Of course, I'd never even heard of freakies until this summer, when a friendly little boardwalk muse named Lauren whispered in my ear. It's a bit shocking, considering I've been an aficionado of Brown's in Ocean City for the better part of a decade.
But sometimes the greatest bargains exist right beneath your nose. It's just a matter of good timing, a helpful hint, and a willingness to eat offbeat. It was a mantra that guided us well in our search for affordable delights at the Shore that went well beyond the doughnut stand, and we found them: from stellar matzo balls to jammin' jerk chicken, a new "gastropub" on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, a bargain lunch in the luxury belly of a casino, and the quick-serve sibling of a well-known crab house that's serving "muddy" clams and crab cakes worth the detour.
A Mixed Deck in Atlantic City
Freaky is a word that also came to mind often on our jaunts to Atlantic City, though not always in the lovely powdered-sugar-doughnut kind of way. This town has always been a bundle of jarring juxtapositions, with the neon jingle of new-casino bling chafing against the seedy strip clubs and street life of Atlantic Avenue.
Those contrasts have been put into even greater relief since the recession took a vicious chunk out of the casino business. The once seemingly unstoppable march of new Vegas-style developments bull-dozing over the fading motel kitsch of old A.C. - for the last few years an engine of new Shore dining options - has virtually ground to a halt.
The Chelsea Hotel was one of the last projects to blink on before the economic collapse, and this boutique nongaming hotel, with its stylish retro look and two Stephen Starr restaurants, exists on the southern fringe where the old and new worlds meet. The contrast between them is particularly vivid from one of the window booths at Teplitzky's, Starr's Jetsons-like coffee-shop revamp on the ground floor, where hipsters in sunglasses and designer tats, off-duty cops, and well-to-do Shore residents drink bottomless pots of La Colombe coffee and savor bowls of hand-made matzo balls, turkey-sausage omelets, and house-made ice cream shakes, while a sad parade of junkies outside stagger past a chorus of signs blaring "CA$H FOR GOLD."
There's really no point here competing with the rock-bottom $3.99 breakfast special at the Flamingo Motel across the street. Patrons come to Teplitzky's (named in honor of the kosher hotel that once occupied the building) for serious, scratch-cooked updates to the coffee-shop comfort canon - a dose of Jones plus a dash of Continental, with the usual Starr attention to stylish ambience (in this case a '50s theme). It might feel pretentious to old-timers hankering for the old deli. But this more eclectic kitchen delivered some outstanding plates for $16 or less, from a fontina-laced mac-'n'-cheese topped with a panko crisp, to an amazingly sweet lump crab cake over a schmear of lemon-dill aioli, and an odd but irresistible giant kosher hot dog wrapped inside sheer ribbons of Hebrew National salami.
A couple of items still need work. The grilled cheese with the tomato soup was too bready. The chopped liver was a shade dry. And the fries were too ordinary, considering how well the cod is fried in an airy tempura crust.
But chef Bill Murphy's masterful roast chicken alone was worth the trip, the pan-pressed skin crisped to a succulent brown over sauteed spinach and roasted potatoes. And of course, there were those matzo balls, floating in golden broth beneath a confetti of brunoise carrots. The dumplings were earthy and rich but also light, thanks to real schmaltz, a touch of baking powder, and the care not to overwork them. Is it any wonder the descendants of the Teplitzky family itself can be seen here occasionally spooning through a bowl? And so, with those bobbing orbs, the circle of "old"-meets-"new" A.C. turns.
The Boardwalk space once occupied by one of my favorites, the stylish Greek lounge Opa, has also found itself in a tasty state of mid-casino development limbo now known as Megan's Good Grub & Pub. Ultimately, this little Boardwalk strip will be demolished by Pinnacle Entertainment, which already imploded the Sands to make way for a new casino - now on hold. In the meanwhile, Pinnacle created Megan's as a showcase for chef Joel Dincher (ex-Moonfish Grill, the Palm) to try his hand at updating comfort food with Kobe-quality ingredients and house preparations, from bread to pickles.
The sunny corner space, with its expansive Boardwalk seating outdoors, has been dressed down to beachside casual, with a surfboard and old Life magazines on the exposed brick wall, and a so-called gastropub small-plate menu. By Philly standards, the brews are far too commercial to garner much beer cred (though a flamboyant Boardwalk dancer named Anthony weaving across the dining room seemed to find the bar to his liking).
Dincher's appealing menu had real virtues, but was dramatically inconsistent, with dishes I either loved or loathed. On the "don't order" list were the shrimp and grits (pungent with iodine); a pork chop whose miso glaze and ginger-apple slaw combined to taste like lemon detergent; and an egregiously spicy "Rattlesnake" barbecue sauce for the chicken that was all bite.
On the "must have" list, though, were dishes worth returning for. Who knew sloppy joes could be magnetic? With an upgrade of Kobe beef crumbled into an aromatic house sauce, tasty little house-baked brioche buns, a homemade pickle, and fresh-cut frites, these sliders alone are reason to come - and a bargain at $7. The large crock of mac-'n'-cheese was another classic perfectly refined, the rotini casserole roasted to a crispy brown in a four-cheese cream beside two "angry" plum tomatoes, grilled to a juicy tingle with a dusting of sugar and Cajun spice, another large-portion deal at $8.
Megan's was far from perfect. But for a Boardwalk world in the midst of a tough transition, there were enough well-spun comforts here to ease the transition just fine.
When it comes to value dining, the posh new branch of New York's Il Mulino in the Taj Mahal casino is an unexpected destination. One glance at the rose-dotted white tablecloths, chandeliers, and tapestries of its fine-dining room (not to mention menu prices like $70 for rack of lamb and $25.95 for penne in marinara) doesn't inspire my inner bargain diner.
At the more contemporary Trattoria Il Mulino next door, however, the fixed-price three-course menus were definitely intriguing, especially the $15.95 lunch. Based on our meal, though, that's about the limit of what I'd spend here.
I loved the stylishly modern space, with its heat-lamp-shaped lights, exposed brick, and sliding wood doors. The Italian wine list is also excellent. And there were some adequate menu highlights, including an anchovy-zipped Caesar salad, a vivid porcini risotto (a real bargain, considering the hearty portion and the usual menu price of $26), a decent veal marsala, a decadently creamy tiramisu. For $16, certainly a fair deal.
As an audition for a possible return to the full-priced Il Mulino, however, our lunch was a disaster. The industrial-blender-whipped meatballs were as rubbery as racquetballs. The stracciatella was filled with clumps of scrambled egg, not the usual silk of egg-drop ribbons. The margherita pizza was flabby and overcheesed. This kitchen couldn't even cook rigatoni, judging from our bowl of flimsy, split-end tubes that sogged beneath Bolognese.
The virtually absent service was also so hair-pullingly slow, I can only imagine the growing ire of an impatient gambler. When our waitress eventually arrived with Il Mulino's exceptional cheesecake, though, I could finally taste a forkful of what this famed Italian chain is really about. The cake's almost custardy flow of amaretto-scented cream was so irresistible, I devoured it as a welcome slice of consolation.
Ocean City jerk
Opening a new restaurant near the beach at the end of the summer season may not be the smoothest business plan, but the owners of 701 Mosaic in Ocean City say a strong and steady local trade with takeout helped them survive their first winter.
With crowds now back, and a breezy new open-windowed corner space to welcome them, this Caribbean-inspired bistro has a chance to finally get its footing. But if the service experience is anything like ours was (painfully slow, scattered, awkward, and lecturing), I'm afraid the true virtue of this newcomer - its vibrant Jamaican flavors - will be missed.
So here's an offbeat, not-so-novel idea: Do takeout!
Because chef Hilbert "Herb" Allwood really cooks with an authentic island touch. A former Jamaican tax assessor-turned-longtime New York chef, Allwood serves spot-on shrimp curry kissed with coconut milk, and a meaty pan-fried branzino that soaks in the tang of a vinegar-soaked "escoveitch" slaw of chayote, peppers and carrots on top. The chicken Byzantine sauced with gingery leeks and tomatoes pays tribute to Allwood's eclectic cooking background.
But the real treasure here is the jerk chicken, which Allwood learned to make in Boston Bay, in Jamaica's Portland Parish, renowned for the art of jerk. And it is, without doubt, among the best jerk chickens I've ever tasted, the amazingly tender bird cloaked in a mahogany-brown rub that rings with a bright harmony of allspice, thyme, burnt molasses sweet, and Scotch-bonnet chile heat. A subtle grilled smokiness weaves it all together.
With a side of coconut-steeped pigeon peas and rice, and crispy plantains, I'm all set for dinner - one that loses no flavor (but avoids the service aggravations) inside a foam take-out box.
The great crab-cake chase is an eternal pursuit for Philadelphians, but takes on extra dimensions at the Shore, where few restaurants can do without one version or another. My take-out favorites have long been the lumpy beauties from Back Bay Seafood in Stone Harbor (with second place for the blander, better-known Bobby Chez in Margate). Could this year bring new contenders?
I'd heard wild raves about the grilled crab cakes over at the new Ocean City Seafood Co., both from the guys in a nearby real estate office as well as from the immodest owner himself, chef Paul Raymond, who bragged from behind the counter of his tiny corner dining room one Saturday afternoon that he was about to serve 1,000 meals that night, including takeout. I won't quibble with that kind of volume for a quick-serve seafooder using good ingredients. And the cream of crab soup was knockout rich. The crab cakes, though, were unimpressively pasty with binder and noticeably lacking much meat. We had better luck with the smaller fried crab bites with firecracker chipotle dip.
This year's brightest new crab-cake venue, it turns out, required a road trip to Forked River (on the mainland just north of Long Beach Island), where the Mud City Crab Cake Co. was opened recently by the owners of the Mud City Crab House in Manahawkin. Unlike the crab house, there are no whole crabs to crack at this tidy strip-mall unit just off Lacey Road. But the pleasant 30-seat space, decked with nautical photos, cedar plank walls, and a blackboard menu with the daily specials, is one of the more appealing updates to the quick-serve seafood counter I've seen.
The crab cakes are the main event, of course, and they deliver a purist's pleasure, each five-ounce cake a bundle of crab bound with mayo and a light touch of Old Bay-and-mustard seasoning. There are other good reasons to visit, however, including deep-fried pickles that arrive with the unique combination of hot, crisp, and juicy sour. The skewers of local dry-pack scallops wrapped in broiler-crisped bacon are dangerously addictive. The fine key lime and Toll House pies are baked fresh on site.
Longtime fans of the crab house will also find the restaurant's signature "muddy sauce," a blend of breadcrumbs, garlic and white wine that comes with the fresh fries and steamed clams. This gruel-like slurry may be one of the ugliest foods I've ever enjoyed, but it tastes like heaven on seafood. Messy, but worth the effort - score yet another tasty point for the "freakies."
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Union Trust on Chestnut Street. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.