Pearls of great taste

The ultimate oyster turns up in Avalon, and more magically memorable morsels and meals are making it a perfect-plus summer down the Shore.

Posted: July 06, 2008

I never thought I'd taste a better Jersey oyster than the one I ate plain a few years ago while standing thigh-deep in the Delaware Bay. Plucked from the cold fishery waters where it was growing and shucked on the spot by an oysterman, that plump Cape May Salt slid down my throat with a sweet-yet-briny liquor that left a magic glow.

Now that I've been to Blackfish Avalon, though, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to slurp another Cape May Salt without hoping for a carbonated froth of Meyer lemon and a dice of pickled watermelon on top. That fizzy cloud of citrus, whipped to a high-tech mousse with xanthan gum and CO2, had a tart effervescence that set the mollusk to brisk attention. Then it melted away like lemony sea foam when I took a bite, leaving the heightened taste of oyster framed by a subtle crunch of sweet-and-sour watermelon.

It takes a great chef to improve on something nature has already perfected. But talented Chip Roman, 29, already is making it seem effortless at the newly minted Avalon branch of his popular Conshohocken BYOB.

That oyster, though, was just one of the highlight bites of my summer so far. An exciting crop of ambitious new restaurants at the Jersey Shore has delivered many others, many inspired by a newfound enthusiasm for local ingredients. From perfect (and sustainable) fish and chips with a side of organic greens to pulled duck sliders, zesty gazpacho dolloped with sweet lump crab, and an old favorite breakfast of butterscotch scones happily rediscovered - this was one of my best eating tours of the Shore in years.

Much of the new energy is centered on the island that holds Avalon and Stone Harbor, where Sea Salt chef Lucas Manteca is giving a much-needed update to classic seashore cookery with his refreshingly casual Quahog's Seafood Shack, and Jason Hippen is making his chef-owner debut at Jay's on Third.

But this season also features a couple of notable comebacks: a fresh start for former Water's Edge chef Neil Elsohn at tiny Gertrude's in Ventnor, and a new Ocean City address for Michael and Jennifer Bailey. Their repertoire of homey baked goods and satisfying suppers at the old 4th Street Cafe has moved a few blocks north to quieter Who's on 1st.

If they're baking, I'm buying. So get the beach tags, and dust off the boogie board. Because this summer's dinner roster down the Shore is going to require a hearty appetite.

Blackfish Avalon

It's impressive to think that Chip Roman opened this 100-seat BYO only a month ago, hardly three weeks after signing the lease.

The former Scoogi's space on Avalon's main drag has been crisply repainted in halogen-lit white and gray. The staff, on summer loan from Roman's other Blackfish in Conshohocken and his catering operations, move through the room like well-oiled pros.

Roman's kitchen, meanwhile, is already cooking as if it's been here forever, spinning great ingredients into vivid contemporary dishes that amounted to one of the best meals I've eaten down the Shore - ever. Those oysters were just a start.

A mound of deepwater Jonah crabmeat, studded with sweet Cavaillon melon, came over an orange pool of melon soup steeped with rose geranium. Homemade agnolotti, glossed in brown butter and crisped sage, were stuffed with tender short ribs piqued by the tang of pancetta and salami.

Crisply seared black bass came with silver corn and soybean succotash and a frothy corn essence. Mahimahi drew soft earthiness from wild rice and sweet peas with subtly curried butter. And the medium-rare swordfish steak was just a stunner, basking in the Middle Eastern glow of its zaatar thyme-and-sumac crust and a spicy vinaigrette made with the cuminy crumbles of merguez lamb sausage.

The desserts were less inventive but expertly done. And it is rare that a creme brulee is as perfect as this, a warm brown mirror of delicately burnt sugar hiding a vanilla custard so luxuriously creamy, it almost flows. As it melted away off the spoon, I got a little shiver. Like eating that perfect oyster, it was a sensation I'll remember for a very long time.

Jay's on Third

'Oh, Jason!" the tan lady cooed, fawning over the chef as he approached the window table. "We came here for you!"

Perhaps it's no surprise that Jason Hippen, the namesake behind Stone Harbor's other big new opening, keeps doing victory laps through the chocolate-brown and peach-colored dining room at Jay's on Third. The 36-year-old Hippen is a local favorite. He grew up on the nearby Wildwood boardwalk, where his parents owned the pizza shop (3 J's), where he met his wife, Anne Sitz-Simons, who worked there on summer visits from her native Ireland. He went to culinary school nearby, and did stints in upscale Wildwood kitchens (Marie Nicole's, JP Prime), along with line work at Morimoto and Atlantic City's Buddakan.

So when Hippen and Sitz-Simons debuted this summer as first-time owner-operators in the former Fish Tales after a light renovation, they had the hometown crowd raring to go. I only wish they'd let Hippen stay in the kitchen to cook.

I could taste a glimmer of talent in the promptly served appetizer course, which signaled an appealing Asian-fusion bent. Beautiful scallops came over a creamy chowder sauce rimmed with the orange heat of chile oil. Tender duck confit shreds in an Asian barbecue glaze came mounded into brioche slider rolls with house-pickled pineapple. The "bamboo beef" skewers were a fun Japanese take on satay beef.

But then the glad-handing started, and as Hippen did his endless rounds, the already flustered service fell apart. We couldn't get bread. We couldn't get water. And where was the main course? It appeared, after a long wait, with the marks of a harried kitchen.

The red snapper was seared to an unpleasantly tough, fishy chew. The halibut was slightly better, but at $26 seemed awfully lonely in a bowl of miso broth with nothing but three tiny clams beside it, one of them with a broken shell. The well-roasted chicken was a highlight, plump and juicy, with braised oyster mushrooms and good mashed potatoes. But dessert brought creme brulee with a lumpy custard and a grainy, half-burnt crust.

Perhaps these were just early-season growing pains for a promising new restaurateur. But there's only one sure way to win over the rest of us who don't know the chef already: Let the food do the talking.

Quahog's Seafood Shack

Argentine-born surfer chef Lucas Manteca has been crafting inventive fare for a few years at another of my favorite Shore BYOBs, Sea Salt in Stone Harbor. But Manteca and his wife, Deanna, have added an ambitious new challenge this summer with the larger Quahog's Seafood Shack, which updates the old-style New England chowder house with good, local ingredients and some diligent cooking.

The concept is long overdue in the land of the fried seafood combo, and this refreshingly casual spot narrows the divide between the sophisticated modern kitchen and the often-abused tradition of simple seafood without letting it get too fussy.

In fact, the space just off downtown Stone Harbor really looks like a cinder-block shack from the outside. The intimate 56-seat dining room inside has more polish than I expected. But the fun focus here is on the breezy covered back patio, where big parties gather around picnic tables laden with steamed lobster bakes, Cape May Salts on the half shell, and some of the creamiest chowder this side of Rhode Island.

The blackboard menu lends a clue as to what makes Quahog's different. The seafood comes from sustainable sources. The take-out containers are biodegradable. Much of the produce, from the sides of bok choy and baby zucchini to the beets in goat cheese vinaigrette, comes from nearby organic farms. And chef Carlos Barros, a veteran of the New York scene, knows what to do with this bounty.

The traditional items are outstanding. Big chunks of flaky pollock are perfectly beer-battered atop homemade tartar sauce alongside British-style "chips" fried from thick-cut potatoes. The complex chowder has nutmeg, cinnamon and smoky bacon flowing through its creamy broth and is full of tender cherrystone meat. The lobster roll is seriously pricey at $26, but has a fair portion of incredibly moist crustacean tossed in Sriracha-spiced Japanese mayo and comes tucked with celery leaves into a locally baked challah roll. My only disappointment was a brothless starter of big, chewy steamers.

For more contemporary takes, there is also a delicate shrimp and scallop seviche marinated in a spicy brew of an orange-cilantro marinade. A splendid whole black bass rubbed with herby chimichurri was a nod to Manteca's home country. The fried-to-order hush puppies were filled with fresh corn and an addictively spicy Mexican kick.

For dessert, there was moist banana bread pudding with dulce de leche and whoopie pies stuffed with fruit and marshmallow fluff. The pie's chocolate cookies were a little dry, a definite work in progress. But there's already so much to be happy about here, it's worth learning how to properly pronounce the name of Stone Harbor's casual new seafood hit. All together now: "Ko-Hogs."

Who's on 1st

Scone addicts at the Shore should rejoice for at least one other revival, especially because the return of Michael and Jennifer Bailey was hardly a given. The couple behind Ocean City's well-loved 4th Street Cafe had sold their Jersey home and headed to California last year, where they began a long-planned winery, Cosol Vineyards. The first vintages already are in the bottle.

But the allure of summer near an Atlantic beach still called: "I just love it here," Michael concedes. "I really do."

So they leased a space just blocks from their old 4th Street haunt (which has new operators), and called it Who's on 1st. It's a quieter residential spot, at the corner of 1st Street and Asbury Avenue, but the Baileys have given this casual cafe their usual funky touch, with a painted tree scrolling the walls of the yellow room, mismatched tables, and arty surfer photography for sale.

Most important, their kitchen is back in the groove. It's turning out the familiar rotation of craggy offbeat scones, with butterscotch, blueberries or Mexican chocolate studding the biscuity inner fluff. The best of them sell out early in the morning, as the cafe segues into a light-but-tasty lunch anchored with organic chicken salad, fresh burgers and green salads.

And although Who's on 1st has yet to become the all-day hangout the old place was, the Baileys still throw down linens in the evening and transform the 16-seat room, plus its 18 sidewalk seats, into one of Ocean City's better dinner destinations. The New American menu is small, the cooking fairly simple. But quality local ingredients are put into appealing combinations. Gorgeous Barnegat scallops are drizzled with a lively lemon dressing sparked with fresh ginger. A simple tomato corn chowder tastes like the summer farm market distilled.

The kitchen overcooked our local grass-fed steak, which, at $27, was the most expensive entree. But that was more than compensated for by the outstandingly moist, fresh crab cakes with mango salsa. And, of course, they serve freshly made desserts worthy of a cafe noted for its baking: rich chocolate tart in graham cracker crust, bread pudding baked from moist sticky buns, and lightly stewed peaches topped with a cobbler biscuit baked to order.

The cobbler alone is worth another visit.

Gertrude's

Neil Elsohn is getting to be an old pro at comebacks, but this time he's learning to downsize. The 24-seat space at Gertrude's, the intimate new BYOB in Ventnor named for his mother, is just a fraction of his previously grander venues in Cape May, the Water's Edge and 1919.

The menu is still huge for such a tiny place. But dishes like those blackened scallops in ginger glaze and cashew-crusted grouper in banana-rum sauce had to stay. These were some of the eclectic hits that helped make the 55-year-old Elsohn one of the godfathers of Jersey fusion cuisine - before a bout with pancreatic cancer temporarily knocked him out. Now recovered after three years recuperating off the kitchen line, he says the old energy is back.

And I could taste it, too. Granted, some dishes now feel dated in an overdressed, '90s kind of way, with a blitz of colors and a different nut crust for every oyster, cheese or fish. But there's no denying the convergence of good organic ingredients with a passion for cooking here. Our meal at cozy-but-comfortable Gertrude's, nicely rehabbed with pale brick walls and evocative photography, was one of our most satisfying this season at the Shore.

A zestily seasoned bowl of gazpacho coarsely milled from tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers came dolloped with sweet lumps of fresh crab. Thai-spiced cocktail sauce was the perfect dip for huge poached shrimp. A superbly tender loin of grilled lamb anchored a Mediterranean plate with roasted peppers and goat-cheese mashed potatoes; it would have been perfect had the tasty pesto-demiglace not been gloppy. Most memorable, though, was the gorgeously roasted half chicken. Almost completely boned beneath its crispy lemon-garlic crust, it was a picture of elevated comfort over Madeira-braised greens, mashed potatoes and mushrooms.

And comfort is the operative word in Elsohn's comeback place, which benefits from pleasantly experienced servers and the sense of calm that comes from a more manageable space. Next up for downsizing?

"The menu," he conceded, "is a little too big. . . . "

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