwalk. Morning diners channel free WiFi on their laptops and dig into honest sticky buns draped in real caramel and pecans, and nibble fluffy biscuits filled with salty Smithfield ham.

Dixie's true ace, though, are the frosted "upcakes" that owner Tracey Deschaine has created in homage to the eccentric Southern aunts she visited in Virginia as a child. Upcakes are the frosting-lover's reply to the muffin-top crowd, indulgently glazed cupcake bottoms that give a taste of icing in every bite. Deschaine, a Malvern-based nurse before embarking on her cafe dreams, takes no shortcuts with her old-fashioned baking, and the same is true for everything else on this from-scratch menu.

Dixie's box lunches - a sandwich, picnic salad, deviled egg and upcake for just $8.25 - are a super bargain that we ordered en masse for a picnic on the beach. We loved the Thanksgiving sandwich of turkey, stuffing and cranberries on the soft, house-baked Sally Lunn roll. The plump shrimp salad and fresh chicken salad with pecans and grapes also tasted as if they were fixed by someone's mama - which, in fact, they were.

The family storylines also run deep at Wildwood's Gia, a zesty Italian that last year brought a touch of old-school ambition to a funky Pacific Avenue stretch of dive bars and ersatz palm trees. And Gia delivers that with gusto, usually draped in roasted longhot chiles and braised escarole.

The big flavors are no surprise from chef-owner Vincent Chiarella, who cooked 30 years at his parents' place nearby, the now-closed Chiarella's. The handsome deep red and gold space, named in honor of Chiarella's daughter, Gia, who died in 1999, hosts some of the tastiest South Philly-style cooking I've eaten down the Shore.

The Chiarella family once owned a butcher shop, and Vincent still makes his own knockout sausage, stuffed with provolone and broccoli rabe, served with escarole and juicy cherry tomatoes.

There's a lingering Southern Italian spice in that dish, and many others. Among the best were the sauteed shrimp with roasted longhots, and the huge pounded and breaded pork chop given a Neapolitan flair with roasted peppers and buffalo mozzarella. A round of crisp, pan-fried provolone, meanwhile, rang with a warmth of garlic and fried anchovies that I found absolutely addictive.

The service here is outgoing and enthusiastic. But Gia wasn't perfect. The pricey veal chop was undercooked (then overcooked). A side of escarole was gritty. And someone really should anchor that toilet seat. Even Chiarella can't wait to repaint the garish pink turret that rises above this 19th-century building. But with flavors like this, there's plenty of time for that.

It's not easy to think of Phillips Seafood at the tony new Pier at Caesar's as a family restaurant. Yes, it's still owned by the founding Phillips family. But this high-end version of the Maryland-based restaurant looks, feels and tastes like a corporate chain. It's also about $20 more expensive per diner than the original locations, says general manager Kris Diemar, with better wines and higher-grade grilled entrees, and less emphasis on fried seafood.

The sweet spot of this menu is still the classic fish-house fare, and if you stay simple, you can have a decent meal. The signature crabcakes are deliciously lumpy, noticeably sweeter and higher quality than Phillips' frozen supermarket brand. And though $89 is a hefty price to pay for dinner, there is more than enough steamed seafood in the restaurant's seaweed-draped "clambake" to feed two or three diners with a pair of steamed lobsters, clams, shrimp, mussels, potatoes and corn.

Much of the rest of this menu is mundane and overpriced, and the service here is shaky at best.

But Sonsie, Phillips' neighbor at the Pier, took the prize for the summer's overpriced fiasco. This branch of the Boston original is handsome enough, dressed in clubby brown leather banquettes. There were also a number of tasty dishes on the eclectic menu - the spicy tuna tartare, the minty Vietnamese spring rolls, the huge pan of roasted chicken with sweet potato gnocchi.

But the lobster starter was puny for $18, and a shocking number of dishes were served nearly cold, from the french fries in blue cheese sauce (which were also soggy), to a tasty but tepid tea-smoked duck (loved the corn cakes), and an extremely disappointing $35 strip steak, its presliced meat cool to the touch and extremely chewy.

Our waiter, it seemed, couldn't have cared less until we complained to a manager, who removed the steak from the bill and bent over backward to apologize. But with so much competition down the Shore, it hurts not to get it right the first time.

Restaurateur Marty Grims did get it right a few years ago with his first big Shore splash, the Plantation in Long Beach Island. So it's no wonder his recent projects, the Inlet in Somers Point (reviewed last week) and Daddy O, were so eagerly anticipated.

Daddy O is unlike anything down the Shore. In fact, this boutique hotel/restaurant/wine store that opened late last season on LBI's Brant Beach is so sleekly retro (all polished floors, textured walls, and cherry-red furniture) that it almost doesn't feel like it belongs near this beach.

Grims and his chef, Zach Grainda, have tweaked the concept to be more casual and versatile this season, with updated takes on Shore classics and simply grilled items. Our dinner, though, was a mixed bag.

The starters were fantastic, including a "buffalo wingless" that was more a twist on General Tso's chicken, to rich lobster bisque, a bountiful chopped salad, and a tasty shrimp ceviche over warm corn flan that tingled with chipotle peppers.

But Grainda wouldn't leave the chipotles alone - their smoky spice haunted too many other dishes, from the ketchup beside the overfried Barnegat scallops to the dense corn and crab cakes to the ranch salad dressing.

Service started off impressive, but quickly faded as the dining room got busy. A great soy-glazed pork tenderloin, and some fine desserts, a luscious peach cobbler and a snappy key lime tart, redeemed the meal.

Grims and his crew like to speak of their recent Shore expansion as spreading "our DNA." But even the strongest, most professional restaurant families need to be careful not to spread those family ties too thin.


If You Go

Brown's Restaurant, 110 Boardwalk, Ocean City, 609-391-0677. Cash only.

Daddy O, 4401 Long Beach Blvd., Brant Beach (LBI), 609-494-1300.

Dixie Picnic, 819 Eighth St., Ocean City, 609-399-1999.

Gia, 3001 Pacific Ave., Wildwood, 609-729-5959.

Gilchrist Offshore, 734 W. White Horse Pike, Cologne (Galloway Twp.), 609-965-3433. Breakfast and lunch only. Cash only.

Phillips Seafood, One Atlantic Ocean, The Pier at Caesars, Atlantic City, 609-348-2273.

Sonsie, One Atlantic Ocean, The Pier at Caesars, Atlantic City, 609-345-6300.


Next week: Craig LaBan reviews Legal Sea Foods in the King of Prussia Mall.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or claban@phillynews.com.

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