What I Did On My Summer “Vacation”

View from Level 2, Windrift Hotel

God, I’ve been busy.

I mean, I always am, but this summer  I’ve been so busy freelancing that I’ve been neglecting one of my first writing “babies”: Eating In South Jersey. Every time we eat somewhere new, discover a great new little place, I promise myself, “THIS is the week where I’ll write up a full review”! And then a job comes up. And then another….and, well, since we gotta make money to eat, I’ve decided, with this crazy backlog of interesting little finds and outright gems I’ve collected throughout the summer, that it’s time to share them- even if I can only give you a wee taste, as it were.

1. Azure by Allegretti. I don’t give a crap what the press is saying about Revel’s revenues: it still delivers as one of the most sexy-cool experiences in Atlantic City. And one of the most chic, yet simply delicious places we dined was at Azure. Mainly a French-Italian twist on seafood with a French Riviera atmosphere (Allegretti is a Nice native),the  pristine seafood gets as much loving attention as do the vegetable side dishes. The ratatouille or fava beans are every bit as delectable as the Seafood Risotto, the Herb-Crusted Rack of Lamb, or the Paccheri (veal ragu). I’m also rethinking my old rule of “the better the view, the worse the food”; the stunning floor-to-ceiling views of the beach seem to be only an afterthought to the love put into the food. I also look forward to watching the surf during the colder months; unlike so many places at the Jersey Shore with “a view” it’s not closed for the winter. And ladies…it’s a bonus is if you get a glimpse of Chef Alain in the kitchen when he is there. Let’s just say he’s, ahem, very easy on the eyes. Not that I noticed. I was with John. Azure, at Revel Beach, 500 Boardwalk,Atlantic City.

2. Amada. Though it’s been my experience that most celebrity chef restaurants in Atlantic City fail to deliver, Graces has the real deal here. Ever since my palate-changing, trip to Spain over 15 years ago, I feel as if I have been chasing the tastes that I experienced there and always came up short; most Spanish/Portuguese restaurants in the U.S. (yes, even in Newark’s famed Ironbound District) appeal to the American ideal of a steakhouse, with extra garlic but no personality. Not so, here. My joy knew no bounds when I put a slice of Jamon Iberico in my mouth and tasted, once again, the heaven that is the acorn-fed black pig. Simple pleasures like aged Manchego are elevated with lavender honey. Albondigas (lamb meatballs), perfect empanadas (filled with manchego, artichoke and spinach), clams with chorizo…the list of joy continues. I got a chance to chat with Chef Garces, and asked him why it’s so hard to find what I’d been looking for. The reality is that Spain and Portugal are pretty smart: they export the passable delicacies and keep the best for themselves. Garces happens to have a few connections with distributors that get them to give up the good stuff to him. Works for me.  And though there isn’t anything better than the Spanish tapas tradition of “small plates”, I feel compelled to come back with a large group and order the “Cochinillo Asado”: a whole roast suckling pig.Yes, you could go to the one in Philly-but you wouldn’t get the amazing ocean views peeking through the gauzy curtains. Amada, at Revel Beach, 500 Boardwalk,Atlantic City.

3. Village Whiskey Bar. OK, indulge me in just one more Revel (and also Garces) place, please. Again, you could go to the one in Philly, but what I’m impressed with is that Revel has places that have places to eat that run $20-$30 or less per person, and are exciting.House-ground burgers, house-made pickles, ethereal duck fat fries with Sly Fox Beer Cheese Sauce, and amazing Prohibition-style cocktails that may be colorful, yet are anything but girly and sweet.It  raises the idea of the classic burger bar to nobility.  Village Whiskey Bar, at Revel Beach, 500 Boardwalk,Atlantic City.

4. Mia’s Beer Dinners. At Caesar’s, this imposing flagship restaurant always seems like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Georges Perrier and Chris Scarduzio have their names on it, but for the times I’ve eaten off the regular menu, it just seems discombobulated and somewhat mediocre-as if the two local culinary giants have their attention elsewhere (which I believe they do). However, I was invited to one of the beer dinner series featuring Yards Brewing, with a menu put together by the actual man in the kitchen, Chef Paul Hanley- and I was impressed. The Turtle Brawler Soup (genuine snapper soup made with local turtle and Yard’s The Brawler) was among the best I’d ever had; the Mallard Duck Sausage was rich, but not too much so, and with a lovely hint of spice; and a Roasted Whole Quail served with a “spruce cider reduction” (actual spruce was used in cooking the sauce) paired gorgeously with Yard’s Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce Ale (somehow,the spruce blended perfectly and pleasantly into the background, and it was amazingly delicious). A Chocolate Cherry Porter Surprise was a seamlessly velvety chocolate cake tempered with the tartness of cherry-served on the side with what was described as a “beer fruit roll-up” : the Tavern Porter was blended with cherry puree, then dried and cut into “roll-ups”.  Keep an eye out, because they will be having another beer dinner soon. Mia at Caesar’s Casino Hotel, 2100 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City.

5. Grand Lux Cafe. Moving on from AC, this restaurant is one of the big ones that may be changing our snobbery when it comes to chain restaurants (well, maybe). Yes, it’s owned by the same folks who bring you the Cheesecake Factory; and despite the huge menu and warehouse-size of the place, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think this was the best new local thang in Cherry Hill. Despite the crowds and size, the service was great; and even though the drinks were a bit on the sweet side for me, they still had appeal. I did find the asian pear martini delicious, made form actual fruit, not a mix. In fact, Grand Lux claims  that they make almost everything from scratch back in the kitchen: the only things frozen are the ice cream and the french fries.things we think you shouldn’t miss: the Spanish chorizo and cheese croquettes (the chorizo is high-quality and sourced from Spain), the Pot Roast cheese fries (disco fries on steroids with homemade pot roast), and-believe it or not- the pizza. the crust is heavenly, crisp and flavorful, with just the right amount of chewiness; we had the margarita pizza, and the tomatoes and mozzarella were fresh and lovely, with a nice garlicky, olive oil flavor.  And though the lava cake dessert was fabulous, it was the New Orleans Beignets that stood out. Crisp on the outside, fluffy and rich on the inside, the couple next to us said they’d been to Cafe Du Monde and this comes as a very close second. I believe them. It comes with dipping sauces, but who cares? When  John and I walked out, the packed parking lot was a bit of a sudden shock-it was easy to forget you were at a restaurant located at the mall. Grand Lux Cafe, Cherry Hill Mall, Rt. 38, Cherry Hill.

6.The Windrift/Level 2. Hurry, with this nice weather, in the next few weeks, there’s still time! In all my years at the Jersey Shore, I have yet to find a place that allows you to have a casual meal right on the ocean, with great food and drink (unless I was on the beach and brought a cooler).You won’t find anything too sexy here, but if you want  a beautiful setting, great sushi , bar food and drinks, this is the place. The “beergarita” was gimmicky, yes ( a frozen margarita with a Sol beer bottle shoved into it), but John found it strangely compelling (like a “maragarita malt”),  but I really enjoyed the Porton Sparkler (a cocktail with Pisco Porton, St. Germain and champagne). And we really, really liked the Bang Bang shrimp 9tempura shrimp with sriracha). I mean really. Windrift Hotel, 105 80th St.(and the Beach), Avalon  

7.Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro. Despite John’s dad participating in a bike tour that requires us to find a nice place (that’s kid-friendly) to celebrate every year in Somers Point, we usually get disappointed by touristy, mediocre fare. This year, we found a winner. Tasty  She Crab Soup, Panko breaded scallops, and really good crab mac and cheese. The bouillabaisse, however, is worth a trip from afar; the broth qualifies as a beverage of the gods.  And ,yes, John has proof of me enjoying a drink called “Barbie’s Corvette” that is very pink and hyper-feminine. Though despite the sugar rim, it was simply champagne and raspberry vodka, and refreshingly dry. Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro, 908 Shore Rd., Somers Point.

8. PB and U. I give this place credit for introducing me to a strange, but oddly delicious sandwich: peanut butter,bacon, cheddar, and pickles. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. Although this new chain arrival to the area could only survive in a mall (while the novelty is fun, not many folks want to spend $4-5 on a peanut butter sandwich every single day), it has its charm. You have your choice of fresh-ground peanut butters (Creamy, Homestyle, Super Chunky, Organic, Chocolate), breads (Wonderbread White, Wheat, Gluten-Free or Slider rolls), and toppings (everything from potato chips, pretzels, and apples to bacon and cinnamon sugar and marshmallow fluff), or you can go for one of their “creations”, as I did. The most delicious by far is the PB,honey,cinnamon sugar, raisins and cream cheese; though I might choose it as dessert. There’s also whimsical options like PB “pizza” and “fondue”. And do I need to say that this place is kid-friendly? PB and U 400 Rt. 38, Moorestown Mall, Moorestown.

9. Shore Fire Grill.This is our new local Shore favorite. Within two weeks of our discovery, we’ve eaten there 3 times and John felt compelled to do an article for WHYY Newsworks about it. It’s cute, casual, delicious, and sources locally when it can. It’s inexpensive, and specializes on twists on typical American fare. Want wings? Choose from smoked, fried or both, then add sauce (the buffalo raises the wing to “nobility”, in John’s words). The Five-Star Burger is the only burger I’ve ever encountered that needed no ketchup: a fresh-ground mix of brisket, tenderloin, and short rib meat, it’s juicy and heavenly. The “sushi burger” is like a tuna roll on a roll. Seared tuna is served on a panini with wasabi aoli, hoisin, zucchini,avocado, and seaweed salad. Even the steak fries are perfection in their simplicity, crispy and served with just a bit of fresh ground pepper. It’s BYO, but note that I sipped my birthday champagne toast from a mason jar glass. And I didn’t mind a bit. Shore Fire Grill, 34 South Main St., Barnegat.

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