Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Falling for the Jersey shore, local seafood all over again

Dolphins hunting for a breakfast of oily bait fish on Saturday off the New Jersey shore resort of Wildwood Crest, below. Tourists enjoy an abundance of locally caught seafood, but busy restaurant kitchens may overcook it, as we discovered at three meals last weekend in Cape May and Sea Bright.

By Victor E. Sasson

You don't have to live in the Garden State to fall in love with Jersey shore, its clean ocean air and its abundance of locally caught seafood.

My love affair with the shore dates to the 1950s and 1960s, when we'd pile into the car in Brooklyn and drive to our summer home on Third Avenue in Bradley Beach.

My father would take the train five or six days a week to his Grand Street dry goods store, A. Sasson, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

When we'd pick him up in the afternoon, I would put a nickle or quarter on the rail, where it would be squashed by the locomotive, and then he would shop for a 50-pound bag of potatoes and other produce at the farmers' market just across the tracks.

Our house had eight bedrooms, and most of them were filled with Brooklyn relatives who took turns spending a week or two at the shore, gathering for big meals in our dining room.

I'd walk barefoot the three blocks to the beach, staying mostly on the grass to avoid the hot shale sidewalks.

I also remember a Mr. Haber, who took the train to Bradley Beach and would hawk fresh Syrian bread from a baby carriage he pushed down the middle of sleepy, sun-splashed streets, which were lined with homes that had wraparound porches.

Crab cakes at the Pier House were topped with a fried tortilla, mashed potatoes and a breaded shrimp -- much too fussy for my taste -- and there was more breading than crab.
Our server at the Pier House didn't mention that the dressing for a lunch salad topped with scallops contained bacon, and when I sent it back, she returned in minutes with a bacon-free dressing, but with the same scorched, overcooked scallops from the original.
The retail fish market at the Lobster House in Cape May on Saturday offered fresh medium flounder fillets for $6.95 a pound, as well as locally caught swordfish, tuna, scallops and other seafood.

At The Lobster House, a case holds the shell of a 37.25-pound lobster caught in July 1985 by Capt. Arne Jensen of the F/V Courageous at George's Bank.

In recent years, we've made day trips to Bradley Beach, and spent weekends in Barnegat Light, which has one of New Jersey's big commercial fishing ports.

Most of the local seafood I ate there came from Kubel's Restaurant and Off the Hook, a takeout shop with outdoor tables affiliated with the Viking Village commercial fishing dock, all in Barnegat Light.

New Jersey fishing ports land sea scallops, swordfish, tuna, flounder and lots of other seafood. Clams are another Garden State specialty.

This past weekend, my wife and I attended the 52nd annual meeting of the American Littoral Society, a coastal-conservation non-profit based in Sandy Hook. 

We stayed at the comfortable La Mer Beachfront Inn in Cape May and ate at its restaurant, the Pier House, on Friday and Saturday. 

The annual meeting was held at The Lobster House in Cape May after a big seafood dinner on Saturday night, and, on the way home Sunday, we stopped for a seafood lunch at Woody's Ocean Grille in Sea Bright. 

At the Cape May restaurants, we encountered servers and kitchens that couldn't keep up with the 40 to 65 members that attended meals.

At dinner on Friday, Pier House crab cakes tasted like crab, but had too much breading. The next day, the kitchen badly overcooked and scorched scallops that crowned a lunch salad.

At The Lobster House on Saturday night, we had a wonderful broiled seafood platter with scallops; a stuffed clam with bacon I didn't eat; and tasty crab meat-stuffed half lobster, shrimp and fillet of local flounder, but the fish spent too much time on the fire and lost all of its normal flakiness.

The Littoral Society meal plan was prepaid, limited and allowed no substitutes. 

My server at The Lobster House said there was no "regular milk" for the coffee, and that I couldn't get fruit instead of artery clogging cheesecake for desert.

Perfect fish on top of a perfect salad at Woody's Ocean Grille in Sea Bright.

Also at Woody's, the shrimp on top of a Caesar salad were leaden and overcooked.

The freshly made salsa at Woody's was so good we asked for and received another bowl.

Woody's reopened about five months after it was flooded by Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, 2012.

On Sunday, at Woody's Ocean Grille in Sea Bright, the cozy ground-floor dining room, which has a bar and working fireplace, was full when we arrived, and we were seated upstairs, in what turned out to be exile.

The waitress, Ali, handed us lunch menus of salads, tacos and sliders, but forgot to recite the specials.

We ordered two salads, one topped with the perfectly rare, sesame-seed encrusted ahi tuna I requested ($18), and the other with leaden, overcooked shrimp in their shells ($14).

My wife said the shrimp tasted as if they were prepared the day before, and when I mentioned that to the waitress, she apologized and said she would inform the chef.

But there was no offer to prepare the dish again or adjustment of the check. 

And I only learned of the specials, at the end of our meal, when I overheard another serving reciting them to other customers.

If you are seated on the second floor at Woody's, you can amuse yourself trying to count the fish on the unusual lighting fixture that hangs over the main dining room.
The view from La Mer Beachfront Inn in Cape May.

Amid Cape May's Victorian architectural splendor are custom-built homes, such as this one on Beach Avenue that appears to be topped with the smokestacks of an ocean liner.

The lighthouse in Cape May Point is the third at this location and dates to 1859. The  park is perfect for viewing the fall bird migrations.

Salt marshes are easy on eye.
You'll find a boat filled with flowers at Coral and Lighthouse avenues in Cape May Point.

Returning from a futile search for whales.
Another beautiful day in paradise: Sunrise on Sunday.

Pier House Restaurant, 1327 Beach Ave., Cape May; 1-609-898-0300.

The Lobster House, 906 Schellengers Landing Road, Cape May; 1-609-884-8296.

Woody's Ocean Grille, 1 E. Church St., Sea Bright; 1-732-936-1300.

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