Catch 2401 Restaurant and Bar
Joseph Tucker has always embraced reinvention, a useful trait in a career that's gone from South Philly to Avenue of the Arts, down the Shore and back a few times. But that resiliency is especially handy now, considering that the Atlantic and Great Egg Harbor swelled in October to merge 38 inches deep inside Catch 2401, the Longport restaurant he opened last year.
With the waters receded, the whole structure rebuilt, and Tucker's wife Chasity proving to be a hurricane-force decorator, Catch has emerged as essentially entirely new. Diners will love or loathe the Miami makeover, all sleek whites and teal, with glass bubble chandeliers, big orange couches for the sidewalk lounge, and a long table in the banquette-lined dining room book-ended by two white thrones.
But with a group of friends and a big fishbowl of fruity red sangria to begin, the fun factor here is only matched by Tucker's zesty Italian American flavors. His signature meatball, tweaked with sausage, comes with a dollop of creamy ricotta. Superb octopus is sauteed with the sweet and spice of Sambucca and chorizo, with big caper berries adding piquant crunch.
The menu is pricey (a Shore tradition!) but Tucker uses good ingredients - like the meaty slice of corvina served with tomato-olive "Ventnor" sauce. And he's cooking as well as I've tasted from him in a while. Wide tube paccheri come smothered in soulful short rib ragu. A crisp and oozy grilled cheese stuffed with lobster salad and served with a rich side of bisquey dip is a true indulgence. For light eaters, though, the "OMG" salad is summer satisfaction, a smoky grilled head of romaine lavished with huge shrimp and lump crab. Of course, that's an old Tucker hit from Joe Pesce. But thankfully, not everything here required reinvention.
Catch 2401 Restaurant and Bar, 2401 Atlantic Ave., Longport; 609-822-3474 (cq) or www.catch2401.com; Dinner only.
This Japanese newcomer to Ventnor's Atlantic Avenue strip occupies one of the few Shore properties that didn't sustain serious storm damage ("Not a drop!" says chef-owner Steven Lin). But I wondered how Megu would somehow counter the tidal wave of devotees that continuously pour into neighboring Yama, the standby where crowds and color-shifting lights resemble a sushi bar-nightclub.
Lin, it turns out, has his own faithful, cultivated at two other Megu locations in Cherry Hill and Moorestown. And they were out in force the night we happened into the former Kitaro. It didn't take long to understand why.
There are some worthy cooked items, including a tender Chinatown-style honey-roasted duck, also rolled into a spring roll appetizer (a nod to Lin's Chinese heritage). The tempura was greaseless.
But sushi is the real reason to visit Megu, because Lin uses high-quality fish that is artfully cut, with fair prices (an excellent deluxe sushi entree for $18.95) and some uncommon specials. Deep purple chu-toro melts in the mouth. Blushing white madai (red snapper) and long slices of kanpachi (baby yellowtail) snap with freshness.
Next visit, I hope to devour a whole horse mackerel, which gets sliced sashimi style, then deep-fried once the skeleton is picked clean. But the live scallop was a fine consolation, sliced into a fan of sweet discs dabbed with Sriracha and served with a shooter of scallop trimmings and ponzu sauce. Lin's chefs showed their chops by keeping the often overdone maki rolls in check, spinning a rainbow of fish and tobiko around spicy-crunchy tuna for the Cha Cha without overwhelming the actual fish. My favorite, though, was the tuna tartare special, studded with orange and layered with spicy king crab salad, black caviar, and a guacamole that makes perfect sense when I see crispy nori sheets on the side. Roll 'em up like tacos, Ventnor sushi style.
Megu, 5214 Atlantic Ave., Ventnor; 609-289-8693 (cq) or www.megusushi.com; BYOB. Lunch and dinner.
Mako's American Grille
Every season has its share of anticipated big names. But the unexpected finds are often the nicest surprises. And this year that would be Mako's, the simple corner cafe childhood pals chef Ron Leider and Brian Tyszka opened smack in the middle of Sea Isle City.
It doesn't look like much, a spare, taupe-painted BYO box with a picture-frame fish tank. But it's a vast improvement over the vacated barbecue joint that was floating four feet high with Sandy water before the Mako's rehab.
The menus appear fairly limited, too. But this hometown duo have a feeling for the relatively light touch and fresh cuisine that Sea Isle was lacking. Most of these dishes, for example, opt for roasted local veggies over traditional starch. And they have a hit on their hands for breakfast (crab Florentine benedict), lunch (fish tacos), and dinner, where the Florida-trained Leider compensates with deft execution on concepts that could otherwise seem simplistic and dated.
Roasted salmon with strawberry-balsamic glaze sounds like something from Philly's '70s Restaurant Renaissance, but the sweet-tart flavors and juicy savory fish worked. Chicken Ciancaglini is a satisfyingly homey ode to an old Italian family dish, a Parmesan-crusted breast topped with diced tomatoes, aged provolone, and drizzled balsamic.
A couple of dishes sounded too heavy to even try (shrimp in Gorgonzola sauce?) - an odd contradiction to the stated mission here. But Leider's classic crab cakes were so solid, bursting with sweet lumps beneath a Creole mustard mayo, I don't doubt he could have carried the others off. The best dishes, though, were variations on a common theme - an appetizer of skewered shrimp, and a juicy mako steak entree - both blackened and tossed with gingery apple-onion salad and a mango-chile glaze. Retro? Yes. But tasty enough that, if I vacationed in Sea Isle, I'd be back.
Mako's American Grille, 4914 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City; 609-263-3287 cq or www.makosgrille.com; BYOB. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The Establishment at 100
The name was an inside joke, a term chef Andrew Steiner used to utter that "would drive my wife nuts." So naturally, it was the perfect name for his restaurant remake of the old Claude's - a gutted North Wildwood classic that was yet another Sandy-soaked space.
Claude's checkerboard floors and Gallic menu are long gone in favor of some ambitious New American flavors, a small bar (with Dogfish Head 90 Minute on draft!), and a freshly done, low-lit decor with fine local art. The multiroom space has special-occasion potential - if only the icy hostess could become more welcoming, and the young servers didn't always look panicked every time they poured water or had to pronounce a sauce. (Cod with . . . "bore blank"?)
Steiner, 30, a Johnson & Wales grad who formerly cooked at Braca Cafe in Sea Isle, has enough kitchen moves to merit the attention. Cardamom-roasted carrots are tossed in arugula salad with goat cheese and bacon. Classic New England clam chowder gets a spicy Thai blush with red curry. Crispy prosciutto-wrapped shrimp pose over sweet parsnip puree.
The fish dishes were initially most intriguing - grilled cobia set beside a tangy swipe of tamarind demiglaze - but were ultimately surprisingly bland (especially the colorless baked cod). Not so for the meat dishes, which ranked as trip highlights: spicy pork meatballs stuffed with oozy provolone over sweet-and-tangy tomato jam and gnocchi; and a tender hanger steak glazed in vivid green chimichurri butter.
With a little more polish to the front house hospitality, those are the kind of dishes lasting establishments are built on.
The Establishment at 100, 100 Olde New Jersey Ave., North Wildwood; 609-523-8100 or on Facebook; Dinner only.
Water Star Grille
For longtime Stone Harbor-ites who lament the continuous upscaling of their already quaint Shore town, the Reeds at Shelter Haven is going to be a reluctant sell.
The sleek new 37-room hotel is pure boutique swank, a polished haven with bayside rooms at $300-plus to $1,600 a night. The entrees at Sax, the hotel's enclosed dining room, start at $27 (for chicken!) and head north.
The Water Star Grille, however, the expansive deck restaurant overlooking that picturesque bay, is destined to become a go-to oasis for locals and tourists alike seeking a more casual, scenic bite and a cocktail from the lively terrace bar.
Water Star had only been open one day before my visit - so I'll resist criticizing too heartily the hesitant service, or the bland, overcooked grilled mahi with corn succotash. There were enough good flavors from the snazzy outdoor kitchen here to make me think it has real potential, from the zippy corn and poblano chowder, to the tuna tartare fish tacos with refreshing cucumber salsa, and a satisfyingly hearty, spicy lamb Bolognese over pappardelle. The creamy lobster mac 'n cheese was irresistible.
But the most memorable flavors were pastry chef Michael Lantry's desserts - a towering genoise pillar layered with balsamic-kissed strawberries and cream; and my favorite, sponge cake soaked with salted caramel then stuck with a shard of pistachio brittle. With a dessert fork in one hand, and a drink in the other, I can imagine sunset over this bay may never have been so sweet.
Water Star Grille, The Reeds at Shelter Haven, 9601 Third Ave., Stone Harbor, 609-368-0100 or www.reedsatshelterhaven.com; Lunch, dinner, and brunch.
Revel survived the hurricane but has been under water of a different sort - a bankruptcy it emerged from in May. Of course, I knew Revel had issues last year when, during my review of the new casino's restaurants, I shook my head at the lack of an Asian noodle bar.
Coincidence that a noodle bar was one of the first new orders of business? I think not. It may surprise some that Jose Garces has been tapped to run it. But he does have some Asian experience with Chifa, and the sectioned-off platform of raised counter seats, set between the gambling floor and Amada, is already a bustling hub of noodle-slurping and steamer-basket feasts.
The Iron Chef's smartest move was turning for guidance to my favorite dumpling dive masters, Dim Sum Garden in Chinatown. The soup dumplings, beggar's purse-shaped noodle pouches filled with broth and meat, were spot-on juicy. And the pinch-necked sui mei stuffed with sticky rice, pork, and mushrooms were so good, I could almost imagine the bus fumes of DSG's not-so-scenic 10th Street tunnel corner in Philly. The savory punch of another dish - deeply steeped, cuminy lamb stew grill-pressed inside a crispy bun - is an intensely meaty homage to New York's Xi'an Famous Foods.
Now if only Garces could study up with Chinatown's Ting Wong or Terakawa to improve his Hong Kong-style wonton noodles (dumpling skins too thick) and ramen (broth oily rather than emulsified, plus too much seaweed), this brief menu could shore up its weak spot for soups. (The servers also need to learn the difference between soy sauce and black vinegar, an essential dumpling condiment.)
As is, the Dan Dan noodles with spicy ground pork gravy are the most compelling noodle bowl. But the best dish isn't even made of dough. The pork ribs, sous-vide cooked for hours to tenderness, then slicked with a bewitching hoisin glaze, are so good with the added crunch of shaved daikon and scattered peanuts as a bonus, they could well be the casino's lucky new nibble. Let's hope for the Revel they are.
Yuboka, Revel Resorts, 500 Boardwalk, Atlantic City; 609-572-6488 cq or www.revelresorts.com/dining/yuboka; Entire menu from noon to midnight
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Morgan's Pier. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @CraigLaBan. He hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.