John and I had our first experience at Phillips many years ago at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. The seafood was tops, it was located right on the water, and was a great place to eat once you exhausted the (albeit wonderful) possibilities of brown paper-covered tables and wooden mallets. A few years ago, when Phillips first opened at The Pier in Atlantic City, we decided to check it out, to see if it was the same. While the quality of the seafood was still very good, the attention to detail in the prep was not: sand and grit materialized in our mouths while we were trying to enjoy the shellfish. When you live at the Jersey Shore and have over a gazillion seafood places to choose from, you might choose to avoid that in the future. So, sadly, we never made our way back.
Last Wednesday, Phillips beckoned to us again.
Well, actually, we were invited to be treated (re: a disclosure, this was offered to us gratis) to a special food blogger’s dinner that showcased Phillips’s shellfish. As we had already exhausted the babysitting grandparents the previous week, it was my turn to fly solo for the blog. In addition to being offered a plethora of seafood, I was thrilled to share it with some of our favorite blogger friends (Lisa from Jersey Girl Cooks and Alex of A Food Coma) and to make a few new friends in the process (Erin of No Love More Sincere and Elaine of Elle Eats) .
Although the term “mojito” has now been officially overused for anything containing mint and lime, I will say that these clams were insanely good. In addition to the mint and lime, the tender clams were also infused with lots of garlic, Anaheim peppers, and cilantro. It was a variation on an old standard (steamed clams in a garlic broth) but the herbs and chilies gave it a little something different this time, something worth dunking lots of bread in the broth (and possibly slurping up as a beverage when no one’s looking). And, most importantly, no sand to harsh my buzz this time. I also learned that, at the time John and I had those mouthfuls of grit, Chef Drew was not in charge of the Phillips kitchen, so I was able to let go of my suspicions and realize we were in good hands that night.
Suddenly, in a fantasy to rival Tony Bourdain’s “Normandy Tower of Shellfish”, the “chilled plateau” arrived- two tiers of seafood insanity.
On the top tier was cracked and split Maine lobster and king crab legs, cooked beautifully and served simply. More raw bar items such as clams on the half-shell, lump crab meat, and shrimp cocktail (boiled in what Chef Drew described as a cauldron full of Phillips Seasoning, cinnamon sticks, lemon, oranges, and bay leaves-who needed the cocktail sauce?) graced the lower tier. The tuna tartare was not dressed with the typical “wasabi sauce,” but with a more interesting reduction of sesame, soy, and ginger; but what I loved the most were the oysters. The tiny and cute Melpec (Prince Edward Island) variety, and the famous Bluepoint. I preferred the briny Bluepoints, but it was great to compare the differences side by side. And I don’t think I need to mention that all of this stuff was screamingly fresh, do I (or I wouldn’t eat it)?
Last, and not least, were the famous crab cakes. Not much to be said, nor does it need to be. In true Chesapeake style, it’s little more than some egg, mayo,Ritz crackers, and spices holding together gorgeous lump crab meat (back fin meat was mentioned as a “filler”). The surprise was that they usually bake them, despite the tradition in Maryland being to fry them. When I mentioned how much I loved them in Maryland, Chef Drew returned to the kitchen, then presented us with a plate of the same cakes fried to just crisp, in order to compare side-by-side. Some bloggers preferred the baked version, but I just loved them all the more fried. According to Chef Drew, if you ask, they will fry them up for you.
They were accompanied by gratinee potatoes, which we all agreed were like little “potato muffins”: they looked similar to the crab cakes, only they were bound with eggs, cream, and Swiss cheese. Very rich, and very good. I have to admit to being impressed with the broccolini; let’s face it, you’re at a seafood restaurant, gorging yourself on shellfish- who’s thinking of vegetables? The kitchen is, and with a lot more care than most restaurants. The broccolini was simply prepared with what tasted like a bit of garlic, soy and maybe hoisin, and were crisp and delicious.
Though I risked putting a damper on the feast, I knew it was important to bring up the subject of sustainability and environmental impact. To my surprise, the manager, Brian Fountain, launched into a detailed explanation of Phillips efforts to source their crabs responsibly, promote sustainability, and efforts to help reverse the damage caused by poor environmental and fishing practices. You can read about it in detail here.
Yes, Phillips is an institution, and as such is not offering anything too far off the current culinary radar. But it does what it does extremely well and seems to have a sense of responsibility to the oceans that it takes its products from.
To finish off our evening, some of us bloggers decided that the mango sorbet we finished up with, though refreshing, wasn’t enough for our sweet tooth. We puttered around It’sugar, the candy store downstairs, for a little more dessert on the way home.
Phillips Seafood, The Pier (top floor), Atlantic City (609) 348-2273
It’sugar, The Pier (lower level), Atlantic City (609) 289-4200