A bull on a barn, and fine fish in it

Posted: August 19, 2007

NEWPORT, N.J. - South of Vineland, and 10 miles beyond that, Millville, but before you get to land's end at Fortescue - the limping Weakfish Capital of the World - you come across a red barn on Back Road here, as solitary and jaunty as an erratic boulder stranded by the retreat of glacial ice.

This is the Bull on the Barn, a crab house and seafood eatery, so named because the bug-eyed bull from a long-ago Bull Durham Tobacco mural has been dashingly repainted, and now strides across one entire side.

There seems little logic, at a glance, about the place - and less about the setting: It is two miles from Delaware Bay, though languid Nantuxent Creek coils along nearby. So with farmland stretching out to salt marsh, the shore is evoked by an old lobster boat beached out back, and by patches of imported sand from which weathered pilings sprout.

Not, of course, that logic is required. What's wrong with whimsy? But the outlines of an explanation emerge after a while, which may or may not answer the question of how Kenny Lore has stayed in business here for going on eight years, and from the looks of things, seems to be enjoying a very modest uptick.

Let's eat, though, before we get into all that. The crabs aren't the show-stealers at the moment. In May, at the start of the season, they were coming out of Delaware Bay big and bruising. Now they're in a whittled-down shedding cycle. Flavor is fine. Meat is sweet. But at the end of August, that's when they'll be back in fighting trim - meaty and bulked up again.

Frankly, it was the steamed clams, salty top necks from Pleasantville, that were more noteworthy. Those and very pleasant local oysters landed at Bivalve, once a mighty oyster port up the Maurice River.

That was the Lore family business going back to colonial times. Until the beds went into a death spiral more than a decade ago, Lore's father - and Kenny himself at the tail end - oystered out of Money Island, plying the bay in the Ada C. Lore, a 100-foot, two-masted schooner that was named after his great-grandmother.

After the oysters, the Lores did time in the clam trade, "until the government got too heavily involved." Some of that catch ended up, among other places, on Howard Johnson's vintage fried clam-strip platters.

So the fishing paraphernalia draped in the rafters of the barn and in the screened porch that looks out toward the creek, and on tangerine sunsets that can rival Key West's, isn't yard-sale stuff; it's the flotsam of Kenny Lore's past life, fishing nets and clamming baskets, old muskrat signs and ship's lanterns.

His day job these days is doing restoration carpentry, mostly on Cape May's historic Victorians, and alternately on the hayloft and other crannies of the barn that he has tricked out with secret booths and snugs, flowered sofas, and a soft-awninged dining room.

His seafood, though, is still local, most of it from Jenkins Seafood, a tidy blue fresh fish and bait shop just off what was once Newport's more substantial main drag. Kenny Lore remembers it as a Norman Rockwell village, oldsters playing checkers at the drugstore and sandwich shop, an ice cream parlor and hardware store and gas stations, all gone.

Some say the weakening weakfish fishery in nearby Fortescue is to blame. Some suggest the role of fires, and the tug of distant malls.

But Lore still sees possibility in the bones of his barn, in building cozy worn-wood booths, and frying oysters, and big deviled crabcakes that he serves with sweet cabbage slaw.

It may not be entirely logical. But it makes as much sense, when you think about it, as figuring folks will be inclined to buy your tobacco if they see a giant bull on the barn.

Bull on the Barn

(Open Friday through Sunday)

100 Back Rd.

Newport, N.J.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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