Ports of call

The crab cake at Sora in Stone Harbor, features lobster nuggets and tomatillo salsa.
The crab cake at Sora in Stone Harbor, features lobster nuggets and tomatillo salsa.

Chart your course for the best tastes of the seaside, where some favorites have dropped anchor in new locales.

Posted: July 05, 2009

There's an almost tidal transience to the Jersey Shore dining scene that can be disconcerting to a restaurant's regulars. A hungry Shore bird works so hard to find something special at the beach, it's downright worrisome to find it missing upon your return the following year.

Where are those oysters topped with carbonated Meyer lemon foam that I ate in Avalon last summer? What of the strawberry "upcakes" and shrimp-salad lunch boxes they used to pack for the beach at Dixie Picnic in Ocean City? Hey! Who moved Johnny's "Nonna's meatballs"? And all of you adventurous BYO-hounds better take a deep breath before you read this next bit of news on Stone Harbor's missing gastro-gem: Sea Salt? Gone!? Noooooooooo!!!!

OK. Now that I've gotten that out of my system, it isn't nearly as bad as all that. In fact, with only some exceptions (like the credit-crunched Dixie Picnic, which relocated to corporate Frazer, sniff-sniff), last year's talents have simply re-anchored their stoves to new locales along the coast. And in most cases, they've taken on bigger challenges with larger spaces or the added responsibility of restaurant ownership, and whole new crowds to please.

So do they succeed? Here's a look at five new fine-dining contenders this season, from Cape May to Ventnor, where familiar faces (and some familiar places) are making waves again:

The Ebbitt Room

Considering the Lucas Manteca that diners first met a few years ago in his now-closed Sea Salt - the long-haired Argentine surfer dude with a daring streak for contemporary plates - the wicker-trimmed porch and posh gold-leaf dining room of the Ebbitt Room in the Virginia Hotel is about the last place you'd expect to find him.

But top-line chefs have always been a calling card at this gem of restored Victoriana. And Manteca, 32, has raised his game here to infuse a fresh modern edge to one of Cape May's finest special-occasion haunts. The locally attuned Manteca has been truly inspired by the bounty of the nearby 62-acre farm that the Virginia's owners recently bought, which in season supplies more than 50 percent of the restaurant's produce.

Crispy-skinned loup-de-mer (sea bass) comes over a sweet froth of cinnamon-scented corn puree next to the snap of roasted kernels and tiny honshimeji mushrooms. A square pillar of sweet crab salad is vividly flavored but light, bound with herbed fromage blanc and avocado, topped with tart grapefruit sorbet and set over coconut water. An absolutely amazing seared scallop comes over a toothsome twirl of olive-oil pasta tossed in a bacon-flecked amatriciana sauce given an oceanic blush with sea urchin. The old Shore surf-and-turf cliche of braised short rib and (fill-in-the-blank seafood) gets a serious upgrade with butter-poached lobster, minted pea risotto, and ribs braised in Manteca's native red, malbec.

But the most stunning plate here? A dish called "Lettuce" that achieves an intrigue with salad I didn't know was possible, weaving 23 ingredients - from heirloom radishes and shaved threads of candy-striped beets with five kinds of greens, baby carrot ribbons, and tiny cubes of fruit - into an intricate naturalist garden of edible wonders that reveals a new surprise under every leaf.

But really, there's no surprise at the Ebbitt Room. Manteca may have cut his locks for the new gig, but his culinary chops have only gotten stronger.

Sora

Following an act like Manteca's can be a mixed blessing. The well-seasoned crowds of food lovers already know their way to this cozy little BYO on Third Avenue in Stone Harbor. But upon learning that Sea Salt has been replaced by Sora, some have left in a huff, groans new chef-owner Robert Tyndall, without so much as a nibble.

That's a shame, because Tyndall, a veteran of numerous Shore kitchens (Cafe Loren, Marie Nicole's, Washington Inn, and Bobby Flay Steak, as well as Striped Bass), really knows how to cook. Named for the seasonal marsh bird, Sora came together on typical seaside short notice - the papers signed, the room given a coat of wine-colored paint, and Tyndall up and cooking within weeks.

Just a few days after that opening, there were, as expected, some wrinkles yet to smooth. But for the most part, we savored a delightful meal of good ingredients cast in simple but satisfying New American combinations. Homemade ravioli stuffed with shredded duck confit (and not quite enough goat cheese) were glossed with sage brown butter. An excellent crab cake studded with nuggets of lobster came over a vivid green froth of Flay-esque tomatillo salsa.

A very good Copper River salmon over beluga lentils ringed by a thyme-flecked necklace of ivory beurre blanc would have been perfect if the fish were a shade less cooked. But Tyndall's chicken was splendidly moist (even without the usual foie gras stuffing, upon request) over garlicky maitake mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The creamy grits with the coffee-rubbed filet mignon were a tad too crunchy for my taste, but thankfully, Tyndall has already sourced a more tender hominy, because the combination itself is haunting, the earthy corn pudding and spice-crusted beef married by the tannic, tart merlot reduction.

With at least one poised and professional server to tend this 34-seat bistro, not to mention a decadently rich cup of spiced Mexican hot chocolate to send diners on their way, Sora is one seasonal arrival that has a chance to stick around.

Blackfish Stone Harbor

So the fizzy-lemon-topped oysters have made the short journey south from Avalon to Stone Harbor, where owner-chef Chip Roman had an offer he couldn't refuse: a tripled-in-size dining room with a liquor license and a chance to be part of a future boutique hotel development.

But is bigger always better? Not in the early stages, at least, of this newest edition of Blackfish. The talented Roman undoubtedly still runs one of the most sophisticated kitchens at the Shore, with inventive plates ranging from kimchee-spiced tuna tartare to deep-fried short-rib croquettes with bordelaise dip and lemongrass emulsion.

But the baggage of replacing Henny's, the longtime traditional fish house, has given Roman unexpected challenges. The crowd has skewed older and more conservative than in Avalon, he said. And the menu is playing it safer with familiar Blackfish "greatest hits" than I'd expect from Roman, whose Conshohocken BYO is known for its creative tasting menus. Even the music soundtrack was off-kilter, blaring strains of Andrea Bocelli and Nat King Cole that evoked a retirement-village lounge, not the spirit of one of the region's cutting-edge, 30-year-old chefs.

But the minimalist Blackfish has always been more about food than ambience. And despite these nits (plus a slightly overcooked chicken), we did enjoy our meal. The cool gazpacho, poured tableside around a quenelle of mashed avocado, was a refreshing puree of the summer garden in a bowl. Beautifully seared halibut came over a pedestal of ratatouille ringed by sun-dried-tomato pesto. The vivid bouillabaisse brought an intensely herbed fennel broth framing perfectly cooked seafood.

And for dessert, we adored the hand-rolled beignets, deep-fried, sugar-dusted and pinned askew like a juggler's balls frozen in mid-tumble. Of course, Blackfish regulars have savored this treat before. Surely, Roman - ever the juggler - has another tasty trick up his sleeve.

Johnny's Cafe and Domenico's

There's never a shortage of good Italian options on Absecon Island, and the stretch of Ventnor Avenue between Margate and Ventnor has two new spots - Johnny's Cafe and Domenico's - worth noting.

Johnny's, which has steadily grown and expanded from a Ventnor pastry and ice cream shop (formerly Cookies and Cream) to a breakfast cafe for crab omelets and Rice Krispie-encrusted French toast, to now a full-service Italian restaurant, is the largest and busiest of the two. With a convenient free parking lot and the open-air allure of the grand covered patio at its fancy new Margate digs, it's no wonder it draws well-tanned Shore celebs, like soon-to-be-sentenced Vince Fumo, whom I saw strolling in for a meal of blackened scallops, crab cakes, and old-fashioned ricotta pie.

The homemade pies and pastries are a specialty, of course, of owner Johnny Liccio, a career baker whose resume includes Isgro, Litto, and his own Lucia's in Washington Township. I was less impressed, though, with the self-taught chef's savory efforts. The garlicky steamers were decent in a basic way. But the cheese-ravioli filling was pasty. The overcooked penne with broccoli rabe, sausage, and garlic sauce was dry and unexpectedly bland. And the signature "veal Johnny" brought medallions in an overthickened, underflavored wine sauce scattered with too little crab.

We should have ordered the homey chicken parm that we saw at the next table, because I appreciated the old-style red-gravy dishes most, like the fork-tender "Nonna's meatballs" simmered in marinara to a recipe from Liccio's South Philly in-laws (the Picariellos) that would bring me back. They were that good.

If you want to taste a chef who really takes grandma cooking to the next level, few can match what Nicola "Domenic" Domenico is turning out at his self-named Domenico's. The former Red Room and Tucker's chef, who opened this cozy, earth-toned BYOB in Ventnor last fall, makes the best arancini I've eaten since visiting Sicily. The saffron rice-balls were stuffed with a tri-meat ragu and mozzarella, a recipe he learned from a woman from Bagheria.

There are more upscale dishes, like the colossal seared scallops served beneath the luxurious tartness of a truffled balsamic glaze. There was a gigantic pork chop that wore its South Philly-style swagger on the bone with a wicked agrodolce, whose sweet and sour was spiced with the sass of cherry peppers. Domenico showed his soft touch with a quick Neopolitan sauce of ripe cherry tomatoes and basil that was perfect for hollow fusilli and plump sauteed shrimp.

His paella, taught to him by an elder Portuguese woman, was soupier in its iron pot than a typical Spanish version. But the rice was brimming with the wine-steeped flavor of a seafood bounty, including a lobster plucked just moments before from the tank in the dining room.

For dessert, meanwhile, Domenico takes a homey cue from his own Abruzzese mamma, with one of the best tiramisus I've eaten. It wasn't unusual, per se, but it had the perfect balance of sweet mascarpone kissed with Amaretto, ladyfingers soaked in espresso and marsala, and freshly shaved dark chocolate curling on top. Such simple perfection is always harder to find than it might seem - but especially so at the ever-changing Shore.

You can't blame me for hoping this slice of heaven - and so many of this season's other great flavors - survives those shifting tides, at least until next year.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan

visits the Jersey Shore, Part 2: Affordable Dining. Contact

him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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